Friday, 25 December 2009


Go on, admit it, there’s nothing you like better over the Christmas holiday season than to sit down with a steady supply of sensory stimulants and get stuck into a good old detective story.

The trouble is that it’s sometimes hard to reconcile books with titles such as Ten Little Niggers (written by a woman with a deep prejudice against ‘sallow men with hooked noses’) with the PC protocols of our day.

Enter my friend and erstwhile collaborator Mat Coward, who has just published a socialist detective story set in ‘London in the near future: transport is horse-drawn, food is rationed, fuel is scarce and wastefulness is illegal.’ As well as providing the requisite gripping yarn, Acts of Destruction is both witty (‘Is it a murder?’ ‘Well it’s a crime, if only illegal disposal of a body’) and wide-ranging in its incidental detail.

Just as you’d expect from someone who moonlights as the Morning Star’s gardening correspondent, an indefatigable pro-smoking campaigner (who once sent me a 100,000-word anti-anti-smoking tract when I was a couple of days into an attempt to stop), and one of the elves (that’s what they’re called) who provide the material for Stephen Fry’s QI programme.

You can buy the book on Mat Coward's website

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

McElderry and the Machine

I’ve been engaged in a series of heated debates following my coming out in print as a fan of The X Factor (see Plattitudes, Dec 2009). Some people now approach me with the sort of ‘sorry but you’re soiled’ look that they’d normally reserve for Trots-turned-Tory or people who pull the whiskers off pussy cats. It’s no use telling them that when it came to the choice between Rage Against the Machine or X-Factor winner Joe McElderry for the Xmas Number One, my political colours were nailed firmly to the mast.

What surprised me more was the friend who turned on me with the sort of venom I’d last witnessed when her boyfriend slept with her sister. When I punched the air in delight at the Ragers’ improbable triumph over Simon Cowell’s pop machine, she rounded on me: ‘I thought you liked The X-Factor?’ How could I possibly take pleasure in ‘a bunch of privileged hippie college kids posing as anti-capitalists’?* Didn’t I care that they were spoiling it for working-class Geordie sweetiepie McElderry by denying him the same Xmas Number One status as the previous four X-Factor winners?

That was before I was mugged by the Alexandra Burke fan club. The 2008 X-Factor winner, she lives a short walk from me and half the neighbourhood takes it as a personal affront if you don’t think she’s the best singer since at least Leona Lewis. I made the mistake of saying to one member of the Burke posse that actually I prefer her mum’s music (she used to sing with Soul II Soul). This year I plan to be out of the country when The X-Factor comes around.

*According to the Privileged Hippie College Kids Monitoring Service, Rage Against the Machine score 68% (grade B-plus, borderline A-minus) on the PHCK index. Vocalist and lyricist Zack de la Rocha (who gets an extra mark for that so-Sixties’ hippie forename) is the son of a political muralist father, who was brought up by his anthropologist (Ph D, University of California) mother. Guitarist Tom Morello was brought up by his teacher mother; his (absent) father was the brother of Jomo Kenyatta and Kenya’s first ambassador to the UN. Bassist Tim Commerford’s father was an aerospace engineer and his mother a mathematician. Drummer Brad Wilk has said that witnessing how material wealth corrupted his father made him value the simple things in life.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Bigger than Christ

The most striking thing about the new statue on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square is how big it is. When the other 2,399 participants and I did our hours on the plinth as part of Anthony Gormley’s One and Other project last summer, a recurring feature of the experience was how small we felt – or looked – when we were up there. Not so with second world war hero Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, who stands five metres high in his fibreglass feet, towering above the mere mortals passing by below.

I’m not sure why Sir Keith has been built so large, if not simply to bludgeon home his achievements in comparison with the plebs who stood there before him. The bronze cast statue of him that will be permanently installed in nearby Waterloo Place when his six months on the plinth are up will only be 2.78 metres tall – still larger than life but not quite so intimidating as the one that is currently making Lord Nelson look small in his own backyard.

One of the things I’ve liked about the use of the previously empty fourth plinth, since it first became home to six-monthly residencies of statues and other artworks in 1999, has been the human scale of most of what has been attempted there. My favourite remains Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, a white marble carving of Lapper, who was born with no arms and shortened legs. Even at 3.6 metres and 13 tonnes, it seemed simultaneously small and vulnerable and beautiful and strong.

The first statue to appear on the plinth, in 1999, was Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, a life-sized figure of Christ, dressed in a loin cloth and crown of barbed wire. It looked tiny, lost and lonely up there. We have come full circle with Sir Keith Park, brave and deserving of our attention as he may be.

Monday, 30 November 2009

The new Chartists

Despite the best efforts of campaigners, the last time that electoral reform really fired up the British public was when the Suffragettes were strutting their stuff. So while I’m a longstanding supporter of proportional representation and most of the other constitutional changes that reformers have been seeking, under one banner or another, at least since Margaret Thatcher showed what could be done with a minority of votes under an ‘elective dictatorship’, I’m not convinced that the vast majority of voters give a spoilt ballot about it. You certainly don’t hear many people down the pub saying, ‘You know, I’d give Gordon Brown another chance if he promised us a referendum on the single transferrable vote system.’

Campaigners need to ‘reach people where they are’, as the focus-group philosophers like to put it, if they are to get them interested in reform. And since on Saturday and Sunday evenings for the past few months, a large chunk of the nation has been slumped in front of its flatscreens arguing the toss over which X Factor contestant will provide this year’s Christmas Number One Single, where better to advance the case for reform?

The X Factor has courted its share of electoral controversy this time around with arch autocrat Simon Cowell declining to use his judge’s vote to dump the ‘vile creatures’ (his description, in case you were watching Strictly) John and Edward. So, with public trust and confidence in light entertainment entrepreneurs at an all-time low (more than 3,000 viewers complained to ITV about the Jedward farrago), it’s clearly time to put reform high on the Saturday-night agenda. Let’s call it Charter 09 and start collecting the signatures now.

1. Elect the judges Who voted for Simon Cowell anyway? Let’s put the judges through the performing-monkey hoops of a knockout vote each week as well as the performers.

2. One viewer one vote Anyone with a mobile phone and plenty of money can spend their weekend voting over and again for their preferred contestant. ‘Vote early, vote often’ might have been good enough for Mayor Daley but there should be no place for multiple voting in our model TV democracy.

3. Single transferrable vote Every year contestants go out of The X Factor as a result of viewers not voting for them because they think they are too talented to be voted out. A single transferrable vote system would ensure that the least popular act would go out each week.

4. No property qualifications So no charge for mobile phone votes and an alternative means of voting for those who don’t own (that’s you, dad) or use (and you, mum) a mobile.

5. Right of recall Just because someone wins The X Factor doesn’t mean we should be stuck with them forever. A right of recall if they incur our disfavour should be accompanied with the ability to force them to do £20-a-head gigs (as much as you can eat thrown in free) at Maidstone’s Pizza Express, which is where we last heard of the first X Factor winner Steve Brookstein.

