Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Damning war the Euripides way

It was written two and a half millenia ago but it still carries as powerful an anti-war punch as anything written since. Don Taylor's version of Euripides' The Women of Troy, set in an industrial port of a war-torn city, gets the full treatment at the National. It comes complete with spectacular pyrotechnics, compelling dream sequences and a dead baby Astyanax, thrown from the battlements lest he grow up to avenge his father Hector, so grimly realistic that you wondered whether he wasn't a real child specially murdered for the occasion.

But there was one aspect of the performance that I saw last night that added an extra layer to the realism quotient. This was the fact that half the cast had clearly been laid low by the nasty little bug that has inflicted itself upon much of the country, including myself, in recent weeks.

Kate Duchene, playing Hecuba, the widow of King Priam of Troy and mother of Hector, was clearly in real physical distress as well as acting out the stage variety with a feverish intensity, finishing one harrowing scene in which she is manhandled by the Greek herald Talthybius with long lines of snot hanging from her nose. Sinead Matthews, as her daughter Cassandra, was as hoarse as you might expect of someone who has been fated to foretell the future but forever remain unbelieved. The cups of water and handkerchiefs and hands on shoulders and other sympathy on offer from the other women in the cast were not just for stage effect.

It all added to the power of the performance: a harrowing tour de force that damns war through the experience of the women left behind rather than mythologising it through the tales of heroes. According to Aristotle, Sophocles said, 'I portray men as they ought to be, and Euripides portrays them as they are.' No bad thing.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Politician charged with lying

If a rookie journalist came up with the above headline, he'd be laughed out of the news room (where such things still exist). So what's the big deal about former Scottish Socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan being charged with perjury?

The big deal, of course, is that a year before George Galloway's spat with the SWP tore apart one of the most successful electoral initiatives to the left of Labour in England for many a long year, Tommy Sheridan's libel case against the News of the World in Scotland did the same thing to the far more successful Scottish Socialist Party. Sheridan had been accused, among other things, of visiting a swingers' club. He sued, and won £200,000, despite a succession of his former party colleagues standing up in court and saying that they'd been at a meeting at which Sheridan had admitted going to the club twice but said he would sue anyway because there was no proof.

The News of the World, unaccustomed to such reverses, described the jury's verdict as 'perverse' and launched a dual strategy of character assassination in its columns and legal appeal in the courts. Iain McWhirter, writing in the Sunday Herald, understood the outcome of the case better as 'a rebuke to an industry that preys on human misery and disclosure; that uses chequebook journalism, spin, sensation, distortion. This has been a long time coming.'

The left is broadly divided between those who see the whole thing as a vendetta against a leading socialist by Rupert Murdoch and the state, and in many cases don't much care whether Sheridan is telling the truth or not, and those who are convinced he is lying and refuse to back him as a matter of principle. The latter include former SSP MSPs Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie, who said after the libel case that it had not been 'about judging behaviour but about the most popular, most famous convener with a huge reputation for principle, honesty and integrity being shown to be a hypocrite and a liar'. That distinction between different kinds of moral judgements begins to a look a little less clear cut unfortunately in the light of the SSP's own website's reference to what it calls Sheridan's 'squalid secret life' and the involvement of SSP members in organising the sale of a secretly recorded tape of Sheridan to the News of the World for a reputed £20,000.

Meanwhile, Sheridan has won the unequivocal moral backing of George Galloway. himself no stranger to the libel courts. For Galloway, 'Tommy's real crime in the eyes of News International is that he has spent his entire political life speaking truth to power.' Soon, for a second time, a Scottish jury will be asked to decide just how truthful he has been.

Monday, 17 December 2007


I'm just off to Channel 4 to discuss the next series of Time Team, whose website I have run for the past eight years (it even won us a Bafta, for 'interactive entertainment', in 2002!). I also do some writing for the channel's Big Art Project, which won a Royal Television Society innovations award in 2007 for its Big Art Mob. This includes a nifty bit of software that enables people to post pictures of public art onto the website direct from their mobile phones.

It's a great idea that has seen people posting photos from all over the country. The one I've selected here, called simply 'Phylum', was taken at the New Art Centre, Roche Park, East Winterslow, by Claire from Regent's Park community college, Southampton. The artist is Paul Morrison. Beats the fourth plinth anyday, don't you think?

A pretty picture

Sorry, I just had to get rid of that 'orrible Class War banner from the top of the page, so this post has the sole function of providing something else to look at until I get round to writing the next one.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Class War and David Blunkett's crombie

Some early-morning web wandering overnight saw me stumbling from another round of Respect-related pantomime fighting (‘Oh yes you did.’ ‘Oh no I didn’t.’ Oh shut the fuck up, can’t any of you lot see there’s a real-life global ogre coming up behind you?) straight into the arms of Class War veteran Ian Bone.

There’s not much danger of Bone in his dotage mellowing into some sort of cuddly establishment-friendly TV anarchist à la Johnny Rotten (though it would be entertaining to see how they’d cope with him on I’m A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here). The man who brought us ‘Hospitalised Copper’ and the Movement Against the Monarchy, and spent many a summer organising ‘Bash the Rich’ jaunts to the Henley regatta and suchlike, plans to mark the 25th anniversary of Class War next May by rejoining the organisation that arose from his paper of the same name.

This week saw him approaching as close to respectability as he’s ever likely to get, with an invitation to speak at a community action conference at Westminster City Hall. Bone takes up the story:

Seeing David Blunkett’s name as another speaker I readily agreed and mugged up on Blunkett’s commercial interests – columns in the Sun and Daily Mail earning him £200,000 a year, for example. Blunkett with two police bodyguards entered the hall just as I was launching into him. I finished by asking the audience to ask Blunkett a question when he finished speaking: ‘Why are you such a fucking greedy bastard?’

Needless to say, this didn’t go down too well with Blunkett’s minders. Bone found himself being threatened with arrest under the Public Order Act and ejected from the conference:

One of the cops shoved my coat at me and I headed for Westminster underground. Feeling for my Freedom Pass I found some tapes in the pocket – which were not mine. I’d only been given Blunkett’s crombie – very like mine – and was swanning round Parliament Square in the former home secretary’s fucking coat!

Some friends sneaked back and swapped the coats over - I didn’t want Blunkett swanning around on my pass - or the inevitable knock at the door which would have followed.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Smoking Bordello

I blame Gogol Bordello and the intravenous speed machine known as La Phaze (political punk with boots on; they’ll leave your ears ringing). Soaking me in sweat and other people’s vapours and then spitting me out into the cold Hammersmith night last Saturday.

Or maybe it was running round Battersea Park in cheap red fabric soaked through to the skin, with one hand holding up my Santa trousers and the other breathing nose-drippings through the beard.

Whatever the cause, I’ve spent the past few days running the kind of fever that I last picked up somewhere between Lusaka and Harare. In the midst of my delirium I also managed to inhale some sort of sharp-clawed creature that has been raking the inside of my chest ever since in a desperate effort to get out.

A lifetime’s love-hate relationship with the Indians’ Revenge hasn’t helped with the latter. But we’re not seeing each other at the moment, and however painful the scars might be from our past liaisons, it’s nothing compared to what it would be like if we were still together.

I love the scented vapours too much to say for certain that we won’t ever see each other again. But I also love my lungs enough to give them far more consideration now than I ever used to in my youth when it seemed like they would go on breathing forever. I’ll be taking them out on a trail of pre-Christmas festivities over the next week or so, and despite all my libertarian tendencies the first winter with a smoking ban is going to feel both welcome and right.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Pigeon shit on the fourth plinth

I don't normally like to express what I dislike about public art too strongly because a) there are plenty of people around who do that anyway; b) anything is usually better than nothing; and c) one person's inspiration is always going to be another person's pigeon's shit. But what are those horizontal sheets of coloured plastic doing on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, where Marc Quinn's 'Alison Lapper Pregnant' used to stand?

Actually, they're sheets of 'specially engineered glass in yellow, red and blue, which collects the light, reflecting it through the edges', as I discovered from the fourth plinth website. That's 'specially engineered' as in 'made to look like plastic', presumably.

Thomas Schütte's 'Model for a Hotel 2007' is exactly what it says on the label. It's 'an architectural model composed of three blocks: a building with 21 storeys, a big lobby, and a horizontal block of eight storeys, extending over the edge of the plinth'.

And it should have stayed in an architect's office - or at least somewhere more in keeping with what it represents. In Trafalgar Square, surrounded by all that classical, imperial stonework it doesn't add anything, it doesn't belong: it just jars.

