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.