6. Public hangings Only one judge and two contestants per series (this isn’t Fox News after all) but if you want to be popular ...

Friday, 20 November 2009

The real value of art

In the same week that some of the brightest and best of Bristol’s urban artists came to north London to showcase their talent this autumn, BT contractors painted over one of the brightest and best pieces of urban art in the neighbourhood.

Crowds gathered on Upper Street, Islington, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive artist Banksy when Bristol’s Crazy Fools Gallery took over the Library (a bar, not a library) for a weekend exhibition. Neither Banksy nor his rumoured self-portrait, valued unviewed at £250,000, turned up. Instead we got ‘Portrait of an Artist’, which had a very fine old-fashioned, gold-plated frame enclosing a portrait of an artist (from behind and not very good) at his easel painting what looks like an alien escapee from a lava lamp. The price tag was still a quarter of a million.

Not far from Upper Street, but in a less salubrious part of town where art investors fear to tread, BT was responding to a ‘complaint about graffitti’ by painting over a portrait on one of its cable boxes of teenager Ben Kinsella, who was murdered at the spot in June 2008. The portrait (from the front and really rather good, even without a gold frame) was the tribute of an anonymous street artist and was much appreciated by Ben’s family and friends. They at least have a sense of the real value of art.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Roll call of irrelevance

Put away the excuses and spare us the extenuating circumstances: if ever there was a measure of left-wing failure in current British politics, it was the abysmal showing of every variety of left-green alternative to Labour and the SNP in the Glasgow North East by election. For the British National Party to fall just 63 votes short of beating the Tories into third place in what should be the Scottish left’s heartland shows just how far we have fallen from the heady days of the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, which saw the election of seven Scottish Green MSPs and six Scottish Socialist Party MSPs.

‘The Labour-SNP conflict was fought with a complete obliviousness to the big issues voters face both locally and nationally,’ wrote Gerry Hassan in the Guardian. ‘Glasgow North East has the highest unemployment claimant count in Scotland, the second-highest incapacity levels and is rated the second unhealthiest place in the UK. Neither party touched on these issues in the campaign.’

Despite this, the voting returns for the various left candidates read like a roll call of irrelevance. David Doherty, for the Scottish Greens, did better than most with a paltry 332 (1.61 per cent). Louise McDaid, for the Socialist Labour Party, managed less than a coachload (47 votes, 0.23 per cent). The Scottish Socialist Party’s Kevin McVey got 152 (0.74 per cent), a long way short of the 798 (3.86 per cent) obtained by the agent of the SSP’s acrimonious collapse, Tommy Sheridan, now fighting under the Solidarity banner.

The BNP’s 1,013 votes (4.92 per cent) is a long way short of seeing stormtroopers on Sauchiehall Street. But the fact that left-greens can’t put together a deposit-saving campaign under these most favourable of by-election circumstances is yet further proof, if it is needed, of the need to get our electoral act together if the anti-establishment tide is not to be harnessed even more effectively by the far right.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Wake-up call on climate

On 21 September 2009, at more than 2600 events in 135 countries across the globe, people used their mobile phones to join together to issue a wake-up call to world leaders on climate change. The breadth and creativity of events was breathtaking (a world away from the old-style 'Whaddawewant?' chanting) and the message broke through to leaders and international media.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Wot, no spliff?

Whatever is the world coming to? Telegraph blogs editor Damian Thompson, who lives in Notting Hill, had a predictable moan about this year's Carnival: it's too big, in the wrong place, blacks and whites don't mingle (not with him maybe).

And then he shows how with it and street the new Notting Hill Tories are trying to be by complaining that 'I was struck by the shortage of spliff being smoked today. My theory: the stuff is now so ubiquitous that Carnival-goers no longer get excited about scoring and then being able to smoke it outdoors without being arrested. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but the clean air smelled wrong, like a Catholic church from which incense has been banned by a trendy priest.'

That's him in the picture, by the way. The idiot grin is a dead giveaway.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Black Album

The headline in the London freesheet on my way to Hanif Kureishi’s new play The Black Album read ‘Racists Kidnap Muslim Leader’. Noor Ramjanally, from Loughton, Essex, was reportedly abducted from his home at knifepoint by two men, bundled into the boot of a car and driven to Epping Forest. There he feared he was about to be murdered when one of the men said ‘Let’s do it here.’ Instead, he was warned, ‘We don’t want [your] Islamic group in Loughton. If you don’t stop, we’ll come back.’

Ramjanally has been the target of a hate campaign, including the firebombing of his house, since starting a regular Friday afternoon prayer meeting in a Loughton community hall in March. It’s the sort of overt, spilling-over-into-violence bigotry that frequently goes along with far-right electoral success. The BNP has four councillors in the area, whose leader Pat Richardson denied his party’s involvement in the attacks on Ramjanally with the comment that ‘firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure.’

It is indeed a brick rather than a firebomb that goes through the window of a Pakistani butcher’s home in The Black Album. But the effect of such attacks, and the lower-level, everyday racism encountered especially – and, since 9/11, increasingly – by Muslims of Asian origin in Britain is no less incendiary.

It is this anti-‘Paki’ sentiment that provides the backdrop to Kureishi’s play, which is based on his second novel, written in 1995 and set in 1989, when the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie called on Muslims to murder the author and his book The Satanic Verses was being burnt in Bradford and other cities. The Black Album relates the rise of a militant, political Islam, told through the prism of Shahid, a young student, newly arrived in London, who had been so scarred by his experience of racism at school in Sevenoaks that he had wanted to deny his own identity and be a racist himself.

Shahid, like his creator Kureishi, feels himself disconnected from both the society in which he resides and the one from which he came. Like Kureishi, his love of literature takes him into a world of the imagination that distances him from others in his family and ethnic community. Even so, he has an immediate bond with his new Muslim friends in London, Chad, Hat and Riaz – ‘the first people he had met who were like him; he didn’t have to explain anything’. The novel follows their radicalisation in the face of the toxic cocktail of racism and the seemingly empty hedonism they encounter in a London whose youth are revelling in the drug-fuelled euphoria of rave culture following the ‘second summer of love’. The play takes us forward a further decade, to the suicide bombers of 2005, finishing with a literal bang as one of the characters dons a rucksack and blows up himself, the set and everyone on it.

I was left wanting more from Kureishi, who remains one of a very small number of writers of Asian Muslim origin who has made the crossover into the British literary milieu. The Black Album as a play felt too trite and obvious (the opportunistic Labour council leader was little more than a silly parody of George Galloway). Caught between the racists and the Islamists, I can’t help feeling that the likes of Kureishi have been cast adrift. The kind of cultural fusion that his work represents seems to find itself on ever more uncertain ground, speaking to an almost entirely white liberal audience – not so much a bridge bringing together different traditions as a no man’s land being bombed from both sides.

