Saturday, 24 May 2008

Setting your hair on fire

I’m up in Crewe and Nantwich territory, or thereabouts, visiting family and feeling sorry for myself and the world in general. I’m supposed to be running the Buxton half marathon (‘tough but – tough’) tomorrow but I got taken out by a flying tackle at football last Sunday and I’m lucky to be walking. Two A&E visits, three doctors and half a dozen x-rays later, they’re ‘pretty sure’ nothing’s broken (what’s happened to the world when even doctors have lost their certainty?), so I’m happy about that at least.

In Stoke-on-Trent, where I spent the first 13 years of my life and the rest of the family still resides, I’m finding it hard to come up with other reasons to be cheerful. The local headline news today is the conviction of an Asian father-of-six for the manslaughter (he was acquitted of murder) of his BNP-activist neighbour (and father-of-seven) in a fight that marked the culmination of years of conflict between the two families. The convicted man attended a mosque in the street where I was born; the local councillor is from the BNP. I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that the BNP now represents the ward in which I spent much of my childhood. The party is nine strong now, on a council where Labour has just 16 councillors left from the 60-0 majority it had just a few years ago.

I find this far more disheartening than the kicking the Tories delivered in Crewe, but both reflect an alarming trend. Former Labour voters in white working-class areas are expressing their discontent big time electorally – and, in England at least, they’re doing so by casting their votes anywhere but to the left.

I caught a comment by Jeremy Hardy on Radio Four’s News Quiz on the way up here, in which he said that he could understand why people wanted to punish New Labour but he didn’t understand why the voters had gone over en masse to the Tories rather than the Greens or someone else. ‘It’s like saying “Ooh, I’ve always had my hair done at the hairdresser’s in the high street but this time I think I’ll set my hair on fire,”’ he suggested. The left would do well to consider why it is that people would rather set their hair alight than have it done at their place.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Crewe and Nantwich by-election battering quiz

By-election battering quiz. Simple questions. Multiple choice answers. No prizes, not even for toffs. Just see you how get on (it has to be better than Labour).

Is the above logo
a) Part of Labour’s by-election campaign material
b) Part of Labour's general election campaign material
c) A spoof

Who said, of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, ‘This is a crunch tie between the Reds and the Blues and there’s only one winner for me’?
a) Sir Alex Ferguson
b) Gordon Brown
c) A man on the Crewe and Nantwich omnibus

Which of the following was Labour candidate Tamsin Dunwoody’s campaign slogan for the by-election?
a) One of us
b) One of them
c) One of a million

Which of the following was one of Labour candidate Tamsin Dunwoody’s promises in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election?
a) To put people first
b) To put people second
c) To put people last

On which leading political blog could you have read the story last week ‘If Labour hold Crewe, the economy holds up and Gordon “softens up”’?
a) Labour Home
b) Labour Away
c) Labour Home and Away with the fairies

Does any of the above fill you with confidence about Labour's ability to bounce back after this hammering?
a) No
b) Yes
c) Don't ask me, I voted Tory

The answer is a) in each case.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

'City hall refit almost complete, says Boris'

'City Hall refit almost complete, Boris says.’ ‘Boris Johnson to replace bendy Tube.’ ‘Boris Johnson pledges to get tough on things that something should be done about.’ ‘Boris Johnson extends free travel to fare dodgers.’

You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you – and as Hamlet’s mother understood, three weeks is long enough to have been mourning for any king, even Ken.

The above are just a few of the headlines in the ‘You write the news’ section of John O’Farrell’s NewsBiscuit website (‘the news before it happens’). This is one of those rare things on the web: a place for ‘humorous writing’ that is actually humorous.

‘Charity collectors worse than actual disease’ was one recent story by its core team of writers. And my personal favourite: ‘Brown comforted by Labour gains in made-up places.’ This featured the prime minister photographed alongside the Mayor of Casterbridge, with a Downing Street spokesman boasting of gains in places like Ambridge, Holby City and the London Borough of Walford – though angry farmers were blamed for Labour’s failure to take Emmerdale, one of several fantasy locations it had targeted.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

What a c**t eh?

I thought the police must have misread his writing when I saw that a 15-year-old was facing prosecution for his use of the word ‘cult’ on a protest placard. Another word beginning with ‘cu’ and ending with ‘t’ maybe. But not even the numbest of skulls could have thought that calling scientology a cult was beyond the legal pale – could they?

Well, it seems the City of London pointy-heads could – and did. They consfiscated the kid’s placard at a demo outside the scientologists’ spanky-new £24 million HQ near St Paul’s on 10 May and sent a case file to the Crown Prosecution Service.