That isn't even intentional, if we are to believe the blurb on the website. 'The sculpture is translucent against the sky and will become part of the important historical buildings all around Trafalgar Square,' it says. 'Model for a Hotel 2007 is sculpture, model and architecture all in one. It is also, at the same time, a commentary on the present.'

'What pigeons will do to the material is not quite clear,' the blurb concludes. I guess that is what passes for irony in some circles.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Two thousand Santas and Gogol Bordello

I don't know how we'll explain this to the kids who think that Santa Claus lives on his own with his elven workforce at the North Pole, but there are going to be nearly 2,000 of us in Santa costumes running around Battersea Park tomorrow (Saturday) morning. There are at least a couple of dozen other Santa runs taking place this month for one good cause or another, not to mention events such as next weekend's Staffordshire Moorlands Xmas Cracker, when a mad few hundred or so will turn out in fancy dress for a six-mile dash to the top of the Roaches and down again.

Give me a wave if you're in the vicinity of either run. I'll be the one with a white beard and red coat.

Alternatively, look out for me wearing the purple for Gogol Bordello at the Hammersmith Odeon (Apollo if you must) on Saturday night. I'll be the one going mental on the dancefloor.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Internet idiot of the week

There's a lot of competition out there, so special congratulations are in order for Paddy Garcia, who's won Plattitude's inaugural Internet Idiot of the Week award. Señor Garcia is one of those 'black propaganda' creations, whose raison d'etre is to discredit the left by posting utter garbage in as many places on the web as possible. He does a splendid job, so I hope he's paid well for what he does.

He wins the award for long and active service in defence of the indefensible and in particular for his response to the news that Iran has today executed a young man for homosexual activity with other young boys when he was 13 years old. Garcia commented on news of the execution at Harry's Place:

'This is unfortunate, but how many were executed in Saudi Arabia and the USA in the past week? Yes, gays sometimes have a hard time in Iran, it's worse in Saudi Arabia and some US states. It is up the Iranian people to deal with their regime, bombing gays out of the closet is no solution. Remember the main enemy is at home.'

It's worse in some US states? Oh dear.

Here's a press release from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission:

(New York, Wednesday December 5, 2007) - The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) has learned today that despite an order by the Iranian Chief Justice to nullify his death sentence, Mr. Makvan Mouloodzadeh was executed in Kermanshah Central Prison at 5 a.m. this morning, Iranian time. Neither Mr. Mouloodzadeh's family or his lawyer were told about the execution until after it occurred. IGLHRC is still investigating the facts in this case.

"This is a shameful and outrageous travesty of justice and international human rights law," said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC's executive director. "How many more young Iranians have to die before the international community takes action?"

Mr. Mouloodzadeh was a 21-year-old Iranian citizen who was accused of committing anal rape (ighab) with other young boys when he was 13 years old. However, at Mr. Mouloodzadeh's trial, all the witnesses retracted their pre-trial testimonies, claiming to have lied to the authorities under duress. Makvan also told the court that his confession was made under coercion and pleaded not guilty. On June 7, 2007, the Seventh District Criminal Court of Kermanshah in Western Iran found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Despite his lawyer's appeal, the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence on August 1, 2007. The case caused an international uproar, and prompted a letter writing campaign by IGLHRC and similar actions by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Outrage! and Everyone Group.

In response to mounting public pressure, and following a detailed petition submitted to the Iranian Chief Justice by Mr. Mouloodzadeh's lawyer, the Iranian Chief Justice, Ayatollah Seyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, nullified the impending death sentence of Mr. Mouloodzadeh. In his November 10, 2007 opinion (1/86/8607), the Iranian Chief Justice described the death sentence to be in violation of Islamic teachings, the religious decrees of high-ranking Shiite clerics, and the law of the land.

In accordance with Iranian legal procedure, Mr. Mouloodzadeh's case was sent to the Special Supervision Bureau of the Iranian Justice Department, a designated group of judges who are responsible for reviewing and ordering retrials of flawed cases flagged by the Iranian Chief Justice. However, in defiance of the Chief Justice, the judges decided to ratify the original court's ruling and ordered the local authorities to carry out the execution.

Mr. Mouloodzadeh's execution came days after a panel at the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Red death to the touts

What’s the best New Year party you’ve ever been to? Mine, if all goes according to plan, will be this 31 December at the Battersea Arts Centre. Never mind that I’ve chosen the only night of the year when the tube runs into the early hours to go to an area without a tube. Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death post-performance ball promises hedonistic delights such as are not to be found auld lang syning down at the local.

I’ve written about the experience that is the Masque of the Red Death here before, since when tickets for the sold-out performances have been fetching up to £300 a time on ebay. Which makes £75 a head for Punchdrunk’s New Year bash sound almost reasonable (especially when even auld lang syneing it down at the local can cost you £20 a time to reserve a place round some parts of London).

Even better value, though, and not to be missed if you can possibly get there, are the ordinary tickets for the now-extended run of the Red Death. They’re currently on sale for performances until mid-April via the National Theatre box office. But get in quick if you don’t want to end up bidding silly money for tickets on ebay because these are bound to sell out quickly.

How to stop the touts

This seems as good a time as any to revive one of my pet anti-touting proposals for events that could sell out several times over. I’ve suggested it to Michael Eavis and the Glastonbury crew on a couple of occasions but neither they nor anyone else has so far taken it up.

It is, quite simply, that since tickets for major events will invariably – and inevitably – end up being sold for well over their face value on ebay or by other means, why not make a virtue out of it and auction a proportion of the tickets directly? The idea of a first come-first served set up, or a Led Zeppelin-style lottery, is an admirably – and unusually – egalitarian one. In theory, at any rate, everyone (who can pay) gets a (sort of) equal chance to get what tickets are available.

In practice, though, there’s always someone willing to sell to those who are willing to pay over the odds. So why not accept the fact, milk the rich for whatever they’re worth (and segregate them from the rest of us, so we can throw beer at them on the night), and give the balance to charity?

I’m absolutely confident that it’s only a matter of time before this idea is adopted by major event organisers – with one small modification. They’ll keep the extra money from the auctioned tickets for themselves.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

The politically-correct guide to who to support at Euro 2008

With England, Scotland, Wales and the two Irelands all out of Euro 2008, the burning question for all good socialists is who should football fans from these islands support at next summer's finals?

The draw for the group stages throws up some enticing prospects and it’s not always easy to decide who to back. Johnny Turk or Sven’s Sweden? Socialist Spain or Multicultural France? As Nye Bevan once said, the language of priorities is the religion of socialism and there are tough choices to be made here based on a country’s size, politics, fan-base and footballers, fair shares of the football spoils and this author’s personal prejudices.

Here, then, is my quick guide to who to cheer on next June in Austria and Switzerland.

Group A

Switzerland: As the co-hosts, you want them to be happy, and as underdogs who’ve never won anything all the more so. The second smallest nation in the tournament (after Croatia), this is also the country that gave the world Hornussen, a cross between baseball and golf, which earns them a bonus point.

Turkey: A tough one. As with Israel, you wonder whether they’re really part of Europe at all, and their human rights record is none too hot. But nothing would upset the boneheads more than a victory for Johnny Turk. And their flag is mostly red.

Portugal: Worth supporting for coach Luiz Felipe Scolari alone, and not just because of the punch he threw at Serbia’s Ivica Dragutinovic during the qualifiers. But no matter how good Christiano Ronaldo is, he’s still a Man Utd player.

Czech Republic: They deserve something for Munich 1938 and Prague 1968 (not to mention Uruguay 1934 and Chile 1962). Beating Russia in the semis would strike a belated blow against Stalinism.

Group B

Germany: The country the English love to hate, and even if they don’t deserve it the Germans have won enough already. Mind you, despite (or perhaps because of) its Nazi past, Germany remains among the most generous of nations to foreigners. By hosting 106 refugees per 100,000 population, for example, it ranks second only to Denmark in Europe. The UK hosts 48.4.

Croatia: If small is beautiful, Croatia is the most beautiful of all at Euro 2008, with a population of under 4.5 million. But its fans can be ugly, with their notorious racist chanting perhaps the worst in the Europe.

Poland: Having got rid of half of the Kaczynski twins in their recent elections, the Poles are on their way to rehabilitation. But there’s still the other one to go before we can cheer them on in the family of footballing nations.

Austria: Co-hosts with a capital city on a human scale. But are they really Germans in disguise?

Group C

Holland aka The Netherlands: Everyone’s favourite footballing nation, even with a conservative government. Even Gerry Adams wears orange when they play.

France: Any team that has given the world Michel Platini, Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henri and 100,000 football fans singing La Marsellaisse is going to be hard to top. All the more so when they’ve also managed to so upset Jean-Marie le Pen and every racist in France. Shame about Sarkozy.