The Black Album as novel finishes on a life-affirming note, with Shahid and his college lecturer lover Deedee agreeing that they will continue with their ‘adventure’ together ‘until it stops being fun’. The fun has clearly stopped long before the end of the play.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Enough already

To the Globe Theatre for the revolution. Or two revolutions, to be precise: the American and the French. A New World, Trevor Griffiths’ account of the ‘life and loves’ of Tom Paine (that well-known printing error, as the play reminds us – the ‘e’ was a misspelling), is all the more compelling because the audience is so sparse and the actors seem to be playing to us personally.

There’s no one at all up in the gods and only three of us in our lower gallery bay – half as many as made it to the great radical’s famously ill-attended funeral. Abandoned by his erstwhile admirers for his denunciation of organised religion, the man whose pamphlet Common Sense sold 150,000 copies in its first printing (in a country whose population was less than two million) died and was buried in obscurity. I hope Griffiths’ play, which finishes its run on 9 October, doesn’t suffer the same fate.

I suspect the low attendance when I saw it was due to the mass abandonment of London, if you weren’t going to the Notting Hill Carnival, over the August bank holiday. This is the best time to be in the capital, with school closures and other holidays taking up to a quarter of the traffic off the roads and reducing the population by an unmissed million or more. For a little while, you can breathe and you get a sense of why the latest population projections, published in the week before the bank holiday, are such bad news, despite what some would have us believe.

There are now 61.4 million of us in the UK, two million more than in 2001, with most of that increase crowded into the little corner of our island that includes London. We’re on course to hit 70 million within a generation. You don’t have to be a racist banging on about immigration to think that’s enough.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Stop the lies about our health service

First, let me declare an interest. Both I and my grandson (who was born prematurely, has been in and out of Great Ormond Street children's hospital and will require continuing treatment for the rest of his life) have received the sort of care from the National Health Service that would have been beyond the means of the majority of people in the US. Like the vast majority of people in the UK, I'm proud of the NHS and I'm sick of those wealthy vested interests that try to run it down.

Now let me urge you to sign up to the message below to the people of America. About 80,000 people have done so already; it will take you a couple of minutesto join them.

UK to US: the truth about the NHS

Barack Obama's movement for change in the US is at risk of collapsing - in large part because of lies about healthcare in the UK!

It's incredible, but Obama's health plan, and with it his entire presidency, could be derailed if big corporations and the radical right manage to convince Americans that the NHS is a nightmare rationed service that refuses to treat patients and abandons the most needy, such as Stephen Hawking, without care.

We need a huge popular outcry to show the truth - how proud and grateful we are in the UK to have a public healthcare system that works, despite its imperfections. Sign on to the message to America and forward this link - if enough of us sign, we'll cause a stir in US media and help change the debate:

US healthcare is run by large corporations - it's the most expensive in the world, but ranks 37th in quality, and 40 million Americans can't afford any care at all. It's an awful system for people, but corporations make enormous profits, so they're fighting to keep it. Industry lobbyists are ramping up their smear campaigns right now to make sure the Obama plan is dead on arrival when Congress meets in September. Americans are hearing a constant barrage of propaganda that the NHS is a nightmare. Let's say it ain't so.

Myths about the proposed health care reforms

Extreme tactics of the conservative right

Paul Krugman on health care

The extent of the health care lobby

Health insurers stocks rise as health care plans fade

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Cricket: better than sex?

First day of the last Ashes Test and those ever-imaginative people at Philosophy Football have diversified into cricket. This means that you can now add this t-shirt, inspired by the late cricket fanatic and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, to your whites - or ritually burn it, as the mood takes you, when England's batting again collapses at the crucial moment.

Cricket has drawn a surprising number of left-wing writers to the crease over the years, from CLR James to Mike Marqusee and ex-New Statesman editor Peter Wilby. But cricketers themselves often lack the same way with words. Former England captain Mike Gatting was once asked if he felt vindicated when a test victory followed a period of press criticism. 'I don't think the press are vindictive,' he replied. 'They can write what they want.'

Saturday, 8 August 2009

A trip to the Tower

My friend is on a mission. At the top of the Oxo Tower on London’s South Bank is a public viewing platform overlooking the Thames. You have to go through the eighth-floor Harvey Nichols restaurant to get to it, and the restaurant has been colonising it with tables and chairs as part of its bar space in recent years. But it’s there as a condition of the original planning consent for the restaurant (which sits on top of possibly the best-positioned social housing ever built) and the public has a right of access.

When we visit, however, the restaurant has attempted to close off the area altogether for a private function. My friend isn’t having it. ‘Am I embarrassing you?’ she asks me in an aside as she harangues the bar-tender and anyone else within shouting distance about public access and threatens to bring 60 students along on a field trip as part of the planning course she teaches.

‘No,’ I lie. Actually I’d prefer a slightly quieter defence of our traditional liberties, but she happens to be in the right and I have no intention of moving from our position looking out towards St Paul’s, ‘private’ function or not. We assert our right to be there for as long as I can stand it (an hour on the plinth is more than enough public attention for one summer) and having made the point move on.

If you value public rights of access you have to use them. I recommend making use of the Oxo Tower public viewing facility next time you’re nearby. Just take the lift to the top floor: the view really is worth it.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Michael Jackson, the Elgin Marbles and the Guardian

Twitter crashed under the sheer volume of messages, and Google traffic jumped so dramatically that the company thought it was under attack from hackers.

But on the Guardian website, (which remains Britain’s most-visited newspaper website, with 27,194,840 unique visitors in May, according to the latest figures), the news of Michael Jackson’s death made only number three on its ‘Most Viewed’ chart for the seven days ending on Monday 29 June, which includes the weekend when Jackson died.

The most viewed? The USA v Brazil confederations cup final live-as-it-happened commentary, believe it or not. Even more remarkably, an arts diary poll on whether it is time to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece came in at number two.

The poll, which drew 380,000 viewers and 130,000 voters, yielded an Albania-under-Enver Hoxha style result, with 94.8 per cent in favour of their return and 5.2 per cent against – which suggested something of a fix.

And so it proved. Forty thousand came to the poll via various Facebook campaigns; 6,000 more came from a single email circular. Half of those who voted came from Athens, which normally accounts for 0.4 per cent of Guardian website traffic.

Not that the Guardian minded; it’s all grist to its online advertising mill. By July the cricket was dominating its ‘Most Viewed’ charts. There was room, however, for one Jacko story, a classic of its kind: ‘Paul McCartney "not devastated" over Michael Jackson will.’

