Monday, 30 June 2008

Green takes on grey in Haltemprice and Howden

I’ve always had a soft spot for people who are prepared to put their money where their mouths are. So even when I didn’t agree with a lot of what was coming out of their mouths, I had a degree of respect for the Militants who would refuse to take more than a worker’s wage on the few occasions that they got themselves elected.

Now the Green Party candidate in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election has made a similar pledge in promising that she will donate half of her MP’s salary to her party in the unlikely event of her beating David Davis on 10 July. Shan Oakes, who has lived in the East Riding of Yorkshire since 1975, is billing herself as ‘the real civil liberties candidate’ as well as challenging Davis on the Iraq war, global capitalism and the lack of a bus service from Howden station.

Despite a total of 26 candidates, ranging from the Mad Cow-Girl standing for the Official Monster Raving Loony Party to one-time Green Party speaker David Icke standing for the Absolute Nutters Alliance, Oakes is the only alternative to David Davis who stands any realistic chance of putting in a credible performance. Anything less than several thousand votes and second place will have to be marked down as a failure.

David Davis's militant tendency

'Libertarians from the left and right sometimes meet in the middle against an authoritarian state,' declared Tony Benn in announcing his support for David Davis in his Haltemprice and Howden by-election defence of civil liberties. Now, judging by a photo in the first email from the 'David Davis for Freedom' campaign, the former shadow home secretary has enlisted another left-wing icon in the fight against NuLab tyranny: the clenched fist salute.

Apart from the fact that they look a little less angry and a little more clean cut, this could be the Militant Tendency circa 1985. What does Davis have in store for us next? A weekly newspaper and a general strike?

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Another weekend, another London knife killing

Another weekend, another knife killing around the corner from me, this time 16-year-old Ben Kinsella, who’d just finished his GCSEs at our local Holloway school. Again, a bunch of cowards carrying knives stab a lone victim in the back. Again, a macho culture in which boys play at being big while cowering behind their weapons has laid waste to young lives. And again, no doubt, we’ll have some pusillanimous excuse-making from those sections of the left that try to explain everything in terms of deprivation and inequality.

Not everyone on the left, of course. Not me (see London knife killings). Not Dave Osler, who’s unafraid of talking about the extent to which the recent wave of gun and knife violence is culturally generated. Not the parents and teachers and most of all the boys and young men themselves who are the most affected by it. We know it has a cultural and often – the great unmentionable – racial dimension. It’s time we all started admitting as much and talking about how we deal with it.

And while we’re at it, can we please avoid the sort of cheap shots at Mayor Boris Johnson that characterised his – and the London Evening Standard’s – campaign against Ken Livingstone? We can do without the ‘10 gun crimes a day shame Ken’ sloganising that did nothing to help us get to grips with the 200,000 violent crimes a year reported in the capital before the mayoral election and will do nothing to help us do so now if all we do is to swap Johnson’s name for that of Livingstone.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Running the Silk Road

'Statistically, you live one minute longer for every minute you spend running,’ says one of the characters in Yellow Earth Theatre’s Running the Silk Road (Barbican, 24-28 June). There are at least two ways of taking that: one, that if you could keep running forever you’d have discovered the secret of eternal life; and two, that it’s hardly worth bothering to go through all the pain of running if all it does is to extend your life by the time you spent suffering.

Of course, as anyone can testify who has progressed beyond the pain of physical exercise, there is a reward that goes beyond the simple expedient of keeping fit and prolonging active life, as the dog food adverts used to put it. (Do they still make that claim for Pal? Do they still make Pal?)

It’s called self-transcendence if you want to get all zen and spiritual about it, and there are specific self-transcendence races organised by the Sri Chinmoy Athletic Club in London, Cardiff, Bristol, Oxford and many other places in the UK as well as by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team worldwide. These range in distance from one mile to 3,100 miles (yes, that’s a three, a one and two noughts). Running the Silk Road is based on the idea that one man and three of his friends have of doing a 5,000-mile charity run to Beijing, arriving in time for the 2008 Olympics. Sri Chinmoy and his acolytes, at least, would not have found the premise of the play outlandish.

I got my fastest-ever time in a 10k race (just over 38 minutes, in case you’re wondering) in a Sri Chinmoy event in Battersea Park back in the days when Mr Chinmoy was still running and Margaret Thatcher was on the throne. Chinmoy didn’t take up the sport until he was 47 (in 1978), but once he did he kept on transcending. So you can run a marathon? How about trying two? You can run 100 miles? How about 700? 1,000? 1,300? 3,100? You can run four hours non-stop? How about a day? Seven days? Ten days? The marathon team that bears his name organises ultra events at all these distances and lengths of time.

Neither age nor injury stopped Sri Chinmoy. When a dodgy knee curtailed his running at the end of the 1980s, he took up weightlifting instead. In September 2005, a year before his death aged 76, he lifted the bodybuilding legend Bill Pearl and world champion strongman Hugo Girard at an international bodybuilding event.

It’s probably a bit late to be thinking of running the Silk Road to Beijing in time for the opening ceremony on 8 August. But there’s a ten-mile self transcendence run in Battersea Park in a fortnight’s time if anyone fancies it.

Friday, 27 June 2008

In guns we trust

I wonder what definition of ‘sacred’ Republican presidential candidate John McCain had in mind when he was describing the US constitutional right to bear arms yesterday. Referring to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to overturn a 32-year-old anti-gun law in Washington DC, he said that: ‘Unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness, today’s ruling recognises that gun ownership is a fundamental right – sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly.’

