Sunday, 28 February 2010

The nice guy comes first

If there's one capitalism-red-in-tooth-and-nail aphorism that I'd like to expunge from the English language, it's that ugly, untrue US apeshit about 'nice guys come last'. It's been wheeled out again over the John Terry/Wayne Bridge drama, where Bridge's withdrawal from the England team has been taken as an indication that, unlike Terry, he hasn't got it in him to succeed at the highest level and Terry's 'mates' have been letting it be known that he was always regarded as something of a 'bottler' in the dressing room.

Forgive me for just a little whooping and cheering yesterday, then, as bottler Bridge gave tough guy Terry a lesson in dignified, focused and disciplined football while the ex-England captain continued with the schoolboy calamities that increasingly characterise his current form. Nice one, nice guy.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

All we are saying ... is give us some cash

Sean Lennon has been getting his knickers in a Twitter over criticism of the use of his father's image in those Citroen car ads - the ones with the badly synched actor's voice purporting to be John. Sean's mum Yoko authorised the use of the clip of John, even though the only advertising campaign he ever endorsed in life was the one for world peace in 1969.

Sean reacted to being told that he and his mum were 'a talentless pair of leeches' who had 'sold out John's name' by approving the ads with a ferocious series of ripostes via Twitter:

'Lennon fans don't ATTACK his widowed family. His widow and her son. How offensive is it to REAL fans, to publicly attack his wife and child?'

'You are speaking to his flesh and blood. You're a "peasant as far as I can see".'

'When dad died, it was Lennon fans who saved me with their love and support. You are not them, you are just another asshole.'

The best response, I thought, was from the fan who posted the message to Yoko: 'Imagine, three years with 0% interest, isn’t that how the song goes?'

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Vertical rush

One man went past me wearing what looked like ski boots and I heard a rumour that the fastest finisher had got to the top in 3 mins 53 secs. If so, that's not far short of four steps or 30-odd inches a second.

Still I was pleased to get to the top of Tower 42, the former NatWest Building in the City, for Shelter's Vertical Rush event before breakfast this morning in 8 mins 52 secs. That meant I missed my friend Fiona's offer to double my sponsorship if I did it inside eight minutes, but she cheated by having me shift heavy boxes of magazines around north London to tire me out yesterday.

I've never been that high in London before, except in a plane, and the view from the 42nd-floor champagne bar (minus the champagne, alas) is certainly worth seeing. It's no longer the highest point in the City of London, however, as I discovered looking out of its windows. The adjacent Heron Tower (pictured), still under construction, has a few steel girders going higher still, and when it's finished it will be 100 or so feet taller than Tower 42.

You can sponsor me for doing Vertical Rush and the London Marathon in aid of Shelter here.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Football owes me

Forget about that £170 billion budget deficit that the banking crisis has lumbered us with. 'Premier League clubs owe a staggering 56% of Europe's debt,' says the headline on today's Guardian football pages. 'A Uefa report has revealed that 18 Premier League clubs owe £3.5bn in debt, more than the rest of Europe put together,' the story continues.

Get a grip, you football subs (as in editors, that is). The 'rest of Europe's debt' is an awful lot bigger than that.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Vanessa Redgrave, the prince and that curtsey

It was disconcerting to see Vanessa Redgrave's deep curtsey to Prince William at the Baftas. She didn't quite kiss the ground on which he stood but an inch lower and she would have got her nose dirty.

'Is she taking the piss?' asked the person with whom I was watching her receive this year's Academy Fellowship. 'I don't think so,' I replied as the woman who was once the most famous Trotskyist in Britain turned to young Billy and fawned: 'I would like to say, your Royal Highness, how much I admire your father for his intelligence, humility and kindness.'

Was this really the same woman who for years was one of the leading lights in the Workers Revolutionary Party, and who created an uproar at the 1978 Oscars with an acceptance speech (for best supporting actress in Julia) that laid into 'Zionist hoodlums'?

An interview with Redgrave in the Daily Telegraph before the Baftas suggested that 'like the Prince of Wales, her high-mindedness comes from her status as royalty – in this case theatrical'. That may explain her affinity with the royals, despite her reputation as a radical. So too might the pioneering example of Princess Diana in her support for AIDS charities, since Redgrave's first husband, Tony Richardson (the father of Natasha, Redgrave's beloved daughter, who died in a skiing accident last year), died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1991.

But did she have to curtsey quite so low?

