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: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2248466580

On the run

On the run: Man in tights (that’s me) chases man in woolly hat to the top of the Roaches in north Staffs, with Father Christmas (look for him) lagging behind

It might not amount to much on an Olympian scale of things but I have just won my first athletics trophy since my schooldays. (Around the time that England last won a football trophy, in case you were wondering … )

It’s only the Guest Runners category in the Trent Park Athletics Club 2006/2007 Handicap Series. And I came seventh overall, if you include the club runners. But I’m chuffed to bits and I’ve been humming along to imaginary national anthems (for some reason the former Soviet anthem has featured loudly) as I climb up onto my imaginary winner’s podium ever since I got the news.

What makes it all the more exciting (humour me) is that I went into the final race of the year-long series with barely a mathematical chance of winning. The points tally of the leading three guest runners was 412, 391 and 368, with me in the middle. To simplify a slightly more complicated story (you get bonus points for personal bests and your worst performance of the year is discounted), I had to finish at least 22 places ahead of the then leader to win the series.

So I ran the last race thinking that all three leading positions were done and dusted. Only when I came to look at the results when they were posted on the club website a couple of days later did I discover that in fact I’d finished ahead of the previous leader with a couple of places to spare.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. The person lying in third place had produced a storming final race, clipping 15 seconds off a previous personal best and finishing just one place (and one second) short of me. The final points tally was 428, 427, 426. I can’t think of a more exciting finish to an athletics event since Kelly Holmes won the 800 metres Olympic gold in 2004 by 0.05 seconds over Hasna Benhassi and Jolanda Ceplak.

Now where did I put that spliff?

Forward to the future with David Cameron

Helped along by the Tories’ spinmeisters, the Guardian and most of the other papers have been telling us what David Cameron is going to say in his closing speech to the Tory conference before he stands up to say it. And my, what mould-shattering stuff it is too.

‘There’s been a lot of talk about lurching, so let me make it clear - no lurch to the right, no lurch to the left. There’s only one direction for me and that’s forward to the future.’
It’s hard to believe that someone actually writes that stuff.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Port Vale, Ernest Bevin and the poverty of aspirations

The less said about my home-town team Port Vale at the moment, the better - except that there can be few managerial departures that have been carried out with heavier hearts than that of Martin Foyle last week. ‘Tinny’ had been with the club as player, coach and manager for a decade and a half. As a player, he scored some of the best received goals in the club’s history, including some of those that helped maintain an unlikely superiority over the Vale’s richer and better-known local rivals, Stoke City, for a period in the 1990s. Football’s a tough old trade but not even bottom place in Division Two can dim the affection with which he will always be remembered by fans and management alike.

One of the current players, Paul Harsley, is unlikely ever to be the recipient of such fondness. ‘The best thing about being a footballer is that it’s a good laugh and the hours are good,’ he once said. What was it that Ernest Bevin once said about the real poverty of the working classes being their poverty of aspiration?

Actually, I’m not sure exactly what Ernest Bevin did say on the subject - or indeed whether he ever used the phrase ‘poverty of aspiration’ at all. When I quote someone, even a famous quote by someone long since dead, I take an old-fashioned journalistic pride in making sure that I get it right. Checking up on this quote, however, I can find no authoritative reference to it anywhere.

In a Chatham House speech a couple of years ago, Gordon Brown attributed it to Aneurin Bevan. I think he’s wrong. Can anyone provide chapter and verse?