So would that be sacred as in devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; entitled to veneration or respect by association with divinity or divine things; regarded with reverence; holy; or what? Should all true Americans get on their knees and pray, one nation under guns?

Our Uzi, which art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy bullets come;
thy will be done.
And anyone who gets in the way will get blasted.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Hail to the thief: Radiohead rip-off

Why do we put up with it? I paid £98.45 for two tickets to last night’s Radiohead concert at London’s Victoria Park (great music, lovely lightshow and a muggy head this morning), roughly what a couple would get as weekly jobseeker’s allowance. That’s £85 for the tickets, an extra £8.50 ‘service charge’ and an extra £4.95 postage. I think they charge another fiver per ticket if there’s an ‘r’ in the month, so we were fortunate it’s June.

For that we got one hour, 59 minutes and 35 seconds of Radiohead, with the sound turned off 25 seconds short of the licence-requirement curfew of 10.30pm (fair enough, it’s a weekday at an outdoor venue in a residential area). There was one support act (Bat for Lashes, a cross between Bjork and Portishead), who might have played for an hour if the power hadn’t packed in part way through; and a near three-hour void for anyone who turned up when the gates opened during which the only thing to do was eat, drink and buy merchandise.

And get searched by security on the way in, of course.

These sorts of events have progressed from bans on people bringing glass or cans into the arena into a wholesale prohibition on any personal food, drink and funny-looking cigarettes. And the searches have progressed from perfunctory checks that you’re not carrying crates of alcohol, wholesale quantities of MDMA or an Uzi machine pistol under your jacket into something one stage short of a full-body strip search.

One man was made to finish his Pret A Manger BLT before he was permitted through the barriers. We had to empty our bottles of water onto the ground before being permitted to proceed on the grounds that the rules of the gig provided for only one unopened 500ml bottle per person and we’d taken a sip from ours while waiting to be searched.

I pointed out that the rule at the last event I’d been to in Victoria Park (Love Music Hate Racism in April) had been that you couldn’t bring unopened bottles in and that the stewards confiscated the top off your permitted bottle. (To make them less effective as missiles, supposedly, as at football matches. The fact that you could buy bottles, with tops, once you were inside the barriers rather undermined that claim.)

If they are going to have rules designed to make us give our money to the stallholders selling food and drink at these things, can’t they at least be honest about it and make the rip-off strategy consistent?

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Zimbabwe: some small things we can do

A friend has emailed from Zimbabwe – the first contact I’ve had for some time. Even the act of emailing me puts him at risk, so I’ll say no more for fear of identifying him. He suggests a few small things people outside Zimbabwe can do, despite the overwhelming sense of impotence we might feel in the face of Mugabe's murderous oppression.

He asks, immediately, that as many people as possible, particularly in the countries around Zimbabwe, sign the appeal (above) to Thabo Mbeki. And that we take the time also to add our voices to the campaign to get the German company Giesecke & Devrient, the sole supplier of banknotes to the Mugabe regime, to halt this flow of blood money. Given the hyper-inflation in Zimbabwe, stopping this supply would make it difficult for the regime to continue to pay the 'war veterans', militia, army and police to conduct its campaign of violence and brutality against the Zimbabwean people. Further details of this and other campaign activities are available on the This is Zimbabwe blog.

This is Zimbabwe is run by the Sokwanele Zimbabwe Civic Action Support Group, whose website has been mapping Mugabe’s terror. Sokwanele-Zvakwana is a peoples' movement, embracing supporters of all pro-democratic political parties, civic organisations and institutions in Zimbabwe. Sokwanele and Zvakwana both mean 'enough is enough' in the vernacular.

For those of you with a strong stomach, Sokwanele has photos documenting the work of Mugabe’s thugs. From a war against colonialism to a war against his own people, Mugabe is on the verge of leading a genocide. There may be little we can do as individuals to stop him but we owe it to the people of Zimbabwe to do what little we are asked.
Other bloggers might also cut and paste the relevant section above - no need to link to me.

Monday, 23 June 2008

David Davis no longer just for whitey

I see that David Davis is no longer merely seeking 'freedom for whitey', as Recess Monkey, Pickled Politics and others put it when he launched his by-election website. His newly-revised website logo (top pic) includes at least one non-whitey, depending on your definition, and what looks like it could be Iain Dale (second from left). Sadly, however, his support seems to have halved since the original version (bottom pic).

The BNP laughs while the left falls out

It’s been a depressing weekend for anyone who’s opposed to racism and concerned about the rise of the British National Party. On Saturday, in case you missed it (which you probably did, since both the pre-publicity and the turnout were tiny), there was a central London ‘march and carnival parade’ organised by Unite Against Fascism. It was predominantly youthful, colourful and vibrant, but if there were more than two or three thousand present Trafalgar Square has got a lot bigger since I was last there. That’s a long way short of the 60,000-plus who turned out in the rain for the Love Music Hate Racism event on the weekend before Dismayday (see 'Just like '78'); and no more than turned up at short notice to say hello to George Bush on his visit to London a week ago.

Far more depressing than the turnout on Saturday, however, has been the sectarian squabbling and repetitive point-scoring that erupts over every discussion of anti-racist organising (or almost any other form of organising) these days in the left-wing blogosphere. The participants have long since lost any sense of how they appear to the 999,999 people in every million who have not the slightest interest in their internecine catfights and wish only that they would go away and rattle some other tin roofs rather than keeping the rest of us awake at night.

