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.