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

One and Other

Stephen Bayley called it ‘art for the Facebook generation’, which is kind of flattering when you’re old enough to remember waiting lists for telephone lines. But I got my hour on the ‘people’s plinth’ in Trafalgar Square on the opening day of Antony Gormley’s ‘One And Other’ project and I am now officially a work of art in the same portfolio as the ‘Angel of the North’ and ‘Another Place’.

I’d already ditched my idea of spending the hour as the sniper who shot Nelson by the time the day came around. This was partly because I decided against re-fighting 200-year-old wars when there are more than enough present-day ones to be going on with, and partly because I’d not properly considered the logistics of getting hold of an authentic Napoleonic musket, let alone brandishing it in the heart of 21st-century London. The National Theatre props department ‘doesn’t do guns’ (though it does do a very tempting line in steel cutlasses); and the most promising theatrical outfitters went very cold on the idea when I couldn’t answer their questions on security and police licences.

Other possibilities came and went (lying down for the hour so that no one could see me was one of them). But as soon as I got to the square I realised that what the public wanted from this latest manifestation of public art was a performance not a statue, living or otherwise. So, armed only with a blackboard and a bag of chalk, I did my best to find the lowest artistic common denominator and scribbled a succession of unethereal messages for the Twitter generation watching online (, if you have an empty hour to fill).

One of them said ‘I’m better at football’, which prompted a particularly snooty bystander to remark ‘Well that says it all.’ ‘The real art’s in there,’ she added, gesturing to the National Gallery on the north of the square. And maybe it is, but I bet the Fourth Plinth project has got more people talking about art than the Littleton Pilaster Saints, much as I love the gallery’s latest acquisition, ever did.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Taking the plinth

Life is what happens when you're busy blogging on other matters, to paraphrase John Lennon. And life has been coming at me in a bit of a rush over the past few months, which is why I haven't spent very much of my time in the blogosphere for a while. More of that another time (if I ever manage to find the time). For now, hello again, I'm back: you might have seen me in Trafalgar Square.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Nice work ...

An erstwhile journalist of my acquaintance, now ensconced in that great gravy train on Thames, once gave me advice about how to prosper in both journalism and politics. ‘Always have your next job lined up and your expense claims up to date,’ he said. I’m sure he’s always conducted himself with the utmost propriety when it comes to MPs’ expenses but I don’t see his name at the bottom end of the league table of low claimers.

I do, however, see the name of one Rt Hon Tony Blair down there as the second-lowest claiming MP in the 2007-08 financial year. He’s sandwiched between the veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner, now in his 40th year as MP for Bolsover, and Philip Hollobone, the Tory representative for Kettering and the cheapest of Westminster’s 646 MPs at Westminster, who claimed barely a third of the £135,600 a year average.

Tony claimed £64,064 expenses for 2007-08, including £5,772 to cover the cost of staying away from his main home (that would be Downing Street, if you remember, so a lot of people would no doubt have been happy to pay for him to stay away a lot longer). Which sounds extremely modest by most MPs standards – until you realise that he quit parliament in June 2007, less than three months into that financial year.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Taking aim at Nelson

I have put in a bid for a place on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. At the time of writing, there are 11,037 applicants for the 2,400 one-hour slots in Antony Gormley’s living monument to the people of Britain, which runs for 100 days beginning in July – so the odds are rather better than for winning the National Lottery (one in 13,983,816 to win the jackpot, one in 56.7 to win a tenner, since you ask).

Coincidentally, I was interviewing Bob and Roberta Smith the other day for Channel 4’s Big Art Project. Bob was one of the shortlisted artists who lost out to Antony Gormley in the contest for the next artwork to stand on the empty Fourth Plinth. So I was thinking of offering him my hour, if I get it, to display his rejected artwork, FaĆ®tes L’Art, pas La Guerre (Make Art, Not War), an illuminated peace sign, powered by wind and solar energy.

Failing that, and the too obvious option of holding down a pigeon for an hour and crapping on its head, I’m planning on donning a liberty cap and dressing up as the French sharpshooter who took out Nelson in 1805. I’ll need a musket and four musket balls for full dramatic effect. (‘If I don't kill him with these three, I'll blow out my brains with the fourth,’ the French sniper is reputed to have said as he set about his task.) But when I’m done it will be some sort of revenge for my country having been on the wrong side in the wars against revolutionary France – and a reminder that the man whose monument celebrates him as a hero of the Battle of Trafalgar should also be remembered as the Butcher of Naples for his vicious subjugation of the Jacobins there in 1799.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Gays and Muslims

As a headline-grabbing finding, you couldn’t get a much more dramatic – or, from a left-liberal perspective, troubling – statistic than the Gallup poll revelation in May that not one of the 500 British Muslims surveyed thought that homosexual acts were morally acceptable. Such unanimity is virtually unheard of in opinion polling, where even the whackiest of viewpoints usually finds some sort of minority representation.

It was noteworthy, therefore, that the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPACUK) weekly newsletter was recently promoting a piece by gay Muslim film-maker and activist Parvez Sharma on the UN ‘Durban II’ racism conference, where western delegates walked out en masse in protest against Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli, Holocaust-doubting views. Sharma clearly got the nod from MPACUK because he chose to direct his criticism against the walkers-out more than against Ahmadinejad, of whom he said only that he ‘made provocative comments which were in poor taste’. But the fact that a campaigning self-proclaimed gay Muslim could feature in such a forum without an outpouring of wrath against him holds out a little hope that perhaps that Gallup poll finding is not as unequivocal as it appears.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Dirty swine flu

Swine flu pandemonium 1976 vintage. Just make sure you boil that bacon thoroughly ...

30 April: Just corrected that spelling because, as a good friend and informant points out, 'pandamonium ... would be a large black and white bear who spends all its time complaining, when in fact they spend all their time eating bamboo and sleeping. Never met such lazy, good for nothing bears as Pandas.' Maybe, but at least they never gave us panda flu ...

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Belgium isn't boring

This is dedicated to my sister, whose renditions of Do-Re-Mi, complete with actions, are legendary in the pubs of Stone and well beyond.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Second sex

‘It isn’t only about sex, you know.’ I’ve heard the refrain so often that it’s almost become convincing. And now there’s even a brave new virtual world of political activism and protest being built in online fantasy worlds such as Second Life to justify spending all those hours in front of a computer screen.

Second Life, if you haven’t come across it yet, is a free 3D virtual world where people who have enough time left over from their first life can reinvent themselves and interact with other people via avatars. Once you’ve set up your avatar, you can do all sorts of things that aren’t only about sex – like selling Red Pepper, attending online protest meetings or picketing SL’s digital Israeli embassy, if you’re so inclined, although it has to be said that most of SL’s avatars seem to have other inclinations.

As a hardcore online junkie, old enough to remember rooting around on something called the Undernet and communicating via Internet Relay Chat, and a recovering SimCity and Civilisation addict, I had successfully steered clear of SL since its foundation in 2003. My willpower cracked, though, when a friend insisted that I accompany her on a sort of Motorcycle Diaries-style trip to check out the revolutionary potential.