Their arguments can be summed up in a couple of sentences. (If you really want to read them in detail you can find a representative sample here, under Liam MacUaid’s in itself unobjectionable assessment; or here on the ever more inappropriately-named Socialist Unity blog.) On the one side there are those who see Saturday’s event as a Socialist Worker’s Party front, regard the SWP as the font of all sectarian evil and want to drive a stake through the heart of the people they blame for splitting Respect and dividing the left. On the other side there are those who see Saturday’s event as a model of broad front mobilising, regard those who didn’t support it as the font of all sectarian evil and want to drive a stake through the heart of the people they blame for splitting Respect and dividing the left.

Meanwhile, the BNP (642 wards contested in the Dismayday elections, winning an average 13.4 per cent of the vote; 130,174 votes in London and a seat on the London Assembly) must be laughing all the way to the polling stations.

One of the arguments over Saturday’s march concerns the fact that it clashed with door-to-door leafleting, organised by the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, in one of two wards in east London where the BNP has hopes of winning council by-elections in two weeks time. It’s clear that this sort of local campaigning is an essential part of first halting, and then reversing, the advance of the far right. But it seems equally clear to me that big set-piece events on a national stage are an essential part of the campaigning mix too. That, after all, was the basis for the success of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism the last time the far right posed a significant electoral threat; and the sad thing is that if you strip away the sectarian tensions I don’t believe that anyone is seriously arguing otherwise.

What also seems clear to me, though, is that the old anti-Nazi formula is inadequate to the current challenge. I was born and (in large part) brought up in Stoke-on-Trent, and my ex-partner of 20-odd years was born and brought up in Barking, the two main centres of BNP electoral success and ambition at the moment. So I know both places well; and I know the kind of people who are now backing the BNP. Dammit, some of the people in our families are among them.

The simple anti-Nazi demonising doesn’t work in the way that it used to for a number of reasons. First, the BNP has sunk real roots into some of these communities – far more so than the left. Whatever its ideological origins, whatever the backgrounds of some of its leaders, the BNP is not the same fringe Nazi organisation as its predecessors; and in places like Barking and Stoke voters know this from their personal experience. Outsiders coming in and telling them otherwise simply doesn't wash.

Second, the core anti-Nazi message is in any case weaker now than it was 30 years ago, when many people of working age still had direct personal experience of the war against fascism and couldn't stomach a supposedly 'nationalist' message that was at odds with what they and their parents had fought for in 1939-45. Put crudely, the patriotic appeal of anti-fascism has lost its punch; it’s much harder to combat the far right on this terrain than in the past. Expose them for what they are, yes, but the new-look, besuited-not-booted image is not just window dressing. As Magnus Marsdal (‘Underdog politics’) and Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas MP and Searchlight editor Nick Lowles (‘Nothing is more important’) outline in the June/July issue of Red Pepper, we are facing a Europe-wide phenomenon in the shape of the rise of a newly ‘respectable’ far right that cannot be combated on the simple basis of old-style anti-fascism.

This new far right is reaching parts of the white working class that the left is failing to touch. The reasons are many, but they boil down to two: the absence of an alternative political appeal in the form of a credible left-wing programme (exacerbated by the surrender of New Labour and other European social democratic parties to the forces of neoliberalism and global capitalism); and the absence of alternative political organisation rooted in the experiences and needs of people who have been to a large extent abandoned by the mainstream political parties and the left alike.

In the course of writing this, I dug out for reference a piece I wrote for New Society back in February 1985 (‘I’m not racialist but …’). Reading through it, I was struck by how I could have written virtually the exact same article yesterday. And if that’s not depressing, I don’t know what is.
Photo: Saturday's march/parade in London, courtesy of Harpymarx, who has other good pics too

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Shakespeare and football

I’m knackered. I’ve done a 5k-5mile-10k series of races over the weekend and I’ve got football this evening. I’ve been limited to one glass of champagne to celebrate my sort-of niece Lizzie getting a 2.1 in English Literature (‘sort of’ because she’s my daughter’s mother’s brother’s daughter, if you follow the connection, but there was never any marriage there to formalise the relationship). I could really do with a spliff right now but I know it would set back my recovery from injury out of all proportion to the pleasure I’d get out of it. And football has turned into a strange enough experience of late anyway without the assistance of some Class B psychoactive pumping through my capillaries.

One game I played in last week finished off with a punch-up between two players that only just stopped short of the kind of scenes that followed the Poland v Germany and Croatia v Turkey games in Euro 2008. Then I learnt that one of my team-mates, Andy Havill, who appeared with Kylie Minogue in last year’s Dr Who Christmas Special, is currently performing in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre - a pathetic excuse for his missing out on this summer's football fixtures, if you ask me. The Daily Telegraph review says his ‘chisel-faced Ford is a sublimely comic study of obsessive jealousy and tortured masochism’ – a description that also tells you something about how he plays football.

As if that isn’t enough Shakespeare for one football story, Stephen Boxer, who is one of our Sunday evening football regulars, has just quit as Dr Joe Fenton in the daytime BBC soap Doctors and got himself the role of Petruchio in Conall Morrison’s production of The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford. I don’t know whether I should be practising my free kicks or learning my lines.

As for Euro 2008, my politically-correct guide to who to support, which for a brief spell appeared to be following the actual results, turned all-too-quickly into a ready-reference guide to who was going out of the competition. I found myself in the strange and unfamiliar position of supporting Germany by the halfway stage of their quarter final against Portugal (something to do with the Pinochet apologist, gay hater, Chelsea incumbent Scolari, I suppose, but it still didn’t feel right). Tonight, I hardly dare say that it’s got to be Spain but it really does have to be Anyone But Italy, doesn’t it?

Photo: Andy Harvill and wig. Would you play football with this man?

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Gordon Banks, Pelé, Desmond Tutu and me

Mostly I’m a man of modest tastes, so it’s not often that I want to be rich. I did last night, though, when my brother tipped me off about an auction on ebay.

