Sunday, 21 December 2008

Adrian Mitchell

I’ve just returned home after a weekend of unseasonally mild weather spent trail running to learn of Adrian Mitchell’s death. The first message on the answerphone bore the news, the tone of the first words enough to know what was to follow.

I’ve known Adrian and his wife of 47 years, Celia, for a long time, and in one of those twists of life that make some think beyond coincidence to meaning and fate we’ve had much more than usual to do with each other these past few weeks. Celia and I have been engaged in wrapping up the Medical Aid for Iraq charity, of which we have both been officers since the first Gulf War. And I had been trying to get Adrian to pick up his journalistic pen again (his writing career began in journalism), specifically to write about David Tennant’s Hamlet as he’d seen all the great Hamlets of the past half-century.

As it happened, Tennant injured his back, so he wasn’t playing the part at the press night. Adrian said he was too ill to write anyway, spent the next day in hospital and was ‘desperately trying to rest’ – a notion that barely entered the vocabulary of a man who felt an almost moral imperative to fulfil every request to appear, no matter how remote the venue or small the audience. His unwillingness to rest, his reluctance to miss a reading almost certainly delayed the diagnosis and exacerbated the consequences of the pneumonia he developed this autumn. And as if his writing, his performance and his other work was not enough, he remained a tireless campaigner in the cause of peace.

In his last email to me, a week before his death, he wrote of ‘trying to get Ian Hislop to set his hounds on the New Statesman for regularly printing full page colour adverts for BAE Systems and asking his investigators to trace the effect of the ads on the editorial side of the Statesman’. I had made Adrian poetry editor of the New Statesman when I edited the magazine in the 1990s, and his was an importance influence on my editorship well beyond poetry. From Benjamin Zephaniah to Brian Patten, and from Alex Comfort to Paul McCartney, Adrian’s pages – like the man himself – sparkled with enthusiasm, commitment and verve. I’m glad that in what I never dreamed would turn out to be my final email to him, I took the time to tell him how those pages were among my proudest achievements at the Statesman.

The world will miss him, and my heart goes out to Celia and their family.

Postscript: I've just unearthed one of five poems that Robert Graves wrote in his seventies and Adrian published as part of a 'Poetry Extra' in the NS in 1994. It seems absolutely fitting to Adrian's memory:

How is it a man dies?

How is it a man dies
Before his natural death?
He dies from telling lies
To those who trusted him.
He dies from telling lies -
With closed ears and shut eyes.

Or what prolongs men's lives
Beyond their natural death?
It is their truth survives
Treading remembered streets
Rallying frightened hearts
In hordes of fugitives.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Virgin Killer: ban this image now!

You can find the Scorpions' Virgin Killer image of a naked girl that has been causing all the fuss 32 years after it appeared as an album cover by doing a simple google search, if you're so inclined. You should even be able to access it on the Scorpions' Wikipedia page again without any problems now that the Internet Watch Foundation has lifted its ban on the page, which was adhered to by most big UK internet service providers.

Unfortunately no one is currently proposing a ban on the image that replaced that of the girl, which I'm sure you'll agree is a disturbing picture of 1970s' rock idols at the peak of their perverted powers, with no redeeming 'artistic' context of any description. It's enough to make you thank The X-Factor for giving us the straightforward kiddie-porn of Eoghan and Diana and, gawd help us, JL 'it's just like the Beatles' S.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Alas, poor Tennant lovers

Sorry Adrian, Celia and everyone else I know who had tickets to today's press night of Hamlet starring David Tennant, but I just can't help feeling a little smug sadistic satisfaction at the fact you had to make do with his understudy instead.

I'm sure Edward Bennett, who normally plays Laertes, was brilliant. I'm told he got a standing ovation at last night's preview, after all. But let's face it, it's David Tennant who people have been paying up to £300 a black-market ticket to see (though I have seen the odd bargain - restricted view, no leg room, back of the upper circle, that sort of thing - going for £70-80 a time on ebay when no one's looking). And I've no doubt they'll be extremely miffed to find that they forked out all that dosh for someone who's never even appeared in Dr Who. It almost makes up for the fact that I never managed to buy or blag a ticket, on the press night or otherwise, for myself.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Polygamy, oral sex and the imam

There’s been a minor furore in Holland about the controversial Hague imam Jneid Fawaz, who has a Q&A column on his mosque’s website advising Dutch Muslims about what they can and cannot do. The furore arose over his advice regarding polygamy.

‘It is not obligatory to ask permission from the first wife and it's not one of the requirements that the first wife gives her permission,’ Fawaz wrote, apparently ignoring the fact that having more than one wife is illegal in Holland.

Fawaz would have been on sounder legal ground if he’d suggested making use of the Dutch samenlevingscontract or ‘cohabitation contract’, which is available to multiple partners (of either or both sexes). It does, however, require the consent of those entering into it.

Meanwhile, for Islamophobes who may be concerned that Muslims’ use of the worldwide web is limited to hard-line propaganda and terrorist networking, there is possibly reassuring news from Fawaz’s website statistics. These show that what drives web traffic among Muslims is no different from among non-believers. The most-read of Fawaz’s Q&As all concern sex, with the top two concerning the imam’s opinion on whether oral sex (15,000 hits) and sucking a woman’s breast (12,000) are permitted under Islam.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

US election not over yet

A month after the elections were done and dusted in most of the United States, they've just found 171 new ballot forms in Ramsey County's Maplewood Precinct 6 in the Minesota Senate recount. Here the Democrats' Al Franken still harbours hopes of defeating the Republicans' Norm Coleman and adding to the pro-Obama majority in Washington. Of the new votes, 91 went to Franken, 54 to Coleman and 26 to other candidates, with the result that by Tuesday evening Coleman's lead had been cut to 303 votes. The eventual result now hinges on 6,003 ballots that have been challenged by the two candidates, with a roughly equal number being challenged by each of them.

You can judge a selection of the challenged ballots for yourself here. But if these examples are anything to go by, the final result is unlikely to change by much. The first ballot was challenged by the Coleman camp on the grounds that since the voter had plumped for McCain and Palin in the presidential election it was obviously a mistake that he or she had gone for Franken in the Senate election. And, just to make sure that the Republicans couldn't take the irrational high ground, the rejection of the second ballot on the grounds of overvoting was challenged by the Democrats, who insisted that it showed a clear preference for their candidate.

Monday, 1 December 2008

May contain nuts

Where do you stand on grey squirrels? Bushy-tailed rats, bird-molesting monsters, shooting’s too good for them?

‘These foreign interlopers, not even European,’ as one letter-writer to my local paper had it recently, have out-eaten and out-bred the native red squirrel (not to mention spreading the squirrel parapoxvirus, to which they are immune but which kills the reds) to the point where they have all but wiped out the indigenous population in most of England and Wales. That and a large number of our native birds, too, including the London sparrow, if you believe their enemies (personally, I suspect the cats).

And now Rupert Mitford, the 6th Baron Redesdale, has set up the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership (so-called ‘because if we called it the Grey Squirrel Annihilation League people might be a bit less sympathetic’), with a reported 900 volunteers across the country, to trap, shoot and otherwise exterminate the grey invaders. He’s even been trying out traps in my neck of the north London woods.

I’ve been at war with the greys for years. They eat my bulbs, steal the bird food, empty out the window boxes in winter and bite the buds off everything in the spring. Should I care? Why are the red ones cute and the grey ones a menace? Why do we want more sparrows and fewer pigeons? And is it really true that when Redesdale passes on his shot squirrels for food they have to carry the label: ‘May contain nuts’.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Abolishing the congestion extension: an odd idea of democracy

Boris Johnson beat Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral contest last May in big part because a lot of people wanted the right to drive their vehicles wherever, whenever and as fast as they like. Now he’s taking the first step towards paying them back for their support by announcing the abolition of the western extension to London’s congestion zone.

Actually, bicycle-riding Bojo didn’t have the ungreen guts to simply abolish the zone off his own bat. He disguised the decision as the product of a public consultation exercise. And he warned those who were ‘consulted’ that abolition would cost a lot of money, cause a lot of congestion, pollute the air in London even more than it is already and generally make life more difficult and unpleasant in the city. So he could palm off all responsibility for this environmental disaster in that bumbling Bojoish manner with a ‘Look, I did my jolly best to make the environmentalist case but the public just weren’t having it and who am I to ride my bicycle roughshod over their democratic verdict?’

The problem is that Bojo’s consultation exercise, in which he promised to ‘listen to the people of London’ and go along with whatever they said, has about as much to do with democracy as a phone-in talk show. Those who bother to express their views are those who feel strongest on the subject.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s those who were being made to pay more for the privilege of driving their petrol combustion engines through any semblance of a sensible transport and environmental policy who shouted loudest. Out of 28,000 responses (London’s electorate numbers 5,044,962, by the way), 67 per cent of individuals and 87 per cent of businesses said get rid of the zone, let us drive for free. You’d have had a similar response if you’d proposed abolishing car insurance.