I’ve no doubt that the CPS will drop the case post-haste. But there are a couple of things that are more than a little disturbing about it ever having got this far.

The first is the CPS’s comment to the Guardian, who broke the story today: ‘In April, prior to this demonstration, as part of our normal working relationship we gave the City of London police general advice on the law around demonstrations and religiously aggravated crime in particular.’

Now we were given firm and repeated assurances when the notion of ‘religiously aggravated crime’ was first introduced to British law by the New Labour government that it would not in any way impact upon our right to freedom of speech, or our ability to criticise particular religious groups or religion in general. In this case it clearly has – and will continue to do so. If referring to Scientology as a ‘cult’ is considered impermissible, what chance is there for anyone wanting to make the case that the Virgin birth may be no more than a ‘fairy tale’ or the Holy Qu’ran an ‘epileptic’s fantasy’?

The second potentially disturbing factor in this case is that it is the City of London police who are involved. This is the same police force that was forced to admit at the end of 2006 that its officers ‘had been accepting invitations, dinners and gifts from the Church of Scientology worth thousands of pounds. Details of how the religious movement appeared to be cultivating officers in the force were revealed in a freedom of information inquiry made by the Guardian.’ And it is the same police force whose chief superintendent, Kevin Hurley, praised the, er, cult (we can discuss the precise meaning of the word in court) for ‘raising the spiritual wealth of society’ at the official opening of its headquarters earlier that year. These facts are, of course, entirely unconnected.

Postscript 23 May 2008: The CPS did indeed drop the case post-haste: 'Our advice is that it is not abusive or insulting and there is no offensiveness, as opposed to criticism, neither in the idea expressed nor in the mode of expression. No action will be taken against the individual.'

Monday, 19 May 2008

Speaking truth to paramilitary power

You know how you know when someone’s telling lies? you said. They get their story right every time, down to the last word. Whereas when they tell the truth, it’s never the same twice. They reformulate.

The final issue of The Blanket went online today. The above lines are by Ciaran Carson, the Belfast poet, from ‘For All We Know’, his new verse novel about two lovers who first meet when a bomb goes off nearby. The lines are quoted by Seaghán Ó Murchú, in an article for this last issue, ‘not as an epitaph for The Blanket, but an injunction that we its contributors and readers take from its energy a renewed commitment to put its idealism into activism, no matter where in the world we may be, no matter the medium’.

The Blanket, first published in 2001, was in many ways an unexpectedly truthful ‘journal of protest and dissent’. It originated, unashamedly, proudly, from that wing of the Irish republican movement that rejected the Good Friday Agreement as representing the ‘pulping of Provisionalism’ and the victory of ‘the British state strategy of including republicans but excluding republicanism’, as co-editor and one-time ‘blanketman’ Anthony McIntire puts it in the journal’s final issue.

But The Blanket, published from a small house in republican west Belfast, was never just an outlet for unreconstructed supporters of a continuing war of bombs and bullets against the Brits; and anyone reading it with the expectation of having their prejudices confirmed about the ‘men of violence’ would be confounded. Though it gave a voice to people who in many cases had devoted their lives to the ‘armed struggle’ (and taken the lives of others in the process), it did so in a way that was open, questioning and, by and large, honest. In the words of Mick Fealty, founder of the Slugger O’Toole blog, its greatest value has been to ‘speak truth to paramilitary power’, including the often-inconvenient truths about what was happening in working-class communities in Northern Ireland, from sectarian attacks to punishment beatings, when the ‘bigger’ political priorities of the peace process required that they be suppressed.

The Blanket’s contributors included a number of loyalists, among others. ‘The Orangeman’s handshake’ by Billy Mitchell, published in January 2002, is just one piece that’s worth casting an eye over, for its account of how the IRA’s Peadar O’Donnell came to keep the Orange sash presented to him by his fellow working-class writer, the loyalist Thomas Carnduff, in a glass case in his home until his death. Mitchell writes that the story reminds us ‘that those who have worn the uniform of opposing forces need not live in a state of perpetual hatred, base recrimination and ongoing demonisation. As in the case of Carnduff and O’Donnell, dedicated political opponents are very often kindred spirits who share similar passions and, but for an accident of birth, could have been on “the same side”.’