I don’t mean massively rich. Minor rock star rich, wouldn’t miss ten or twenty grand rich, would do.

The auction is for the chance to play in a Gordon Banks XI v Pelé XI celebrity charity football game at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke, on 12 July. Best of all, Pelé and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, no less, will manage the winning bidder’s team, which will include two former Brazilian international footballers, including a 1994 World Cup winner.

So that’s the best goalkeeper the world has ever known, the best striker the world has ever known and one of the bravest and best people the world has ever known – and you, raising money for causes such as the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund by playing football. You get to keep the match ball, signed by all three, and there’s even a half-time team talk from Archbishop Tutu thrown in for good measure.

My top football-playing claim to fame is having appeared in the same team as the foreign secretary. Banks, Pelé and Tutu, though – it doesn’t come better than that.

PS: Russia v Holland. Manichaean dualism. Darkness versus Light. Your life will be like the football you believe in.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Left blogs: the 'top 25' revisited

Every year, for at least two years, Iain Dale, the original Stakhanovite of Tory bloggers, has produced a Guide to Political Blogging. It includes his Top 100 Left of Centre Blogs. It’s a semi-randomly assembled selection of the good, the bad and Iain’s mates, in large part, and it seems to be based on an assumption that left of centre politics begins and ends with the Labour Party. But we all love lists, don’t we, and with a new one due out from Iain this autumn I thought I'd get my retaliation in first and do a mid-term review of the Top 25 he listed the last time around. I might get around to reviewing the other 75 if I don’t make too many enemies from the first lot.

Note that the second number against the blogs on the list here denotes their 2006 position. Two dashes means the blog was a new entry.

1-- Recess Monkey
It was an exclusive poll of Recess Monkey readers that uncovered 154 people who claim to have had full sexual intercourse with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (not counting the 28 who indicated they had partaken of oral sex with him and the further 31 who insisted their involvement was limited to ‘heavy petting and frottage’). That’s more than five times as many as Clegg claimed in his interview with Q magazine – a revelation that makes the mucky Monkey wildly popular with the search engines.

2-7 Tom Watson MP
Tom Watson’s blogging style is concise comment and lots of links. I like it.

3-1 Kerron Cross
The ‘voice of the delectable left’, Kerron Cross reckons he’s ‘Labour’s Iain Dale but funnier’. I’m not convinced. Anyway, he recently got married and stood down as leader of the Labour group on Three Rivers District Council in order to spend more time with his family-to-be. The blog will probably go next.

4-2 Bob Piper
Bob Piper manages to combine being a ‘lifelong supporter of Aston Villa’ with following Yorkshire County Cricket Club, which is pain enough for one man. I can’t bring myself to be in any way critical of his blog.

5-3 Labour Home
A multi-author blog ‘attempting to reinvigorate the party’s base and grassroots’, Labour Home celebrated its second birthday in June 2008. Despite its youth it still feels old and wrinkly with a masthead design from circa 1987.

6-17 Bloggers 4 Labour
Has the most facile political slogan in the business on its masthead, ‘Forward not Back’, but it’s still the place to go for Labour bloggers. Its blogroll claimed 429 affiliated Labour blogs at 23 May 2008. Of these, 209 hadn’t been active for at least two months, though, and only 144 had posted anything in the previous week.

7-32 Newer Labour
Now headed ‘New Direction. Choose Change. Beyond the Third Way.’ That’s three slogans that run Bloggers4Labour hard in the meaningless stakes.

8-- Chris Paul's Labour of Love
Loves Labour Lost, or something like that. Sorry, there’s a good Shakespearean pun in there somewhere if only I can find it. And there’s a good blog in Chris Paul's meanderings, too, if you labour long enough.

9-8 Dave's Part
Dave Osler, formerly of the Red Pepper parish, is one of the few ‘don’t miss’ bloggers of the radical left. Talks a lot of left-wing sense, such as on crime (read him on recent gun killings, for example), always accessible – and often funny too.

10-35 Luke Akehurst
The ‘obscure Hackney councillor’ is well to what used to be called the right of the Labour Party, but he laces his (fairly predictable) opinions with a heavy dose of hard information. Particularly good on obscure local by-election results. Unfortunately, his satirical online doppelganger appears to have given up the ghost after a double act in which the real Akehurst and the Fakehurst gave an online interest to each other that they could never have achieved on their own.

11-73 Fair Deal Phil
'Phil Dilks became known as Fair Deal Phil when he led a campaign for reduced bus fares for pensioners and disabled people in the Deepings.’ You might expect that with an intro like that (and headlines like ‘Local man appears in Ken Livingstone's biography’), you’re unlikely to find much of interest here if you’re not from Lincolnshire. But the headline is self-parody and Fair Deal Phil has a lightness of touch that would make me a regular reader – if I lived in Lincolnshire.

12-- Chicken Yoghurt
Chicken Yoghurt is the blog of Brighton-based writer, Justin McKeating. It has one of the best ‘About’ lines in the blogosphere when he concludes his entry with the words: ‘He will now stop talking about myself in the third person.’ Well, it made me chuckle anyway.

13-- Paul Flynn MP
'Read my day. Solid blogging.’ This is that rare thing, an MP’s blog that makes interesting reading. The independent-minded Flynn makes a point of not including ‘party political propaganda’ on his blog, which helps. It also keeps the House of Commons thought police off his back, since MPs’ expenses may not be used for anything ‘interesting, provocative or original’, as Flynn revealed in Blogs censored.