Italy: Sorry, Italy. Nothing personal but until you sort things out football-wise, there’s not a neutral on the planet who won’t want you to lose. Badly.

Romania: One of only four teams to play in the first three World Cups (France, Brazil and, er, Belgium, in case you were wondering), support them if you value the upset factor and don’t care about Romanies.

Group D

Spain: There may be a Socialist government in Madrid but never forget that it was Spain’s coach Luis Aragones, who told Jose Antonio Reyes in 2004: ‘Demuestra que eres mejor que ese negro de mierda’ (‘Show that you're better than that shitty black’) when facing his Arsenal teammate Thierry Henri in a game against France. Aragones went unpunished.

Greece: Having pulled off one impossible Euopean Championship success four years ago, retaining the trophy would be even more impossible this time around. Rather like socialism in our lifetimes, so always worth cheering for.

Russia: The idea of giving Vladimir Putin anything to smile about makes my toes curdle. So it should yours.

Sweden: Even now, as England at last begins to awaken to just how good Sven Goran Eriksson was as manager, there’s still the old objection that he and the rest of the Swedes lack passion. Just get out your blue and yellow gladrags, put on your Viking helmets and praise the gods of Ikea and Volvo if the part-timers pull it off.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Can we have some black in the Union Jack?

My old friend from the days when she flew the red flag over ‘Fortress Islington’, culture minister Margaret Hodge, has been getting into bother over flag-related things again.

She told parliament this week that she would consider a redesign of the union flag to incorporate the hammer and sickle (or was it the Welsh dragon? It wasn’t clear from the press reports), which was inexplicably overlooked when the national flag was created.

She told MPs: ‘The Welsh dragon was not included on the union flag as the principality of Wales was already united with England by 1606 when the first union flag was created. I can assure all MPs that the issue of the design of the union flag will be considered.’

She warned them, however, that: ‘As the current flag is formed by merging three heraldic crosses representing the three kingdoms of the UK, the original design was a challenge. Thinking of a new design that would meet everyone's aspiration would be an even greater challenge.’

Hodge was responding to complaints from Welsh MPs, including Labour’s Ian Lucas, who said Welsh identity had been suppressed for the best part of 500 years, ever since the 1536 Act of Union between England and Wales. Wales is the only one of the ‘home nations’ not represented on the union flag, which is made up of the crosses of St George (for England) and St Patrick (Ireland) and the saltire of St Andrew (Scotland).

We could kill three birds with one stone here. By taking the black background from the flag of St David and adding it to the union flag, we could recognise Wales and the multicultural nature of modern Britain and give ourselves an anarcho-socialist banner that we'd feel happy carrying on demos. And the BNP could keep the other one.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007


Kate Moss didn’t turn up but Pete Doherty did and Babyshambles turned in a set last night that made it worth the trip to that graveyard of English footballing aspirations called Wembley. (I said nothing about the Croatia game here last week and don’t intend to do so now. But Belarus, Andorra and Kazakhstan – the ninth biggest country in the world, bet you didn’t know that . . . aren’t you just itching for them to show us how it’s done in the World Cup qualifiers?)

I was told a possibly apocryphal tale by two lads in the Sports Bar across from the Wembley complex that the last time they’d been to a Babyshambles gig, on the Jools Holland show, Doherty’s failure to show resulted in his replacement with James Blunt of all people. Doherty himself remarked from the Wembley Arena stage: ‘They said that QPR and Babyshambles would never play at Wembley.’ Which might have been a good joke if it wasn’t for the fact that QPR have played there at least four times to my knowledge, including twice in the same year in 1982, when the FA Cup final against Spurs went to a replay.

But let’s not begrudge Doherty his moment of gloating. Given another chance to prove he can perform after a series of drug-induced disasters, he and Babyshambles seized the opportunity. Which is more than be said for the shambles of a football team who failed to turn up last Wednesday.

Monday, 26 November 2007

So Watt

No doubt Gordon Brown is telling the truth when he says that he had never heard of the property developer, David Abrahams, now revealed as Labour’s third biggest donor, before the weekend. And it may well be true that Labour’s former general secretary, Peter Watt, was the only party official to know about the circumstances behind Abrahams’ secret donations to the party.

So what.

No individual, and certainly not the party general secretary, acts in a moral vacuum. This is not a one-off error of judgement. Rather, it is only the latest example of an organisation that, despite the much-vaunted personal integrity of its leader, has lost its moral bearings on such issues.

It’s not that the individuals concerned are personally corrupt (no Labour politician has stood to gain a penny from any of the various party funding controversies of the past decade). But yet again, the need for cash has been allowed to override what ought to be the normal reservations about accepting money from dubious sources or in dubious circumstances.

From the extraordinary decision to accept Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation at the same time that Tony Blair’s first administration was granting a Grand Prix waiver on the tobacco advertising ban, through the ‘blind trusts’, the secret loans and the ‘cash for honours’ debacles, to the current ‘I hate politicians but you can put my name to a couple of hundred grand if you want’ farrago, the Labour Party has lost all sense of financial probity.

If you are going to use the devil’s money to do god’s work (or something like that), then at the very least you must do so transparently and honestly. Better still, you should avoid all large donors altogether and put a cap on donations.

But then you’d have to look for your funding from other sources instead. It would mean a renewed dependence on trade unionists who pay the political levy. It would mean having to recruit new members to replace the 200,000-plus who have left in the past ten years. And it would mean giving people a reason for paying out their hard-earned cash.

When it came to a choice between individual party members and trade unionists on the one hand and a tiny number of rich donors on the other, New Labour knew which it preferred. And so did its general secretary Peter Watt.

Friday, 23 November 2007

The price of war

‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, from those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.’

Never have Dwight D Eisenhower’s words been more apposite than they are today, as the world counts the cost of George Bush’s continuing ‘war on terror’.

Earlier this month, the US Congress joint economic committee put a figure on that cost: a cool $1.6 trillion (that’s $1.6 million million) for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone when factors such as interest on money borrowed and long-term health care for the wounded are added in.

That works out at around $21,000 for every family of four in the US, as the Democrat-controlled committee reported. Or, if you prefer, around $27,000 apiece for every man, woman and child in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republican critics of the report have disputed its figures, which its authors argue could double over the next decade. But it doesn’t take a congressional committee to work out how even a fraction of that sort of money invested in the labourers, scientists and children of Iraq and Afghanistan would have yielded a far better return against terrorism than spending it on bombing, invasion and occupation.

Nor does the price of US arms spending end there. This autumn the Senate agreed to a $459 billion budget for the Pentagon in 2008 – almost 10 per cent up on 2007. That’s another $6,000 or so from every family in the US. And it doesn’t include the projected $190 billion needed in 2008 for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (another $2,500-plus per family), which is already one third up on the original estimates.

We’re some way short of those gargantuan sums in the UK. But estimates in March put the cost of the Iraq war to the defence budget here at £5.3 billion. That’s about what Unicef estimates it would cost for a comprehensive worldwide immunisation programme for children.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Is this the worst album chart ever?

The UK music business surpassed itself this week with what could well be the worst album chart ever. Not necessarily because the music itself is invariably bad – although an awful lot of it is, often terribly so – but because it marks a new low in unoriginal, regurgitated, artificially inseminated, lowest-common-denominator crap.

I’ve nothing against X-Factor winner Leona Lewis, who has stormed to No 1 with the fastest-selling UK debut album of all time, beating the first-week sales of the Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, by 12,000 copies. But the raison d’etre of the X-Factor (Saturday night viewing figures and Christmas CD sales) requires that, first, you eradicate anyone who can’t appeal to everyone, then you smooth over the rough (and original) edges of whatever raw talent is left, and finally the Granny That Is In All Of Us gets to vote for the one with the sweetest smile. Cutting edge creative, it isn’t.

And nor is what follows Leona in the charts. No 2 sees the Spice Girls recycled. At No 3 there is Westlife. Led Zeppelin come straight in from the grave at No 4, separated by only Celine Dion at No 5 from another resurrection act in the Eagles at No 6. (The Eagles, for Lennon’s sake, the ultimate ‘Only in it for the money’ band – haven’t they made enough already? Frank Zappa, where are you when we need you?)

You want more? There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung – over and again. There are ‘best of’ compilations of one sort or another from Whitney Houston, the Rolling Stones, Beautiful South/the Houemartins, David Gray, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Van Morrison and McEffingFly. There are ‘comeback’ albums from everyone from Take That to Cliff Richard (with Craig David doing yet another remix of the same old beats in between). There’s even an album from Daniel O’Danny Boy Donnell and Mary Duff. And three from Amy Winehouse, who can certainly knock ’em out.