Let’s say I got distracted.

It started with an invitation to the BadGirlz Club, progressed via a beach resort and continued into a castle occupied by, inter alia, vampires, zombies and aficionados of the cult of Gor (a kind of medieval BDSM fantasy world in which stepping out of character to have a quick laugh at the absurdity of it all gets you kicked out of the club faster than you can say ‘Yes Master’). Before I knew it, my avatar had acquired a shaved head, some very fetching skull tattoos, a single ‘elf gauntlet’ and the tightest pair of gay of gayboi pants you could ever imagine squeezing your bum into. Oh yes, and erm, a box of nine penises.

What do you do with a box of nine penises, I’m sure you’re asking. The answer is: you wear them. Not all at once, of course, and you do have to use a bit of virtual jiggerypokery to unpack them from the box first – as I only discovered after walking around SL with a box labelled ‘Nine Penises’ attached to my avatar’s pelvis for the next couple of days.

My friend, meanwhile, had decided she was up for a sex-change operation. This was after she had refused an offer to spend 155 Linden dollars (SL’s very own currency) on something called ‘seclix rave pacifier’, which supposedly ‘simulates real life pacifier dipped in MDMA’ and is advertised in SL as ‘drugs without the crash’. She spent the money instead on a special, just-like-real-life penis, which came with handy instruction manual.

‘How to adjust the penis size?’ was one of the Q&As, to which the answer is: ‘Wear the penis. Right click it and select “edit”. Click the button “Stretch”. Now use the white blocks to adjust the size. Note that the penis can be made bigger, but not smaller.’

Neither of us has got very far in fomenting a Second Life revolution just yet. But we have a fine collection of penises, if anyone is interested.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Would 'Gotcha!' have been the best tweet ever?

Nice 1 April story about the Guardian going over entirely to Twitter ('OMG Hitler invades Poland' etc). I hear the Sun considered the idea but turned it down: WTF do you do with 140 characters?

Saturday, 7 March 2009

England People Very Racist?

I try to avoid reading reviews of things before I have had the chance to make up my own mind. I’m far too contrarian and end up spending far too much time trying to see things differently to the critics.

It was impossible to avoid the charges of cartoon caricatures, racist stereotypes and malevolent wisecracking levelled at Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, currently showing at the National Theatre, however. Commentators ranging from shadow children’s secretary Michael Gove to East End playwright Hussain Ismail were lining up to diss it. Gove called it ‘dramatically appalling ... It made Alf Garnett seem sophisticated.’ Hussein called it ‘racist and offensive ... I went to the first night ... All I could see was a sea of people laughing at immigrants.’ Even theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh, no PC stalwart he, accused it of ‘defaming refugees’ and ‘[fanning] the ever ready flames of prejudice.

So I went prepared to don my contrarian hat but with more than a sniff of disquiet about my person as the audience laughed its way through a sequence of comedy routines dealing with successive waves of immigrants – French Huguenots, Irish, Jews, the occasional Afro-Caribbean and Bangladeshis – to Bethnal Green, in London’s East End. Each wave was shown to resent the next; and each ethnic group was the target of the sort of humour that does indeed depend on a high degree of racial and cultural stereotyping.

Was it funny? Most of the audience – and I – certainly thought so. And I don’t think it was only in what Nicholas de Jongh called ‘the slick, cruel, abusive style that Bernard Manning perfected ages ago’. Context is everything, though, and it helps to have some Irish blood coursing through your veins if you find yourself laughing out loud at the Irish’s purported penchant for keeping a pig as part of the family, inter-marrying with your cousins and breeding one-eyed babies as a consequence. ‘Mother always told us not to go with strangers.’ I’m not sure I would have wanted to be laughing at that one if my Irish companion hadn’t been pissing herself already.

I found the treatment of the last great wave of immigrants, Bethnal Green’s Muslim community, more difficult to laugh along with. There seemed to be an undertow that was saying that every other group of refugees has ended up integrating and becoming as indigenous as the English, but that this one was different. The BNP character in the play says to an Afro-Caribbean: ‘It’s not about race any more, it’s about culture.’ The Afro-Caribbean ends up packing his suitcase and heading off ‘home’ to Barbados.

My companion and I argued the toss about the play for at least an hour afterwards. We both agreed that the group to come out worst from it was the white working class, whose primary recurring role throughout this portrayal of 400 years of East End history was that of murderous, racist thugs. That’s an unfair caricature – and it wasn’t very funny.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Dynamite shoes

He breathed in air
He breathed out light
Adrian Mitchell was my delight

Roger McGough introduced Radio 4’s Poetry Please commemoration of Adrian Mitchell with this reworking of Adrian’s own tribute to Charlie Parker, whose ‘Lover Man’ opened the programme. Over the next half hour, some of Adrian’s many friends and fellow poets remembered him and read from his work.

Jackie Kay chose Adrian’s ‘Back in the Playground Blues’ about his childhood experience of bullying. Michael Horovitz took us back to that biggest poetry gig of all time, when Adrian spat out ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’ (actually titled ‘To Whom It May Concern’) at the Albert Hall in 1965. Andrew Marr picked up ‘A Puppy Called Puberty’. And John Hegley gave us ‘Ten Ways to Avoid Lending Your Wheelbarrow’ (‘Number One, patriotic: I didn’t lay down my life in World War II so that you could borrow my wheelbarrow; Number Two, snobbish: Unfortunately Samuel Beckett is using it’).

There was also Jonathan Price (‘Death is smaller than I thought’), Michelle Roberts, Carole Ann Duffy, Brian Patten and John Agard. And most of all there was Adrian’s wife, Celia, reading ‘The Doorbell’, which Adrian had written for CND in 2006. Celia said she had chosen because ‘it is about war and destruction and we met and fell in love because we were both wearing CND badges and we saw each other across the room’:

There, on the doorstep, stood the War.

It filled my front garden,
filled the entire street
and blotted out the sky.
It was human and monstrous,
shapeless, enormous,
with torn and poisoned skin which bled
streams of yellow, red and black ...

The War had many millions of eyes
and all wept tears of molten steel.
Then the War spoke to me
in a voice of bombs and gunfire:
I am your war.
Can I come in?

Roger McGough rounded off with a clip of Adrian and his daughter Sasha singing: ‘Poetry glues your soul together/ Poetry wears dynamite shoes.’ Sasha tells me that she and Celia have agreed to do some of Adrian’s regular gigs this year, including probably the Latitude festival, with Sasha singing and Celia reading his poems. Celia says they’re thinking of a big public commemoration for Adrian, maybe at the Hackney Empire in the autumn.
I’m sure they’ll be unmissable. In the meantime, you can listen to the whole of the Poetry Please commemoration at

Pictured: Philosophy Football’s t-shirt, with which Adrian was delighted and distributed to various friends and family members, is available from

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Safe skating

'Skater-haters should hobble back home to take their medication and watch Countdown.' Seventy-one-year old Geoff Dornan of Southport, who's just been fined £300 plus £1,800 costs for 'dangerous skating' in Southport's main shopping street, sounds like someone who's spent most of his adult life just waiting for the opportunity to live out Monty Python's Hell's Grannies sketch for real.