14-- Bloggerheads
I looked in here when this ‘online marketing man gone native’ was doing a live blog on the abortion vote. There’s a lot going on but it’s not terribly well presented.

15-5 Antonia Bance
A Labour councillor for Rose Hill and Iffley ward in Oxford, Bance’s blog is mainly of interest to people living in Oxford, though her round-ups of what other bloggers are saying shows she is far from parochial in her reading. She wrote of the Dismayday election results: ‘A blog called Socialist Unity appears to think that the IWCA [Independent Working Class Association] and Greens losing in Oxford is a defeat for the left: they might think so, but it won’t be a Green or IWCA administration that turns Oxford into a living wage city. That’ll be the Labour party.’

16-- British Bullshit Foundation
‘Rather than leave the BBF lingering around - like a fart in the ether of t'interweb - I propose that we go out with a bang. Well, an online bang at any rate.’ After a ‘final’ entry in September 2007, this one-time Labour House of Commons researcher returned in January 2008 for another last fling. The afterplop, presumably.

17-9 Mars Hill
'Local Labour activist Paul Burgin's private thoughts, meanderings and odds and ends' continue to flow as freely as ever - rather too freely probably; he could do with a good editor.

18-4 Harry's Place
When it moved to a new URL, fittingly enough on Dismayday 2008, Harry’s Place ditched its old Soviet-style pastiche logo in favour of Corporate Bland. It currently features David Davis (satire, in case you were wondering). New writers and other intitiatives are promised without abandoning the blog’s original aim: ‘to provide an open forum for the democratic, secular, anti-fascist, liberal, anti-totalitarian left’. There’s only so long you can get by on slagging off George Galloway and the SWP but without Harry's vitriol towards what it sees as the Islamist fellow travellers on the left it doesn’t have an obvious raison d’etre.

19-- Ministry of Truth
Overlong and detailed postings - a light read this is not - made tolerable by the fact that, unusually among bloggers, there is original research and not merely comment.

20-- John Angliss
Gon to the great blog in the sky, by the looks of it: the attrition rate among Iain Dale's 'top bloggers' is running at about one in five. More people survived the Somme.

21-70 Three Score Years & Ten
My old friend, former left MP Harry Barnes, is still going as strong as ever at three score years and eleven. He’s also the only person I know who supports Sheffield FC.

22-- Rupa Huq
The second highest-ranking woman on the list. If there’s another reason for her being there, I’ve missed it. [12 hours later: that was a cheap shot and it's not even true. I had an attack of the Littlejohns.]

23-- Skipper
Taking your blog’s name from the fact that you used to be captain of a cricket team is a bit too old maids and John Major for my taste, but Bill Jones certainly knows how to bowl a bouncer. ‘It would take a Shakespeare to do justice to a story that combines the jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth and the indecision of Hamlet,’ is his recent verdict on Gordon Brown.

24-14 Tygerland
The author is in the process of moving to Tallinn, so this is currently a good place to go for photos of Estonia. Really.

25-- Jag Singh
Seems to have passed over at 6.13pm on 1 December 2007. Left us with the headline 'Let's celebrate mediocrity.'

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Huggin' up the original Monkey Man

It’s getting on for 30 years since I first got my body moving to 'Monkey Man' at a bonkers 2 Tone concert featuring the Specials and a bunch of booted-up skinheads sporting Anti-Nazi League regalia. I’ve heard it done by a few ska bands over the years, and I love Amy Winehouse’s more recent live performances of it (you can find a lot of clips of them on YouTube).

But tonight was the first time I’d seen it done live by Freddie ‘Toots’ Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals fame, the man who gave that and many other ska classics to the world and who is widely credited with inventing the word ‘reggae’ in his 1968 song ‘Do the Reggay’. All I can say is that for a man who is knocking on retirement age (he was born in 1945), he looks, sounds and moves real good.

Aye aye aye, aye aye aye
Tell you baby, you huggin' up the big monkey man

Off to bed now – and I’m going to be dancing in my sleep.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Bad hair day

Four thousand quid is a lot of money for hurt feelings. By way of comparison, the most you can get under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme if you lose your unborn child as a result of a violent assault (which might be expected to hurt most people’s feelings quite a lot) is £5,500. So my instinctive reaction to the news that a young Muslim woman had been awarded £4,000 for ‘injury to feelings’ after a London hairdresser refused to employ her because she wore a headscarf was:

a) That’s a bit steep (which also happens to be the exact phrase used by the hairdresser after the industrial tribunal made its ruling).
b) Why would someone who believes that women should cover up their hair in public want a job as a hairdresser anyway? and
c) I can think of a few hairdressers around my neck of the woods where business would improve immensely if the wearing of headscarfs was made compulsory for some of the staff.

I wasn’t – and I’m still not – convinced that you can really make a case that it’s religious discrimination when a ‘funky, urban’ hairdresser’s like this one, a couple of miles down the road from me at King’s Cross, says it wants its employees to look the part. But I can see the point that it should be up to an employer to demonstrate why someone in a headscarf can’t do the job. After all, I presume that the people who do (for example) breast implant surgery aren’t all required to have had a boob job done themselves.

The hairdresser concerned has been doubly unlucky in this case, however. First, she’s been stung for four grand for discrimination when, as far as it’s possible to tell, she doesn’t have a discriminatory hair on her head. And second, and far worse, she’s become a cause celebre for every Islamophobic bigot in the country.