But The Blanket’s widest interest lay in its articulation of the views of dissident republicans such as Brendan Hughes, the commander of the Belfast brigade of the Provisional IRA during the 1970s and the Provos’ commanding officer in the Maze prison, who participated in a the blanket protest and went on hunger strike for 53 days. He acted as an ideological mentor to the younger Gerry Adams but broke with Adams and the Provisionals after the Good Friday agreement. He explained his reasons thus:

‘I am not advocating dumb militarism or a return to war. Never in the history of republicanism was so much sacrificed and so little gained; too many left dead and too few achievements. Let us think most strongly before going down that road again. I am simply questioning the wisdom of administering British rule in this part of Ireland. I am asking what happened to the struggle in all Ireland – what happened to the idea of a 32-county socialist republic. That, after all, is what it was all about. Not about participating in a northern administration that closes hospitals and attacks the teachers’ unions. I am asking why we are not fighting for and defending the rights of ordinary working people, for better wages and working conditions. Does 30 years of struggle boil down to a big room at Stormont, ministerial cars, dark suits and the implementation of the British Patten report?'

You don’t have to be an Irish republican socialist to be interested in this sort of thing (though it obviously helps). The final issue of The Blanket leaves a gap in the writing about Irish politics that will be missed.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Back to Battersea

Back to the Battersea Arts Centre last night for the second part of my experience with the Belgian performance theatre group Ontroerend Goed. BAC is a somewhat spartan place to visit at the moment. Stripped off its Red Death masque, which it had worn so well since last autumn, it has a semi-naked feel, dark soot-marks from the Red Death candles leaving shadows of the Punchdrunk production’s presence. One of the BAC people tells me that, brilliant success though The Masque of the Red Death was, they are glad to have their centre back. In addition to a range of smaller arts events, they have two more ‘playground’ productions in preparation for the space that was once Battersea town hall. I can’t wait.

After Tuesday’s wheelchair experience with Ontroerend Goed, I’m a bit nervous about turning up for another piece of such intimate theatre so soon afterwards. I wonder whether I revealed too much of myself last time, and contemplate going in disguise in case anyone from the company remembers me.

This time the performance is called ‘Internal’. There are five performers for each member of the ‘audience’. The five of you line up at the beginning on white crosses marked on the floor in front of a black curtain. When the curtain rises you are each faced by a member of the cast. Silently, a few of them exchange places; then you are led away by your allotted partner to one of the five cubicles lined up along a wall.

Each cubicle contains a small table, two chairs facing each other, a bottle of spirit and two glasses. My partner is a strikingly attractive woman with soft lips, dark hair and deep blue, soulful eyes. She is dressed in black. We sit down. She pours a drink. We touch glasses. We drink. She smiles. Her eyes never seem to move from mine.

I say something like, ‘This is strange.’ I am aware of a hubbub of conversation coming from the other cubicles but these are the only words that will pass between us in ours; she says nothing.

She takes my hand. She caresses it. She continues to smile and engage my gaze with those searching soulful eyes. She moves her hand to my face and touches it gently. Then she moves my hand to her face and encourages me to do the same.

She takes both of my hands on the table between us. She holds them. We hold each other’s hands. She moves her fingers between mine. I move mine between hers. She continues to smile and look at me. We caress each other’s hands on the table.

After how long, I don’t know, she turns her head and looks out of the cubicle. I follow her eyes where they lead me. Everyone else, the other four actors and their partners, is now sitting in a circle of chairs. They are looking at us. There are two empty chairs. We get up go and sit in them.

Each actor in turn now introduces their partner and says something about them. ‘This is Jackie, she’s 24 years older than me.’ ‘This is Melanie, she’s not as nervous as she was at the beginning.’ When it gets to my partner, she says of me, ‘I don’t need to know his name.’

Then each actor says a few words about what they think of their partner and whether they think there could be anything between them. ‘I think Jackie has experienced a lot of love pain.’ ‘I think Simon can look at me for a very long time.’ There is a round of negative comments too. ‘I don’t want to know about Simon’s interests and hobbies.’ Melanie is asked to go and stand outside the group, while her actor-partner tells her what he thinks of her. He comes back without her and announces to us all in a whisper, ‘She makes me nervous.’

My actor-partner says she thinks there could be something between us because ‘We can communicate without speaking.’ When she is asked to say something negative about me, she says that she thinks I am ‘a kind and gentle man’. Why am I flattered? I know this is just a performance.

Jackie’s partner asks if he can hold her. Jackie says no. He asks why. She says she doesn’t know him. Then my partner stands up and takes off her top. ‘Is this what you want to see?’ she asks, once more smiling and never shifting her gaze from mine. Perhaps now there is music, I’m not sure. At any rate, we are each invited to dance with our partners within the circle of chairs and then asked, personally, privately, for our addresses ‘so that I can send you a letter’.

And then we are guided back to our crosses on the floor, where we each stand facing our partners. The black curtain comes down and we are left to find our way back outside the performance space into the comfort of the Battersea Arts Centre entrance hall. I have a stiff lemonade and feel, in the word used to describe the performance by one of my fellow audience members, perplexed.