Much less well-publicised has been the response to Transport for London’s mini-opinion survey on the subject. This was organised to see how representative the responses to Bojo’s consultation exercise were.

The answer is: hardly at all. In the TfL survey, only 41 per cent of individuals (out of 2,000 surveyed) favoured getting rid of the western extension and only half of businesses (out of 1,000). Thirty per cent of individuals favoured keeping it as it is and 15 per cent said they would keep it but make changes to the way it operates (such as easing restrictions in the middle of the day).

On a crude reckoning that makes a 45:41 per cent majority in favour of keeping a modified scheme – which is an odd sort of popular mandate for its abolition. If Bojo goes ahead with getting rid of it – and incurs all the costs of doing so, including the removal of signs and cameras and road marking and all the rest, as well as the estimated £70 million annual revenue loss – let it be clear that it is his decision. He should not be allowed to hide behind some floppy notion of the ‘people’ having spoken.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Council bans Christmas

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the familiar seasonal reports of local authority killjoys trying to ‘ban’ it. And like the Christmas displays in the shops, which the laws of commerce now require to be in place before the first leaves fall from the trees, the reports of the bans start earlier every year. This year it was the city of Oxford that was first in the media firing line with the Oxford Mail’s ‘Council set to axe Christmas’ headline on 1 November setting the tone for a spot of ‘political correctness gone mad’-style bureaucrat bashing. The Mail even managed to rope in Sabir Hussain Mirza, chairman of the Muslim Council of Oxford, to lead a chorus of non-Christian, pro-Christmas complaint.

‘This is going to be a disaster. I’m angry and very, very disappointed,’ Mirza moaned. ‘Christmas is special and we shouldn’t ignore it. Christian people should be offended and 99 per cent of people will be against this.’

Against what, exactly? A prohibition on plum puddings and carol singing, a la Oliver Cromwell circa 1649?

Hardly. Instead, it seems the charity Oxford Inspires took the outrageous decision to call this year’s city centre festive lights switch-on a ‘Winter Light Festival’, with the idea of incorporating Hannukah, Diwali and maybe a midwinter solstice bonfire or two. There are still going to be Christmas carols and a Christmas tree and people getting outrageously drunk and shagging each other at office parties and all the other things that make up a traditional Christmas, so it’s hard to see where the axe is falling.

Anyway, as Oxford Inspires spokesman Tei Williams commented, ‘The ceremony takes place on 28 November. It's hardly Christmas if it’s November.’

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

BNP membership list online

'I can't believe it. I own a PC retail outlet and this could ruin me. It makes me want to puke on my shoes.'

Just one of the comments on the highly-entertaining 'North West Nationalists' blog this afternoon about the news that the BNP's entire membership list has been posted online. The details provided include names, addresses, phone numbers, emails and in some cases notes about ages, occupations and interests. One member is apparently a male witch - or was, as I'm told the Pagan community is already moving to kick him out of his coven.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Barack Obama jokes

Okay, that’s enough of a new dawn, new day. The sun’s risen now, Obama’s not yet in the White House but all that can be said has been said. We’ve just got to wait until January for some action. As David Letterman put it, though – anyone mind if he starts a little early?

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to find even one half-funny joke about the president-elect. I’m not picky or PC – I’ll laugh at anything with a bit of wit to it. But a trawl of the usual sources for these things have come up with nothing better than the following:

Q: Why did Barack Obama cross the road?
A: To help the other side.

That was on a right-wing website where they clearly felt that the Good Samaritan was a commie agent. Doesn’t anyone have any good ones?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Feeling good

Yo Obama!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

My inner Obama

Tonight I’m getting in touch with my inner Obama. My side came back from three goals down with five minutes to go to grab a draw in football earlier this evening, after calling on a bit of that ‘Yes we can’ spirit to defy the odds. I’m assuming John McCain won’t do something similar in the US election, so I’m settling in to savour the most positive political development of the 21st century to date.

Of course there are 101 things I could come up with to diminish the occasion. Obama’s no socialist, no matter what the Republican right may think. I’ve no doubt he’ll leave the major power structures of US society, and the inequality and injustice that go along with them, largely unchallenged and intact. I dare say he’ll disappoint over some of what might be considered touchstone issues. And I suspect he’ll sell the pass on occasion when we’re looking for firm leadership to take a stand.

But no one who has cast half an eye towards the United States over past months can have missed the mood that has accompanied the ascent of the man who will now surely become the country’s first black president. People who never vote, people who are disenfranchised, people who are excluded and unrepresented have been mobilised in their millions in a way that hasn’t happened in two generations. No one else – certainly not the US left or other alternative political movements – has had anything like the impact. If not Obama, then what? Quite simply, this is the best – the only – chance of change we have had in decades.

It’s not just a matter of what Obama himself will do, important though that undoubtedly is. It’s a matter of the dynamic he creates, the opportunities that are opened up, the direction the US is moving in. The old leftist slogan that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government still gets in has never been closer to the truth than in the US, where the division between Republican and Democrat has sometimes seemed so narrow as to defy definition. But the 2000 election should have put an end to that illusion for good. Who can doubt that the world would now be a different, safer place had Al Gore’s ‘stolen’ victory been upheld in court and George Bush and the neocons not been unleashed upon the world?

So the champagne is on ice ready for that ‘Yes he has’ moment. Plenty of time for the provisos and reservations later.

A Tory for Obama

Andrew Boff has been in touch to say ‘thanks... for the very generous review. I should emphasise that I wasn't the main organiser, just a helper but there is common ground nowadays between people who might have been on either side of barricades in the 80s now finding that they are sometimes together in opposing the blunt corporatism of big government.’

I’m not sure how sound that common ground is (Broadway Market is not so far from Hackney Marshes, after all), but Boff is one of that new(ish) generation of Conservatives who are comfortable with civil liberty and personal freedom issues to a degree that would have been inconceivable in Margaret Thatcher’s day. He’s even a member of the intriguing ‘Tories for Obama’ Facebook group. Apart from Iain Dale, though, there don’t seem to be many other Tories of note prepared to nail their colours to the Obama mast, so that might not have been the best of moves if Boff has any future aspirations to higher political office under the Conservative label.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Spirit of Broadway Market

It’s not often you get a Conservative councillor lining up with the Advisory Service for Squatters, the London Coalition Against Poverty, assorted anarchists and a variety of other protesters in support of a Rasta shopkeeper facing eviction by Bahamas-registered property speculators. When the councillor concerned invites you to gather outside the shop to ‘share breakfast [and show] support and solidarity’ on the day that the bailiffs are due to arrive, it’s clear that this is a cause with a wider-than-usual range of local support.

As a Conservative London Assembly member, former Hackney councillor and twice-defeated candidate for Hackney mayor (he’s also failed three times to get the Tory nomination as London mayor), Andrew Boff has his own angle on the eviction of Lowell ‘Spirit’ Grant. But you can’t fault his commitment to the campaign in Spirit’s defence, which saw him mobilising supporters for this morning’s protest breakfast to greet the bailiffs.

Since 1993, when he took over a derelict building on a cheap lease from Hackney council, Spirit has made his home and livelihood at the Nutritious Food Gallery, a Caribbean fresh fish, fruit and veg shop at 71 Broadway Market. When the council decided to sell off the Broadway Market properties in its ownership to property developers a few years ago, Spirit was one of a number of people who stood to lose their shops and homes. The campaign against the sales and the gentrification of the area has involved well-publicised occupations and other protests.

In Spirit’s case, his property was sold at auction – for £15,000 less than he had been prepared to pay for it – two hours after a council official accepted a £10,000 cheque from him as a deposit. Allegations of corruption, made by Andrew Boff and others, led to a formal investigation, which came to no conclusions for lack of any firm evidence. The Bahamas-registered company that bought this and other properties in the area put up the rent by 1200 per cent and then, when Spirit withheld payment in protest (he has since repaid most of it), proceeded to evict him.

The bailiffs were turned away by protesters when they turned up at 9.20 this morning. But Spirit, after years of fighting for his home and business, has agreed to hand in the keys to the property on another occasion. He couldn’t face any more today, and issued a statement to supporters in his absence:

‘Although there is still an enduring determination in me to continue my fight for justice, it has become aware to me that my physical and financial strength will no longer allow me to actively participate in this final act of defiance to keep my beloved property.

From the time I acquired this property back in 1993, it has been a long, hard struggle … At times I have felt completely discriminated against, robbed of my self-worth and dignity and feel as though I am being whipped.

I would like to let you all know that if it was not for the support and strength of the people like yourselves, who have actually given me the determination to physically last until now, particularly the people of Hackney, especially the people of the Broadway Market community who I know are the true defenders of humanity. To you all I give much thanks.

We have tried to keep my home and my shop. However, corrupted forces have prevailed by way of taking it from us for now. My situation at this moment in time is that I have no home and my possessions are scattered all over the city but I still have life and where there is life there is hope. I am very sorry that I am not able to be with you today in person to join in this last act of defiance against this eviction. I feel that this is just too much emotionally for me to witness. I am continually thankful for the support during this distressing time but I ask that your support should only be of peace, love and unity and not to be of any form of violence or intimidation toward the authority ...