Dammit, I even like some of these people. It’s just that there was more variety on a 1960s’ BBC radio playlist.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Respect: take your pick

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn't go to either the 'official' Respect conference or the 'Respect Renewal' rally on Saturday. Nor did most members of Respect. Even on the highest estimates of the numbers attending, there were no more than 600 or so shared between the two events, with Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition, Sami Ramadani of Iraqi Democrats Against the War and Derek Wall of the Green Party among a small group of hardy souls who attended both.

Cheerleaders for each side nonetheless regarded the turnouts as triumphs for their respective groupings. The Socialist Unity blog, for example, saw the Respect Renewal gathering as a 'huge success . . . with a truly representative cross section, young and old, men and women, black and white and Asian, Muslim and christian [the blogger's choice on which words to capitalise, by the way] and those of no faith, socialists from different traditions.' There was, apparently, 'a general mood of optimism, and also a realism about the tasks ahead, and the need to reach out and make new friendships, and alliances.'

There's another rash of 'ra-ra-ra' triumphalism about Respect Renewal on the Mac Uaid blog, as well as a report, of sorts, on the Respect conference.

Lenin's Tomb, meanwhile, is a pillar of optimism from the other side. Lenin saw Respect as 'very alive' and produced detailed accounts of a range of conference speakers to prove it, including Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union. Serwotka managed to attend two other left-wing gatherings in London that same day, those of the Labour Representation Committee and the Socialist Party, but boycotted Respect Renewal on the gorunds that George Galloway and friends are 'witch-hunting socialists'.

There are further detailed reports, on both the Respect conference and the Renewal rally, on the Socialist Worker website, but by now I expect you've lost whatever revolutionary fire was in your belly and could do with some light relief. Whatever you do, don't start reading the comments on these blogs or you'll lose the will to live. Not so much how many angels can dance on a pinhead as how many people the Bishopsgate Institute is permitted to accommodate in 'theatre-style seating'.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Got any lettuce?

A rabbit goes into a butcher's and says, 'Got any lettuce?'

The butcher says, 'No, this is a butcher's. We don't sell lettuce.'

The next day, the rabbit goes in again and says, 'Got any lettuce?'

The butcher says, 'No, this is a butcher's. We don't sell lettuce.'

The next day, the rabbit goes in again and says, 'Got any lettuce?'

The butcher says, 'No, this is a butcher's, and if you come in and ask for lettuce again I'll nail your bunny ears to the wall.'

The next day, the rabbit goes in again and says, 'Got any nails?'

The butcher says, 'No' and the rabbit says . . .

'Got any lettuce?'

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Stanley's coming home

Stanley's coming home, he's coming home, he's coming ...

Hang out the bunting, break open the brandy. My daughter's phoned to say that she and her baby Stanley can go home. Until today it had been uncertain when he'd be cleared to come out of hospital. Now the doctors have said they can continue the tests and monitoring on an outpatient basis, while his drugs can be administered by his mum and dad. It means going back to the hospital every day but since they only live across the road that's no major problem.

No doubt there are more downs and ups to come, but today the sun is shining and all is well with the world.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

More childish by the day

Today I managed to run the RAF Henlow 10 mile road race 38 seconds faster than I did last year – which means, in my self-deceptive way of looking at things, that I’ve managed to defy the ageing process for another 12 months.

Actually, I think I’m getting younger – okay, make that more childish – by the day. An early registration got me the number two on my running vest, which meant that everyone thought that I was one of the elite athletes or a group commander or something. I was so taken with the salutes from the men in the guardroom that I couldn’t help but play along with it all. It was only when someone started quizzing me about how many sorties I’d flown in Iraq that I made my excuses and headed for the start line.

I’ve also had it pointed out to me that I’ve been behaving like an over-excited 15-year-old on Facebook. I’m a sucker for all those applications that invite you to do things like have a food fight with your friends or answer a few questions to find out how many vices you have in common with people you’ve never met. Someone listed me among the three smartest people they know on a Q&A thingummy today – and you know what, I was flattered by it, even though I’ve never actually met the man.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Mark Steel, the SWP and Respect

One of my abiding memories of radical left activism in the UK came at the fag end of the 1984-85 miners' strike. It was a bitterly cold February morning - even London was snowbound - and I'd joined a mass picket of a coal-fuelled power station.

The strike was beginning to fray at the edges; even previously solid pits were seeing the first trickle of strikers back to work. Men who had given their all, exhausted all they'd got, physically and emotionally, were being driven to think the unthinkable.

We knew in our hearts that the strike was close to being broken. The coal stocks at the power stations had remained dispiritingly high. Electricity supplies had continued uninterrupted. If we couldn't shut down a single power station, or bring about a single power cut, even during the worst cold snap of the winter, what hope would there be with the onset of spring?

And then I heard the NUM leader, Arthur Scargill, and the leader of the Labour left, Tony Benn, rallying the troops. One last heave was the gist of their message. The coal stocks were about to run out, they said explicity. The coal board and the government was on the verge of defeat. Two weeks later it was all over: there wasn't even enough strength left in the movement to negotiate the terms of our surrender.

Now I'm sure Scargill and Benn didn't see their rallying cries as dishonest, but that is certainly what they were. And I've felt ever since that one of the major failings of the left, in Britain and worldwide, has been its failure to acknowledge the scale of the defeats it has suffered over the past few decades. Those defeats have been both tactical and strategic, practical and intellectual. And few people who have remained true to any kind of alternative socialist vision of society have been honest enough to admit as much.

It doesn't really matter whether this is self-deception or outright lies. Until the left has the intellectual honesty to face up to the scale of its many defeats and failings, it doesn't have a hope in hell of moving beyond them.

From time to time, I come across people who define themselves as being of the left who have the personal and political honesty to confront these issues. Among others, I've found the Red Pepper bloggers Pennyred and Probablyblonde to be a breath of fresh air in this respect. And now, too, I can add the Socialist Workers Party stalwart, author and comedian Mark Steel to my list. The following is how he opens a commentary for the SWP internal bulletin about, among much else, the current split in Respect. It's such a refreshing read that I've posted the whole commentary on the Red Pepper forum.

Ah, the British left - what do we do to ourselves?

When I joined the SWP in 1978 I was instantly impressed by so many aspects of its ideas and methods. But one of the most decisive sides to its character was its honesty. We were proud of what we could achieve and what we could influence, but wary of the exaggerations. In particular, Tony Cliff exhibited an almost impudent scepticism towards any stories that appeared too glorious to be true. But one result of this outlook was that every success reported, no matter how apparently tiny, was genuine and a source of enormous pride.

How desperately we need a return to that honesty today. For by whatever criteria you wish to use, our party has shrunk to a shadow of the size it was even a few years ago. In many areas where the SWP once represented a chaotic pump of activity that connected with all that was vibrant, energetic and rebellious in the city, now the meetings are tiny, bereft of anyone under forty and attended out of duty. Not many years ago, in most towns you were never far from a line of hastily slapped-up Socialist Worker posters, so they were almost an accepted part of any city centre, and there must be people who supposed the council was obliged to ensure they stayed up, on grounds of maintaining local heritage. But you'd have to conduct a diligent search now to find anything of the sort ...

Full article

A fool for Sinead

Another night on London’s South Bank, one of my favourite places on earth, where I’ve made a complete fool of myself over Sinead O’Connor, one of my favourite women on earth.

It’s not the unrequited crush I’ve had on her ever since I first heard her sing ‘I Want Your (Hands on Me)’ – to me personally, of course – around the time Neil Kinnock lost his first election in 1987. I’ve learnt to live with that. This time it was her relationship with Shane MacGowan, who happens to be one of my favourite singer-songwriters on earth.

She’d included ‘Big Bunch of Junkie Lies’ (one of my favourite songs etc etc) in her set at the Festival Hall. And as I was driving a group of friends home we ended up discussing who it was about, whether it related to the infamous incident when Sinead called the police on a drugged-up Shane and whether MacGowan could have been the musical genius that he is without also being so screwed up.

I had opinions on all three. I wasn’t convinced that ‘Junky Lies’ was about him directly; I thought Sinead called the police out of concern for him because she couldn’t think of anything else to do; and I felt that certain kinds of genius virtually require that the person concerned is a total mess in other ways.

I’d noticed that the woman in the back of the car who’d come to the concert with one of my friends wasn’t saying much, but put it down to the fact that we’d only just met. When we’d taken her home, I learnt the real reason for her silence: she was a long-term lover of MacGowan’s, who was probably wondering why this idyiot was talking such crap.