Ontroerend Goed have spoken of creating theatre ‘that is equally challenging and treacherously shallow’. And in some strange and intangible way, I did feel simultaneously challenged and betrayed by this performance. Not to mention by those deep blue soulful eyes.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Filling the vacuum

I’m in love – with a Dyson. My former lover, soulmate and partner-in-cleaning has taken pity on the vacuum in my life and bought me one as an early birthday present (the end of September, put it your diary). It’s been sat by the door of the living room since it arrived, on the grounds that I’ve not had a spare moment these past few weeks, what with producing some magazine or other, nipping off to be tied up in wheelchairs and trying to sustain some semblance of a long-distance runner’s training regime.

I’d expected to have to set aside an evening or two to assemble it. These sorts of things don’t come cheap, but they’d be even more expensive if the manufacturers couldn’t depend on the purchasers poring their way through complicated instructions badly translated from the Chinese, checking for polystyrene packing in the innards and going back to Argos for the bits that are missing.

The Dyson is different. The instruction booklet is in 17 languages, 18 if you include the Braille on the cover, but it takes you from unpacking to vacuuming in four easy sentences. There’s even a freephone advice line (though probably not in 17 languages) if this is too much for you. And the suction! I could write entire novellas about the suction. Cyclonic separation, Mr Dyson calls it. You should see my carpet. One day all electrical equipment will be made this way.

I’ve been fascinated by James Dyson for a long time. As every article that’s ever been written about him will tell you, it took him four and a half years and 5,127 prototypes before he came up with the vacuum cleaner he was seeking. He says he got his perseverance from a love of long-distance running. ‘I was quite good at it, not because I was physically good, but because I had more determination. I learned determination from it,’ he told Forbes magazine in 2006. I like that about him, and I’m intrigued by the fact that he came into design via the Royal College of Art; he was there in 1968, the year that he married Deirdre Hindmarsh, whose job as an art teacher supported him before his inventions started making money.

This year’s Sunday Times Rich List, published last month, estimates his family’s wealth at £760 million, which includes a country estate in Gloucestershire, a town house in Chelsea and a chateau in France. It’s a lot of money for a man who claims, ‘I just want things to work properly.’ And his decision to move production to Malaysia in 2002 cost 800 people in this country, many of whom had been making vacuum cleaners for him from the beginning, their livelihoods.

But anyone who has spent their life struggling with things that don’t work properly will understand what it’s like to have a vacuum cleaner that really sucks. Some rich bastards are simply rich bastards; some of them actually do something worthwhile.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Fear of flying

I was sort of relieved that Ann Liv Young didn’t turn up for her two Solo performances at the Battersea Arts Centre Burst season this week. Her reason for pulling out – one of the people involved has a fear of flying – might have occurred to her a bit sooner, given that she’s based in New York and Battersea is not only on the other side of the Atlantic but off the tube map. But hey, you can’t think of everything when you’re an artist.

Why relieved? Well, Young is the sort of artist whose performances involve a lot of nudity, noise, vulgarity, mess and what’s commonly referred to as ‘challenging your audience’ in the creative context, otherwise known as ‘making them squirm with embarrassment’ where I come from. Her most recent touring show, an adaptation of Snow White, involved her being given a good seeing to on stage by her Prince. With a dildo. And full penetration.

You have to be in the right frame of mind for this sort of performance if you’re a man. I suppose you have to if you’re a woman, too, but it’s easier for women. As on a nudist beach, no one suspects you of having sleazed in under false pretences – and even if you have, it’s somehow more acceptable in a female (we’re only talking London liberal circles here, of course), not to mention easier to hide your physical reactions if your body gets a bit carried away by it all.

Anyway, I didn’t have to navigate the dodgy interface between art and porn on this occasion (not that I’ve ever been entirely clear about the difference, although I do understand that wanking over Old Masters – in an art gallery at any rate – is a definite no-no). Instead, I had to make do with being blindfolded and tied up in a wheelchair (yes, yes, but it’s a different kind of eroticism) and putting myself at the mercy of five Belgians from the Ontroerend Goed theatre performance group (a pun that gets lost in translation, the name means, very roughly, ‘Feel Estate’).

‘The smile off your face’ was first performed in Britain at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. It’s described as ‘absolutely terrible, a dreadful experience … manipulation in every way’ in one comment on the Times Online theatre pages. The woman who went ahead of me looked as terrified by the prospect as the artist in Ann Liv Young’s company was by the thought of flying (the difference being, of course, that when you’re the person doing the paying for something, rather than the one being paid for it, you pull yourself together rather than pulling yourself out).