I am still fighting the Battle of Broadway along with your continual and much needed support and together we can show the whole of London that we care about our communities and each other and it is what makes us unique and real.’

Friday, 31 October 2008

All aboard the atheist bus

Who’d have thought that a campaign to raise a few thousand pounds to pay for some atheist adverts on London buses would have turned into one of the fundraising success stories of 2008, credit crunch or not?

By 4pm today, the Atheist Bus Campaign had topped its original target of £5,500, set only ten days ago, twenty times over. That’s £109,540.60 raised online, plus £5,500 promised by Richard Dawkins to match what was raised up to the original target, plus £23,750.47 Gift Aid. (Watch out for the scandalised god-followers, who’ll be quick with their complaints that you shouldn’t get Gift Aid on this sort of thing.)

There’s an entertaining few minutes to be had reading through the comments by donors on the campaign's Justgiving page. I was particularly taken by the extra £5 donated by Perry Goldberg ‘for my Catholic work colleague, who is angered by this "childish" appeal. Nah nah nah nah!’

Thursday, 30 October 2008

A Fiennes howl

In the days before the internet I could have lived my entire life without experiencing the musical charms of Eydie Gormé. Now, thanks to the web, I know more than I could ever have imagined about her ‘musical journey that spans over 40 years’ (actually that should probably read ‘nearly 50 years’ but Eydie’s website isn’t updated as often as it might be).

Among this minefield of information is the fact that one half of the West End Whingers theatre blogging partnership (mission statement: ‘We cut into our wine time to tell you whether it’s worth missing the Merlot for the Marlowe’) has a cat who he named Eydie after the great Gormé.

I know this because the Whingers told me so in their review of the current production of Oedipus at the National, where Ralph Fiennes is howling the house down in what a number of critics have seen as an over-hammy interpretation of the title role. Eydie the cat may be named after Eydie the singer, but that doesn’t stop her being referred to at home as ‘EydiePuss’ – the thought of which is somewhat distracting, to both the Whingers and, as a result of reading their review, to me, when you’re trying to focus on Sophocles.

It’s also hard, as the Whingers point out, to remove your mind entirely from the fact that even by Greek-god story standards this is a gloriously implausible storyline. Even if you didn’t know the outcome in advance, it surely wouldn’t take you as long as Oedipus to wake up to the fact that Jocasta is the mother whose bed it was foretold he would defile. When the character you’re playing is so slow on the uptake, it difficult to imagine how you can be other than hammy (dictionary definition: ‘marked by exaggerated and usually self-conscious theatricality’) in playing him.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Media storm on the mountains

It’s not often that my favourite sport (okay, after football, but that doesn’t really count) leads the news headlines for most of the weekend. But I must admit that live accounts of several thousand fell runners swept away by floods in the Lake District, with anything up to 1,700 of them unaccounted for overnight, did make a change from the non-story of Oleg the Oligarch. (Politicians like spending time with the rich and powerful, and sometimes they try to tap them for money? You don’t say!)

Most of the early reports about the Original Mountain Marathon on Saturday talked about 2,000 ‘charity runners’ being trapped on the mountains after reckless organisers had ignored advice to call off the event – as though this was some sort of fun run in which participants dressed as Batman had been led into mortal danger by over-enthusiastic fundraisers from the local playgroup. The reality was that both the numbers and the risks were exaggerated, the main problems were caused by flooding in the valleys closing roads and cutting off the race HQ. Most of the participants described as ‘missing’ were only aware that they had been at the centre of a media frenzy when they cam back down from the hills again the next morning.

The weather may have been a bit extreme, but the OMM is an extreme sport. It consists of navigating your own route around a course that involves an overnight camp. Entrants are screened, you’re only allowed to do it in pairs and you’re required to carry full survival kit and rations for 36 hours. Batman wouldn’t get in, no matter what charity he was seeking sponsorship for.

Of course, there is risk involved. But you train and prepare for it and as far as I know the OMM’s safety record is impeccable. No one was actually ‘lost’ on the mountains over the weekend. Everyone who camped out overnight – as they had expected (and gone equipped) to do – returned safely on the Sunday. There are more casualties in the Lake District on an average calm, summer’s weekend (not that there have been many of them this summer), when thousands of far less well-prepared walkers head into the hills, than there have ever been on an OMM event.

My extreme sports participation at the weekend was limited to a muddy ‘multi-mile marathon’ circuit around the Weald Country Park in Essex – and a trip to Barking. (‘Do you know anywhere worth visiting round here?’ ‘Have you tried the industrial estate round the corner?’ ‘Are you taking the piss?’ ‘Well you started it.’)

Arthur Smith was on the same bill as the Imagined Village (folk fusion that is as inspiring ideologically as it is musically in its sense of a multicultural modern Englishness tied in to its traditional roots). He told a story of taking a health and safety inspector to do a risk assessment of the Pamplona Bull Run for a TV programme. The OMM organisers actually have to do a risk assessment. From now on it should include a paragraph about dealing with disaster-chasing news organisations that haven’t a clue about what they’re supposed to be reporting on.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Earlobe creases, Hadrian, my nephew and me

I have just discovered that I have creases in my ear lobes. Big deal, you might say, except that diagonal ear-lobe creases are, to quote one recent medical study on the subject, ‘significantly associated with coronary artery disease and coronary risk factors’. How significantly? Creases in both lobes have a ‘positive predictive value’ of 89.4%, according to the study. Or, to put it another way, they mean a 77% increased risk of heart attack (33% if only in one lobe), according to another report.

I wouldn’t have known any of this if it hadn’t been for the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum, where the combination of my historical/archaeological expertise and, more importantly, museum membership (I can take a guest in free) means I’ve been acting as an unofficial guide to every friend or family member with half an interest in things Roman. My last visit before the exhibition closes tomorrow was to take my 11-year-old nephew, recently back from a holiday in Rome and interested enough in Hadrian to know that he built the Pantheon and that his mausoleum is now the Castel Sant’Angelo.

For the umpteenth time, I did my by-now pat routine about Hadrian and his empire, Hadrian and his architecture, Hadrian and his statues, Hadrian and his wall. I curtailed my usual extensive discourse about Hadrian and his sex life, and opted against pointing out all the detail of the homoerotic sex scenes on the Warren Cup. (‘£1.8 million for a mug?’ ‘Bugger me!’ as the Private Eye cover had it when the silver goblet became the museum’s most expensive acquisition a decade ago.)

But I got enough interest from the nephew to keep me going with the Vindolanda tablets (two-millenia-old letters dealing with everything from requests for clean underwear to complaints about the ‘wretched little Brits’), the keys that the Jews took into the desert in the expectation of returning home during the revolt of 132-35, the hobnailed sandal imprint of a Roman soldier preserved on an ancient paving stone – and the diagonal creases on Hadrian’s earlobes.

These were first noticed on statues of Hadrian by Nicholas L Petrakis, a San Francisco MD, who published a paper in 1980 linking the creases to classical writings suggesting that Hadrian died from congestive heart failure resulting from hypertension and coronary atherosclerosis. I pointed out the creases to my nephew on some of the busts of Hadrian in the BM exhibition and told him about the link with heart disease. ‘Are they the same as you’ve got?’ he said.

I must have told this story about Hadrian and his earlobe creases a dozen times since the exhibition opened and no one, least of all me, had ever noticed any creases in my earlobes before now. Have they only just appeared? Old photos are inconclusive. Is my nephew imagining it? The mirror says no. Should I be worried? Medical opinion seems to be divided.

Both earlobe creases and heart disease become more common with age, so the studies may simply be reflecting this fact. (I wish.) And anyway, there’s just as strong a correlation, according to one of these studies, between heart disease and hairy ears, which I don’t have (or didn’t the last time I looked), so I’m taking the usual male approach to personal health issues, putting my fingers in both ears and pretending I never heard my nephew’s question in the first place.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Never lend me your Rolex

When I was a kid I used to have a problem wearing watches. Apart from insisting on wearing them on the inside of the right-hand wrist (a five-year-old’s assertion of individualist identity that I’ve stuck with to the present day, with inconvenient consequences at the keyboard), sooner or later they’d stop working. An adult who knew about these things (people did in those days: they still made them) told me it was something to do with the electro-magnetic field around my body.

That was the best possible explanation I could have hoped for – short of being the adopted son of parents from the planet Krypton. Wind-up watches didn’t work on me because I had an invisible force surrounding me that stopped them ticking.

I’m still not entirely sure whether it was me that was being wound up, but I’ve long since fallen out of love with electro-magnetism. Part of the reason for going a little quiet on the blog recently (apart from spending a fair chunk of the time fell running in the Lake District, avoiding coming last in my category in the Northern Veterans 10-mile road championship and taking my grandson, aged one on Monday, up his first Wainwright – Loughrigg, 211th out of 214 in height order; he slept through most of it) has been a kind of reverse Midas touch, whereby everything electronic I come into contact with stops operating.