Monday, 12 November 2007

To the gods I don't believe in

I’ve just spent a chunk of the weekend in the White Peak, running the Six Dales Circuit, followed by Remembrance Sunday hobbling my way around the Seventh Steppingley Step in Bedfordshire. That’s 51 miles in all, five years after a spinal injury left me wondering whether I’d be able ever to walk properly again, let alone run.

I’m not really supposed to do it. One of the consultants who saw me at University College Hospital in 2002 warned me off running and all contact sports on the grounds that a bad twist or fall could leave me paralysed below the waist. Another gave me just me enough encouragement to decide that the risk was worth taking. In any case, I know that if I wasn’t feeding my addictive qualities through physical exercise, I’d only be doing so in other, perhaps even riskier ways.

The first time I ran any distance again after the injury was around an island on Lake Bunyonyi, ‘the place of many little birds’, in the southwest Ugandan highlands. The sun was setting and a great storm was breaking with plump, clear rainplops splashing upturned umbrellas in the water.

Bunyonyi is that rare thing in east Africa: a guaranteed bilharzia-free expanse of fresh water. So a swim to finish off the run was irresistible, even as the electricity bristled in the air overhead.

I was treading water, inhaling deeply of an endorphin high and my amazingly good fortune in the successful completion of the 1.8 kilometre circuit of the island, when something broke the surface of the lake a foot or so in front of my face. It was gone as quickly as it appeared before showing itself again, dark, sleek and swift, first to one side and then to another. Finally, it re-emerged directly ahead of me, the distinct shape now of a small head, a mouth, whiskers and two eyes fixed firmly on mine, close enough to touch.

I caught glimpses of other shapes, shimmying through the water around me, the surface tension barely stirring as they slid in, out, down and around. A family of otters, fishing, playing in the water as dusk fell – and me, for those few brief moments, at one with them all.

It was a mini-epiphany, as near as I’ll ever get, I expect, to spiritual revelation – and the perfect accompaniment to the minor miracle of my physical recovery. I never finish a run these days without thinking a silent prayer of gratitude to the gods I don’t believe in. And I'm sure I saw an otter swimming alongside me briefly in the river Dove on Saturday.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Big art

Channel 4’s Big Art Project website, for which I’m supplying some of the words to go with the pictures, has just won a Royal Television Society innovations award for its Big Art Mob project. This is a great wheeze whereby members of the public take pictures of ‘public art’ (anything that isn’t private seems to be the definition we’ve settled on) and post them on the website via their mobile phones.

There’s a huge amount of it around, from the big prestige artworks like Manchester’s B of the Bang, currently the subject of a £2 million court case because bits of it keep falling off, to the unofficial additions to the urban art scene that test the boundaries between creativity and vandalism. To be honest, I’m getting a bit bored by the Banksy wannabes, who’re generally not as good technically and nowhere near as imaginative as the man himself. And now that his works are fetching up to £300,000 a time at auction, much of the original anarchic edge has rubbed off along with the paint on some of his classic works.

My local council in Islington has just drawn up a list of officially protected Banksies in the borough to avoid them being painted over by its anti-graffiti team. Some of them are even being ‘restored’ by council workers, who paint over the tags of less well respected graffiti artists.

Nearby Tower Hamlets has apparently gone in the opposite direction and decided to remove the lot. In a way, you can hardly blame them. Where might this sort of thing lead, after all? There are already heated discussions taking place in parts of north London over whether particular graffiti are genuine Banksies or, perish the thought, stylistic copies. The idea of council officials having to make an expert aesthetic judgement on every piece of graffiti in the area before deciding whether to remove it is an odd one indeed.

I was once what Jill Posener, in her book Spray it Loud, called a ‘graffitist’ myself. I’ve even got the convictions to prove it. I believe, for example, that I am the only person ever to have been prosecuted for ‘putting up posters without permission’ on the old Widnes market (fined £5 and a night in the stocks). All that’s left of my work now is Posener's book and a few photos, which I haven’t yet decided whether to post on the Big Art Mob or auction off at Sotheby’s.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Is the left psychologically flawed?

This week’s edition of Socialist Worker contains several articles, a column by Alex Callinicos and an editorial about the crisis in Respect. As you might expect, the SWP puts it down to an ‘underlying left-right political split’, with George Galloway and company cast in the role of the Mensheviks (‘patronage politics aimed at electing a few big names’) to the SWP’s Bolsheviks ‘true to [Respect’s] original vision as a radical left-wing party with appeal across the working class’.

If only it was so simple …

Alex Callinicos is at least right in his assessment that ‘what has been happening in Respect is very far from being unique’. As he points out, ‘Right across Europe the radical left is in crisis.’ He might have added that, right across the world, and throughout political history, the radical left has rarely been out of crisis.

There is something endemic to left politics about this state of permanent upheaval. Divisions often coalesce around particular individuals (George Galloway in Respect and Tommy Sheridan in the Scottish Socialists are only the latest in a long line in both the UK and internationally), while those on either side insist on the importance of key principles and politics.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that when something is repeated so often and in so many different circumstances, both historically and geographically, something else is going on. Part of the explanation, no doubt, is to do with the impotence of opposition (though the left has never been noted for its unity when in positions of power). And the SWP is right in identifying a common theme in what’s happening to the radical left Europe-wide that boils down to the old left dichotomy between revolution and reform – or, less grandly, as it applies today, between a focus on extra-parliamentary activity or electoral politics.

But I can’t help feeling that there’s a more emotional, or psychological, explanation underlying so much of this sort of thing. Is the left psychologically flawed? No more so than any other current in human thought and behaviour, in my opinion – but then that’s not saying much, is it?

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

An old English teacher and Rafta, Rafta

To the National for Rafta, Rafta and a rendezvous with my old English teacher from Stoke, Ken Lowe. Ken taught me for barely a year before my dad’s job took us on to another area and another school. But he led the school outings and directed the school plays, and he left me with a love of literature, performance and life that has never left me. I was kicked out of my next school at 15 and there were times in my life when I could easily have gone off the rails entirely. Ken gave me an interest and a sense of self-belief and purpose that stayed with me long after our paths parted.

He was one of that generation of young teachers that came into the education system full of the high ideals and enthusiasm of the 1960s. He took working class kids and showered our provincial imaginations with all that English literature and theatre has to offer. He got us writing poetry, read us Orwell’s Animal Farm aloud in class (and told us what it meant), took us to see films like Fred Zinneman’s A Man For All Seasons and plays like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He still directs plays with local rep. It seemed entirely apt that I should take him to see Rafta, Rafta, a play set in a northern terraced town and adapted from an original play by Bolton playwright and author Bill Naughton.

Naughton, best known for writing Alfie, which turned Michael Caine into an international star in 1966, was a conscientious objector during the war and worked as a labourer, weaver, coal-bagger and lorry driver before making it as a writer. Ayub Khan-Din, the playwright behind East is East, transported his play All in Good Time into an updated setting with an Asian family to hilarious and moving effect.

The influx of Asians has transformed the terraced streets – and schools – where I grew up. And sadly, in Stoke as in other working class towns, the BNP and racism have sometimes thrived as old solidarities have declined. But watching the audience reaction to Rafta, Rafta, where around half of those present were from an Asian background, it was clear just how much our communities have in common – and uplifting to see it reflected in so much laughter.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Guy Fawkes, green lizards and Tony Gosling

There are few sadder sights than a good man fallen among knaves. Such is Tony Gosling, Quaker, community radio activist and one-time stalwart of The Land is Ours campaign, which organised various land occupations and other events that I was involved with in the 1990s. These included a number of actions on or close to St George’s Hill, in Surrey, where Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers occupied vacant land as a ‘common treasury for all’ during the English revolution.

Gosling was a volunteer activist with TLIO. He’s now a volunteer activist with the 9/11 ‘truth’ brigade, and tonight he’s helping organise the first of a series of public meetings by the self-proclaimed US ‘terrorologist’ Webster Tarpley. Gosling is billing the meetings as a chance to hear Tarpley’s belief that ‘Guy Fawkes was a victim of Lord Cecil’s anti-Catholic “sting operation” and that similar tactics are still being used by western intelligence services and military today’.

Most famously, according to Gosling, Tarpley and their ilk, this includes the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. No plane hit the Pentagon. The twin towers came down as the result of a controlled explosion. The ‘apparently unprovoked collapse’ of World Trade Center Building No 7 is the ‘smoking gun non plus ultra’ that ‘proves’ that it was all an inside job by the intelligence agencies and supporters of the ‘new world order’.

Gosling doesn’t go quite so far as to say that no Jews went into work that day, but he mixes freely with those who do. He’s written about the supposed 'Bilderberg conspiracy' and the 'Illuminati' at length and refers to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as if it wasn’t a long-proven anti-Semitic forgery. In doing so he’s kept uncritical company with some unpleasant racial supremacists and others from America’s rich vein of right-wing fruitcakery.

