Wednesday, 30 April 2008

A night of magical thinking

This happened on December 30, 2003. This may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you.

And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.

This is what I’m here to tell you.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy-Go-Lucky, since I first heard about it. A cheery, hope-filled, life-affirming piece of cinema filmed in my own backyard with none of Leigh’s usual strained relationships, awful revelations or sudden deaths to trigger my miserabilist tendencies.

I was intending to go to see it this week. Tuesday night looked good. Instead I had tickets to see Vanessa Redgrave in The Year Of Magical Thinking at the National. Written by Joan Didion and directed by David Hare, it’s a 100-minute, no-interval, one-woman tour de force based on Didion’s best-selling memoir of, in Hare’s words, ‘the madness that overwhelmed her following her husband’s death’. The play also takes in the death of Didion’s daughter, aged 39, just 20 months later.

I went to see it with my best friend and soulmate, Anna, who’s been through more than her share of death and tragedy. Her dad died when she was a teenager, and we nursed her uncle, mother and brother through illness and death together during the mid-1980s and 1990s. Adopted as a child, she traced her natural mother when she was dying, saved her natural father from alcoholism and the streets (he never drank again after she found him) and nursed him through his death in 2002. Last year we lost our best mutual friend, Paul, to a stroke. There’s more – too much to tell. Suffice to say that Joan Didion’s writing and Vanessa Redgrave’s recital of it chopped away at every raw sinew of grief and loss with an honesty and absolute lack of consolation that captured whole what Didion knows to be the true meaninglessness of death.

What David Hare describes as ‘madness’ doesn’t seem like madness to me. Didion’s ‘magical thinking’ is a way of coming to terms to with death that doesn’t actually deny its reality but allows the mind to pretend that the deceased aren’t really gone, that they live on in your thoughts, that they can somehow come back if only you believe it, make it possible, alter the circumstances that led them to die, keep their shoes because they’ll need them when they do return.

I’ve never seen an audience in quite the state of the one that left the National’s Littleton theatre last night. Red-eyed, shaky, shell-shocked; in touch with a thousand different bereavements, all dissimilar and all the same. The details will be different but it will happen to you. Even the applause at the end had a different timbre to the ordinary; not so much a celebration of a great performance (and oh, but it was) as an acknowledgement of having been in the presence of truth.

Didion describes in her book and the play her ‘craziness’, the lengths to which she would go to avoid what she calls the ‘vortex’ of grief. Mastering every medical and other detail of the events leading up to and surrounding the death that she determinedly avoids naming as death. Meticulously planning her days and her movements to steer clear of any person, place or memory that might take her thoughts spinning out of control and into the vortex. Believing that you are okay, you are strong, you are in control, you can control events, even these – that if you keep that belief, keep that control, your husband, daughter, lover, friend, will be safe, will be well, will come back. In the absence of any belief in an afterlife, what other comfort is available to you?

A few people in the audience found it all too much. A few had to leave. No one could depart untouched.

An insomniac at the best of times, my personal vortex last night took me into a whirling spiral of departures.

My grandad, who killed himself when I was nine; my grandma being led from the court screaming that it wasn’t so when the coroner delivered his verdict; my dad denying it to this day – it feels like some sort of betrayal to write the truth even now. My best friend Brian, when I was 17, whose heart gave way, the valve to his left ventricle opening and not shutting as he watched Match of the Day with his dad and brother, a few days after the hospital had declared the operation to give him an artificial valve on the opposite side a success.

My friend Dave, whose wife was a former lover, who died of a skin cancer that moved faster than our ability to get to California to see him. Karina, the sister of my first true love, who I also loved and was killed by another cancer before I even knew she was ill. Paddy, George Melly’s son, killed by a particularly pure batch of heroin when his tolerance was down after having given up the habit for a while. Bill, who died of Aids when there were no drugs available to treat it. Eric, my sister’s lover and a man who showed me more kindnesses and friendship in the brief year that I knew him than I could have hoped for in a lifetime. Rose, Anna’s mother, and Len, Anna’s brother, who were as dear to me as my own mother and brother. Paul, our friend. The list goes on but I cannot. This feels like a naming of the parts that have made up my life and as I do it I feel the vortex pulling me in and I have to stop.

Life, if you live it well, is an ongoing deceit. It is based on the pretence – the madness, if you like – that it has meaning. It doesn’t in the end. That is just the lie that we tell our children to let them sleep at night.

We live, we die, and all we can do in the meantime is to make the most of it, to care for ourselves and for each other.

And tomorrow night I’m going to see Happy-Go-Lucky.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Fucking immigrant? Idiot more like

In my new capacity as spokesman for the Almost Supporting Chelski Fan Club, I'd just like to say that I don't believe that a member of the Chelski ground staff called Patrice Evra a 'fucking immigrant' on Saturday, as has been reported today. I've heard some racist abuse in my time but calling someone an 'immigrant' doesn't usually feature highly in the numbskulls' vocabulary.

'Fucking idiot' I can believe, especially if the Man Utd players were getting in the way of the lawnmowers and the ground staff wanted to get off home.

It reminds me of a game of football I played a few years ago when one of the opposing team (white) called one of ours (black) a 'fucking donkey' after he clattered him with a clumsy tackle. Not nice admittedly, but then neither was the tackle. Our player was convinced he'd said 'monkey', though, and it used up all of my anti-racist credits to persuade him that maybe, just maybe, he'd misheard.

Why I'm supporting Chelski

Something very odd happened to me on Saturday. I found myself almost supporting Chelski.