The car, computer and even the kettle have all given up the ghost in quick succession – so quick that I’ve almost convinced myself that my electro-magnetic field has gone into overdrive again. Losing your computer hard drive when you’re 300 miles from anything resembling a back up is bad enough, but have you ever tried to organise an auto-electronics spare parts delivery when you’re halfway along Striding Edge? Not helped by the fact that while there are scores, probably hundreds, of companies with variations on the name ‘Ford Electronics’, hardly any of them appear to be a) in this country or b) in the business of electronics for Ford cars.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

How to solve the banking crisis

It is essential that industry has the finance it needs to support our plans for increased investment. Our proposals are set out in full in our Conference statement, The Financial Institutions. We will:

• Establish a National Investment Bank to put new resources from private institutions and from the government - including North Sea oil revenues - on a large scale into our industrial priorities. The bank will attract and channel savings, by agreement, in a way that guarantees these savings and improves the quality of investment in the UK.

• Exercise, through the Bank of England, much closer direct control over bank lending. Agreed development plans will be concluded with the banks and other financial institutions.

• Create a public bank operating through post offices, by merging the National Girobank, National Savings Bank and the Paymaster General's Office.

• Set up a Securities Commission to regulate the institutions and markets of the City, including Lloyds, within a clear statutory framework.

• Introduce a new Pension Schemes Act to strengthen members' rights in occupational pension schemes, clarify the role of trustees, and give members a right to equal representation, through their trade unions, on controlling bodies of the schemes.

• Set up a tripartite investment monitoring agency to advise trustees and encourage improvements in investment practices and strategies.

We expect the major clearing banks to co operate with us fully on these reforms, in the national interest. However, should they fail to do so, we shall stand ready to take one or more of them into public ownership. This will not in any way affect the integrity of customers' deposits.

(From Labour's 1983 election manifesto, dubbed 'the longest suicide note in history' by Gerald Kaufman, with thanks to Blood and Treasure and the Red Pepper forum for pointing it out.)

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Socialist baby-killing maggots against Sarah Palin

Stand-in Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear may get hauled over the broadcasting coals for saying ‘shit’ on Football Focus in this country, but it’s a different matter in the US. There the constitutional First Amendment guarantee of free speech provides a familiar cover for all manner of expletives and hate-filled commentary by the right-wing shock jocks who dominate the radio airwaves.

So when Alaska’s Anchorage AM host Eddie Burke ranted about ‘a bunch of socialist baby-killing maggots’ organising an ‘Alaska Women Reject Palin’ rally last month, no one batted much of an eyelid. When he went on to read out the organisers’ home telephone numbers and urge listeners to call them up and give them hell, however, he went a bit beyond the Palin.

The women, whose protest has been claimed as the biggest political rally in Alaskan history (there were about 1,500 people present, so Alaska clearly lacks much of a tradition of popular mobilisation), received a series of threatening and abusive calls. Burke also got a call – from station manager Justin McDonald, telling him he’d broken station policy (by announcing the numbers, not his choice of epithets) and would be suspended without pay for a week.

Photo: Eddie Burke demonstrating his firm grasp of geography

Monday, 6 October 2008

What shall I wear for the London marathon?

My entry has been accepted for the 2009 London marathon, 26 years after I first tried to get a place (one year for each mile – there’s symmetry for you). I’d become so accustomed to failure in the annual ballot for Britain’s biggest road race/fun run (delete as applicable) that I didn’t open the blue shrink-wrapped notification missive until a couple of days after it arrived. And now, having done so, my reaction has shifted almost unblinkingly from ‘Wow, at last!’ to ‘Oh shit, now I’ve got to run it!’ to ‘Bugger, that’s really messed up my plans for next April!’

The thing is that I’ve already booked myself in for a race that I’ve been harbouring fantasies of winning on the day before the marathon. Well, maybe not winning, but, you know, doing quite well in. With 30,000 runners otherwise engaged in their pre-London preparations, there’s clearly no better time to go for gold than against the greatly-narrowed field that will turn out for the Clandon Park 10k near Guildford on 25 April. Now the day will have to be taken up with sorting out what I’m going to wear on a 26-mile jaunt around London instead. After waiting more than a quarter of a century for the opportunity it has to be something special. Any suggestions?

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Peter Mandelson and the coat off my back

Peter Mandelson once tried to buy my jacket off me at the Grand Hotel in Brighton during some Labour conference shindig or other. In doing so, he destroyed what little fashion cred I had (never much, especially in the early 1990s, when it happened) and placed a big question mark over my political orientation among the lefty conference rabble-rousers who were watching to see what I would do.

In the event, my price was too high. I might have been willing to part with a principle or two to speed up any future passport applications. But it was blowing a storm on the Brighton seafront and surrendering the coat off my back was a step too far.

The next day, in different company, Mandy denied that he’d ever made the offer. In fact, he all but denied that he knew me at all. It seemed a purposeless, straight-faced lie. Did he do it to avoid some trivial diary item, the sort of flotsam tossed around by eager hacks surfing the seaside conference gossip? Or was it, as it felt at the time and has seemed all the more so since, a simple pleasure in power: ‘I lie because I can, and there’s nothing you can do about it?’

Either way, I wouldn’t want him in my Cabinet – or leave my jacket on the back of the chair when it’s raining outside.

Cartoon by Hack, used under a Creative Commons licence from the truly wonderful

Monday, 29 September 2008

War dividend

With the US taxpayer facing a likely $700 billion bill to bail out bankers' incompetence and greed, Congress will no doubt be delighted to hear that US arms exports have reached record levels under the second Bush administration. The Defense Department alone has agreed to the sale or transfer of $32 billion worth of weapons and equipment in 2008 – a near threefold increase on 2005. Sales by private companies, as measured by State Department-approved export licences, are approaching $100 billion – up from $58 billion three years ago.

As well as long-term customers such as Israel and Egypt (who between them receive four-fifths of the US’s $4.5 billion military aid budget annually), a big sales push has been mounted around the globe. Recent recipients of US arms include both Pakistan and India, Argentina and Brazil, and Georgia and Azerbaijan, demonstrating once again that, as true internationalists, arms dealers recognise no borders – except as an opportunity to do business with the countries on either side of them.

For the US and its military-industrial economic base, the ‘peace dividend’ that was supposed to follow the end of the cold war has been as nothing compared with the war dividend that followed 9/11. The US share of the world arms trade went up from 40 per cent of arms deliveries in 2000 to 52 percent in 2006, with the latest projections pointing to a further, similar increase by 2010. The next-largest arms dealer is Russia, with 21 per cent of the global market in 2006.

‘This is not about being gunrunners,’ Bruce S Lemkin, the US air force deputy under secretary who is helping to coordinate many of the biggest sales, told the New York Times. ‘This is about building a more secure world.’ Glad he cleared that up.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Up in the downs

I have spent the weekend avoiding the ‘Family Man’ and ‘Action Super Hero’ soubriqets from friends, family and casual running acquaintances after my daughter’s portrayal of me as some sort of fitness sadist in the Guardian on Saturday. I was doorstepped for a while by Fleet Street flashers when John Major sued the New Statesman and me for libel back in 1993; and I was put under photo surveillance by police long-lensmen once when the Special Branch confused a direct-action trespass I was involved in organising at Windsor Castle with a plot to kidnap the queen. But I’ve never been followed around on a sporting event before by a professional photographer as I was for the Guardian piece. I’m just glad she wasn’t there to capture me writhing around with cramp at the end of today’s 20-mile trail challenge at Dunstable. Gorgeous day, but there's an awful lot of up in those downs ...

Photo: Lisa Carpenter

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A toe in the Brown stuff

There are few things less appetising than the human species with its pack instincts in full flow. From playground bullying to gang rape, from poking ‘fun’ at difference to pogroms, it’s those who join in even more than those who initiate who bring out the misanthrope in me.

So I haven’t and won’t be joining the Bugger Brown Crew, barely any of who were brave enough to raise a reservation when he was crowned unopposed at Labour conference a year ago. Those who were too gutless (or was it witless? It really doesn’t make too much of a difference) to make their objections known when it meant standing out against the tide don’t merit much attention now when all they’re doing is running with the herd.

Virtually nothing that has been said against Brown has much to do with policy. Where it has – such as his failure to control the excesses of the City sharks who’ve brought down half the banking system on the heads of the rest of us – none of his opponents are offering anything different. Does anyone seriously believe that his critics in the Labour Party, still less David Cameron and the Tories, are going to put the greedy dogs of capitalism back on the leash?

Read through some of the reactions to Brown’s speech, if you can bear it. They’re full of analysis of his body language, his smile, his ‘no time for a novice’ jibe, how it went down with the party, the unions, the country, whether it made him seem more ‘human’, what we think of his wife coming in with the warm-up, whether Ruth Kelly really thought it was ‘awful’ even if she’d never said so. And so on. At least in the bad Old Labour days, the conference barnstormers tended to be about real issues. Now it’s all fought out on matters of style and image, to an agenda pre-determined and post-rated by the media. The BBC cameras, apparently, were even turned on David Miliband ready to catch that reference to a novice – an example of hardcore news manipulation if ever there was one.