I’m not sure if he’s followed former Green Party national speaker David Icke into believing that we’re all being ruled by extraterrestrial lizards, or former MI5 whistleblower and fellow 9/11 conspiracist David Shayler into believing (with the help of copious quantities of magic mushrooms and other substances) that he is the ‘last incarnation of the Holy Ghost’. But Gosling and others in the 9/11 truth brigades are certainly ghosts of their formerly rational selves.

The sad thing is that they’ll probably get more people at Tarpley’s meeting tonight (St John’s Church, Waterloo, at 7.30pm – bring your own hallucinogens) than any rational political discussion on 9/11 could hope to attract.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

A good cry and a play

Seventy grams, as anyone who has ever bought or sold certain substances can tell you, is exactly two and a half ounces. And depending on the substance, two and a half ounces can amount to quite a lot.

It’s also a lot when you’re measuring the weight gain of a premature baby. So the news that my grandson Stanley has put on 70 grams in the past 24 hours is an encouraging sign to set against the fact that his jaundice is back and his sodium levels have been rising again.

The doctors are now talking about getting him to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital for further tests as soon as possible, instead of in two to four weeks as previously intended. On top of my own anxieties about the prognosis, I have this almost unbearable empathy with the feelings of my daughter and his dad. I’m not supposed to get the glue wet that they stuck my eye back together with after my football injury on Wednesday, but I couldn’t stop the tears once they started at the National Theatre’s production of War Horse the other night.

I heartily recommend both – a good cry and the play, which includes puppetry of a kind that makes you gasp with wonder and delight. Apart from the trio who play the horse, there's a virtuoso performance by Finn Caldwell as a goose, gets the biggest ovation of all at the finish. There are a few £10 Travelex tickets left for recently-added dates in the new year, if you get in quick.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Praise George Galloway and pass the samosas

Nick Cohen, in a fit of literal-mindedness, has accused me of being too literal-minded to get the joke about his ‘Bring Back Blair’ Facebook group. But if you really want a laugh at the expense of literal-mindedness, you should pop over to Harry’s Place, where Dave Dudley, ‘Editor, Leninist Vanguard, writing in a personal capacity’, has set the cat among the literal pigeons with his ‘Defend Respect’ posting.

The piece is an obvious spoof. Well you’d have thought so:

‘I am aware that some of our comrades in Leninist Vanguard have been alarmed by George [Galloway]’s recent derogatory comments about ‘Leninists’ in Respect but I can assure you, having spoken personally with George about this, he was not referring to any of us. I quote: ‘No, don’t worry about it Dave, you’re a good lad.’ In fact George bought me a samosa as we walked back from the Tower Hamlets branch meeting – a clear signal that the alliance we have forged remains strong.’

This is in addition to the references to the ‘Zionist SWP’ ‘gyrating at Israeli jazz festivals’, homosexuality as a ‘bourgeois deviation’ and Respect ‘taking on and defeating New Labour across its heartlands, bringing millions on to the streets to oppose imperialism [and] forging deep and lasting links between class conscious workers and the massed ranks of Celebrity Big Brother viewers.’

But the legions of the literal-minded have leapt in from left, right and centre to protest at the ‘odious views’ expressed. There’s someone pointing out that Lenin was ‘as big a murderer as Hitler and Stalin’. There’s a complaint about allowing Dave Dudley to ‘spout totalitarian rubbish’. There’s even a Zionist defence of the SWP in there, which is surely a first, as well as what must be the worst excuse for missing a joke that has ever been made: ‘In my defence, I didn’t actually read the post.’

The best bits are when those commenting don’t spot the parodies of the parody. ‘Whether he exists or not is a diversion from the key question: why is the contemptible Dave Dudley given a platform here to air his odious views, whether he has any or not?’ says one poster. ‘I was wondering that myself,’ replies another. ‘I’ve not really been following this particular story but what's all this shit doing on your blog, exactly?’

Praise George Galloway and pass the samosas.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

'There's no excuse for grown men playing football'

I left the Whittington Hospital from the neonatal special care unit at about 2pm yesterday and re-entered it in the back of an ambulance about six hours later. My new grandson Stanley was transferred out of intensive care in the early afternoon (so good news there), only for his grandad to be driven into Accident & Emergency before the day was over.

I’ve become quite a frequent visitor to the Whittington’s A&E department over the years with one thing and another, but this was first time in the back of an ambulance. The cause was being tripped while flying full tilt for goal in my regular midweek football match and slamming head first into a metal post.

Or at least I think it was. Actually, I blacked out briefly and have no recollection of what happened before waking up with blood oozing down my face and a group of anxious footballing friends trying to sound reassuring with the news that an ambulance was on its way. I spent the evening at the hospital being glued back together and watched over for mild concussion, and woke up today with the mother of all headaches.

Apart from which, I’m fine. And at least I didn’t get the consultant who made the observation, only half-jokingly I suspect, while treating me for a spinal injury a few years ago, that ‘there is no excuse for grown men playing football. It results in more unnecessary pressures on the health service than any other single thing except alcohol.’

I did, however, learn from the ambulance crew something more about the target-driven absurdities that are undermining the NHS. The ambulance service is under intense, and growing, pressure in London, as it is elsewhere. Rather than putting more ambulances into service, the suits are introducing ambulance cars, which are cheaper and result in quicker response times.

Quicker response times meet the targets the government has set the health service. But they tell you bugger all about the effectiveness of the service. Ambulance cars might arrive more quickly but you still need an ambulance, or the equipment it carries, for more serious incidents. But it’s only the immediate response time that matters in terms of the targets.

It’s the same in A&E. You get a quick initial assessment almost as soon as you arrive at the hospital these days because that’s what the targets measure. But you can still wait for hours to get any treatment.

‘I’ve been doing this job for 20 years,’ the woman who treated me in the ambulance told me, ‘and I can see when the changes they’re making aren’t working. There are lots of suggestions people like me can make for improving the service. But if we say anything, we’re just told that we are “dinosaurs” and ignored.’

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

'Nuff Respect

History repeats itself, as Marx almost said, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. With the 90th anniversary of the Russian revolution almost upon us, what used to be the tragedy of the left’s propensity for splitting has long since descended into the most predictable of farces.

Hot on the heels of the Tommygate sex libel reducing the Scottish Socialist Party to an embittered laughing stock, the SSP’s southern cousins in Respect are repeating the trick. This time it’s the Socialist Workers Party versus George Galloway (who knows a bit about sex libels himself, if you check the archives) that’s defining the battle lines.

Like all those historical splits on the left, the main parties to the argument will claim that there’s some deep and irreconcilable political principle that’s driving the divisions (the SWP likes to see it as a ‘witch-hunt of socialists’). But it’s difficult from the outside to see it as anything more than the latest example of the terminal failure of a certain category of leftist ever to find sufficient common ground to do anything without the ruthlessness of a Lenin to make it happen.

The left blogosphere is stuffed full with what passes for debate, if you’ve the time to follow it in detail. One of the more illuminating discussions, as is often the case, can be found on the Socialist Unity blog – a name, incidentally, that passes further into the realm of wishful thinking with every new comment that is added. Try Jerry Hicks’ letter of resignation from the SWP, for example, for a cogent explanation of his take on events (which has attracted 200 or so comments, at the time of writing).

Harry’s Place enjoys its usual schadenfraude at the expense of Respect, the SWP, George Galloway and his Muslim allies (killing at least four sitting ducks with one stone there). A hat-tip to Harry, too, for this link to Ray Grange and the late Joe Strummer discussing revolution and the SWP (plus the Clash playing an Anti-Nazi League rally) back in the late 1970s:

The Clash in Rudeboy

Harry’s Place also has what could well be my favourite comment of all offering background to the Respect split. Written by ‘Simon B’, it’s referring to Alan Thornett, a veteran leftist of the revolutionary Trotskyist persuasion who’s lined up with Galloway’s faction – for now:

I'm not an AWL member, but an ex-member, I'm also too young to have first hand experience of Thornett in the same group (the WSL as it then was). But briefly this is the history as I understand it.

Thornett led an opposition in the WRP in the 1970s and when expelled started his own group, the WSL, which went on to merge with the I-CL (led by among others the current leaders of the AWL).

I do know that the split was partly about the Falklands war when Thornett supported the military junta and what is now the AWL opposed both sides, but also that Thornett thought that everyone else should defer to him because he and his mates were the 'proper workers' and the rest were all posh.

Aside from this being untrue - Sean Matganma, for example, was a docker before becoming a full-time activist - it is also a ridiculous way of operating.