Choose almost any internet news forum at random and check out the public comments on the story. And bear in mind that even if, like me and, it seems, most of the country, you think that the compensation award is wrong, Bushra Noah, the 19-year-old Muslim woman concerned, had trained as a hair stylist and worked in the industry for at least two years before applying for this job. ‘I know my punk from my funk and my urban from my trendy,’ she’s been quoted as saying.
What you’ll find in the news forums is visceral anti-Muslim hysteria. ‘She just sued to get money for her terrorist friends.’ ‘The Muslim woman is not interested in hairdressing but merely promoting her cause.’ ‘That ragbag Muslim creature certainly had tried this on before and got away with it!’ ‘Had she been employed I wonder if she would have demanded five breaks a day to pray.’ ‘She should be shaved, tarred and feathered … Mozzie bitch!’

The first four comments are from just the first page of a moderated – and moderate – news forum. The last one has been on the Sun’s news forum since 9 April. I’ve been watching to see if they’ll ever remove it.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Pitmen painters

Sometimes I marvel at how far I’ve come. The young lad who’d never eaten out in a restaurant (though he’d done 16-hour shifts in a seaside café) before coming to London at the age of 19, and who thought that a sit-down kebab in Turnpike Lane was a mark of sophisticated living, now thinks nothing of going to the theatre a couple of times in a week, has membership to both the Barbican and the Tate, can talk conceptual art with the best of them and even took in his first live opera last Thursday. (Waiting for the Barbarians by Philip Glass – possibly not the best introduction to the genre: I thought the music lacked a catchy aria and I could have done a damn sight better with the lyrics.)

My mum and dad always understood how education matters; my mum even managed to pull off the feat of training to be a teacher and bringing up three kids simultaneously. But it was always more in the sense of it giving you some kind of economic security in life – an opportunity of ending that dependence on ‘pits, pots and steel’ for employment that limited (and when those industries closed, blighted) so many lives in my hometown of Stoke-on-Trent. Like most people from ordinary sorts of backgrounds, I grew up in a cultural desert. The very idea of art and culture was something that belonged to them – the upper classes, nobs, southerners, snobs, all of whom were conflated in our resolutely proletarian provincial eyes.

You internalise a disdain for that which you have been denied. The object of potential desire is transmuted into an object of contempt. And so it is with ‘high’ art and culture.

That’s something that Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot and whose Pitmen Painters is currently showing at the National Theatre, understands both intellectually and emotionally. Pitmen Painters, which I saw on Saturday, is the story of the Ashington Group of (mainly) miner-painters, who started off by hiring a Newcastle University lecturer to deliver a Workers’ Education Association class on art appreciation and finished up painting their own working-class niche in art history.

The group became famous not only for its art – vibrant, non-nonsense representations of ordinary working-class life by ordinary working men (no women in the WEA in those days) whose harsh lives encompassed two world wars and a seamless cycle of six-day weeks at the colliery – but also for the fact that they remained avowedly ‘non-professional’. They continued with their jobs at the pit, or in one case as a dental mechanic, even when one of their number was offered a stipend (‘What the bloody hell’s a stipend?’) to give up work and paint full time. They operated as a collective, and any money they made from the sale of their paintings was paid into the group’s funds to cover the cost of materials and other expenses.

These were men who were not unknowledgeable about their subject, for all that Lee Hall’s play enjoys some laughs at the expense of their lack of learning. (‘Let’s see – Titian.’ ‘Bless you.’ ‘Leonardo is perhaps the acme of the entire Renaissance.’ ‘I thought you said he was a painter.’) ‘We’re not thick, you know – well apart from Jimmy,’ says one of the pitmen painters, George Brown. ‘We’ve just done evolutionary biology.’ ‘Most of wi left school when we were eleven, so there’s a lot of things we divvint knaa,’ says Oliver Kilbourn, who was to become one of the best known members of the group and was the one who turned down the stipend from the art collecting aristocrat Helen Sutherland. ‘But that’s why we come here – to find oot about the world.’ In later years, as Hall comments in his programme notes, they were to write knowledgably about Cézanne and Picasso and were ardent devotees of Turner, Ruskin and Blake.

‘Quite clearly, the working classes of the early part of the last century were aspirational about high art,’ writes Hall. ‘They not only felt entitled, but felt a duty to take part in the best that life has to offer in terms of art and culture. That 50 years later I could write Billy Elliot, a story about the incomprehension of a mining community towards a similar aspirant to high culture, seems to me some sort of index of a political and cultural failure.’ Hall says that the fact that the Ashington Group achieved so much unaided and unabetted ‘should remind us that dumbing down is not a prerequisite of culture being more accessible. That is a lie perpetuated by those who want to sell us shit.’

I think it’s more than that. It is a reflection of that poverty of aspirations that does as much, if not more, to keep ordinary working people down as any material poverty. And it is a denial of the opportunity for all of us to achieve something transformative in our lives, whoever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, and to experience the numinance of art (a word, incidentally, that Hall uses in Pitmen Painters but appears in few dictionaries and gets only 47 mentions on Google) - basically its spiritual essence, the thing that moves us, that transcends the everyday and the ordinary.

There is a hugely uplifting conclusion to the first act of Pitmen Painters in which the actors deliver a shared crescendo of lines, each speaking a quick phrase or sentence in turn, starting with their experience of a visit to the Tate Gallery; taking in the notion of art not being about money or ownership but about something shared, something cherished; capturing the idea of the force, the energy, the spirituality, the creativity, the inspiration of art; and concluding with the sense of art as something that you do rather than something you consume. ‘You can take one set of things – some board, some paint, whatever. You can take this one set of things – and you can make them something else. Whatever your circumstances – rich or poor . . . And that is what is important about art. You take one thing – and you make one thing into another – and you transform – who you are.’