Monday, 22 February 2010

Out of the comfort zone

Every so often in life it's good to do things outside your comfort zone. Today I signed up for something that is so far outside mine that I'm announcing it here to make sure that I don't try to sneak out of it later.

I've decided to do this year's Trans-Britain Ultra event in September. It’s a six-day, six-stage ultra race starting near Gretna Green and finishing in Ruthin, Wales, via Cumbia and North Yorkshire, covering 156 miles and five (or is it six?) peaks along the way.

I feel exhausted just typing the details. Oh, and did I mention that you carry all your gear (apart from a tent) on your back?

I’ll be doing it to raise money for a charity, Teach Africa, which works with teenage girls from the slums of Nairobi. The race organiser, Steve Adams, set it up in 2005 and I have a personal interest in supporting it because I lived in east Africa for a time during 2002-2003.

I also have a personal interest in another charity that I’m doing a double challenge for over the next couple of months. I was homeless for a time when I was younger and became very actively involved in squatting and other housing campaigns. I went on to work in short-life housing for a few years and edited the housing charity Shelter’s magazine Roof for a short time at the beginning of my career as a journalist and writer.

This Thursday (25 February) I'm doing the first leg of a double sponsorship challenge for Shelter. Vertical Rush involves running up 42 floors, 900-odd stairs, to the top of the highest building in the City of London. Two months later I’m using my oh-so-precious London Marathon place, held over from last year when I had to pull out due to injury, as the second leg of the challenge.

You can support my Shelter fundraising here. More about Teach Africa later.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Size isn't everything

He was half my size and a quarter my age but he was a damn good pacemaker, even if it was only a 5k run in the park.

I beat him on the sprint finish, though - still got it in me, you see ...

Oh yes, and I came first (of three) in my age category.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Anarchist voices

The deaths of Colin Ward, aged 85, and John Rety, 79, within a week of each other at the beginning of February have deprived the British anarchist movement of two of its most original and influential thinkers. I first came across them through squatting campaigns in the 1970s, by which time they were already veterans of that pre-Sixties’ generation of political activists who kept a left libertarian flag flying before it became fashionable to do so.

Both men contributed to Squatting – the Real Story (Bay Leaf Books, 1980), a book for which I was the main writer. Colin wrote a chapter on the post-war seizure of army camps, hotels and other buildings, when tens of thousands of ex-servicemen and their families laid down a challenge to the 1945 Labour government to deliver on its promise of decent homes for all. John, who was a key squatting activist in Camden Town, gave generously of his time, knowledge and activist energy in assembling the history of the later squatting movement that emerged in Britain from the late 1960s.

Indeed, the survival of Camden Town as we know it today owes much to the resistance initiated by John and his partner Susan Johns in 1973 to their eviction by a property developer from the shop they ran at 220 Camden High Street. At the time, companies associated with Cromdale Holdings owned a quarter of the properties in the area; 50 shops were empty pending redevelopment. John and Susan’s squatting of their old shop acted as a catalyst for the fight to save the high street, which was eventually won. Their daughter, Emily Johns, is today a co-editor of Peace News, continuing the radical tradition of her parents.

For me, Colin and John were key communicators of the message that there was life on the left beyond state socialism. From housing cooperatives to allotments, from holiday chalets to garden sheds, Colin’s approach to ‘anarchy in action’ (the title he chose for what is still the best – and certainly most readable – book on the subject around) was rooted in the practical and everyday in a manner that made his most utopian of visions seem no more than ordinary common sense.

John’s anarchism sparkled most fully in his love of poetry and commitment to live performance, notably at the Torriano Meeting House, first squatted as his home and subsequently becoming a community arts centre, which provided early platforms for artists as diverse as Emma Thompson and John Hegley. There was a delicious irony in his late flourish as poetry editor for the Morning Star, that one-time bastion of the British Communist Party.

I was too young to enjoy Colin’s editorship of the journal Anarchy and John’s of the paper Freedom at the time they were published. But the back issues I saw later helped to inspire in me a belief in the potential of small-circulation publications with often esoteric interests to have an influence way beyond their immediate readerships. That's one reason why I continue to be associated with such publications today.

Monday, 15 February 2010

No place for women in gynaecology

Wendy Savage, who managed to combine bringing up four children with a career as Britain's first female consultant obstetrician, has been nominated for a lifetime achievement award by the British Medical Journal. A lifelong campaigner for women's rights, her support for pregnant mothers being able to choose their method of delivery, including home births, led to a lengthy suspension from work and an accusation of incompetence in 1985. An inquiry cleared her of all charges.