You've got to hand it to Geoff, who admits to having had 'heated discussions with [his] fellow geriatrics' about his skating activities and reckons that they're just jealous that he's still up to it in his eighth decade. He's certainly a decent skater, as the CCTV footage shown in court demonstrates. And pretty 'safe' too, as I'm sure the skating community would agree. Eighteen hundred quid for arguing your side of the case is steep by any standards.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Jade Goody: enough said

Somewhere I have copies of the articles I wrote back in 2002 and again during the 'Shillpa Poppadom' affair in 2007 sticking up for Jade Goody. I was going to dig them out and revisit what I'd written about class prejudice and Britain in the light of Jade's diagnosis with terminal cancer but it all felt a bit self-serving and inappropriate when the poor woman is dying, albeit in the full glare of the media spotlight.

Now Michele Hanson has said it for me and I don't have to worry about going over it all again myself. I have a mental image of a bile-filled Sun front page, however, that won't easily be laid to rest. I hope all those who were behind the Goody hatefest will pause for just a moment to reflect on it now.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

A bad week for public art

It’s been a bad week for public art. First, the worst of the five entries – Mark Wallinger’s far too literal statue of a bloody big horse – wins the competition for the Ebbsfleet Landmark. And today, Manchester City Council announces it’s going to pull down Thomas Heatherwick’s spectacular B of the Bang sculpture over ‘technical problems’ – i.e. fears that it might fall down anyway.

A shame because both outcomes will only confirm the philistines in their view that monumental public art is just a big waste of time, particularly in a recession.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Money for new wellies

My friend Amy has been emailing everyone she knows on Facebook to ask for money to buy some wellies. You'll understand why when your read her letter. I'm sending her some (money not wellies), and if you want to do likewise you can find her here. 50p for every pair of shoes in your possession (double for men)?

That is right, I am emailing you to ask for money.

I am returning to Cambodia next week to shoot some footage, which will hopefully lead to me raising loads of money for people with nothing.

There are an estimated 25,000 orphans with HIV in Cambodia and only two orphanages to care for them, one homes 70 kids and one, where I worked, homes 30. 100 orphans being looked after out of 25,000- that is rubbish.

One of the first places I am visiting is Steung Meanchey, the rubbish tip on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (see clip on my profile page), where many of the children who live and work there are orphans, 70% are HIV+, some have no clothes and most have no shoes.

Foot injuries from needles and glass are very common. I have managed to get some local chemists and doctors to donate medical supplies and I plan to go to the tip armed with my surgical gloves and patch up their feet, then ... I am going to put all those bare feet in Wellington Boots to protect them. And I am asking you to give me money for those Wellington Boots.

'This is the closest thing to hell on earth I have ever seen,' said an aid worker I spoke to, 'I don't know how people can let a place like this exist.'

Maybe it's because people don't know? Well now you do.

If everyone I am friends with on Facebook gave me £5-£10, I would be able to put shoes on the feet of every bare-foot-orphan at the tip. No joke, it doesn't cost much over there and there are about 400 orphans in need of shoes.

When I think about all our spare shoes together, bloody hundreds, what a waste, I wish I could take them over, but I can't carry them all so give me your money instead please. Help your friend Amy put shoes on orphans feet. Go on it will make you feel good.

Feel the love, it is almost Valentines Day and flowers die anyway.

Amy xxx

Monday, 9 February 2009

Paul Ross: the perfect picture

'If you only buy one 20 inch canvas print of Paul Ross this year, this is the one to get.'

'I recently purchased this poster, and while it's lifelike, well made and had a certain, portly charm to it, I have since found out that it's actually *cheaper* to hire Paul Ross to come over and stand against a wall, whenever you feel the need to look at him.'

Those people at Amazon didn't know what they were starting when they opened up their website to customer reviews. Paul Ross has a particularly high satisfaction rating.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

The Thames trotted

It’s downhill all the way from the Prince of Wales pub in Iffley to the bandstand on the green at Henley. Got to be, hasn’t it, or the Thames couldn’t flow so fiercely over the weirs on its way between the two.

One thing that running teaches you is that there’s no such thing as flat. Even a millpond must have its hills hidden somewhere. And there’s no such thing as downhill all the way either, outside a Tory government.

The Thames path (or national trail, to give it its due) saves its hills on this stretch of the river until you’ve already passed the 30-mile mark, when it takes you up the valley sides between Goring and Whitchurch. It rises to all of, oh, 62 metres, which wouldn’t even get you halfway up the London Eye but feels like you’re taking the staircase to the top of Canary Wharf (twice) when you’ve already been running for about six hours to get there.

Starting a 50-mile run from a pub, with a roaring open fire and a selection of fine ales, and finishing at a bandstand, with snow on the roof and ice on the floor, seems arse about tit when you think about it. But, my, did it feel good to get there. Ten and a half hours, just under, and I didn’t go over on the snow and ice once.

Friday, 6 February 2009

A Thames Trot

I’ve just received an email to tell me that tomorrow’s ‘Thames Trot’ is on, despite the weather. The name is the organiser’s idea of a joke, since it’s a 50-mile event along the river from Oxford to Henley. It’s my longest-ever run (though I’ve done 100km as a walk) and every bone, muscle and tendon in my body has started hurting since the moment they heard that it is happening.

Suddenly I feel sick to the stomach and don’t know whether to go equipped with ice axe and crampons or kneepads and skates. I must say that even ignoring the distance, the idea of running on ice is about as appealing as swimming in treacle. And I’ve got to drive to the Prince of Wales pub in Iffley for the start in the early hours of tomorrow morning.

Earlier this week a friend sent me a link to a BBC news report in which:

‘Margaret Morrissey, of the Parents Outloud campaign group, said the decision to keep thousands of schools shut for a second day sent the wrong signals to children.

She added: “We are giving children the message that when things get difficult you should just stay at home and have fun.”’

‘What’s wrong with staying home and having fun when things get difficult?’ my friend asked.

I reckon that by this time tomorrow nothing could appeal to me more.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Riot shields into sledges

On balance, I think I’ve probably forgiven the school caretaker who destroyed the best skating rink I’ve ever known by putting salt down in the school playground way back when we had real winters and no one cared if a few kids cracked the odd bone or two. I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with Camden Council deciding to lock shut its parks when the snow fell this week, though, because, in the words of council leader Keith Moffitt, ‘I’d rather you were criticising me because some children couldn’t build a snowman than because a child had died on a frozen pond.’

