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.’