I know why it happened. First, I can’t stand the herd mentality that has seen most of the press and a large chunk of Chelski’s own fans writing off their current manager, Avram Grant, as a pale shadow of the ‘Special One’, Jose Mourinho, whose ego was too big for Stamford Bridge and quit as soon as the going got a little tough.

And second, they were playing Man Utd.

It’s not just that I’m a paid up supporter of the ‘Anyone But Man U’ fan club; I’m also a card-carrying member of the ABC club too. In any case, along with (cough, choke, splutter, god how it hurts to say these things) Arsenal and Man Utd have been playing the most consistently entertaining football in the Premiership for many a year now, while Chelski have been somewhere on a par with Stoke (can we please not mention it, it’s been hard enough being a Port Vale supporter this season as it is) as the team you’d least like to be watching week in, week out.

No, the main reason for that otherwise unfathomable soft spot for Abramovich’s Harlots is that Sir Alex Ferguson (working-class lad, erstwhile Anti-Nazi League supporter and gum-chewing socialist that he is) has become such a bloody bad loser. His team gets one penalty awarded against them, the first of this Premiership season and a stonewall certain penalty at that, and they’re off kicking walls, stewards and whatever else gets in their way, with Sir Alex leading the charge.

There are people I play football with, grown men though they may be, who take their lead from this sort of thing – and I’ve got the bruises to prove it. And the folk who use my local all-weather pitches are currently calling for regular police patrols when the junior and amateur league games are on because there have been so many punch ups and pitched battles of late. How the next generation will get anyone to referee their games is a challenge to match the electoral one facing the Labour Party on Thursday.

I don’t blame Sir Alex and his crew for all this, but they certainly don’t help.

As for Chelski, well you’ve got to feel a little sorry for owner Roman Abramovich. Forbes magazine revealed earlier this month that he’s no longer Russia’s richest man. His decision in 2005 to sell his oil company Sibneft to Gazprom, Russia’s massive state-owned energy business, has meant he's missed out on the profits and share price bonanza of the past few years. Now he must be content with third place on the Forbes ‘golden hundred’ list of Russia’s richest men with a mere $24.3 billion to his name.

The list is headed by Oleg Deripaska, boss of the Basic Element holding company, whose fortune is estimated at $28.6 billion – up by $11.8 billion in a year. In second place is steel tycoon Alexei Mordashov, whose $24.5 billion more than doubled in 2007.

There are now so many dollar billionaires in the birthplace of Bolshevism that every hamlet could buy themselves a Chelski if the money was spread around. So many, indeed – 110 in all, including 74 in Moscow, now the billionaire capital of the world – that ten of them don’t even make Forbes’ golden hundred.

Russia's top one hundred are worth a staggering $522 billion between them, having accumulated an extra $100 billion in the past 12 months. Oh Vladimir Ilyich, where are you when your country needs you?

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Just like '78

For a moment it could have been 1978 and I was pushing six-month-old Rachel through the park gates in her battered, red and white striped pushchair with the handle held together with gaffer tape and the ‘Babies Against the Nazis’ placard above her head. There were punks and goths and rastas and rude boys, and there were trade unionists in their suits and paper sellers with their buckets, and I’d got a knot in my stomach and a tear in my eye at the sight of so many people from so many different backgrounds coming together to say no to racism to the sound of the music of a generation that had grown up together and was prepared to stand together now.

I didn’t expect to be so moved by the Love Music Hate Racism carnival today at Victoria Park, in Hackney, east London. I’d feared that it would be a shadow of the big anti-racist events of the 1970s; that it might not draw the same numbers, that it might feel old and tired, populated by too many people like me, old soldiers recalling past campaigns, who’d never be convinced that anything could compare with Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League and the Clash.

I knew I was wrong from the moment I saw the people who were approaching the park. Young and determined, with an energy and a fire that needed no one to pass on old torches to inflame them. Diverse and committed, queuing up (queuing, for Joe Strummer’s sake!) to buy t-shirts and badges. Confident and proud, as certain as we were 30 years ago that the future belonged to them, not to some narrow, bigoted bunch of no-marks who believe that the colour of your skin, or the names you give your gods, matter more than the strength of your character or the nature of your principles.

The family of Blair Peach, murdered by the police at an anti-racist protest in Southall in 1979, were there. So was the daughter of David Widgery, a one-time Hackney doctor, committed socialist and anti-racist fighter, who was one of the finest people (and best writers) to emerge from the revolutionary movements of 1968, and who died desperately young in 1992, aged 45. And so, of course, were the bands and the musicians and the MCs and the DJs who, for an afternoon at least, were mixing some politics in with the beats. I even thought Amy Winehouse was singing from one stage (why wasn’t she?) before getting close enough to hear that it was just a recording of her to fill in time before the Paddingtons.

Despite everything, I don’t expect Love Music Hate Racism to have the same profound effect that the ANL and RAR had in 1977-79. One of my abiding memories of the 1978 carnival was of the small gangs of National Front supporters who had gathered at a handful of locations along the route of the march to Victoria Park from central London. Anti-NF protests were dangerous things at the time, with real prospects of violence. At the very least, the NF fans expected to have a good time abusing and putting the frighteners on their opponents as they passed by.

I remember, in particular, watching a group of NF thugs outside a pub in Hackney as the march came past. It went on and on and on, a seemingly never-ending parade of people, tens of thousands of them, who were opposed to everything the NF stood for. The cockiness and self-assertion of the racists visibly drained from them that day as they were confronted by the inescapable fact that it was they who were the minority - and a tiny one at that.