Cast your mind back a year ago, when it was David Cameron under pressure and the Tories riding the undercurrents of disloyalty. It could as easily have been Cameron being hunted by the baying pack this autumn. It would have been no more edifying a spectacle – and no more meaningful in terms of actual policy.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Family challenge

Well we didn’t come last. My daughter is writing about our first team venture into the world of triathlon trail challenge events today for the ‘Family Challenge’ slot in this weekend’s Guardian. So I’ll say no more about it here for now. Except that three family members (her boyfriend being the third) squashed together in one sack for a ‘special challenge’ at the end of five hours of running, cycling and kayaking is about as close as I ever want us to get. There are times when your personal space really should be protected.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

On Dorian Hirst and Damian Gray

Damian Hirst said at the press view of his 2007 Beyond Belief exhibition that he was worried his £50 million diamond skull (actually a platinum skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, but who’s counting?) would end up looking like a very expensive piece of nightclub tat: ‘Spend all that money and you just end up with a disco ball, shock horror.’

One year on, and there it was – a giant replica of the skull in all its vacuous glory – forming the centrepiece of a nightclub scene in Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray at Sadler’s Wells.

Bourne’s Dorian is a modern-day fashion model, whose photographs adorn the set and, like the portrait in Oscar Wilde’s novel, become defaced and ugly over time while the person they represent remains ageless and unchanging. Dorian, his body-beautiful untainted by the drugs and debauchery in which he becomes immersed, is the face of ‘Immortal – pour homme’, a perfume that transmutes into ‘Mortal’ by the performance’s end.

Damian Hirst is a different, altogether cleverer, kettle of (art)ifice. But you do wonder, as his diamond and formaldehyde creations defy the ravages of time, what price he is paying in his creative soul for the $198 million he earned from that auction of his work at Sotheby’s.
Not that I’d mind having that disco skull in my living room, you understand.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Banks of Marble

Les Rice doesn’t appear on Wikipedia and if you Google his name the top search results come back with ‘the best tattooist in Sydney’, who may well be a great guy but isn’t the one I have in mind. Back in the 1940s, though, the Les Rice I’m referring to wrote a song that’s worth revisiting today in the light of the bankers’ greed that has been bringing half the world’s economy to its knees.

Pete Seeger recorded the song, ‘Banks of Marble’, on at least two albums; and in a note in one of his songbooks he wrote that Rice ‘farms across the Hudson from me, near Newburgh [Orange County, New York]. Like most small farmers, he was getting intolerably squeezed by the big companies which sold him all his fertiliser, insecticide and equipment, and the big companies that dictated to him the prices he would get for his produce. Out of that squeeze came this song.’

I've travelled round this country
From shore to shining shore.
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer,
Ploughing sod and loam;
I heard the auction hammer
A-knocking down his home.

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmer sweated for.

I saw the seaman standing
Idly by the shore.
I heard the bosses saying:
'Got no work for you no more'.

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the seaman sweated for.

I saw the weary miner,
Scrubbing coal dust from his back;
I heard his children cryin':
'Got no coal to heat the shack'.

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miner sweated for.

I've seen my brothers working
Throughout this mighty land;
I prayed we'd get together,
And together make a stand.

Then we'd own those banks of marble
With a guard at every door;
And we'd share those vaults of silver
That we have sweated for.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Where does poo come from?

Courtesy of me sis':

A little boy asks his dad: 'Where does poo come from?'

His dad explains that food passes down the oesophagus to the stomach, where digestive enzymes induce a probiotic reaction in the alimentary canal; this reaction extracts protein before waste products descend via the colon and rectum to emerge as 'poo'.

Blimey, says the little boy -

'And what about Tigger?'

Well, we think it's funny . . .

Thursday, 11 September 2008

A very good day (yesterday that is)

Yesterday was a very good day. Not only did we trounce the opposition in my regular Wednesday evening five-a-side (eat your heart out, James), but we finished in time to watch England give us one of those ‘where were you when?’* performances that punctuate the lives of us long-suffering Port Vale and England fans. 4-1 in Croatia and the boy Walcott getting a hat-trick – who’d have thought it? There was even the vicarious pleasure for all us ABC (Anyone But Chelsea) supporters of seeing John Terry get kicked in the face.

Best of all, though, the world didn’t end at 8.32am on Wednesday 10 September 2008 (mark that moment: it will long be remembered), as some had predicted, when the button was pressed to turn on the Large Hadron Collider for the first time at Cern, the European nuclear research establishment in Geneva.

Ignore all the gainsayers (the doomsayers never merited any serious attention anyway) who say it’s just to satisfy some scientists’ curiosity, that it has no practical application and the $10 billion would have been better spent on other projects, like solving global warming or finding a cure for cancer. It’s not either/or. There’s plenty of money around in the world today to build the Large Hadron Collider and do all those other things – like guaranteeing the basics in life for everyone alive on the planet – that are suddenly being suggested as alternatives. It’s just a matter of distributing it properly.

Following our curiosity as a species, seeking knowledge and answers that might not have an obvious or immediate practical application (but will certainly turn out to do so), is part of the best of what it is to be human. That and winning at football.

* Today is one of those ‘where we you when?’ days, which reminds me that I’ve been collared by Harry Barnes with one of those blogger meme things (a glorified chain letter, if you ask me) where you’re asked to answer some questions and then pass them on to some other people to answer in turn. I will get round to doing it as soon as I can but for now my answer to the first question, ‘Where were you when you heard about the 9/11 attacks?’

Somewhat unexcitingly, I was exactly where I am now – sitting in front of my laptop typing. In those days I had a news feed in the corner of my screen, which was showing smoke coming from the World Trade Centre and a headline about a plane crash. I had some sort of deadline to meet, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was only when I called in to file the copy and the person on the phone asked in surprise ‘Aren’t you watching the TV?’ that I realised I might have been missing a slightly bigger story than the one I was working on.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Secret Hamlet

An invitation to see a ‘secret Hamlet’ at a local pub on a soggy September Tuesday has forced me to break my boycott of Nambucca on the Holloway Road. Actually, it’s not so much a boycott as an old-man’s grumble about the fact that the owners dumped a perfectly adequate historic pub name (the Cock Tavern) a little while back and replaced it with one of those empty adworld assemblages that will last for about as long as it takes to change the labels on the latest sports drink.

There’s still a big stucco cock looking down from the eaves of the pub, whose original name can be found on maps going back to when (cue faux olde englishe rural accent) it were all fields about ’ere and the ’Ollow Way were just a muddy track frequented by the Dicks Whittington and Turpin. If the Nambucca owners hadn’t been so keen to wipe their own history, it could have featured in the first act of last night’s performance, a site-specific production requiring audience members to bring all the props – ‘the weirder the better’.

The morning cock crew loud,
And at the sound it [Hamlet’s father’s ghost] shrunk in haste away,
And vanished from our sight

The ghost in the Nambucca Hamlet was a pub drunk, who wandered in, pint in hand, eyes wide as though on Es, to a pumping beat from the in-house sound system. (Nambucca is a live music venue, like the Cock before it, though I doubt that Shane McGowan includes it on his crawls as he once did when it was a leading Irish dive.) All very apposite, since the production company is called The Factory and some of the scenes bore more than a passing resemblance to the sort of thing you’d expect from Factory Records and Madchester a couple of decades ago.

The regular cast of the secret Hamlet consists of about 30 people who can all play a variety of parts. Who gets to play what is decided at the outset by members of the audience, in this case playing rounds of ‘paper, scissors, stone’. It’s been running every Sunday for a year at different ‘secret’ venues (those in the know get emailed a few days beforehand); this was the first time in a pub.

As well as being encouraged to bring a prop to the party, audience members can also get roped into the proceedings. (You have to leave your stage fright at home on these occasions, so it helps that it was held in a pub.) I took a two-feet high Aunt Lucy, her identity concealed behind a highwayman’s mask and a pair of Guinness glasses – observant readers will spot the significance – but she hid in a corner for most of the night, and neither she nor I got picked.

This was something of a relief because part of the production involved the director setting the actors different challenges for each act of the play. For Act Three they each had to choose a confidant, or collaborator more like, from the audience. The results included Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy being spoken by a woman who had the words whispered into her ear by the actor playing his part, and Ophelia’s developing breakdown being expressed through the medium of a glove puppet.

This sounds crass, but was actually both funny and inspired. Don’t think you can do this at home, though, kids. It worked because the Factory ensemble comprises immensely able, talented people who are not only very good at improvised theatre but know all the nuances of their Shakespeare. The fact that the director, Tim Carroll, has six years directing Shakespeare at the Globe under his belt, as well as the current RSC production of The Merchant of Venice, is not incidental.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

After the Armistice

News reaches me of another Palin, the one who still (at the time of writing, but possibly not for very much longer) occupies three of the four top slots on a Google UK search of the name. Michael Palin, traveller, comedian and, it says here, amateur historian, will be presenting Timewatch: The Last Day of World One on BBC2 later this autumn.