I don’t understand it. Being tied up (you should try it some time) is an exercise in giving up control, putting your trust in others (just make sure the ‘others’ are trustworthy). Being blindfolded, as well as heightening the other senses (sound, smell, taste and touch all feature in ‘Off your face’), breaks down some of the usual social barriers between strangers. You find yourself, having entrusted these people physically, beginning to trust them emotionally too. The enhanced intensity of the physical experience segues seamlessly into a more intense emotional one too. You may laugh, you may cry, you will come to understand the significance of ‘the smile off your face’. You may even come to share some of your deepest feelings with strangers whose faces you’ve not yet seen – though you will by then have smelt them and felt them and shared a dreamlike proximity to their sounds and other sensations. Manipulative? Of course it is, but then so is all theatre – manipulation by consent.

What you make of it, how far you enter the performers’ dream-state, is in large part up to you. I don’t want to say too much because it’s always best to experience these sorts of things with as few preconceptions and as open a heart as possible. But you can trust them (believe me, I’m a journalist). You will come to no harm.

In the strange safety that is sightlessness, I found myself answering the sometimes-deeply personal questions that were put to me by one of the performers. This included, as well as revealing some of what I think about love and beauty, telling her the biggest regret of my life. And no, I’m not going to share it with the rest of the world on here: if you want to know, you’ll have to get yourself tied up in a wheelchair and see if the woman from Ontroerend Goed will tell you.

Monday, 12 May 2008

'Death was the least she deserved'

It’s difficult to decide what is the most depressing aspect of one of the most depressing stories to come out of post-invasion Iraq. It’s bad enough that Abdel-Qader Ali murdered his 17-year-old daughter, Rand, after she became infatuated with a British soldier in Basra, by choking her with his foot on her throat. It’s worse that when Rand’s mother, Leila Hussein, called on her two sons to stop him, instead they joined in. It’s worse still that the Basra police held Abdel-Qader for barely a couple of hours, during which time they congratulated him for what he had done before letting him go.

‘Death was the least she deserved,’ Abdel-Qader told an Iraqi journalist a couple of weeks later in an interview reported in the Observer on 11 May. ‘I don’t regret it. I had the support of all my friends who are fathers, like me, and know what she did was unacceptable to any Muslim that honours his religion.’

Perhaps the most depressing of all, however, was what Leila Hussein revealed about the man who killed their child. ‘Even now, I cannot believe my ex-husband was able to kill our daughter,’ she said. ‘He wasn’t a bad person. During our 24 years of marriage, he was never aggressive. But on that day, he was a different person.’

I don’t doubt it, any more than I doubt that the great majority of people who went along with the Nazis, or Stalinism, or slavery, or the Inquisition, weren’t, in essence, ‘bad people’. They were ordinary people led astray by bad ideas. And just as you can’t divorce the actions of Nazis, or Stalinists, or slave traders, or the Inquisition, from the ideologies that underpinned them, neither can you divorce the actions of Abdel-Qader Ali from the ideology that underpinned his killing of his own child. Certainty is the root of all evil – and you don’t get more certain than those who have faith that the hand of the divine can be found in their cruel and wicked deeds.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Nostalgia, squatting and 1968

Nostalgia was the order of the day at the ‘1968 and all that’ conference at London’s Conway Hall yesterday. Not so much ‘the fire next time’ as slippers by the fire. Here was some of the radical cream of ’68 reminiscing for the grandchildren with not much sense of a movement going anywhere in the present day.

Piers Corbyn’s talk on ‘Squatting and 1968’ caught the mood. ‘I was sent to assassinate you in 1975,’ one unreconstructed and oddly youthful-looking anarchist told him ‘in a spirit of friendship and joviality’ (it may have been ‘solidarity’ – it was too hot to hear properly). Piers, then in the International Marxist Group, used to polarise squatter opinion in much the way that Socialist Workers Party activists polarise people today. But his old talk of transitional demands and the international proletariat now just seems an anachronism - and he knows it. Piers kept to the reminiscences and the anecdotes (the police spies who were set to work collecting corrugate iron for barricades, pouring a bucket of water over the sheriff of London, cutting a deal with Ken Livingstone when he was first elected to the GLC). He said himself that the younger people in his audience – a good third of whom hadn’t even been born in 1968 – must feel as he used to when he was listening to his dad talking about the second world war.

Some of the ex-squatters who turned up sounded even more like that war generation. One woman spoke of how there used to be a saying among squatters that you were never more than two streets away from friends (i.e. another squat) in London. ‘I would walk down Commercial Road in east London in those days,’ she said, ‘wearing a thin summer dress and very little else, and I would feel completely safe.’ She didn’t add how the squatters always used to leave their back doors open and pop in and out of each other’s houses all day long borrowing cups of sugar when they needed them, but you get the picture.