We climbed over the fences into Waterlow Park anyway, giving the older kids a leg up and tossing the toddlers over to be caught on the other side. No one died on a frozen pond (or in it, for that matter), but it would have been our fault and not Councillor Moffitt’s if anyone had.

I’m not sure who would have been held to blame if anyone had died on nearby Hampstead Heath, which has a lot more ponds but can’t be locked shut because it doesn’t have gates restricting access. In any case, the revellers on the heath in the early hours of Monday morning included a platoon of police officers, who turned up with their riot shields – which they proceeded to convert into the coolest makeshift sledges in the capital. If only life was always like this.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Medusa's daughter and the golliwog

In the league table of personal insults, calling someone a ‘golliwog’ ranks about on a par with calling them a ‘muppet’. Even as a racial insult, it’s not quite the sort of epithet that you hear bandied about at BNP meetings (though they do sell golliwogs in BNP t-shirts at some of those meetings, apparently).

Nevertheless, if Carole Thatcher had said it on air, I don’t suppose there would have been much disagreement about her being taken off air as a result. Nor do I think there can be much disagreement with The One Show presenter Adrian Chiles, Jo Brand and others for picking up Medusa’s Daughter over her use of the word during an after-show conversation in which she blabbed out her ‘off-the-cuff remark made in jest’ to describe a tennis player in the Australian open.

(Why the widespread coyness, by the way, in naming the tennis player concerned? I couldn’t find one mainstream news outlet prepared to say who Thatcher was talking about. Didn’t any of them think it might have been instructive to get his opinion on the subject?)

I don’t think it suggests any degree of sympathy for the use of racially-based epithets, however, to feel that the reaction to Thatcher’s foot-in-mouth has been just a little OTT. When the Beeb doesn’t have the bollocks to broadcast a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza, it feels a mite disproportionate to start acting all macho over an ex-prime minister’s gobby offspring.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Making do with Lewisham

Never mind the BBC and Sky’s refusal to screen the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza. They’ve done more to publicise the appeal by rejecting its broadcast than ever they would otherwise.

On a more modest scale, Chris Boddington has been doing his bit for the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians by asking people to sponsor him to stay in the London Borough of Lewisham for the next five years. That’s presumably on the basis that if the people of Gaza are besieged in an area of roughly 360 square kilometres with a broken economy and few services, he can make do with a rather smaller but more prosperous part of south east London.

Actually if you read the small print he’s only promising to ‘reside’ there and he says that should he ‘fail to complete the challenge, you will of course be within your rights to go [to Gaza] and ask for [your money] back’. Which doesn’t show quite the commitment to the cause that some have displayed, but MAP is worth a donation anyway if you missed the address for the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Monday, 26 January 2009

White socks for the convict's opera

My career as an actor, singer and member of a pioneering boy band peaked in a sailor’s suit on the stage of Liverpool’s Neptune Theatre at some point in the 1970s. There were a few of us loosely associated with the Liverpool Youth Theatre who got roped in as members of the chorus in a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Written in 1728, it’s currently enjoying a short sold-out season (anyone give me a ticket for old time’s sake?) at the Royal Opera House, where it’s been billed as the ‘world’s first musical’.

A variation on John Gay, The Convict’s Opera, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, is also touring the country at the moment with its mix of songs old and new and performances good enough to wow any West End stage. I caught it in Salisbury, being in that part of the world for back-to-back trail marathons around Portland and Stonehenge over the weekend. Very bruised and aching limbs were not enough to deter me from the chance to revisit my teenage triumph (somewhere my mum has a Liverpool Echo photo of the sailor-suited boy band), especially since I managed to wangle a front-row seat with plenty of room to stretch out.

Mistake. Sometimes you go to the kind of theatre where audience participation is de rigeur or you know the ‘fourth wall’ is only there to be broken down. Sometimes you go only to reminisce, relax and be entertained. It was only at the start of the second act, when the The Convict’s Opera’s leading convict was leaning over the edge of the stage, fixing me in the eyes and asking to loud and very camp dramatic effect what my name was, ‘little boy’ (yes, he really did add that suffix), that I realised that, for a few minutes at least, I was going to be back in Gay’s opera again as a comic prop.

I have a pre-prepared get-out script running in my head for occasions such as this. It goes something like, ‘My name is Michael Barrymore. I’d love to get up there with you, but I’m so dangerously unpredictable that you really wouldn’t want me to. And anyway, I’ve only been let out of the unit for a couple of hours on the understanding that I don’t go anywhere near bright lights, and I really must take my medication now. Why don’t you talk to one of them [gesturing to the empty seats in the rest of the auditorium] instead?’

Unfortunately, the brain was far too slow (all that pounding on the paths of Salisbury Plain). And so it was that ‘Sailor Steve’ (far too slow to make the obvious ‘seasick’ joke) was press ganged into a centre-stage appearance as a convict-ship crew member, where he was lathered up for a public shaving with a gleaming cut-throat theatrical razor, doused with a bucketful of glittering clown’s water and then made to walk the plank back to his front-row seat with all dignity demolished.

And I was wearing a pair of white running socks, which the spotlight illuminated exquisitely between the comfy trainers and scruffy Levis. White socks at an opera, I ask yer …

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

A patriot for Aretha

Aretha Franklin does it for me every time. So if it’s ‘My country ‘tis of thee’ that she’s singing, even if it isn’t my country, I’m a patriot. And yesterday I was a British-American patriot.

The pessimist, the sceptic and the cynic in me have all struggled to keep pace with my inner Obama on that incredible journey to the White House. Mostly, they’ve managed to keep in touch, albeit at a distance. Yesterday, though, they got left behind somewhere in the deep recesses of leftist soullessness – because soul is what you would have to have been without not to be moved by this occasion. It is one of those great, shared global events, like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the release of Nelson Mandela, that I am glad to have lived to see.

It’s sometimes hard to grasp the fact that it is only four decades, barely half a lifetime, since the civil rights movement tore down the legal barriers that kept black Americans segregated and oppressed. Or that it is only two decades since Barack Obama’s predecessor in the office of president and his equivalent in the UK were the principal defenders of apartheid outside South Africa itself. If so much can change so quickly, why not believe that so much more can yet be changed?

Friday, 16 January 2009

1,000 years of pop

Suppose you had to sum up 1,000 years of popular music in a couple of hours worth of songs. Which would you choose?

That’s the task Richard Thompson set himself when Playboy magazine asked various musicians to pick their top ten songs of the millennium in 1999. While most of those asked didn’t go back much further than their own lifetimes, Thompson decided he’d call Playboy’s bluff and do a real thousand-year selection. It wasn’t printed.