From a situation in which it was racists who could intimidate those who opposed them into silence, things were transformed almost overnight. Now every racist statement or other manifestation of their hatred began to be challenged, to carry with it a burden of ostracism and shame. It seemed as if almost everyone in London began to wear ANL badges, on buses, on the tube, in the pubs, in the street. Suddenly, a burgeoning fascist movement looked pathetic, wormlike and small, along with the people who had backed it.

The modern-day racists will not be so dramatically deflated by today's carnival. For a start, they have built bases for themselves that will not easily be swept aside. They have, to some extent, avoided the Nazi tag that was so successfully laid upon them in the 1970s. Remember that in 1978, most people – including, still, a considerable proportion of the working population – had a direct personal memory of the war against fascism. The idea of supporting a party whose leaders associated themselves with the beliefs and principles of the Nazis was anathema even to most of those who perhaps shared some of the NF’s views on race and immigration. Today’s leaders of the far right have recognised the importance of distancing themselves from their Nazi antecedents, downplaying the thuggery and the violence, even avoiding open confrontation and the marches they loved to organise into multiracial territory.

In 1978, moreover, the left – including in the Labour Party and the trade unions – was much more numerous, more active, more organised and, crucially, more connected to the white working class than it is today. It represented a more credible alternative than it does now. Disillusion and disengagement was not so intense.

On the positive side, though, Britain has changed massively culturally – and for the better – since 1978. Certain key anti-racist principles are deeply entrenched in our social psyche, as well as legally and institutionally. There are many battles yet to be fought, of course, but today’s festival has given me hope and confidence beyond what I ever imagined that they will not only be fought – but won.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Transport Uncovered

There’s a natty little website that I've just come across – like a lot of other people, presumably – when I was looking for the Transport for London website to top up my Oyster card. (Oyster cards, for the benefit of those of you who never come to London, are a cash-free method of paying your bus and tube fares. In the process, they track your every journey across the capital, fuelling the paranoia of everyone who thinks that Ken Livingstone sits up late at night in City Hall watching them on CCTV.)

The website, at as opposed to TfL’s at, is called Transport Uncovered and it’s the work of a bunch of ‘techies, designers and online advertising specialists’ with names like Maz and Nic and Becky, who work in a ‘London based online advertising company’. So it looks good and it allows you to vote as many times as you like in polls with questions like ‘How much do you think a flat-rate congestion charge should be?’ (Current leaders are ‘Free’ and ‘Driving in London is such an awful experience, I should be paid’.) There’s also – and of course you knew this was coming – a prominent link to the ‘Back Boris’ website.

Now Maz and Nic and Becky and co are clearly clued up on election spending rules as well as web design and domain names. So there’s a disclaimer to the effect that: ‘Whilst we believe that Boris would make better choices for transport in London than Red Ken, we are in no formal way associated with any of the political parties. This site isn’t a piece of election marketing – it’s by people that feel strongly about the city they either live or work in.’

I’m prepared to bet the webmaster/mistress a night out at the theatre, with free travel thrown in, that s/he becomes oddly uninterested in the website after 1 May.

Friday, 25 April 2008

I am myself alone

I that have neither pity, love, nor fear …
... I have no brother, I am like no brother,
And this word ‘love’, which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me! I am myself alone.

These words, from Gloucester, the future Richard III, after he kills the king in the penultimate scene of Henry VI Part III, are among the grimmest in Shakespeare – and indeed in the whole of English literature. Spat from the mouth of Jonathan Slinger in the penultimate play of the RSC’s Histories Cycle at Camden's Roundhouse, which I saw last night, they have the power to chill the marrow.

The Henry VI trilogy is among Shakespeare’s earliest – and least rated – works. It is rarely staged and you might wait a lifetime to see all three plays together. At the time of writing, there are still a small number of tickets left: try to get one (and don't worry if it's 'restricted viewing' - the restrictions are very restricted).

Be warned, though: this production is not for the faint hearted. The killer of Richard’s father, the Duke of York, who has his head mounted above the gates of York (so that ‘York may look down on York’), has his tongue torn out and his penis cut off and stuffed in his mouth in one grimly realistic scene. I swear that half the audience involuntarily crossed their legs.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The left, lies and Melanie Phillips

Every so often, I dip my toes into the poisonous waters that comprise a large chunk of the right-wing blogosphere. I’m invariably shocked by the levels of anger, vitriol and contempt that characterise even the most routine comment or discussion in these quarters. (It’s amazing how easily people who are, by any objective standard, among the most empowered and privileged in human history can convince themselves that they are in fact the victims of some kind of terrible global left-liberal oppression.)

But then I remind myself that the left-wing blogosphere has no shortage of people who think that diatribe constitutes debate and that cussing people you disagree with (who are also, as often as not, on the left themselves) is an integral proof of ideological purity. So I suppose that an intolerance of differing opinions and an unthinking bigotry towards those who hold them should be seen as a general human failing rather than a specifically ideological one.

Even so, I hold an old-fashioned sort of attachment to the pursuit of truth as well as the expression of opinion. So when the right accuses the left of lying, which Melanie Phillips does big time in her Spectator blog this week, they really ought to get their facts right.

‘The left claim they are the ‘progressives’ in society – but the truth is the precise opposite,’ she writes. ‘Nothing new here: the idea that the left were always the heroic opponents of tyranny is merely a self-serving myth invented by the left. From the French Revolution onwards, the left have in fact generally sided with tyrants and oppressors; ever since that time the most ‘progressive’ intellectuals have been fascinated by violence; socialism and national socialism were after all brothers in blood, descending from the same counter-Enlightenment strain of thinking.’

This is unhistorical nonsense. Neither the left nor the right have come out of the past two centuries with their reputations unblemished, but to say that ‘the left’ (in any case a worthless broad-brush categorisation that lumps together, for example, Stalinism and many of its opponents and victims) has ‘generally sided with tyrants and oppressors’ simply can’t be supported by the evidence.

Phillips goes further. ‘The single most important thing for left-wingers – what defines them in their own eyes as people of moral worth – is the fact that they are not “right wing”,’ she says. ‘For “the right” is a place of unmitigated evil. Only the left is good. So this is how it goes in the left-wing mind. To be not on the left is evil. To be not on the left is to be on the right. Therefore everyone who disagrees with the left on anything is automatically an evil right-winger.’

And further still: ‘So this is what follows. The left believe a wide range of lies. Others believe in the truth instead. Therefore to the left, those people are “right-wing”. Therefore truth is actually a right-wing concept. Therefore truth is evil. Therefore truth has to be relabelled lies while lies of course remain unchallengeable truth.’

‘The reflex reaction of a left-winger, when presented with a set of facts which challenge his or her assumptions about the world, is not to ask “Is this true?”’ Phillips argues, ‘but “Will adopting this position make me right-wing?”’

Is this true? Does Phillips really believe it herself?

Some of her readers certainly do. Among those commenting on her blog, one describes it as ‘an instant classic’, another as ‘a beautifully written and really quite brilliant post (easily the best I've ever read at this or any other site)’, while yet another sees it as ‘another keystone article in the fight for reclamation of reason’.

‘Reason’ and ‘truth’? All of this under the headline ‘The open society and its enemies’ in a nod to Karl Popper’s famous philosophical work critiquing Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and Marx (published, incidentally, in 1945 by the left-wing Routledge after it had been rejected by a host of other publishing houses in the US and Britain).

I worked with Melanie for a short while on New Society in the mid-1980s before she turned into the unabashed right-winger that she is today. (I was going to write ‘evil’ but that might be a shade too subtle.) She now says, ‘I don’t think I was ever really left-wing: more a soggy liberal just going along with the consensus. Then I was mugged by reality.’

Yet one of New Society’s great virtues was that it didn’t go along with any consensus. It followed the evidence rather than any party line. And in seeing the world in many different colours rather than unsophisticated black and white it enabled many of us, left and right alike, better to understand the way it works. The sad thing about Melanie Phillips is not that she has moved from ‘soggy liberal’ to ‘right-wing realist’ but that she seems to have been mugged of her critical faculties along the way.

Zimbabwe arms shipment returns to China

I've written about this previously (South Africa's heroes of labour). So there's only one word needed now in response to the news just in that the Zimbabwe arms shipment is returning to China.


Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Shakespeare's birthday

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday and I’m two-thirds of the way through Henry VI and three-quarters of the way through the Royal Shakespeare Company's histories season at Camden’s Roundhouse. (Henry VI Part III is tomorrow night, with Richard III to come on 3 May.)

Last night, Jonathan Slinger made an enticing cameo appearance as the future Richard III in Henry VI Part II. He’s already raised the Roundhouse roof with his portrayal of Richard II (pictured), as well as filling in between times as Francis Feeble in Henry IV Part II, Captain Fluellen in Henry V, the Bastard of Orleans in Henry VI Part I and as a member of Jack Cade’s rebel army in Henry VI Part II.

Confused? So was he on at least one occasion apparently. According to his fellow RSC ensemble member Nick Asbury (Pistol in Henry V, Somerset in Henry VI Part II etc etc), Slinger was in the middle of a Richard III speech in one performance ‘when he launched seamlessly into Richard II for a line before returning, ashen faced, back to Richard III’. Geoffrey Streatfield (a magnificent Henry V, among other parts) has also had his difficult moments. He was warming up for Henry V at half past six one night when Asbury says he ‘had a little mental blank and had to go to the props cupboard behind the audience to establish which play it was we were doing. I think he was faintly surprised and alarmed to find it was Henry V.’

It took me the best part of a morning simply to sort out my diary in order to be able to book the eight plays in chronological order. Some of the actors are having to perform up to half a dozen parts in as many days. Jonathan Slinger was doing several in one performance last night.

The RSC’s production of all eight histories at the same time is one of the theatrical events of the decade, probably of a lifetime. If I have one minor criticism to make, it is only that in a small number of cases the same actors don’t play the same characters through into the subsequent plays. So it's confusing enough when Richard Cordery plays the Duke of York in Richard II, only to turn into Henry V’s brother Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, in Henry VI. But having Humphrey played by someone else again in Henry V leaves you requiring not only a degree in the medieval nobility to keep up with who’s who among the competing claimants to the throne but a working knowledge of which actor's playing which part in each individual performance.

Last night John McKay, previously the Dauphin in Henry VI Part I, played a gloriously camp Jack Cade in Part II. Jack Cade has a thing about people who can read or write and condemns the Clerk of Chatham to be hanged ‘with his pen and inkhorn about his neck’. Cade's rebel army hauls a member of the audience onto the stage for this part of the performance and they go through his bag while the rest of us laugh at his humilation. ‘Ooooh, Coutts,’ the actors sneer when they find his cheque book.

Stunning acting and class hatred too, eh? Shakespeare was never this good at school.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

1968 and all that

As the official historian of the British squatting movement, and the only person who has ever had pro-squatting op-ed features published in the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard, I'm intrigued by erstwhile squatting activist Piers Corbyn's planned talk at the 1968 and all that conference and bookfair on 10 May.

Piers now makes a living as a long-term weather forecaster and occasional climate-change denier, but for much of the 1970s and early 1980s he was one of the best-known squatting activists in London. His talk on 10 May is entitled 'The Squatting Movement in 1968' and the publicity is illustrated by a photo of squatters from Huntley Street, in central London.

It promises to be a short talk. The London Squatters Campaign may have been set up by a meeting of 15 people at the house of Ron Bailey on 18 November 1968, but the only organised 'squats' during that year involved three token occupations of empty buildings in the run-up to Christmas. Squatting didn't take off in the sense of people occupying empty properties to live in until the following year and it wasn't until February 1977 that the five blocks of flats in Huntley Street were occupied (they were evicted by 650 police in riot gear in July 1978).

Still, Piers is an old mate and I hope to catch up with him at the conference, if only to see whether he still carries around his trademark plastic carrier bag stuffed full of badly designed leaflets. I was a bit too young to be a '68er myself; my formative political years came later. But anything that has Piers, Hilary Wainwright and class warrior Ian Bone on the same bill has to be worth a look in.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Paul Read (1951-2007)

It was bloody cold yesterday at Wallingford on the bridge over the Thames, where Jo rode pillion on Roger’s Yamaha (red polka dots on a yellow frame – it’s Roger’s idea of high visibility) to scatter Paul’s ashes in the river as they drove across. Then it was on to Fox’s Diner, the biker’s cafĂ© on Oxford Road, for the 'Gutbuster' breakfast before another stop at Ipsden Heath to scatter the remaining ashes among the bluebells.

Paul wasn’t my oldest friend – there’s a handful of people I’ve known longer – but there’s no one I’ve stayed in such regular contact with over such a long period (we first met in 1979). He died on 27 April last year, and this weekend nine of us, including his widow Jo and his daughter (by a previous marriage) Lucy, marked the anniversary by travelling to a few of his favourite places for this little ceremony. I feel privileged to have been among the nine.

Paul’s death, at 56, was one of life’s injustices. A martial arts expert, who’d been practising Baguazhang since his 20s, he was one of the fittest and healthiest people I knew. He turned his back on the smoke and the other drugs long before the rest of us; he ate well, meditated daily and drank only in what passes as moderation among much of my company. But he injured his toe when a bike fell on him before flying off for a holiday last April. The doctors think he may have developed DVT (deep vein thrombosis, blood clots within the veins) as a result of immobility during the flight. At any rate, he had a stroke on the beach and died in the local hospital a week later.

Paul could be an awkward, cantankerous bugger and I didn’t like him at all when we first met. He once physically prevented me from seeing my girlfriend (who was also perhaps his very best friend) when I’d been behaving particularly badly. It took me years to grow up enough emotionally to realise that he’d been right to do so. Later I came to learn that he was exactly the sort of man who, in the favoured phrase of an old miner friend of mine, you’d want in the trenches with you. I don’t ever recall him striking a blow in anger, and he wasn’t the sort of person to start a fight. But he’d stand up to anyone who did, and you knew he’d be with you shoulder-to-shoulder if you got into one yourself.

When I was told that he’d died, I assumed immediately that it was due to one of two things: an accident on his motorbike (probably caused by someone else because he was too good a rider himself), or a stabbing or shooting as a result of him intervening in some street assault. The manner of his death seemed as incredible as it was unjust.

In his professional life Paul was a teacher (at South Kilburn and Queens Park community schools), with a special commitment to those who overcame various obstacles to succeed against the odds. He pioneered a number of access and vocational courses and at his funeral last year there were scores of his past and present pupils, many of whom had very personal stories to tell about how he had helped and inspired them. One of his many extra-curricular activities, I learnt then, involved organising and coaching some of them at football.

He’d kept that quiet from me, perhaps because at various times over the years I’d tried to rope him into some of the football teams I’ve been involved with. He turned out on a few occasions when I twisted his arm hard enough but he was a rugby man at heart. The only exception was when the England football team was playing. Then he’d be on my back to organise one of our regular (and increasingly large) gatherings of friends, relatives and other associates to cheer on our national side’s latest failure to win anything at football.

Actually we were an indiscriminate crew. We were far from being an exclusively English group, and as well as the England team, we were often as happy turning our loyalties towards the Scots, Welsh, Irish, Trinidadians, Japanese – or whoever Germany’s opponents happened to be at the time. We’d drink and we’d chant and we’d drink and we’d sing and we’d raise the roof (and the profits) of whatever pub we’d settled on for that particular tournament.

In a way I was glad when England didn’t make it through to this year’s European finals. It just wouldn’t have been the same without Paul leading the singing.

PS, for friends of Paul's thinking of paying a visit, the grid reference for the wood is SU665848, the triangle at the centre on the map.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

South Africa's heroes of labour

Trades unionists and lovers of liberty worldwide should cast a special medal to celebrate the refusal of South African dockers and police to unload the 77 tonnes of weapons on board the Chinese ship, the An Yue Jiang. The weapons, which include three million rounds of AK47 ammunition, 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades and 3,000 mortar shells and launchers, were due to be transported from Durban to Robert Mugabe’s government in Harare. But the dockers, backed by the police – which merits another medal in its own right – did what South African president Thabo Mbeki and his government have so conspicuously refused to, took a stand against Mugabe and turned the ship away.

Randall Howard, general secretary of the dockers’ South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), was quoted as saying: ‘As far as we are concerned, the containers will not be offloaded. The ship must return to China. If they the Mbeki government bring replacement labour to do the work, our members will not stand and look at them and smile.’

And South Africa’s Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) union warned off Mbeki from trying to use the police as scab labour. ‘The dockers have good reasons for not offloading the ship,’ said union spokesman Benzi Soko. ‘We understand their objection.’
It’s great to see that ordinary South African workers haven’t forgotten the real meaning of ‘liberation’.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Time for a wealth tax

Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p income tax band in his last budget as chancellor will cost me about £4.50 a week in the current tax year. Allowing for the fact that he also cut the 22p basic rate by 2p, I’ll be down by about 90p a week net. I’d rather have that money than not, but as 90p won’t even buy me a bendy bus ticket from one end of the Holloway Road to the other, it’s not going to burn too big a hole in my pocket. (Single people on the lowest incomes, who’ll lose the full £4.50 a week net, are entitled to feel considerably more aggrieved, of course.)

Brown saved a little under £9 billion a year by getting rid of the 10p tax band – which just happens to be roughly the cost of taking 2p off the basic rate of income tax. This also happens to be roughly half the amount by which the net worth of British (dollar) billionaires rose during 2007. According to Forbes magazine, the 29 British billionaires (up from 24 the year before) increased their wealth by 48 per cent during the year to £40.4 billion.

Never mind the arguments over a 10p tax band: isn't it time we had a 10 per cent wealth tax?

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Zimbabwe: Crisis, what crisis?

Robert Mugabe and his police and army cohorts must be sniggering behind their truncheons today at the tactical ineptitude of the Zimbabwean opposition. Calling an indefinite general strike in a country where four fifths of the people are out of regular work and the other fifth so desperate they can’t afford to miss a day’s employment was always going to be a questionable strategy. Giving Mugabe and his security services 17 days to prepare for it after the election on 29 March was a sure recipe for failure.

Regrettably, for anyone with a smidgeon of commitment to democracy in Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change has been all over the place tactically ever since it first began to challenge Mugabe’s rule. As I've written here previously, they don't even appear to be capable of getting their basic story on the election results straight. Oh, how the opposition there could do with even a fraction of Mugabe’s strategic and tactical nous.

Better news today, however, comes from the ANC in South Africa, which has contradicted President Thabo Mbeki’s incredible assertion that ‘there is no crisis in Zimbabwe’.

‘The ANC regards the ruling party Zanu-PF as an ally. However, it is concerned with the state of crisis that Zimbabwe is in and perceives this as negative for the entire SADC region,’ ANC spokeswoman Jesse Duarte said after a meeting of the party's central working committee on Monday night.

Perhaps, at long last, it is getting through to the ANC that Mugabe has long since used up whatever call on people’s loyalty he might have been due for his past role in the liberation struggle.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Jay Z, Rolf Harris and Glastonbury

My favourite piece of Glastonbury memorabilia is a Rolf Harris autograph. A friend got it for me on the first day of the festival in 1993, one of those golden years when the sun never stopped shining and everyone was praying for rain (the following year was even hotter). Rolf opened the event to a huge cheer with Jake the Peg (diddle iddle iddle um) and spent the next hour or so leading the best sing-along ever to grace the Pyramid stage. Forget about Robbie Williams and the crowd singing Angels in the mud in1998, or Oasis and Wonderwall in 1995 and 2004. You haven’t earned any Glastonbury medals worth boasting about if you weren’t there to sing along to Two Little Boys. (Go on, admit it, you know all the words, don’t you?)

I think this is at the root of Noel Gallagher’s outburst about Jay Z being one of the reasons why Glastonbury hasn’t sold out yet this year. The Oasis frontman reckons hip-hop is ‘wrong’ for the festival, which he says was ‘built on a tradition of guitar music’. Really he’s jealous that more people know the words to Rolf Harris songs than they do his own. But he wouldn’t look very cool slagging off Rolf playing at Glastonbury, so he’s had a go at Jay Z instead.

Of course Gallagher is talking nonsense anyway. Glastonbury was built on a tradition of musical eclecticism – of which Oasis and all the other guitar bands (how can you lump all ‘guitar bands’ together?) are just a part. On Noel’s reckoning, there wouldn’t be a place for dance acts like the Orb, Orbital, the Chemical Brothers, Roni Size, De La Soul, Leftfield or Groove Armada, all of them stars of past Glastonburys. Or women artists like Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Bjork, not to mention the dangerously hip-hoppish Nelly Furtado, Kelis and Macy Gray. Or the old-time novelty acts like Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Isaac Hayes and Noel’s mate Robbie. Or, ahem, Dame Shirley Bassey, the English National Opera and James Blunt.

Jay Z is Glastonbury to a ‘t’. Get him to duet with Rolf and the remaining tickets will sell out in minutes. A hip-hop Tie Me Kangaroo Down anyone?

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Stop me if you want

Respect councillor Oliur Rahman complains in this week’s Socialist Worker of being stopped by a Special Branch officer at Heathrow airport on his return to London from the sixth Cairo anti-war conference. According to Rahman, the officer ‘took my passport and my councillor’s identity card. He ran checks, came back and asked me what sessions I went to at the conference. He then said that I was free to go and that I shouldn’t be offended by this random stop.’

This sort of thing used to happen to me a lot when I was travelling to or from Ireland. (I used to be quite heavily involved in Irish politics and have a number of friends from both north and south of the border.) It continued after the IRA truce and the Good Friday agreement, when I was probably the only Englishman visiting Drogheda – the home of the ‘Real IRA’ – on a regular basis. (I had a girlfriend there.)

Now there are many things that I could complain about with regard to the secret services, the treatment of political dissidents and all the rest. But despite the inconvenience and irritation, I’ve never really been able to make a case as to why I shouldn’t be stopped. And provided that the officer concerned was respectful and polite (which he seems to have been) and that the checks were conducted efficiently and with minimum intrusion (which again seems to have been the case), I can’t really see Oliur Rahman’s cause for complaint either. Those hi-jackings, bombings and other acts of terror are real, you know. And the people who perpetrate them don’t have a convenient label stamped on their foreheads to distinguish them from the rest of us.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Maasai marathon

I lived with a Maasai family close to the Kenya/Tanzania border for six months or so a few years ago, so the news that a group of six Maasai are to run the London marathon caught my attention today. They're doing it to raise money to dig a well in their village.

There's a short diary by one of them in today's Guardian and more on the Maasai Marathon website.

I've no doubt they'll finish the distance, but my guess is that they'll find 26 miles on London concrete tougher on their knees and other joints than they could ever expect from running on the plains of Africa. I'd love to be doing it with them, but I've never managed to get place in 25 years of trying ...

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Shakespeare and Shaw, blood and thunder

There was less blood for the Battle of Shrewsbury the other night than there was for the murder of Richard II a couple of days earlier at the first in the RSC’s cycle of Shakespeare’s eight histories at the Roundhouse, Camden. But the sword-crashing battle scene that pitted Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy against Prince Hal seemed to show some of poor Percy’s (stage) teeth sent flying from his mouth – to the audible shock of the audience around me.

I do like a touch of blood and thunder to keep me from dozing at the theatre – and I like to see the actors sweating for the cause. Lex Shrapnel, playing a hyper-manic Hotspur, was so out of breath from his exertions in his fight with Hal that his chest kept rising and falling for many minutes after his half-spoken final exhalation about being ‘food for worms’. At this rate, Prince Hal (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is going to be exhausted before he gets to play Henry V at Agincourt.

A different sort of blood and thunder was on offer in the National’s current production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, which fills the stage with shells for the third and final act set in Andrew Undershaft’s munitions factory. The Times reviewer describes this as ‘at root a pernicious play, the one that in 1905 gave a first warning of its author’s eventual mutation into the armchair revolutionary and anti-democrat who praised Stalin and Mussolini and excused Hitler’.

I can see what he means. This is a disquieting piece of work. Undershaft (played to understated, gravelly effect by Simon Russell Beale) is too sympathetic, too likeable, too polemically-convincing an arms dealer to let you sink into comfortable liberal certainties about the morality of his trade. ‘It is cheap work converting starving men with a bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other,’ he says to his daughter, Major Barbara, of her work with the Salvation Army. ‘I will undertake to convert West Ham to Islam on the same terms. Try your hand on my men: their souls are hungry because their bodies are full.’

A century ago, Shaw expressed through Undercraft’s ‘hideous gospel’, as Robert Blatchford described it in the socialist Clarion, the same emotional underpinnings that were to give rise to in later times to the Thatcherite working class. ‘I was an east ender,’ Undercraft declares. ‘I moralised and starved until one day I swore that I would be a full-fed free man at all costs – that nothing should stop me except a bullet, neither reason nor morals nor the lives of other men. I said “Thou shalt starve ere I starve”; and with that word I became free and great. I was a dangerous man until I had my will: now I am a useful, beneficent, kindly person. That is the history of most self-made millionaires, I fancy. When it is the history of every Englishman we shall have an England worth living in.’

Undercraft’s predecessor at his weapons factory wrote up on the wall: ‘Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done.’ (‘After that, there was nothing left for the seventh [Undercraft himself] to say. So he wrote up, simply, “Unashamed.”’)

In this, we see the dark side of Shaw, the one that raised the power of the intellect (principally his own) above all else, believed in eugenics and ‘creative evolution’, and was drawn to the power of a breed of ‘supermen’ who could transform the world through the effort of their own mental abilities and will. This was the Shaw who could visit the Soviet Union in the midst of Stalin’s repression and devastating famine and return only with ‘unbounded enthusiasm’, and who, as late as 1940, could declare Hitler ‘nine-tenths right’ (the ‘one hitch in his statesmanship’ being the ‘bee in his bonnet’ about the Jews).

Shaw’s controversialism and his willingness to deal with the big or difficult moral issues of his (and many another) day overturned theatrical conventions and transformed British theatre at the end of the Victorian era. And, as in the National’s production of Major Barbara, there is always more than enough wit – and a large enough proportion of wisdom – to temper his polemical and other excesses.

In any case, we sometimes need the untempered opinions of the professional controversialist to help us to form our own. And as Shaw himself argued, ‘A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.’

'Hatred is the coward's revenge for being intimidated. Dare you make war on war?'

I could spend an aeon quoting Shaw, so indulge me with one (longish) extract from Major Barbara. It's between the arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft, his estranged wife Lady Britomart, daughter Barbara and her fiancee Charles 'Cholly' Cusins.

LADY BRITOMART: Your ideas are nonsense. You got on because you were selfish and unscrupulous.

UNDERSHAFT: Not at all. I had the strongest scruples about poverty and starvation. Your moralists are quite unscrupulous about both: they make virtues of them. I had rather be a thief than a pauper. I had rather be a murderer than a slave. I dont want to be either; but if you force the alternative on me, then, by Heaven, I'll choose the braver and more moral one. I hate poverty and slavery worse than any other crimes whatsoever. And let me tell you this. Poverty and slavery have stood up for centuries to your sermons and leading articles: they will not stand up to my machine guns. Don’t preach at them: don’t reason with them. Kill them.

BARBARA: Killing. Is that your remedy for everything?

UNDERSHAFT: It is the final test of conviction, the only lever strong enough to overturn a social system, the only way of saying Must. Let six hundred and seventy fools loose in the street; and three policemen can scatter them. But huddle them together in a certain house in Westminster; and let them go through certain ceremonies and call themselves certain names until at last they get the courage to kill; and your six hundred and seventy fools become a government. Your pious mob fills up ballot papers and imagines it is governing its masters; but the ballot paper that really governs is the paper that has a bullet wrapped up in it.

CUSINS: That is perhaps why, like most intelligent people, I never vote.

UNDERSHAFT: Vote! Bah! When you vote, you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders and set up new. Is that historically true, Mr. Learned Man, or is it not?

CUSINS: It is historically true. I loathe having to admit it. I repudiate your sentiments. I abhor your nature. I defy you in every possible way. Still, it is true. But it ought not to be true.

UNDERSHAFT: Ought, ought, ought, ought, ought! Are you going to spend your life saying ought, like the rest of our moralists? Turn your oughts into shalls, man. Come and make explosives with me. Whatever can blow men up can blow society up. The history of the world is the history of those who had courage enough to embrace this truth. Have you the courage to embrace it, Barbara?

Friday, 4 April 2008

Every failure to vote on 1 May is a vote for the BNP

I bumped into Ken Livingstone this morning, canvassing for the May elections at the Nag’s Head shopping centre, on Holloway Road, with my local MP Jeremy Corbyn. On a day when all the headlines were about Ken’s ‘secret’ kids and Boris Johnson’s teenage drug-taking (neither of which was actually ‘news’ or, to most people, surprising), Livingstone was raising a more important issue – and one that may prove to be of the most lasting consequence when the votes for the London Assembly are counted.

This is, quite simply, ensuring the biggest possible turnout on 1 May to prevent the British National Party from gaining representation in the government of London.

As Ken Livingstone’s campaign declared today, ‘One of the things at stake in this election is London's future as a united diverse city, where all communities and individuals feel they belong. The British National Party is a direct threat to that unity ...

‘We have to get across one simple fact: there’s only one way to stop the BNP, which is by actually going out to vote against them. A low voter turnout will help the BNP get elected. For the fascists, success means getting 5 per cent of the total London vote. The higher the turnout the harder it is for them jump the five per cent hurdle.’

Earlier in the week, at the London Evening Standard hustings, when asked to sum up his message in 60 seconds, Livingstone devoted most of his allotted time to an appeal for voters of all parties to turn out to stop the BNP. ‘Vote for me, Boris, Brian Paddick or Sian Berry, but don't let the BNP get a seat,’ he said.

It’s not exactly a revolutionary appeal from the one-time author of If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It, but it’s none the less important for all that. The BNP’s attempt to make racism respectable has enjoyed more local successes, including in parts of London, than any far-right party since the second world war. Even one of their number obtaining a platform at City Hall would be an advance to top all that they have achieved so far.

No excuses, then, my anarchist friends: every failure to vote on 1 May must be considered a vote for the BNP.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Bucketfuls of blood

The night before last was Richard II and tonight is Henry IV Part One. I’ve booked myself and a friend for all eight of Shakespeare’s histories, currently starting a season at the Roundhouse in Camden (the friend doesn't know how to thank me) and I’ve been busy swotting up on my Henrys, Harrys, Hotspurs and Hals to try to ensure that I know what’s going on.

I’ve discovered that it’s no wonder I was so confused when I first came across Henry Part One at English ‘O’ level because Shakespeare took a fairly flexible approach to how the various historical Hs fitted into his dramatic framework. So Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy is made to be 20-odd years younger than his actual age for dramatic effect, while Harry ‘Prince Hal’ (son of Bolingbroke, friend of Falstaff, Henry V to be) is given a dissolute adolescence that it seems he never had.

Shakespeare’s histories cover a period in English history when the ruling class did at least as much damage to each other as they did to the people over whom they ruled. Those who are doing the killing on one day are almost invariably being killed themselves on another. There must have been a whole bucketful of stage blood used for Richard II’s murder the other night (in reality he was probably starved to death so as to leave no marks upon his corpse). I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like at the Battle of Shrewsbury tonight. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Zimbabwe: hasn't anyone got a calculator?

I don’t think I’ve ever been so gripped by the outcome of an election as by the drip-drip release of results from Zimbabwe. And if Robert Mugabe is finally defeated – and, more importantly, that defeat is accepted by Zanu-PF, the police and armed forces – I’ll be celebrating along with my Zimbabwean friends who’ve had to wait for such a moment for far too long.

But I’ve lost faith over the past 72 hours or so in the ability of either the Zimbabwean opposition or the western media to provide me with an accurate account of what has actually been happening in this election.

On Monday, Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change was claiming a 60-30 per cent victory in the presidential election for its candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. The Guardian website headline proclaimed an electoral ‘massacre’ for Mugabe. The percentages have changed over the past couple of days until the outcome has turned into a cliffhanger. But even now, as I write, the Guardian is still reporting, as it has been all day, the MDC’s claims that Tsvangirai has won by 50.3 per cent to Mugabe’s 43.8 per cent, with 7 per cent for Simba Makoni.

‘Those figures would mean Tsvangirai had taken enough votes in the first round to win the presidency,’ reports the Guardian.

Indeed they would. But you don’t need to be one of Mugabe’s ballot-riggers to spot that those figures add up to a little over 101 per cent. And if you check the MDC’s own figures on which these percentages are based (1,169,860 for Tsvangirai; 1,043,451 for Mugabe; and 169,636 for Makoni), you come up with 49.09 per cent for Tsvangirai, not the claimed 50.3 per cent – which makes the difference between an outright first-round victory and the need for a second run-off ballot.

The BBC, among many others worldwide, has also been using these same, self-evidently inaccurate figures all day. Hasn’t anyone got a calculator?