What she was talking about, of course, was a sense of common cause and community. People were brought together in adversity through squatting, and through the struggles that have come to be identified with 1968, in the same way that an earlier generation of people were brought together, in greater adversity, during the 1939-45 war. It is one of the great tragedies of recent history – and one of the great failings of ’68 – that those different generations were too often so painfully divided from each other.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Lock me up with Doherty

Pete Doherty and Babyshambles are playing a special comeback gig to celebrate his release from jail at one of my favourite music venues, the Kentish Town Forum, on Tuesday. There are still tickets available at the time of writing, which at £22.50 are a fair bit cheaper than the last London gig Doherty did at Wembley Stadium towards the end of last year. Doherty off the smack and crack is one of the best live performers around (he’s not too bad on it either, though a mite less reliable), so catch him while he's straight. Be warned, though, if you’re over 21: his audience is one of the youngest around and the mosh pit will be full of 14-year-olds.

I’m going to have to miss the gig myself as I’m pre-booked to be blindfolded and tied up in a wheelchair that evening as part of the Battersea Arts Centre’s Burst season. Later, I’m mixing it with the New York performance weirdo Ann Liv Young (sorry, Ann, but the performance is a bit, well, weird) in her ‘high energy explosion of pop songs, movement and mess’. Part of it involves her smearing her naked self with chocolate (or is it ketchup? I forget). The Burst programme says it’s ‘a powerful, open honesty’; my daughter insists it’s soft porn. I’m easy either way.

I’m paying my political dues before my quick Burst of debauchery (there’s a month of it to come, with A Trashy Multi-Artform Bingo Blowout Party at the old town hall that is the Battersea Arts Centre tonight) by turning out for the ‘1968 and all that’ event at London’s Conway Hall today. And tomorrow I’ve got to be in Morden by 8am for the ‘6n6’ swim and run duathlon. Someone should have locked me up with Pete Doherty.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Please miss (for teachers everywhere)

This is one is for teacher's everywhere. My thanks to Melvyn, who sent it to me.

Did you hear about the teacher who was helping one of her primary pupils put on his boots? Even with her pulling and him pushing, the little boots still didn't want to go on.

Finally, when the second boot was on, the teacher had worked up a sweat. She almost cried when the little boy said, 'Please miss, they're on the wrong feet.' She looked and, sure enough, they were.

It wasn't any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. The teacher managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on, this time on the right feet.

The little boy then announced, 'These aren't my boots.' The teacher bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, 'Why didn't you say so?' like she wanted to.

Once again she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off his little feet. No sooner had they got the boots off when he said, 'They're my brother's boots. My mum made me wear them.'

Now she didn't know if she should laugh or cry. She mustered up the little grace and courage she had left to wrestle the boots onto his feet again. Helping him into his coat, she asked, 'Now, where are your mittens?'

'I stuffed them in the toes of my boots,' he replied.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Class B criminals again

Oh dear, as if it wasn’t bad enough that we wasted all those nights damaging our lungs and laughing stupidly on the sofa, now most of my friends and I are Class B criminals again. Actually, most of us are Class A criminals because cannabis isn’t the only drug of choice that we’ve ingested over the years. Apart from anything else, there’s the little matter of magic mushrooms, which got listed alongside crack and heroin the year before last, forcing us all back onto ecstasy and other chemical substitutes for our entheogen experiences.

So now we’re back to where the Wooton Report kicked off in 1969, when its advice to classify cannabis as a class C drug and to make possession a non-arrestable offence went unheeded. Good old Gordon, whose government has set itself the target of getting something wrong at least once a week, has decided to emulate King Harold, formerly of that parish, in ignoring all the expert evidence (not to mention the fact that the number of cannabis consumers has fallen substantially across all age groups since David Blunkett reclassified it as Class C in 2004) and humping it back up to a B drug again.

So that’s up to five years and an unlimited fine for having a spliff, and up to 14 years and an unlimited fine for passing it on. And no excuse if you don’t inhale it yourself: it’s still 14 years for letting someone else do so where you live. (I’ve sent people out the back for the past ten years – can’t stand the smell of smoke in the house – but that doesn’t get me off the hook either.)

I can barely be bothered to marshal the arguments against prohibition and punishment when what you’re dealing with is a public health issue. And it hardly seems worth repeating the obvious point that all this stuff about skunk being so much stronger than the old-style weed is just, well, stuff and nonsense – the extra strength just means people smoke less of it, as they drink less brandy than beer.