It doesn’t have to be painting. It can be poetry, music, film, theatre, dance, football or any number of other outlets for the creativity, inspiration and artistic accomplishment and appreciation that lies within us all. Pitmen Painters should be performed at every underachieving working-class comprehensive in the country as an inspiration to those who might need a nudge to appreciate the existence of a world beyond that of Big Brother and celebrity culture; and to every single one of the shabby heirs to the labour movement that gave us the Ashington Group as a reminder not just of what has been mislaid along the cultural way but of how much might be achieved if only we put our minds to it.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Non-recreational drug use: a warning

Now I remember why I don’t like non-recreational drugs. I took a single diazepam last night to try to get a few hours unbroken sleep (someone built an eight-lane motorway through my brain a few years ago and the traffic runs all through the night). Today I feel like I spent the night doing GHB and skunk – but without the nice bits.

I checked the known side effects on an NHS website: drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, muscle weakness, confusion, sickness or vomiting, stomach problems, headaches, dry mouth, addiction and sex problems. I don’t know about the last one (haven’t had any offers yet today) and it seems a bit soon for the penultimate one after just one pill. But I’ve put a tick against all the rest.

Heed my advice kids: beware of taking drugs for the purposes for which they were intended.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Polarbear politics

Polarbear wasn’t sure about appearing at the Red Pepper/Philosophy Football ‘Long Hot Summer Party’ on Friday because he reckons he’s ‘not really political’. If the left had one vote for every person who’s ever said they’re not really political at the same time as doing things that demonstrate a brighter political spark than virtually anything the parties of the left have come up with in eons, it would have won a landslide election victory years ago.

Polarbear writes poetry – or rather he performs it, which, as every half-decent versemonger, from Bob Dylan and Eminem to Roger McGough and Adrian Mitchell (who also appeared at Friday’s event), understands, is more than half the point. In doing so, he gives rhyme and reason to the lives of ordinary people – a voice to those who have historically been voiceless, if you like – and if that’s not political, socialist even, I don’t know what is.

He’s bloody good at it, too. Don’t take my word for it: make your own judgement. This is him performing Jessica, one of the poems he did on Friday.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Doing it for the Sun

What to make of David Davis’s decision to resign as an MP and shadow home secretary and fight a by-election on the sole issue of the government’s plans for 42-day detention without charge? Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t ‘a very courageous and brave decision’, as his discomfited party leader, David Cameron, felt compelled to describe it yesterday. Standing for election in Baghdad Central would be brave, canvassing support from the voters of Kabul would be courageous. Resigning and standing again in a safe Tory seat when none of the other major parties is going to oppose you, and the government is among the least popular since polling began, requires about as much bottle as the man who invented milk cartons.

And now Kelvin MacKenzie is stepping in where the real politicians supposedly fear to tread. The former Sun editor, who says he is ‘90 per cent certain’ to stand against Davis, brings a surreal touch to the proceedings with his declaration that there are two reasons why he’ll do it: ‘One is that the Sun is very, very hostile to David Davis because of his 28-day stand, and the Sun has always been up for 42 days, or perhaps even 420 days, frankly. And secondly this is a bizarre cost to the taxpayer.’

Well, the cost of the election in Davis’s constituency was £95,520 in 2005 – or rather less than the £135,600 it cost to keep the average MP in pay and expenses last year. Not to be sniffed at, but it’s hardly going to break the budget. And anyway, standing in an election as a protest against the cost of that election hardly has the ring of logical consistency about it.

So that leaves the improbable spectacle of one of the most right-wing editors of a British newspaper in living memory campaigning for 42-day detention (or 420 days, since he doesn’t seem to mind) against a diehard Tory fighting on a civil liberties’ platform. If that’s not bizarre enough, Davis appears to have the support of around three-quarters of Conservative Party members for his stand but is opposed on the issue by almost three-quarters of the electorate at large. A similar proportion seem to hate Gordon Brown and his government more than they support 42-day detention, though. So Davis should still win comfortably, despite the intervention of MacKenzie and the Sun, even though he’ll probably not convince a majority of voters that he’s right on the single issue that he says he's fighting on.

This has more of the appearance of an emotional spasm than clever tactics - in which respect it could turn out to be a big mistake for Davis, the Tories and civil libertarians alike. But it should give the Sun something to spout about for a few weeks later this summer and it will be entertaining to see the sort of knots that the rest of the Tory commentariat get themselves into in trying to reconcile their dislike for Gordon Brown and the government with their instinctive support for anything hardline and illiberal.
POSTSCRIPT Reverse ferret: MacKenzie and the Sun bottled it. Rupert Murdoch likes nothing better than a winner and Davis is bound to win. Cowardy custard by Obsolete is a good account of what happened.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Fitness tips for the fainthearted

How did I manage to come back from injury so quickly at my age, someone asked me at football last night, and did I have any tips on fitness training for the flabby or fainthearted? Here’s a routine that I guarantee anyone can cope with, courtesy of my personal trainer Melvyn.

The basic principle is to build up slowly. You don’t need any special equipment and you can do it in the comfort of your own living room. A couple of two-pound sugar bags will do for starters.

Ready to try it? Okay, hold one bag in each hand and raise each arm in turn, first to your side and then straight out in front of you. See how long you can hold them there, but don’t strain – the point is to build up slowly, holding the position for a little longer each day. After a while, you’ll be amazed by your progress. You can do the same thing to build up strength in your legs from a sitting position.

After a few weeks you may want to start using a couple of sugar bags at a time, or raise and hold both arms (or legs) at the same time. Again, don’t strain: build up slowly.