The programme will tell the tragic stories of four men, British, French, Canadian and American, who died shortly before the ceasefire on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. It also reveals the shocking fact that around 11,000 troops lost their lives after the Armistice ending the war was signed.

This caught my eye because I went to the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire, recently, where I was reminded of one of those family stories that stick in your mind from childhood. In common with others of her generation, my grandmother lived through two world wars and her dearest wish for us as children was that we should not have to go through anything like that again. The first world war claimed both her teenage ‘sweetheart’ and her closest brother. I have the clearest memory of when she first told me how the fateful telegram breaking the news that he had been killed arrived on 12 November – the day after the family, and the whole country, had been celebrating the end of the war.

Friday, 5 September 2008

How do they do that?

What is it about right-wing politicians that they can get away with the sort of things for which left-wingers would be crucified? When Michael Foot turned up for a Remembrance Day parade in a (as it happens very expensive) horsehair coat, he was pilloried in the press for wearing a supposedly scruffy ‘duffle coat’. But Boris Johnson can slouch around at the Olympics handover ceremony with his hands in his pockets, his tie skew-whiff and his suit looking like a mix-and-match from an Oxfam rack and no one (except Ken Livingstone, citing his late mum) gives a damn.

More importantly, the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W can turn idiocy into a presidential requisite, as long as it’s delivered with faux folksy charm. And now the Republicans’ vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has somehow managed to turn the fact that she was once the mayor of Tinytown, Alaska, into a plus rather than a possible indicator of lack of experience when it comes to running the world’s only superpower.

This is a clever trick to pull. You’re part of the ruling elite (albeit in Palin’s case, not quite so elite as Reagan the Hollywood actor or Bush the heir to an oil fortune) but you come across as an Ordinary Joe/anna. You even manage to accuse the media of being sexist, never previously a word heard to come from Republican lips, when those few bits of it that aren’t on your side wonder whether you’re up to the job. And despite being leaders of a party that doesn’t even believe in the availability of universal health care for those who need it, you manage to persuade a big chunk of ‘ordinary, hard-working America’ that you’re the best people to look after their interests because you ‘believe in gun rights and the bible, and are against abortion and gay marriage’, as one member of the Texas delegation put it at the Republican convention this week.

How do they do that?

Thursday, 4 September 2008

God on Trial

If you missed it last night, thank God for BBC iPlayer, on which you can watch it for the next seven days:

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s God on Trial is BBC drama at its best. Based on the (probably apocryphal) story of how, in the face of the Nazis and the holocaust, a group of Auschwitz prisoners charged and tried God with breaking his covenant with the Jewish people, it made potent, prime-time (straight after the watershed) viewing. It’s doubtful whether any other broadcaster would have given it such a slot – and none, of course, would have shown it without advertising breaks, those destroyers of dramatic faith.

Cottrell Boyce’s previous work includes the screenplay to Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie and 24 Hour Party People, featuring Steve Coogan as Factory Records founder Tony Wilson – which is about as different from Auschwitz as you can get but one of my favourite British films of recent years. The cast of God on Trial includes Antony Sher, Rupert Graves and Jack Shepherd, and everyone else matches their high standards.

I’d have been a poor juror hearing the case against God in that Auschwitz blockhouse, my mind made up before hearing the arguments. To paraphrase one prisoner, either God is not all-powerful, or he would prevent this happening, or he is not just, for only then could he tolerate it. And what is the point of a God who is not both all-powerful and just?

But it is a tribute to both the writer and the actors that even I felt myself being swayed by the defence (something that didn’t happen to me, incidentally, in The Trial of Judas Iscariot, at the Almeida Theatre earlier this year, when the deistic sympathies of the author produced a wet and distant Jesus who had me rooting for a fucked-up Judas with all my heart and soul). Not least among these arguments was the view that since the Nazis had succeeded in stripping the prisoners of everything else, they should not permit them to strip them of their God as well.

I won’t tell you the prisoners’ verdict, but that’s not really the point of the play – you reach your own anyway. And whichever way you judge it, it’s a far easier call in the comfort of your living room than ever it was for those tortured souls in Auschwitz.

(Frank Cottrell Boyce is a Catholic. He writes about his faith and the making of God on Trial here - but note that he mentions the verdict in the first paragraph.)

Monday, 1 September 2008

On guard in Alaska

I just loved John McCain's defence of his choice of running mate, the Alaska governor Sarah Palin, when he was asked about her lack of experience on Fox News on Sunday. McCain replied: 'She's been commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard ... she's had judgment on these issues. She's had 12 years of elected office experience, including travelling to Kuwait.'

The Alaska National Guard, eh? Al Qaeda must be shitting themselves. And she's been to Kuwait.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Gutter politics

Forget about Barack Obama and John McCain for a moment. Politics will really hit the gutter in the US general election on 4 November in the form of Proposition R on the San Francisco ballot. The proposition, launched earlier this year by the 'Presidential Memorial Commission of San Francisco', has now been officially certified by the San Francisco Department of Elections, after obtaining almost double the number of signatories from voters needed to qualify for the ballot.

If passed, Proposition R will rename the city’s Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant as the George W Bush Sewage Plant. The new name would be adopted on 20 January 2009 at the same time that the new president is sworn in. Win or lose, supporters are planning a synchronised flush of San Francisco toilets to mark the moment at which Bush leaves office. Local Republicans, in a city where Bush won only 15.3 per cent of votes in 2004, say they are taking the piss.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Evensong in Leominster

I went to church while I was out and about this summer. That’s ‘to church’ rather than ‘to a church’, just to be clear about it. I do the latter quite a lot, checking out the architecture, browsing the gravestones. But apart from weddings and funerals I can’t remember the last time I went to a service.

It was evensong, Sunday, late August at St Peter and Paul’s, Leominster. It’s a big church that is almost as wide as it is long by virtue of having two naves. One is plain Norman (round arches, no decoration), the other high gothic (pointed arches, lots of adornment). You can sit in the middle and get an instant history lesson in the development of English church architecture.

It was pouring with rain, as it was almost everywhere this summer, and the roof (sadly neither Norman nor gothic, but a dull restoration) was leaking. The pews are gone and the hundreds of chairs that replaced them were empty. The service was taking place in the far corner, by the altar. Including the vicar and me (and since I sat at the back, I don’t really count), there were seven people present. One of those doubled up as the organist. If any of them were under 60, they’ve aged badly.

I stayed because, well, it seemed rude to leave, it was very wet indeed outside and Leominster really is a very lovely and interesting church. I paid special attention to the sermon to see what it might have to offer this minuscule gathering of the faithful in this place that would once have hosted many hundreds.

The vicar had taken as his lesson Matthew 15:21-28. Matthew relates how Jesus was asked for help by a woman – a Canaanite – whose daughter is possessed by a demon. First, Jesus ignores her. (‘But he answered her not a word’). Then his disciples ask him to get rid of her because she’s making a scene. (‘Send her away; for she crieth after us.’) So Jesus tells her he’s only here to help Jews (‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’). When she persists, he calls her a dog. (‘It is not meet to take the children [of God]’s bread and to cast it to dogs [like you].’) Only when she says that even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table does he finally relent and cure her daughter.

This is one of those disquieting passages from the bible in which people are required to jump through all manner of hoops to demonstrate their subservience before God, or in this case his son, deigns to be nice to them. But the vicar at Leominster made a reasonable stab at turning it into a lesson on our modern-day treatment of minorities, with special reference to Romanies in Italy, asylum seekers in Britain – and a drunk who’d recently tapped him for a couple of quid in his own churchyard.

From what he said, the vicar seemed a decent sort of man, and I don’t suppose there were many places on a wet and windy night in Leominster this summer where you’d have found someone wrestling with moral issues about what to do when a woman from an unpopular minority group starts screaming at you for help in the street. Do you, he asked the elderly few who made up his congregation, a) ignore her; b) tell her to bugger off; c) say you only give to your own kind; or d) call her names?

And, he also asked, if you decide to help her, do you need to be sure that her daughter really is possessed by a demon and she isn’t just spinning you a hard-luck yarn before you do so? Well?

Sunday, 24 August 2008

The corporate vandals of Tinsley

There was something faintly satisfying about the fact that one of the Tinsley cooling towers refused to lie down and die after this morning’s 3am demolition job by the E On energy company. The 76-metre high towers, situated just 17 metres from the M1, were well known to anyone who has ever lived in, visited or passed by Sheffield. The ‘Angel of the North’ artist, Antony Gormley, called them ‘the Stonehenge of the carbon age’ and campaigners have battled to keep them as icons of our industrial heritage ever since E On made it clear it wanted them gone.

Those campaigners succeeded in getting the towers selected as one of seven sites for Channel 4’s forthcoming Big Art Project. (You can read more about the project, the Tinsley towers and much else which I am involved with as a writer, in my article ‘Public art and Perspex panels’ in the current issue of Red Pepper.) Today’s early-morning explosives brought down one of the towers but left part of the other still standing - like a single finger stuck up to the corporate vandals who blew it up.