Thompson is currently touring the UK with his latest choice of songs, which range from medieval madrigals and ‘colloquial Renaissance Italian dance music’ (you can really dance to it, as it happens), via Richard the Lionheart, Henry Purcell and W D Yeats, to Gilbert and Sullivan and music hall – and all that before he even starts on the last hundred years.

In London last night, he had Stick (brother of Brownie) McGhee’s ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-Oh-Dee’ stand for the rock ‘n’ roll canon. The Kinks’ ‘See My Friends’ (reputedly the first piece of Indian-influenced western pop music after Ray Davies was inspired by fishermen chanting outside his hotel window on a trip to the east) represented the 1960s; Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ the 1970s; the Korgis’ ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’ the 1980s; and – here it gets a bit weird – Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’, complete with medieval church Latin interlude, brought us up to the present.

Encoring with a medley that climaxed with ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ put the Beatles – justifiably, I think – at the top of Thompson’s charts. But if I had to pick one song that will still be featuring in selections in another 1,000 years, Cole Porter’s 1932 classic, ‘Night and Day’, which he once said had been inspired by a Moroccan call to prayer, and has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to U2, would be a choice I could happily live with.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Wearing your politics on your chest

Philosophy Football’s splendid t-shirts have been getting the sort of free publicity that the big corporations would pay serious fortunes for on Celebrity Big Brother. The former Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan, who is still awaiting trial on perjury charges arising from his £200,000 libel victory over the News of the World in 2006, must have packed a whole suitcase of them to take into the Big Brother house and has been wearing them virtually every day. He’s even got some of the other housemates to model the shirts, including La Toya ‘My contract says you can’t film me without make-up’ Jackson, who was sporting one featuring Nelson Mandela.

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman says Sheridan must have bought some of the shirts ten years or more ago as they’re no longer available. You can still buy one of my personal favourites, though: the Bill Shankly shirt, which Sheridan modelled the other day. (‘The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.)

And the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ have just produced one that Mark says ‘is partly inspired by one of the hundreds of hand-written anonymous placards carried at the 3 January demonstration in London. The Palestine 09 design expresses vividly the cycle of despair that has turned the tiny Gaza strip into a war zone of Israeli reprisals using its overwhelming military might.’ Priced at £16.99 and helping to raise funds for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, it’s available from

Monday, 5 January 2009

Phil Jeffries

The Reaper claimed a rich crop of lefties at the end of 2008, Adrian Mitchell, Harold Pinter and Aubrey Morris among them. One of those who died was an old friend of mine, Phil Jeffries, with whom I participated in many housing and other struggles in the 1970s and 1980s.

Phil died, aged 55, on 14 December of a particularly virulent form of lung cancer – killed no doubt by the trademark roll-ups he crafted with the same meticulous care that he brought to his speciality legal work in the service of various community-based campaigns. Latterly he’d been most active around the King’s Cross railway lands development, but I knew him best from his time as an unpaid campaigner with a forensic legal eye on behalf of squatters, short-life housing residents and other badly-housed or homeless people. Literally thousands of people over the years have owed the roofs over their heads to the unsung work carried out by Phil and others around him. A long-time peace activist, he also helped found the Peace Movement Legal Support Group and establish the legal framework within which nonviolent direct action could flourish.

Last year, as the London Fire Brigade’s statistician, he and two colleagues brought the same attention to detail to bear in tracking down a hoaxer who had made 885 false 999 calls from public phone boxes in 45 days. Phil’s analysis of the pattern of calls predicted where the culprit would strike next, leading to his arrest.

Diana Shelley, Phil’s partner for 32 years, has written a tribute about him on the website. ‘His final act, as a scientist dedicated to improving life for everyone,’ she writes, ‘was to leave his body to the London teaching hospitals. This means there will be no funeral, but details of an event to celebrate his life will be posted here when available.’

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Spot the difference

‘Tories poll lead cut to five points as voters turn back to Labour,’ the Guardian headline declared just before Christmas. ‘Labour has cut sharply into the Conservatives’ lead as voters turn to the government to protect them from the economic storm, according to a new Guardian/ICM poll … Today’s poll is in line with other recent surveys, making it clear that the opposition has crashed back to reality after a triumphant summer, and David Cameron is not seen as the man to revive the economy,’ it reported.

Seven days later, in the same paper: another poll, another headline. ‘End of the “Brown bounce?” New poll puts Tories five points ahead of Labour,’ this one pronounced. ‘Poll suggests that David Cameron would win a huge majority at a general election …’

Apart from the fact that the second poll was carried out by ComRes for the Independent, it’s hard to spot any difference between the two. The first poll had the Tories on 38%, Labour on 33% and the Lib Dems on 19%; the second saw the Tories on 39%, Labour 34% and the Lib Dems 16%.

We all know a week is a long time in politics, but from Conservative crash to Cameron landslide without any intervening change in voting intentions is as clear an indication as any of why it’s best not to look for too much insight in the froth of opinion poll punditry.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Time Team, Roman temples and apostrophes

The new series of Time Team, the 16th, starts on Sunday with the discovery of a Roman temple complex in a field in Hertfordshire. It’s something of a triumph for the friendly family archaeological show because every previous attempt to identify the site of a Romano-British temple has yielded only muddy holes in the ground. On this occasion, the team has come up trumps with not one, not two, nor even three temples but at least four of the things, thereby going one better than the proverbial London bus, which only manages to arrive in bunches of three.

The Time Team website, of which I’ve been editor for the past ten years, is also enjoying a minor triumph, having survived the current carnage that is Channel 4 to celebrate its second decade in the virtual digging business with the start of the new series. The cuts at the channel mean that it has done so in much diminished form. We won a Bafta (for interactive entertainment) with the website in 2002, but certainly won’t be repeating the achievement any time soon. With almost everyone I’ve ever worked with at Channel 4 now having either left already or been made redundant in the run up to Xmas, we few freelances who somehow survived the cull cling to the scattered bits of wreckage of what used to be the organisation’s public service remit wondering how long it’s possible to stay afloat when even the lifeboats and lifejackets appear to have been dispensed with.

Sunday’s programme comes from one of those places that must drive the apostrophe pedants to apoplexy. The village of Friars Wash (population 113) has got by very nicely, thank you, without the aid of an apostrophe ever since the original friars (or friar) did their washing there (or not, depending on your view of how the placename originated). Rather like Barons Court and Earls Court in London, which are always good for throwing the Lynne Trusses of this world into confusion. Earls Court is almost invariably apostrophe-less, except on the tube map, where someone bunged one in between the 'l' and the 's'. Incorrectly, as it happens, because if you want to be pedantic about it, it should be Earls’ Court, as the reference is to the Earls of Oxford. In the case of Barons Court, there’s no baron – or barons – so make what you will of that one.

As for Friars Wash, don’t be surprised if Channel 4 gets it wrong in the TV listings and trailers. There’s no one left there to check such things.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

A year of change

Happy 2009 - and here's to a year of, erm, change (we can believe in).