I’m curious to know, though, why a Cabinet that was falling over each other not so long ago to say that, yes, they’d smoked a bit when they were younger, but gave up on it without the intervention of the boys in blue, thinks that the best way to deal with kids doing the same today is by criminalising them. Immoral in principle, unworkable in practice: the old adage is as true as ever.

Oh, and by the way, as I once read in Viz, if smoking is so bad for you, why does it cure salmon? Boom, boom!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Cliff Richard and the real spirit of '68

History isn’t always written by the winners. There’s an exhibition at the National Theatre at the moment that consists of photographs and newspaper front pages from 1968. While the photographs, in the main, tell the familiar story of a world in revolt, the newspaper cuttings serve as a reminder that for all that it has been the politics of the left in ’68 that have dominated the 40th anniversary media coverage (give or take the occasional nod towards Enoch Powell and his ‘river Tiber foaming with much blood’), you could paint a very different picture of what really happened in Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, where the right fought back and the left didn’t win.

One of the front pages on display at the National features the huge demonstration in Paris on 30 May 1968 in support of the French president, Charles de Gaulle. It was quite likely the biggest demonstration of the year, not only in France but anywhere in the world. And of course it was De Gaulle who won a landslide victory in the election he called for the end of June. So there's at least a case to be made that '68 should be remembered not as the annus mirabilis of revolt but as the apogee of reaction.

I was set to thinking about this by the news that Cliff Richard is demanding that he be awarded the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest trophy retrospectively for his song ‘Congratulations’, which came second at the time. This follows a Spanish television documentary, which suggested that only a vote-rigging plot by the dictator Franco prevented Richard from winning.

The idea of Cliff Richard, of all people, being conspired against by a fascist dictator in the midst of all the turmoil of the time is just the sort of surreal snippet that would have appealed to the ‘Marxist, Groucho Tendency’ of ’68. So maybe it’s time to revisit a few other cultural phenomena from the year of ‘les évènements’ and see what else we ought to be marking in the anniversary commemorations. A couple of multiple-choice questions as starters for ten, then, to see how you shape up on your cultural studies.

What was Britain’s best-selling album of ’68?
a) The Sound of Music
b) The Beatles’ White Album
c) Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding

Which of these singles sold the most copies in 1968?
a) Those Were The Days by Mary Hopkin
b) I Pretend by Des O’Connor
c) Lady Madonna by the Beatles

The answer, in both cases, is that their sales match the order in which they appear above.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Goodbye to Ken

London, my London, looked little different this morning, when I tried to shake off the mares of the night before (Bojo and the BNP at City Hall) in the Regent’s Park summer series 10k race. I did about as well as the Labour Party on Dismayday, leaden legs limping lumpenly to the finish line.

The sun was shining, the plane trees were fruiting, the bus lanes were still functioning, there was still the same myriad mix of people, united in our variety. This is the city I never dreamt I would stay in when I first arrived here from the provinces. And this is the city I have grown to love and call home.

For someone who likes nothing better than solitude and the wild open spaces, I have become curiously attached to this humming, heaving metropolis. It was only the other day that I was telling someone that when I go I want my ashes to be given to a turning tide on the riverside beach at a Waterloo sunset, when the golden sunlight reflects back from the river to the sky, from Westminster looking west to St Paul’s looking east.

It’s on this stretch of river that Ken Livingstone aimed the rockets from the old GLC’s final firework display towards the parliament of Maggie Thatcher. It seems like an eternity ago now that he so ired the Tory harridan that she abolished London-wide local government altogether. Tony Blair brought it back and when he tried to keep Ken out of it, it was Ken that gave New Labour its first bloody nose instead.

Livingstone wasn’t always the nicest man on London’s political map – no one who rises so high in politics ever can be. He only became leader of the GLC in 1981 by executing a putsch against the man who had led Labour to election victory within 24 hours of the polls closing. He could be rough, tough, sharp-tongued and abrasive. Accusing a Jewish reporter of behaving ‘like a concentration camp guard’ wasn’t the most politic of remarks; nor was his refusal to grit his teeth and apologise afterwards. He made lasting enemies, often unnecessarily, often in his own ranks. I was once on the receiving end of a hungover Ken’s caustic; I know what it feels like, I always voted Ken without illusions.

But London without him at its helm is a lessened city. His backing for minorities, his belief in diversity, hoisted a rainbow flag to which we could rally long before such opinions became mainstream; when to say something like ‘Everyone is bisexual. Almost everyone has the sexual potential for anything’, as he did, was to invite political purgatory. To make the now obvious point that there would be no peace in Northern Ireland until you started talking to the ‘men of violence’ showed bravery at the time beyond the call of political duty.