Roll on 2012

Of course I know all the arguments about the cost, the human rights issues, the corporatism, the exploitation of athletic achievement for chauvinistic purposes. But there’s still something about the Olympics that shines through it all and when that gorgeous torch went out in the Beijing sky an hour or so ago, I felt more than a tinge of emotion about the whole affair.

I think, on balance, it was right that the Olympics went to China. I think it was right, too, that there were widespread protests, most notably as the Olympic flame made its way around the world from Greece to Beijing. I think that both the presence of the Games in China and the protests against them can only help the cause of liberalisation and democracy there.

Am I trying to have my sporting and political cake and eat it too? I don’t believe so.

There are few sporting, cultural or other events of any description, even in our globalised world, in which a commitment to contact, communication and friendship between nations is raised so high – and none in which it reaches so many people. When it happens, it’s worth cherishing, for all the flaws.

And the opportunity to see human beings performing at the very peak of physical achievement is a thing of absolute beauty. We may not be gods, but as a celebration of life it's right up there with invention, music, poetry, drama and the very best of human endeavour. Roll on London 2012.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Build the revolution, not muscle!

Back to London in time for the Olympic track and field programme. No offence to the cyclists, sailors, swimmers and shooters (I’ll return to the beach volleyball bum smackers on another occasion), but this is what really got the Greeks going to Mount Olympus two and a half millennia ago and it’s still the main attraction for spectators in 2008.

Not for Alex Callinicos of Socialist Worker, though, I notice. ‘Two weeks of corporate sponsored flag waving in honour of a bunch of muscle-bound dullards’ is how he describes the Olympics in the latest edition of his paper.

Actually, the Olympic flag waving is one of the few places in modern sport where the corporates are still kept at a polite distance. Strange though it may seem given the levels of sponsorship that do go into the Games, no corporate logos, images or advertising are permitted inside the venues or anywhere near the winners’ podiums.

Be that as it may, since when was being a ‘muscle-bound dullard’ worthy of the critical condemnation of one of the chief theoreticians of 21st-century Trotskyism? Did Callinicos have a traumatic childhood experience with bodybuilders in his native Zimbabwe? Is the SWP about to launch an Anti-Muscle League (interesting people only to apply)?

Friday, 15 August 2008

In case you were wondering ...

The absence of posts is because I’m currently wending my way through a grand tour of England (and, from tonight, Wales) in the wet. I’ve rain-tested the water-resistant qualities of just about every fabric known to man, been soaked to the skin so many times that my skin has started to dissolve and just wrung out my socks in readiness for a weekend of long-distance trail events.

Last weekend, the river Kent in full spate forced those of us competing in the CancerCare Cross Bay half marathon to turn back half way across Morecambe Bay (which meant subjecting ourselves to a five-mile sand-whipping as we ran back against the wind). Other highlights of my summer include performing one-man mountain rescue missions – of myself, among others – on the Scafell summit, and eating my way single-handedly through an entire barrel of the most disgustingly, sickeningly, sugary selection of sweets ever to have been consumed in one sitting. An achievement of truly Olympian proportions: watch out Wales, I will not leave without a medal.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

The South Bank and 'Supergeordie'

Quality busking and street theatre, display hula-hooping and Parkour, pavement artists and sand sculptures, a Critical Mass bike ride and a Reclaim the Beach party, free foyer gigs in the Festival Hall and the National. And ten-quid tickets for some of the best theatre in Britain with seats going spare all summer.

I could live on the South Bank. In fact, I did live there for a week or two just before the 1987 election, when the Observer thought it would be mighty cool to have me and a photographer hang out with the rough sleepers and see how they viewed the forthcoming Third Election of Thatcher in Cardboard City.

I’d done it before (sleeping rough, squatting, that sort of thing), which was partly why the Observer asked me. So it was no big deal bedding down with the real dossers, especially knowing I could sneak off home to my cosy, recently-allocated housing association flat if the sleeping got too rough. The photographer wasn’t so keen on the prospect, though. Concerned about what might happen to his gear if he stayed out after bedtime, he’d head off back to Brighton each evening before the last train left (ludicrously early, then as now, so he’d be gone before most of the cardboard came out).

Down And Out in Paris and London it wasn’t. I’d drained my well of homelessness stories so dry after a decade of writing on the subject that in my eagerness to find a different angle I didn’t spot that the photographer and I were being brilliantly, gloriously had by one of the subjects of our reportage.

He called himself ‘Supergeordie’. A middle-aged, bull-necked, bulging-biceped ex-serviceman in a wheelchair, he claimed to have completed some unfeasible number of marathons as a disabled athlete but had only a super-sized cardboard box under the South Bank concrete to call home. Supergeordie was so brazen in his boasting, giant banners celebrating his athletic achievements and announcing the commencement of his next one – a round-Britain-by-wheelchair Britain charity fundraiser – that it seemed inconceivable that he was lying.

But he was. Or, let’s be charitable about this, as his doctor was when we heard from him subsequently, and say that he was fantasising. Either way, on the day that he was due to set off on his fundraiser, the day after our photo-reportage appeared in the paper, Supergeordie did a runner, leaving his assembled friends, supporters, well-wishers, television camera crews – and me – to hang around like big daft drips in a sauna.

I’d like to say that I’ve never been taken in by a con-artist or a sob-story since, but once bitten the sharks can smell the blood. Suffice to say that I can never be completely scathing about the people who fall for those Nigerian emails asking for their bank account details so that the sender can deposit a few million dollars in them.

As for the South Bank, which is where I started this little meander, Cardboard City is long gone – though the homeless, of course, are not. Sometimes, as I did this weekend, I wonder what happened to Supergeordie and his wheelchair and his fantasies. It would make a great play.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Barack Obama is a Muslim

I’ve lived my life one consonant short of being a dickhead, so I sympathise with Barack Obama’s problems over his name. If a simple misspelling could help the Republican cause this autumn, I’m sure Fox News would be happy to have him down as Osama as often as they can get away with it.

There are some in the Obama camp who believe there is a deliberate attempt to make people think their candidate is a Muslim. In a country where the arts of black propaganda managed to persuade a substantial number of voters last time around that a decorated war hero was a coward and a documented draft dodger a hero, this is far from incredible.

Media commentator Roy Greenslade gives an example in his blog today of what he says is ‘just one of the examples of the way in which the US media is helping to relay the “Obama is a Muslim” lie to American voters’. He describes as a ‘disgraceful oversight’ an MSNBC Live report that ran for 25 seconds with the caption ‘Obama Is a Muslim & He Will Not Win Because of That’ over a discussion about what people think of him in Baghdad. The caption was a ‘purported quote from an Iraqi engineer’, though you can tell from the ‘purported’ that Greenslade isn’t convinced.

There’s no doubt that branding Obama/Osama a Muslim, even subliminally, would cost him votes. Polls suggest that while being black is now less of a problem than being a woman, about as many people would vote for a Muslim in the US as for an atheist, which is as low as it gets before you start asking about crack heads and child molesters. But is there a concerted right-wing conspiracy – or, to put it more mildly, campaign – as some of Obama’s supporters are suggesting?

Well, there are certainly plenty of far-right anti-Obama people out there in the blogosphere who are doing their best to create one. Greenslade himself has attracted one or two. I am reliably informed that the following post in the comments section of his blog is not satire:

‘It's not a big lie – Obama bin Osama IS Muslim – probably a Wahabiest, as it were. He and his radical spouse first will award “reparations” to blacks – per capita annuities of many tens of thousands of dollars. Then they will begin slowly to institute Islam. How will they overcome a Christian congress? With their Democratic allies, basically an anti-American party, they will pack the supreme court with radicals who will then see to it than Islam becomes the state religion in all but name. Muslim countries will receive gobs of military assistance and other aid. Unbiased observers won't recognize America after the first two years of an Osama bin Obama administration. Be afraid, Europe. Be very afraid. We're in danger of becoming Muslim even before you achieve pure socialism and adherence to Allah.’

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Pitmen Painters is back

Pitmen Painters transfers to the Littleton Theatre from 27 January 2009. Tickets go on public sale tomorrow (23 July). If you only go to the theatre once next year, make sure not to miss this. And don't dawdle - this will sell out fast.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Flog me with nettles

It’s a jungle out there. A wet summer has brought with it an explosion of growth and a plague of mosquitoes. Many more warm winters and malaria won’t be far behind.

Forget about biting insects for the time being, though. Global warming’s current seasonal aberration is eight-feet high nettles. I had to run through a field of the things yesterday as part of the 14th Fairlands Valley Challenge. The nettles aren’t meant to be part of the challenge, any more than the tree-like brambles that have grown up among them, trying to entangle and trip you, like some flesh-tearing triffids. It’s a trail marathon, not a rainforest survival test, and it’s in Hertfordshire, not the Congo.