Once you’re comfortable with this level of exercise, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re now ready to move up a level. Try the same exercises as before, only this time with some sugar in the bags.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Anyone but Italy

Sweden, Spain, the Czech Republic, Portugal and above all Holland all winning well; Russia and best of all Italy both getting tonked; payback for the Polish papers' anti-German ugliness. It's not often the football results follow an armchair socialist supporter's wish-list quite so spectacularly; the Anyone But Italy movement (that's the lovely lads of Lazio in the photo, in case you were wondering) even had the referee and the pedants' rulebook on its side. My politically-correct guide to who to support at Euro 2008, in case you missed it first time around, is now doubling up as the hottest predictor in town.

As an added bonus, I'm marking the end of the first round of Euro 2008 group games by staging my own comeback from injury tonight at the Sobell Centre, Islington. I've been told I've got to play the full game because there are two other people nursing injuries as well. Wish me some of that Dutch luck.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Faces of war

There’s a plain oak cabinet in the foyer outside the Barbican theatre in one of the spaces used for temporary artworks. It’s the official Iraq war artist and Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen’s 'Queen and Country' commemoration of British service personnel who have been killed in the conflict. Put together in collaboration with 137 families who have lost loved ones in the war, it consists of a series of vertical drawers, each containing a facsimile sheet of stamps featuring photographs of the dead.

It’s an intimate, personalised memorial to some of the many thousands who have died in Iraq, made no less so by the fact that it commemorates casualties from only one party to the conflict. It has been placed in the Barbican, on loan from its permanent home at the Imperial War Museum, to accompany the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, about the famous Scottish regiment and its role in the ‘war on terror’, which opens on 20 June. I came across it after a performance of the Cheek by Jowl production of Troilus and Cressida, which finishes this weekend.

Troilus and Cressida is frequently described as one of Shakespeare’s ‘difficult’ plays, by which is meant that it’s neither straightforward history nor tragedy (nor comedy, for that matter, though there’s as much of that as anything else, particularly in this production). There’s no simple narrative, no orthodox ‘hero’, and Shakespeare seems to undermine every climax with an unsettling shift in focus. Traditionally, critics have seen these as flaws in the play's structure, but taken as a biting satire on war, honour, love and glory, which tends to be the modern interpretation, it certainly packs some punch.

There have been a number of revivals of the play in recent years, including at the National in 1999, ending a long period during which you’d have been pushed to find it performed at all. Cheek by Jowl’s production is up with the best. Helen and Paris are given a Posh and Becks-style treatment, the face that launched a thousand ships prancing about the stage as if for a thousand photo shoots, Paris looking cool in his suit and shades. A bespectacled, semi-stuttering Ulysses gives a sly, bookish interpretation of a character we’re more accustomed to seeing in heroic mode; he fingers Achilles and his lover Patroclus with a set of incriminating photographs.

It’s Richard Cant as Ajax’s slave Thersites who steals the stage, though. Imagine Pete Burns at his bitchy, scouse tranvestite best and you get the idea. ‘I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had the scratching of thee; I would make thee the loathsomest scab in Greece,’ he tells his master as he cleans the set wearing a wig and marigolds. Young Troilus and Cressida weren’t bad either, though maybe just a little too skippy for my liking.

Steve McQueen and The Art Fund have set up a petition asking the Royal Mail to issue the stamps as a memorial to service personnel killed in Iraq. Details here. Interestingly, McQueen says that while the project is neither pro- nor anti-war, 'It seems that for those who are against the war, my project is regarded as a good thing. For people who support the war, it is regarded as a good thing too.' The woman in the stamp featured here is Staff Sergeant Sharron Elliott, died 12 November 2006, aged 34.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Two maps of London

Two maps, one a ward-by-ward view of how London voted on Dismayday 2008 (original source), the other a ward-by-ward map of deprivation in the capital (source). Who says political affiliation isn't about class any more?

Friday, 6 June 2008

Behind the Elstree wire

Are there any lefties in the latest complement of contestants in the Big Brother household? I have to ask here because for the first time since the programme began nine series ago my friends at Channel 4 and the production company Endemol have failed to fill me in with the latest news and gossip.

The usual whispered briefings, the gleeful confidences, conducted under conditions of strictest secrecy (the beer garden not the bar, the moving tube train not the station), have been absent this year. So I don’t know whether Mario (real name Shaun, by the way) is actually, like the lovely Carole Vincent last year, an undercover SWP activist who is itching to use the Big Brother garden ‘prison’ to draw attention to the government’s 42-day detention plans. Or if Mohamed Mohamed (it’s the way he spells ’em) is going to don a smuggled cat suit at the appropriate moment and milk the opportunity to garner support for George Galloway and his Bethnal Green and (bits of) Birmingham Respect (Renewal) party.

In past years not even my absence on a Maasai encampment has managed to stop my informants tracking me down to give me advance notice of the latest developments behind the Elstree wire. So this year’s silence may not last. There are murmurings, however, that the golden Big Brother goose is ailing. Opening-night viewing figures of 5.4 million (6.2 million last year) are still way above your standard minor-channel fare. But the demographic is telling. Eight years ago, the archetypal Big Brother audience consisted of a 25-year-old media studies graduate with lots of mates named Sophie, and a sprinkling of I-can’t-believe-I’m-30 sales and advertising johnnies named, erm, Johnny thrown in for good measure. Now it’s that 14-year-old girl with lots of mates named Lauren who lives in the flats opposite, and her cousin Daniel. Do they really have enough money to keep the advertisers happy? And have they even heard of Carole Vincent?

Sunday, 1 June 2008

'Death was the least she deserved' (postscript)

I wrote about this before ('Death was the least she deserved') but it's hard to find any further words to add to this this tale of horror.