Sexism, bordering on outright misogyny, was never far from the surface in the various criticisms levelled against her. Indeed, Savage told Tom Foot in the Islington Tribune this week, that when she first came to London to pursue her chosen profession, her senior consultant told her: 'There's no place for women in gynaecology and obstetrics.'

The results of voting for the award, which finishes today, will be announced in March.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

It was 20 years ago today

What were you doing, assuming you are old enough, 20 years ago today? For those of us of a certain age and political persuasion, 11 February 1990 was one of those days that will remain forever engraved on the memory. After 27 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela was finally freed from his apartheid prison cell and so began one of the most remarkable – and peaceful – overthrows of oppression in human history.

The newsreels from that time still have the power to bring tears to my eyes, as does the song that – more than any other – epitomised the worldwide campaign for his release: ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by Special AKA (the Specials, who are now performing again, though sadly still without Jerry Dammers, the song’s composer and the band’s inspiration). You can revisit it in all its power and righteous glory, with dancing to die for, in this video.

It’s worth recalling that only three years previously the Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher led a party that preferred apartheid to those fighting for equal rights. ‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud cuckoo land,’ she said in 1987.

The shirt (pictured) is Philosophy Football’s anniversary celebration of the cause, available here in aid of Action for South Africa, the successor to the Anti-Apartheid Movement

This interview, with ITN's Brian Widlake on 21 May 1961, is also worth revisiting. It is believed to be the first filmed interview with Mandela.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Stop Uganda's gay death law

Uganda’s parliament is preparing to pass a brutal new law that would punish gay people with prison, even death.

Initial international criticism drove the president to call for a review. But after a well-funded and vicious lobbying effort by extremists, the bill looks set to be passed - threatening widespread persecution and bloodshed.

Opposition to the bill is rising, including from the Anglican church. Ugandan gay rights advocate Frank Mugisha writes: 'This law will put us in serious danger. Please sign the petition and tell others to stand with us – if there’s a huge global response, our government will see that Uganda will be internationally isolated by the proposed law, and strike it down.

With the decision expected in days, only an irresistible wave of worldwide pressure will be enough to save Frank's life and many others. At the very least we can all sign this petition, and then forward this appeal:

The petition will be delivered to Uganda's President Museveni, members of the review committee and Ugandan embassies worldwide this week, before it’s too late, as well as to key donor governments.

The bill proposes life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having same-sex relations and imposes the death penalty for 'serial offenders'. NGOs working to prevent the spread of HIV could see their employees imprisoned for up to seven years for 'promoting homosexuality'. Even members of the public face up to three years in jail if they fail to report homosexual activity to the police within 24 hours!

The bill’s advocates claim that it defends national culture, but some of its strongest critics come from within Uganda. The Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha is one of many. He says: 'It is violating our cultures, traditions and religious values that teach against intolerance, injustice, hatred and violence. We need laws to protect people -- not ones that will humiliate, ridicule, persecute and kill them en masse.'

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Avatar cowboys and Indians

I finally caught up with Avatar today - at the London IMAX and the biggest screen in Britain, so it was worth the wait. After all the hype I was ready to be disappointed but instead I was awestruck. My dad tells the story of seeing colour for the first time at the cinema at a wartime screening of the Wizard of Oz, which switches from monochrome Kansas to Technicolor Oz when a tornado blows Dorothy over the rainbow. We're too familiar with CGI and special effects, high definition television and psychedelic colour schemes for anything to have quite the same impact today. But it was still pretty damn impressive - and the baddies, who had all the characteristics of the brain-dead, money-grubbing, gun-toting, planet-wasting stereotypes that we lefties love to hate, got their come-uppance in the end. Cowboys and Indians for the 21st century - except that this time the Indians win.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Excessive research linked to depression

I'm depressed. 'Excessive internet use linked to depression, research shows,' says the headline in the Guardian. Well, blow me down with an email.

You could just as well write 'Excessive drinking linked to depression' or 'Excessive TV watching' or 'Excessive ironing' - or excessive just about anything (except football, of course, you can never be excessive about football). We all know that.

It's obvious, isn't it? You're depressed, you're more likely to spend more time than is good for you doing something that isn't necessarily the most balanced way to get pleasure out of life. QED.

So why does it take a Leeds University research project, detailed interviews with 1,319 people and a paper in the Psychopathology journal to tell us the bleedin' obvious? And why does the Guardian consider this to be newsworthy, particularly when the statistical analysis boils down to the responses of just 18 people (yes, eighteen) who are deemed to be 'internet addicts'?