I’ve never seen nettles like these in such size and number. I’ve heard tell of New Zealand’s Urtica ferox, 'ongaonga' to the locals, a tree nettle said to grow to five metres in height and capable of killing a fully-grown man with a single glance. But these fat-fruited, heavy-headed, hirsute stingers near Stevenage (can a nettle be hirsute? You wouldn’t ask if you’d seen them) were something new to me. And definitely not what you need at the 20-mile mark.

There is, apparently, a practice called urtication – flogging with nettles – which sounds very handy as a form of S&M gameplay, but is also supposed to be a longstanding folk-remedy for rheumatism. It’s based on the principle that by inducing wholesale inflammation of the skin you can provide short-term relief from rheumatic pain – presumably because the nettle stings hurt even more than the rheumatism.

This is the 'Stop your crying or I'll give you something to really cry about' theory of pain relief. There's nothing like breaking both elbows to take your mind off spraining your wrist. (Believe me, I've done it.) And there's nothing like running through a field of eight-feet high nettles to take your mind off the tiredness in your legs. It works for all of, oh, at least as long as it takes you to get out of the field.

A friend tells me that St Benedict, of Benedictine Order fame, used to strip off his clothes and roll about in nettles as a cure for ‘impure thoughts’. But I don’t suppose he was running a marathon at the time.

Friday, 18 July 2008

How to lose £11,000 without even noticing

I’ve just lost a little over £11,000. Or, to be strictly accurate, I’ve just discovered that I’ve lost a little over £11,000. The loss actually accumulated over the past year or so but I’ve been too busy with other things to realise that what used to be the British building society sector has being going to hell in a handcart. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed now if it wasn’t for the fact that HBOS’s attempt to dig itself out of a financial hole by issuing a load of new shares hadn’t drawn my attention to it.

Yes, I knew that something nasty had happened at Northern Rock and that something called the sub-prime market in America was in the process of bringing Gordon Brown and quite likely the whole western economy crashing down with it. And of course I knew that share prices can go down as well as up, and that when they do the really rich get out quick, the fat cats collect their bonuses before they quit and it’s small investors that carry the can.

So I know I should have paid more attention. A lot more.

The thing is I don’t own my own house; I rent a flat from a housing association. I don’t have a pension; I have this quaint notion that I’ll just keep on working until I drop. And I don’t have what you might call investments.

What I do have is a small number of shares that I acquired as a stroke of good fortune a couple of decades ago when demutualising building societies was all the short-term, Thatcherite rage. It went along with selling off council houses and nationalised industries on the cheap – ‘selling the family silver’ as Harold Macmillan rather haughtily but acutely called it. It enabled a generation to be briefly spendthrift on the back of what their parents and grandparents had worked hard to accumulate; and it bought the Tories 18 years in power before Tony Blair came along, like a well-educated Yosser out of Boys from the Blackstuff, and said ‘I can do that’.

I was lucky enough to have a small redundancy payout in the Halifax building society at the time (it was the 1980s; we were all being made redundant then). I transferred it to the Leeds when the Halifax demutualised. The Leeds promptly followed suit, and then went on to merge with the Halifax.

At every stage, the people who stood to make the really big money out of building society demutualisations bribed the ordinary borrowers and savers into giving up their membership rights with a bundle of shares. I did quite well out of the process, even though I cast my vote against demutualisation every time. Over the years, I allowed the new privately-owned Halifax to reinvest my share dividends in extra shares. When it was taken over by the Bank of Scotland and became HBOS (you can tell how much attention I’ve been paying because I had to look up what the BOS bit stands for), they gave us some more money for allowing it to happen. I let them invest that in extra shares too.

Over the years, it built up into a tidy sum: 1,541 shares in all. It was never a fortune but I must admit I quite liked the idea of having a few shares set aside for a rainy day. A bit of a bonus on top of the £90.70 single person’s pension when I reach retirement, I thought; that’ll pay for the odd taxi home after a night on the tiles.

Occasionally I’d take a glance at the share prices. They tumbled a bit from their early high, if I remember rightly, down from around £14 apiece at their height to a steady £10-11 for as long as I can remember. Never seemed to do anything very exciting. I got bored; the Premiership title race was less predictable than this. I took my eye off the ball.

Then, about a year ago, they must have started falling. I didn’t notice. Safe as houses, I thought – that’s the expression, isn’t it? Whoever heard of a bank (which is what the demutualised societies became, after all) losing money? Yes, I saw Northern Rock’s walls falling down and I’ve lived in enough squats in my time to know that even the best-built houses aren’t always safe. And I know it sounds stupid for a socialist to say this, but I sort of trusted that the people running the show – and making lots of money in the process – knew what they were doing. Obviously they didn’t.

There’s a handy calculator on the HBOS website to tell exactly how little they knew. Type in the number of shares you own and then select a date in the past and it will work out how much their value has gone down. Mine had lost £11,187.04 in the past year the last time I looked (they’re now worth £4,345.62), or as near as dammit three-quarters of their value.

No nationalised industry, local council or public service has ever demonstrated financial and managerial incompetence on such a scale. Just imagine if a government agency had blown three-quarters of its assets in as little as 12 months. What would have happened to those who were deemed to have been responsible?

What certainly wouldn’t happened is what occurred in the case of HBOS and its top executives and directors – and happens almost as a matter of course right across the private sector when big companies make a mess of things. The fat cats didn’t get a kicking for their failures; they helped themselves to some more cream.

In March this year, when HBOS shares were still about two-thirds higher than they are today, the bank acknowledged that its top executives weren’t meeting long-term targets for ‘total shareholder return’. This meant that the poor impoverished souls who make up the HBOS board didn’t receive their long-term incentive payouts in 2007, while their short-term cash bonuses were reduced to 46 per cent of their salaries, down from more than 60 per cent a year ago.

Clearly the directors didn’t think this was fair. So what if their stewardship had resulted in the bank hopelessly overexposing itself with a reckless rush into risky lending practices? So what if they had seen three-quarters of the company’s value wiped out in the time it takes to go from one annual report to the next?

What did the directors do, then? Resign? Forgo their bonuses altogether as an act of contrition towards those whose investments they had looked after so badly?

Do me a favour! They halved the targets they had to meet to qualify for their full bonuses.

Andy Hornby, the chief executive whose tenure has coincided almost precisely with the collapse in the HBOS share price, got a pay increase from £1.6m to £1.9m, a new short-term bonus to make up for not qualifying for the old long-term one – oh, and a few hundred grand extra for his pension. Peter Cummings, who runs the wholesale bank, was given £2.6 million, including a £1.6 million bonus. And Benny Higgins, the former retail chief executive whose performance was so poor that even HBOS decided to get rid of him, received £2.3 million, including £819,000 in lieu of notice. Nice work if you can get it.

HBOS isn’t alone in rewarding failure: it’s the private-sector norm. When the disgraced Northern Rock boss Adam Applegarth quit last December, the details of his severance payment weren’t published. But he was entitled to at least a year’s pay (£760,000), an annual bonus of around £660,000 and pension and other payments. IN other words, Applegarth walked away with a cheque for more than most of the victims of his incompetence would earn in a lifetime.

Does anyone believe that this is right? If survival-of-the-fittest capitalism, red in tooth and economic claw, is to mean anything at all, surely it means that those who stand to gain so very much must also stand to lose it all when they get it so very wrong?

But of course that’s not how capitalism works. The rich look after their own, and the people who pay the price are the ones who can least afford to do so.

For my part, I feel simultaneously disappointed by my loss, annoyed at the lack of attention that I (a socialist and a journalist, for Mammon’s sake!) paid to the details of one of the key economic developments of the day, and aggrieved that yet again a small number of people have been getting rich by not giving a damn about how they do so.

I almost feel philosophical about it all. This was money I hadn’t earned and it should never have been taken from the mutual building societies, which were functioning perfectly adequately without the intervention of the speculators and the profiteers, in the first place.

But then I start to get angry about it again – and about those who are responsible. There is someone I know through my sister, a bit older than me, who also got made redundant a while back. He invested it all in shares of his former employer, BT – shares whose value collapsed just as preecipitously a few years ago as those of HBOS. From having enough to give him a decent lifestyle in his retirement, he went to having barely enough to keep him going until he made 65.

It’s a story that can be told many millions of times over and in almost as many different ways. But it boils down to the same one in the end. People who have been thrifty, who have tried to put something aside for their old age, are done over by those who never lose out, no matter how of other people’s money they lose.

Spare a thought, then, if you will, for one of the men who has done most to bring about the biggest banking crisis since the 1930s. It was revealed earlier this year that Angelo Mozilo, the failed former CEO of Countrywide, one of the companies at the centre of the subprime lending collapse in the US, and a man who sacked 12,000 employees and cost many more thousands of people their homes, received a payout of $88 million for his efforts. That was on top of two gilt-edged, guaranteed pensions, enhanced stock options that he would be allowed to cash in straight away, continuing free access to the company jet and all his country club bills being paid for the next three years.

I'm sure he needs every penny.