There was a pamphlet about the debates and the split with Thornett called 'The Worker Leader Against Marxism' which detailed all this. I've no idea where my copy is and it is sadly not online.

Thornett merged with what was left of the IMG and formed the ISG, which was, and still is, the British section of the USFI. The ISG consists of, I'd generously guess, about 50 people, and until now has been the SWP's good cop in Respect. They are now assuming the role of Galloway's court jesters.

By the way, anyone bemused by all the acronyms I mentioned should just count themselves lucky that they don't know what they mean and get on with their life.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Billy Rubin and other baby stories

I have become something of a lay expert these past few days on the subjects of hypernatremia, serum and urine osmolarity, anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) secretion and cranial MRI scanning of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. I have discovered that as well the Types I and II diabetes (mellitus) with which most people are familiar there is another, unrelated, form of diabetes (insipidus). And I have learnt, along the way, that an old folk phrase for diabetes (which comes from the Greek diabainein, to pass through or siphon) was ‘pissing evil’.

All this because, in between spells of light treatment for jaundice, my new grandson Stanley is undergoing a series of tests to try to get to the root of his problems in maintaining the correct hydration and salt levels.

Diabetes insipidus is a relatively rare disease, in which the kidneys produce too much urine. It’s not widely diagnosed, and it’s particularly difficult to identify in premature babies. A professor from the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital has been called upon for his expert opinion, and Stanley’s mum, dad and the rest of us wait in hope that it’s encouraging.

In the meantime, I’m adding new words to my vocabulary by the hospital bucketful. I’m particularly taken with bilirubin, a substance formed when red blood cells break down and are excreted by the liver. It sounds like a character out of a children’s storybook, but too much bilirubin in the blood causes jaundice.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Wolverhampton ring road tramp

Every so often, you come across an instance where those in positions of power or authority behave in ways that restore your faith in basic human decency and common sense. For the past 30 years or more, one such example could be found at the unlikely location of the central reservation of a Wolverhampton ring road.

Because that was where, until his death yesterday, 87-year-old Josef Stawinoga had made his home – and been tolerated by all the various authorities that might have used their powers to move him on – since at least the 1970s.

Stawinoga – who was known as Fred to virtually everyone who came across him locally – was a Polish man who came to Britain after the second world war. According to a report in the Guardian in 2003, he was a originally a hospital orderly in Wales. A brief marriage to an Austrian woman failed and he found work at a steelworks in Wolverhampton.

The Guardian quoted Juliusz Leonowicz, 73, a retired electrician said to be Stawinoga’s only close friend, as saying: ‘One day he simply didn’t turn up to work. We saw him in the city centre shortly afterwards, pushing his belongings around in a pram. He had always been a friendly, happy man, with a few mates. But when his income stopped, those mates dropped away.’

Stawinoga had developed a phobia of confined spaces and the ring road was one of the few places where he felt safe. Even so, most local authorities’ response to him setting up home there would have been eviction and most likely forced removal into institutional care. Instead, Wolverhampton city council provided him with a proper tent to replace his original plastic sheeting and basic services such as water and sanitation to ensure his needs were met.

In 2003, the council even called in the Territorial Army to provide him with what, by then, was his ninth replacement tent. A spokeswoman said: ‘Although this is not an ideal situation it has been accepted as the best option for him, taking into account his personal history and the fact that he can be visited daily by the council’s meals on wheels service.’

Since his death, the council has said that it will make and pay for the necessary funeral arrangements if no relatives come forward. For all of this, it deserves our plaudits.

There is a Facebook group dedicated to Josef Stawinoga

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Baby bulletin

Left: Edward Jenner

One week old today, but still five weeks before his due date, my daughter’s baby Stanley has transferred to the Whittington neonatal intensive care unit in north London. He’s gone through a battery of scans, tests, ups, downs, drips, tubes, scares and reliefs sufficient to fray the calmest nerves.

So far, it’s so good, and like most people who have cause to rely on the health service I’m filled with gratitude and admiration for those who make it work today – and also for those whose vision and commitment bequeathed us the NHS in the first place.

There’s a special poignancy for me about the location of the neonatal unit at the Whittington. You enter and leave through the ‘Jenner exit’, so named after the Jenner Building, now offices but once the Smallpox and Vaccination Hospital, established in 1848.

Edward Jenner, of course, is famous for having developed the smallpox vaccine. In particular, although he wasn’t the first to make the observation, he noted that milkmaids only rarely contracted smallpox and theorised that it was the result of their exposure to cowpox, a similar but much less virulent strain of the disease. From this knowledge it proved possible to develop increasingly effective inoculation techniques until smallpox was eventually declared to have been completely eliminated ‘in the wild’ in 1977.

The poignancy for me is that my great, great grandmother – a woman with whom I have developed an oddly powerful affinity, despite never having known her – died of smallpox in one of the last great epidemics in this country. The fact that she was a milkmaid failed to protect her.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Jean Charles de Menezes: Blaming the victim

So Jean Charles de Menezes was killed because he acted in an ‘aggressive and threatening manner’ when challenged, according to the Metropolitan Police lawyer Ronald Thwaites QC.

Thwaites has already tried to suggest that faint traces of cocaine in De Menezes’ urine were the cause of ‘abnormal or unusual behaviour’, justifying officers pumping seven bullets into his head and neck from point-blank range. Now he’s told the Old Bailey jury hearing the health and safety prosecution of the Met that De Menezes was behaving in a way that would have been expected of a suicide bomber.

The attempt to pass the blame for an appalling police cock-up onto the innocent victim is not just a squalid injustice in its own right. It also carries the implication that in the same circumstances the police would do the same again. I think most of us could forgive the ‘catastrophic series of errors’ (in the prosecution’s words) that led to the shooting of De Menezes given the immediate context of the July 2005 London bombings. But if Thwaites and the police get away with this line of argument, we’re being asked to accept that any behaviour that the police deem to be ‘suspicious’ could be justification for further shootings in future.

A night with the Red Death

Hot from the special care baby unit, an evening at the old town hall that is the Battersea Arts Centre provides a welcome distraction. If you haven’t already got a ticket, it’s too late now because the Punchdrunk company’s Masque of the Red Death is sold out to the end of its run in January.

Billed as a ‘promenade performance’, it’s a cross between moving theatre, a circus, an art installation and an old-fashioned fairground chamber of horrors. The old Victorian town hall has been taken over and transformed for the purpose into a dimly-lit labyrinth, prepared with meticulous – and macabre – detail to bring to life the darkest recesses of Edgar Allan Poe’s imagination.

You’re encouraged to dress for the occasion and to explore the building on your own, anonymous behind the masks that are distributed on entry (along with a Victorian penny with which to ‘buy something to keep you safe’). I didn’t have much success in following the theatre narrative, and found myself wandering off into a dark basement corridor, where a hand clasped me by the throat and pinned me to the wall as a trickle of absinthe was forced into my mouth.

'The last person who came here I hanged for six hours until he died,’ hissed a voice as a hand felt its way slowly beneath my mask and across my face. Fingers tightened around my eye. ‘And before he did …’ A sudden snatching motion with the hand. ‘… I ripped his eye from its socket, and made him look on it with his other eye.’

People with a heart condition, Muslims and recovering alcoholics are advised not to apply. But for the rest of you, get in character, dress the part and join the queue for returned tickets. I won’t spoil things with further details in case you’re one of the lucky ones.

Monday, 22 October 2007

We are a grandfather

Photo: One I prepared earlier

In the end I got to see neither Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen nor the England v South Africa rugby final. Instead, I spent Saturday evening inspecting the special care baby unit at Dorchester County Hospital (it passed).

My daughter Rachel went into premature labour while on a weekend away to celebrate her boyfriend's birthday, which he will from now on have to share with his son. All three are doing well, with the help of a bright, spanking new NHS hospital and its staff in Dorset, and I am now the grandfather of a bright, spanking new Wessex Boy.

I haven't yet managed to persuade Rachel and her boyfriend to name him Phil, after Time Team's 'King of Wessex', Phil Harding, or even Tolpuddle, after the martyrs who came from just up the road. At the moment, for some reason, they're favouring Stanley, which I've warned them will get abbreviated to 'Paki' in the playground (think about it) but they're too high on parenthood to care.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Down the pan with Menzies Campbell

How many Liberal Democrats does it take to change their leader? Don’t be stupid, the Liberal Democrats will never change anything.

Well they are changing him now, and it’s just possible that Menzies Campbell’s successor as leader of Britain’s third party could have a decisive influence on who forms the next government. In the event of a hung parliament it will be him (there are no serious women contenders) who will negotiate with David Cameron and Gordon Brown on which party gets Lib Dem backing.