When Thatcher and the hard-right Tories held sway over the government of Britain, when she spoke of the miners as the ‘enemy within’, or of people feeling ‘swamped’ by blacks and Asians, we could say of London, ‘Not here, not us’, and Livingstone would offer a different voice. When Blair took us to war under false pretences, and when that war brought bombers onto our tubes and buses, Livingstone led us in a different vision of London, what it is and what it represents.

London, despite everything, is a far, far better place to live than when I first arrived here when Ken was starting his climb up the greasy pole of politics. And many of the improvements of the past eight years – from the congestion charge and public transport to community policing and affordable housing – are down to Livingstone in particular.

I thought Boris Johnson was commendably gracious in his acceptance speech last night (when you’re a winner you can afford to be). But the best we can hope for from him is that he doesn’t mess up on what Livingstone has begun. It’s hard to imagine Bojo being so brave or imaginative in his own right. And the people who voted for him to give Gordon Brown a kicking, or because they want the right to drive and park where and when they like in London, or because they think Livingstone had become too arrogant, or because they think there are too many immigrants moving in, or because they’re sick to death of young yobboes, or because they’re worried about their mortgages, or because they think bendy buses are a disaster, or because they’re apoplectic about speed humps, or because they never see a police officer round where they live, or because they don’t like that new skyscraper, or because the neighbours play their music too loud – well, it will be interesting to see how Bojo deals with that ragbag of complainants now that he has to do something rather than simply join them.

As for the Evening Standard, how on earth are they going to fill their pages now that they’ve won their 30-year war on Ken?

Friday, 2 May 2008

Election analysis: they won, we lost

One of the joys of no longer being a full-time working political journalist (or activist, for that matter) is that I don't have to wait around for election results and then knock out what passes for sophisticated analysis. So I'm off out now to make the most of London avant le deluge. (Actually I've got a hot date with my daughter's cooking and the last two episodes of Heroes.)

For anyone passing this way who was hoping for that election analysis, here it is. They won, we lost. This is largely because they got more votes than we did.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

White rabbits, acid and Boris Johnson

White rabbits. Here’s to a bountiful Beltane. I’m not feeling great at the moment. A night of magical thinking was followed by a night of simple nightmares. My lungs hurt, I’ve got what my daughter used to call a ‘flipping headache’ and we lost by about 38-3 at the Power League on the banks of the North Circular yesterday evening. It was pissing down with rain, unseasonally cold and someone had added an extra couple of feet to either side of our goal. I travelled back home shivering, unshowered and unchanged in sodden football shirt and shorts.

I listened to Liverpool succumb to Chelski on Five Live, edited a piece about healthy food and parents inspired to action by Jamie’s School Dinners and stuffed myself with comfort cake and chocolate. I took the ensuing sugar crash as a cue to go to bed, where I slept fitfully for all of, oh, 30 minutes before I woke with a start replaying the third Chelski goal – or was it the fifth one we conceded? – with my left foot.

I gave up counting sheep when I stopped wanting to be a shepherd. Now I count the number of times I wake up during the night. I got to 26 last night before the buses started over the speed humps and it was time to get up again.

In the meantime I’d dreamt of Basel and bicycles and acid and Albert Hofman, who died on the same day that I was about to start vortexing about death (like Hofman, I must have had a vorgefühl); and I was tripping with Ken Livingstone, who’d just lost the mayoral election to Bojo by one vote. I couldn’t bring myself to tell Ken that I’d not bothered to vote, or that Bojo had finished the acid, or that there were now Thatcher-headed hydras scouring the streets of London, seeking out bendy buses and turning them to stone.

Ken was crying, as he once made me (it’s a story for another time). ‘All I ever wanted was to be mayor of London,’ he sobbed. Albert Hofman came past on his bicycle again, saying ‘You should see the trees, he’s chopping them down.’ Syd Barrett said he’d written a song about it – the bicycle, not the trees. ‘You can sing it if you like,’ he said with a huge scarecrow grin, which turned into a tube tunnel. And then there was Bojo, being driven by Bob Crow, roaring towards us with his white locks flowing. Except they were no longer white, but scaly green, each one a snake’s head spitting venom, which wasn’t venom but a red liquid, which wasn’t liquid but a solid thread, which turned blue and dissolved as soon as you touched it.

And then I woke up and Ken hadn’t lost and Bojo hadn’t won and Syd Barrett had gone back to his book on the shelf and it had stopped raining and I realised it was May Day and I said ‘White Rabbits’ in the hope that it will bring London luck this election day. Nothing to do with acid at all.