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.