Under the last three Lib Dem leaders it was all but inconceivable that they would have backed anyone other than Labour. Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell were all firmly aligned with the anti-Tory majority that eventually got its voting act together after the divisions of the 1980s and swept the Conservatives from power. Although Labour never had need of Lib Dem votes in parliament as things turned out after 1997, tactical voting against the Tories in individual constituencies enabled both parties to do a lot better than they would have done otherwise.

At times the Lib Dems positioned themselves to the left of Labour – most notably over the Iraq war, for which they reaped the benefit in 2005. But long before that they had backed the sort of policies that made it relatively easy for Labour supporters to support Lib Dem candidates in constituencies where they were best placed to beat the Tories.

Some Labour loyalists were never comfortable with this tactical anti-Tory voting. John Prescott has refused to speak to me since the New Statesman ran a cover story during my editorship declaring ‘Now is the time for all good socialists to come to the aid of the (Liberal Democrat) party’ for the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election in 1995. The Lib Dems’ Chris Davies beat Labour’s Phil Woolas by 1,993 votes to take the seat from the Tories on a 17 per cent swing.

There have been signs, in the 2005 election, in local government elections and in recent opinion polls in the marginal constituencies, that a similar kind of tactical voting may now be emerging against Labour. On present indications the Lib Dems could emerge from the next general election having done relatively well (as a result of tactical Tory voting) in areas where their main opponents are Labour but rather badly (because of the return of ‘soft’ Tories to the party of David Cameron) where they are fighting the Conservatives.

The danger for Labour is that the new Liberal Democrat leader will consolidate a shift towards the centre-right in electoral politics. The wider problem for the left is that he is likely to shift the centre of political policy-making and debate even further away from many of our core concerns.

Jean Charles de Menezes: Coke law

You’d have thought that the Metropolitan Police would have considered themselves lucky to get off with just a health and safety prosecution after their shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube in July 2005. You might even have expected them to accept some sort of responsibility for a young man’s unnecessary death and save the expense of a trial by pleading guilty.

Instead they’re in the process of concocting some cock-and-bull alibi for what the prosecution has called the ‘catastrophic’ series of errors leading up to the shooting. Central to their efforts to get themselves off the hook, it became clear today, is the pathologist’s testimony that he found cocaine in De Menezes’s urine.

The Met’s counsel, Ronald Thwaites QC, asked the pathologist if cocaine had the potential to cause ‘abnormal or unusual behaviour’. He replied: ‘It is a euphoric drug. It is a drug that lifts your mind, it is a stimulant drug. It can make you do things that to somebody who hadn’t used the drug might seem inappropriate and it can make people behave aggressively.’

On this testimony, we might ask why the police officers who pumped seven bullets into De Menezes’s head and shoulder from point-blank range weren’t tested for the stuff on the spot.

Monday, 15 October 2007


I blame Margaret Thatcher. The moment she accepted Gordon Brown’s invitation to visit Downing Street, a Tory revival was on the cards. The message it sent out to voters was that she’s been cast so far out into the political darkness by Cameron & Co that maybe the Conservatives really have changed. And of Gordon Brown, it suggested a willingness to pull any stunt, try any trick to upset the Tory applecart. Even sipping with Satan herself.

In that context, pinching a few Tory politicians as advisors and adopting a few (more) Tory policies as Labour’s own hasn’t spoken so much of a ‘big tent’ or a ‘new politics’ as of a shabby hucksterism. The weekend opinion polls giving the Conservatives their biggest lead since Black Wednesday are a reflection of what people think of that sort of too-tricky-by-half cynicism.

Listening to one-time ‘Red’ Dawn Primarolo trying to get around questioning on the election-that-didn’t-happen on Radio 4 yesterday with the argument that the government was focusing on ‘the issues people really care about’ (in this case, obesity) was plain embarrassing.

Underdog day

I joined what passes for the prawn cocktail brigade at Port Vale on Saturday at the start of one of those weekends when the whole world stops for sport. Invited to the game against Brighton as a guest of Vale chairman Bill Bratt, a one-time work colleague of my dad and uncle, we partook of the pre-match refreshments and settled into the padded seats of the director’s box before being numbed into senselessness by 90 minutes of near-eventless tedium.

We got the tour of the dressing rooms, the famous ex-players’ names on the walls, a peak into the laundry, the tale about the day they put dry ice in the bath and the walk down the tunnel onto the pitch. I’ve been on it a few times – including the time I got thrown out of the ground as a teenager and the occasion when the Valemail internet group of which I’m a member sponsored a player. But there’s still a primeval thrill about walking out onto those fields of dreams, and no 0-1 home defeat is ever going to diminish it.

Then, in quick succession, it was England 3 Estonia 0, Scotland 3 Ukraine 1, St Helens 6 Leeds 33, France 9 England 14, an early-morning drive to Luton (with Sir Ian Botham on the radio) for a trail half marathon and an early-evening farewell five-a-side with one of my best footballing mates before he moves out to Essex. Oh, and somewhere in there was an England win over Sri Lanka in the cricket and the fastest man in a rugby jersey outpacing the Argentineans for South Africa. My only worry at midnight on Sunday, as I listened to Bob Dylan being booed at the Newport Folk Festival on BBC4, was that I’ve got tickets for Philip Glass putting Leonard Cohen’s poetry to music at the exact time that South Africa will be trying to stop England staging what’s being talked about in sporting circles as the biggest comeback since Lazarus.

Being a Port Vale supporter and a socialist (not necessarily in that order), I’m almost invariably on the side of the underdog. So it always makes it easier to indulge in a spot of gratuitous nationalism when the national team isn’t expected to win. With victories for England in rugby, football and cricket all in the same weekend, though, it was probably just as well Port Vale lost or I might have started believing that socialism could succeed as well.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Art is pain

Today I’ve been buried in public art, courtesy of Channel 4’s Big Art Project. What’s public art? ‘Any kind of art in a public space, outside of a gallery,’ it says on the website, which I'm working on.

Tomorrow I’m going to be in the directors’ box at Vale Park (I can smell the envy from here). A private space from which I can watch the public art of the Championship’s lower first division.

Art is life. Life is pain. Art is pain. Or I’m pretty sure it will be on a football pitch in Burslem from about 1pm tomorrow.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The future is behind us

Yes, I know 2,234 (at the last count) members of the Facebook group Am I the only person who doesn’t like David Cameron? is a pathetic response to the Tory leader effectively inviting the whole country to join the group by mentioning it in his conference speech. All the more so when even the Bring Back Blair group has 44 members (and not all of them friends of Nick Cohen).

But I’m not sure whether the poor response is a reflection of a lack of interest in the Facebook group or a lack of interest in Cameron himself. The last time I saw an electorate so uninterested in the possibility of an election was when the Widnes Pigeon Fanciers Association had two nominations for minutes secretary. Gordon Brown backed off not because he thought he might lose but because he couldn’t be sure that anyone would vote.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Am I the only person who doesn't like David Cameron?

‘If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure,’ as John Kerry put it in his tilt at the US presidency in 2004. David ‘Look mum, no autocue!’ Cameron communicated much the same sort of message in his closing speech to the Tory party conference this afternoon.

He didn’t actually fail, so that probably qualifies as some sort of success in the notes-free speechmaking stakes. But that absence of notes did mean he seemed to be making it up as he went along when it came to actual facts or statistics.

A man named John Brookes, whose case he first raised at Prime Minister’s Questions in April, when Cameron said he was 67, had aged 13 years in the interim, with Cameron putting him at 80 in his conference speech. The Thames Barrier was said to have to be raised six times a year now instead of once every six years as originally planned. (The figures Cameron was searching for are 27 times in the first ten years of its operation and 66 times in the next ten.) And the Gobi desert was said to be expanding at a rate of 4,000 miles a year, if I heard him correctly – which rather renders the outcome of the next election, whenever it comes, redundant.

In truth, none of this detail will matter any more to the electorate than it did to the Tory conference-goers. The media, meanwhile, are so desperate for a semi-competent and credible Conservative leader that they would probably have been happy to gloss over anything short of Cameron having a complete seizure on stage.

So clear the decks for the election that Gordon Brown is looking increasingly unlikely to be able to refuse. ‘Battle is joined!’ as the Daily Mail’s front page wanted us to believe on Monday. Or Forward to the Future, as Cameron himself would probably prefer.

Oh, and by the way, the Facebook group ‘Am I the only person who doesn’t like David Cameron?’, which had 300 members when he unwisely referred to it in his speech, has 630 at the time of writing. I predict it will hit five figures overnight and six by the end of the week.

You can join it here: