Friday, October 31, 2008

Layer 82 Different Realities.

Listened to a guy doing Desert Island Discs today - Ian Bostridge - who sounded like a grown up version of the clever little choirboy he used to be. He’s now an opera and classical singer. And a CBE.

The usual background - posh schools and uni - Dulwich College, Westminster School and Oxbridge. He now lives on Planet High Culture, and lives in the different reality where posh boys who’ve had posh educations go to live.

He tells stories of how he and his schoolboy chums used to spend their time debating whether Wagner was any good. As do we all. Though he quite liked Punk’s ‘vigour and energy’.

He played a Dylan track and said some bullshit about Bob being ‘the inheritor of the Schubert tradition’. Oh yeah. Nothing at all to do with the Blues tradition, the folk tradition, African traditions, etc.

“Bob Dylan’s got a dreadful voice, but it expresses emotion.” So that’s OK.

He’s such a fucking cultural absolutist and snob he could never understand that Dylan actually has a great voice, which is HIS voice, and which strikes deep emotional and spiritual chords with millions of people in ways that his own fucking ‘tenor’ warblings never could. He really could never see that people like me are entitled to feel absolute revulsion for the sentimental, supercilious, melodramatic elitist bollocks that constitutes ‘classical’ singing.

I had to laugh out loud when he went on about falling in love in his schooldays with some German guy’s voice even though he couldn’t understand a word of what he was singing. This story was supposed to make him sound ‘deep’ and ‘sensitive’ and ‘serious’, but actually makes him sound like a pretentious twat.


On the Today programme today there was an item on tonight being ‘Neil Young night’ on BBC4. I wonder what Ian Bostridge and his pals might make of it. “Oh yah - lots of vigour and energy.”

“The whole evening of programmes about the singer is centred round a documentary about his life called Don't Be Denied.”

Director of the documentary Ben Whalley and author Barney Hoskyns today discussed the rare interviews and film not previously broadcast. Both big NY fans, obviously.

They seemed to agree that Young’s up there with Dylan as a songwriter, singer, musician and performer. They said he’s ‘less cerebral, more instinctual’ than Bob. Interesting that - opposite ends of the ‘IQ’ spectrum of intelligence.

They spoke about Neil matching the intensity and danger of the Rolling Stones with the lyricism of Dylan. He’s able to do ‘loud and intense’ and also ‘soft, quiet and tender’ - absolutely brilliantly.

He does what he pleases and doesn’t follow trends and fashions. He’s grounded in reality. He’s got unswerving honesty. And as he himself says, he ‘didn’t get dragged down by success’.


Here’s the web address of the Today programme interview with the teenage gang boys that was broadcast yesterday.


Meanwhile, last night on This Week, cuddly posh girl Diane Julie Abbott MP (Harrow County Grammar and Cambridge) was banging on about Russell Brand, calling him stupid and disgusting, and saying he has no talent. Which just shows how ignorant, uninformed and dull she is. Fair enough to say that things he said in his infamous broadcast were stupid and disgusting, but Brand is the very opposite of stupid, having a brain and a wit that’s as sharp as a razor.

As for no talent, he’s unbelievably bursting with talent, not least for making people laugh and making them think. He’s probably the most cerebral comedian and commentator at work today, truly a man in the mould of the great Bill Hicks.


Lord knows we need sharp and ascerbic commentators in these dark times, preferably ones that make us laugh. There’s such a mountain of nonsense and bullshit out there, and it gets bigger every day.

Yesterday I was in a shopping mall and noticed a booth which I first took to be an ordinary passport photo booth. On closer inspection it turned out to be a device called ‘Dance Heads Recording’, inviting people to ‘Be A Star’ - ‘No Talent Required’. Quite so.

This thing appeals to talentless wannabees who are gagging to be on TV and DVD, ‘performing’ in some way - singing and dancing. The machine takes your photo/video and then superimposes your singing head on a stupid gyrating cartoon figure as you sing along to your chosen song. I imagine the ‘I Will Survive’ option is very popular.

You end up with a DVD to take away and impress your family and friends. Harmless fun? Maybe - if it satisfies someone’s longing to see their silly face singing (miming) on a TV screen. Or maybe it also records their actual voice, singing in the booth? That might be funny.

Meanwhile ‘Mr China’ was displaying in his shop window a sign offering a free 5 minute massage, which had been altered from its original wording of a free 5 minute message. Now that I could have gone for - what kind of mystical oriental message might that have been? Something like an oral fortune cookie, at much greater length.


Last night’s Daily Show featured an interview with Obama himself, and very impressive he was too. Jon Stewart teased him about ‘The Bradley Effect’ - whether his mother’s white genes would allow him to actually vote for himself. He dealt with it very well.

He also handled the charge of being a socialist very well, saying that his willingness to share his toys when he was in his Nursery class (‘subversive activity’) clearly marked him out.

Here’s some of the interview, including bits that More Four missed out:

Here’s a brilliant must-watch spoof video the Daily Show made of Barak’s ‘informercial’:

Catch up with the Daily Show at Comedy Central, including another version of the Obama interview:

Check out the “Barack's Millions” video. The Muppet Show bit is brilliant.

Also have a look at this bit about Sarah Palin ‘Going Rogue’:

It includes a wonderful Bob The Builder interview.


G2 had an interesting feature yesterday on The West Wing predicting this year’s presidential contest:

There’s an hilarious photo in the Guardian of George Osborne and friends gathered for the Bullingdon Club shooting match, with a very funny article giving a run-down on who’s who and who’s wearing what:

Check out this article on whether Russell Brand has turned to Hare Krishna:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Layer 81 Education, the USA & the UK, Solitude and Neil Young.

The front page of this week’s Guardian Education concerned itself entirely with the question, “Which candidate would do more for US education?”

It then went on the describe the key issues and the problems they need to deal with, and I have to say I was shocked in reading it by just how bad things appear to be. Every bit as bad as they are here, and maybe even worse.

Nothing particularly bad about the teachers and the pupils, who are what they are, but the system itself appears to be completely stupid and counterproductive, just as ours is, in dealing with the real needs of pupils.

In 2001 “Bush took a strategy he had implemented in Texas of using standardized annual testing of pupils to gauge schools.” Same here, of course.

“Schools deemed to be failing are left to flail, while even good schools rail against the strictures of ‘teaching to the test’”. Same here. Except that our ‘good’ schools very rarely rail against teaching to the test since they deny even doing so, and many seem to quite enjoy playing the game.
“It is crucial for the new president to address high school dropout rates since up to half of pupils in the worst-performing states, particularly small southern states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, leave at 15 or 16 with no qualifications.”

That’s to say, NO qualifications.

Makes you wonder what he hell all those kids ever did in school - what exactly did they spend their time doing? Because none of these writers and analysts ever discuss any other purpose for schools, apart from processing kids through courses geared to academic tests and exams. Could there possibly be any other purpose? And if so, what sort of success was achieved in pursuing it? We ought to know.

McCain has apparently pledged to introduce more competition and choice, and to make it easier to sack teachers and school leaders, as well as close schools that are deemed to be failing. Sounds to me like New Labour and the Tories.

McCain favours giving parents in state schools vouchers worth the value of their child’s education, which they can redeem at a private or charter school. Which is what many Tories advocate here, year after year. No difference at all, and so stupid it’s too depressing for words.

Estelle Morris, also writing in the education section, makes the point that since it’s now well established that the deregulated private banking and finance sector has been shown to be utterly incompetent, greedy, arrogant and corrupt, maybe we should hear less about the private sector and deregulated schools providing the answers to our problems in education.

Meanwhile George Monbiot, in his column in the Comment section, launches a brilliant and brave attack on the state of politics and of education in the USA - “How these gibbering numbskulls came to dominate Washington”.

You really need to read the entire article, but here’s a couple of tasters:

The degradation of intelligence and learning in American politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind's closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist?

It wasn't always like this. The founding fathers of the republic - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others - were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin?

On one level, this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves round the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15-year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD. But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many US citizens become so stupid, and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: religion - in particular fundamentalist religion - makes you stupid. The US is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.
"In the south", Jacoby writes, "what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order."

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest denomination in the US, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the south stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that one in four of the state's state school biology teachers believed humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time.

The spectre of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the election of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite - like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding Bush - has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an over-educated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the rightwing elite has been successfully branded as elitism.

Obama has a lot to offer the US, but none of this will stop if he wins. Until the great failures of the US education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.


Lots of words and pictures in the news this week about the ‘Leopard Man of Skye’, a gent of 73 years who left London to live as a hermit in Scotland 20 years ago, after having his whole body tattooed in leopard-like spots at a cost in excess of £5,000. He’s decided to give up living in his isolated, ruined cottage and has moved into ‘sheltered accommodation’ in a village.

The notion of being a hermit is quite interesting, as is having one’s skin tattooed to look like a leopard, and being willing to pay someone 5K in order to do it. But the weirdest part of this story is someone choosing to go and live in Scotland. Where’s the last place on the planet any sane person would want to be if they planned to go around naked and live in an unheated cottage? Somewhere cold, wet, barren, windswept and grim like the Scottish Hebrides?

Libby Brookes has an interesting column in The Guardian today reflecting on how our society struggles for genuine intimacy, and also struggles to cope successfully with solitude. She writes,

These days, the notion of removing oneself from society, whether for religious, philosophic or individual reasons, is anathema.

Total solitude is considered the preserve of the mad, the extremely devout or the deeply unhappy. We live in a culture that values being witnessed above all other things. Whether that be Jade Goody's cervical cancer diagnosis on a live "reality" show, or Kerry Katona's slurring breakdown on This Morning, the current ethic tells us no event in our personal lives is valid unless we've texted 10 friends about it and proffered it to YouTube for general derision.

In our timetabled lives, a plethora of technology offers a distortion of genuine closeness. An email sent from one individual in a particular state of mind reaches another in quite a different one, and this we call keeping in touch. It's good for consumerism, and it's good for surveillance. Yet such desperate binding has little to do with the things we really crave: family, community, a society that concerns itself with more than cash and flash. And it also denies the transfiguring qualities of aloneness.

It is an irony that, despite the atomised, estranged nature of contemporary life, we have forgotten the value of retreat, while failing to differentiate the qualities of solitude from those of loneliness. Perhaps because it is something we all fear and consider evidence of failure, loneliness - though it can happen to those with crowded lives as well as quieter ones - is seldom discussed.

While Tom Leppard's method of retreat was extreme, he insists he was never lonely. Of course, love and trust are essential to the human experience, particularly at a time when those less intimate but similarly sustaining bonds of neighbourliness and community are being eroded. But we cannot define our existence only in relation to other people. As the renowned psychiatrist Anthony Storr argued, intimate personal relationships are but one source of wellbeing. The capacity to be alone is also fundamental to development.

Storr observed that, while there has been much research into children's relationships with their parents and with other children, there is little discussion of whether it is valuable for them to be alone. "Yet if it is considered desirable to foster the growth of the child's imaginative capacity," he wrote, "we should ensure that our children, when they are old enough to enjoy it, are given time and opportunity for solitude."

But solitude fosters not only creativity. It also relates to an individual's capacity to connect with, and make manifest, inner feelings and impulses. To experience a contented, relaxed sense of being alone offers an opportunity for self-realisation, and is as much a mark of maturity as the ability to sustain relationships with others.

What is noxious about our modern climate is that it militates against genuine solitude as well as genuine intimacy. If we take the time to look beyond the bizarre tattoos, the story of Tom Leppard has much to teach us about both.


Privacy . . . . Isolation . . . . Collaboration.

Neil Young is a very strange guy in many ways, and has made frequent career moves between acoustic and electric, between working as a solo artist and collaborating with other great musicians.

Tomorrow night is Neil Young Night on BBC4. Thank goodness for the BBC, which is still under heavy shellfire today, even though Russell Brand has resigned - since Ross’s many enemies are still out to get him, and the Beeb’s many enemies are still out to get the Beeb.

This is exactly the sort of programming that BBC4, and public service broadcasting, should be providing - 3 hours of advert-free programmes on (one of) the world’s great artists. The website says,

Neil Young is a resolutely private artist who rarely looks back, and one of the world's great artists. He grants unprecedented access to the BBC for this film in which he traces his musical journey in his own words.

For five decades, Young's unbending dedication to the muse has created an awe-inspiring body of work – and put a few noses out of joint along the way.

I guess most people don’t even know that Young is a Canadian, such is his complete identification with the USA in the sixties, with the whole California hippie counterculture thing.

But Neil was always one of the edgy, political variety of artists, who clearly thought deeply about the kind of societies we live in, and how they need to progress to something that’s on a much higher spiritual and moral plane.

As I write I’m listening to his guitar solo on ‘Southern Man’ - raw, rocking, driving blues. Angry, provocative lyrics.

His ‘body of work’ is indeed ‘awe-inspiring’ both for its sheer quantity as well as its quality.

One of his best albums is ‘Sleeps With Angels’, which contains a fascinating bunch of songs that are as diverse in their subject matter as they are in musical styles.

The stand-out track is ‘Change Your Mind’, which is one his longest and one of his best ever tracks. It also has one of his most complex and challenging lyrics, as well as one of his greatest guitar instrumentals.

The lyrics are complex because they attempt to convey the complexity of intimacy and love - the light and the dark aspects, the yin as well as the yang. This is difficult and challenging territory, especially for those who don’t care to see both sides, who imagine that ‘love’ and intimacy are in all situations benign and desirable.

There’s a good Google Video version of this track, ‘The Complex Sessions', but it’s not a track to listen to on crappy computer speakers or even so-so headphones. It’s a track to listen to in semi-darkness, using a very good hi-fi with a big bass and the volume cranked well up, with eyes half closed, and preferably on your own, unless you’re with someone who can really, really dig it.

Never been into Neil Young? Change your mind?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Layer 80 Hands, Hearts, Minds, Education, Jay-Z, Russell B, Gok Wan, Gad Saad, Oasis, Ray Charles, and the End of Civilisation.

Just when you think you’ve seen just about everything, something else happens. There are still tomatoes ripening in the garden, the days are sunny and bright, the leaves on the lilacs, sycamores and ash trees are still solidly green, and last night it snowed. There was a real blanket of snow on the cars in the street. Apparently it’s the first time it’s snowed in London in October since 1934. Global warming?


There was an item on the Today programme this morning which allowed a couple of 14 year olds who live in Edmonton a chance to speak at length about their involvement in gangs, and gang culture in general. I happen to know that Edmonton is a seriously scary place, and I say that as someone who’s lived is many different parts of our inner cities.

When I decided to earn a little extra money as a young, broke teacher some years ago I signed up to work on the Census, and was dispatched to Edmonton with a patch of several streets to survey. Not a good experience - and that was way back in the days before carrying knives and even guns became commonplace. Those dark streets had a real air of menace.

When asked why young people belong to gangs, these kids said, “We just hang about our territory. We got nothing else to do.” In other words, the kids just congregate together on the streets - the parents don’t want them bringing their mates into the home. They are there because they’re there. They’re unwanted and rejected, so they stick together and become allies. If one of them gets picked on and beaten up by ‘outsiders’ then they go out looking for revenge. This is all that life has to offer them. They know no other.

One of the kids said, “It happens when this stuff kicks off - it make the gang angry, innit”. Quite.

Destructive emotions play havoc with the lives of groups of emotionally and spiritually unintelligent young people who are bored, frustrated and angry.

And then right at the end of the interview one of the lads said, “Everyone’s got a talent. But this government ain’t doing nothing for us.” How very true.

I remember well the discussions that took place when the government decided to fund a ‘gifted and talented’ programme in schools in an attempt to placate the middle classes by pushing more of their Level 4 predicted kids up to Level 5. Those of us who argued that the money should be used to fund non-academic pursuits for kids whose talents were clearly elsewhere, in the arts and creativity for example, were told very clearly that the funding was ring-fenced for raising test scores, essentially. In order to qualify for the extra funding the schools had to agree to set targets for the academic progress that would be made by those kids who were so-called ‘gifted and talented’.

Listening to these interviewees it was patently obvious that they weren’t talking about wanting the government to do more to push them to higher academic attainment. They clearly recognised that they were never, ever, going to compete in the race to get to university to do conventional academic studies. But they had a sense of their own burning energy and desire to do something fruitful, creative and positive with their lives.


Before going on to say something about Jay-Z, as well as something about the architects of New Labour’s education policies, I must mention something someone said on Thought For Today just now.

He was talking about how American forces in Iraq have, through actual contact with Iraqis and through working alongside them, come to realise just how idiotic all their previous stereotyping has been.

It’s pretty obvious, really, that you only really get to know people by spending time with them, especially if you’re doing something constructive together.

The speaker then talked about what he called a “Hand to Heart to Mind” formula, which I think nicely encapsulates what we should be doing in every situation that requires people of different backgrounds to know one another better, which roughly means all of us, all of the time.

The Jesuits always talked about needing proper balance in our lives, and that every day should contain “something for the hands, something for the heart, and something for the head”. I wonder how many people actively seek such a balance?

The formula clearly works, and you can see in any good school that learning begins with practical activities that engage students physically in doing something constructive or creative - an experiment, building something, a survey, etc.

Through helping and supporting one another through success and failure they build up emotional bonds, respect, and a proper sense of their common strengths and weaknesses.

From all of that - understanding emerges. We learn at a deep level from activity, experience and involvement with others.

Except when we don’t - which is in traditional model schools where the learning is based on didacticism, individualism and competition. No wonder kids become alienated and can’t stand school.


I read somewhere this week that Andrew (‘Lord’) Adonis, who’s done so much to push schools back towards concentration on raising test and exam scores, towards being concentration camps, along with other idiots like ‘Sir’ Michael Barber (another academic/pundit/politician/nobleman whose vile ideology has done so much to set back the cause of real education), was being courted by the Conservative party to join their ranks. Well he would be, wouldn’t he? There’s not a jot of difference between Blairite/New Labour views on schools and education and that of the Tories.

Lest we forget, according to a website called “Politico’s” (sic?),

“Sir Michael Barber has a real record of delivery in the Blair government, first at the Department for Education and Employment (1997–2001), and then as head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit (2001–5), where he was tasked with ensuring the government's public service reforms delivered significant results.”

“His vision of a restructured school system was a major influence on Blair's education reforms.”
“He now works for a major global consulting firm advising governments around the world on how they can improve their performance.”

He advises governments! On improving their performance!

So many arrogant, ignorant academics and so-called advisors, who’ve been messing around with the school system and with kids’ lives, have made the lives of even the more able kids far more competitive, dull, uncreative and stressful, and have done literally nothing for those who were never even part of the academic rat race to begin with. I doubt they will ever go to hang out in Edmonton, though.


Jay-Z, on the other hand, grew up in Brooklyn, which makes Edmonton look like pussyland. A bad boy made good if ever there was one. From the age of nine, when he encountered hip-hop, his love of language and of music synched with his intelligence and his need for self-expression and he began rhyming his own raps and developing his talent for this essentially verbal art form.

Of course he didn’t do well academically, and he was never destined to follow a conventional mainstream career. He even amazed himself when people began offering him money to perform and to make records.

However, he also discovered he had a talent for business, set up his own record label, and subsequently developed his own brand through diversifying into clothing, fashion, and so on. He’s now more of an entrepreneur and a businessman than he is a performer, though music remains his first love.

Being of a certain generation I didn’t even know this guy existed until the controversy blew up this year over him being invited to headline at Glastonbury. And when Noel Gallagher sounded off about Glasto making a huge mistake having him as the star of the festival I thought he probably had a point, since I’ve never liked the little I knew about the boastfulness, misogeny and the glorification of violence in rap and hip-hop.

When Jay-Z came on stage with a guitar and did a great performance of “Wonderwall” to start his set it was immediately obvious that this guy not only had a sense of humour but he was also a magnificent performer whose music was powerful, thoughtful and intelligent. I was pretty much blown away, just watching it on TV. The guy is a force of nature.

Last night Alan Yentob’s ‘Imagine’ documentary on BBC1 did a brilliant exposition of the life and times of Jay, and gave a real sense of the man’s brilliance and his importance in modern culture. It also powerfully conveyed a sense of how otherwise wasted lives can be transformed through individuals discovering their creative talents, and doing so without any benefit from a school system that fails to recognise talent in the first place, let alone does anything to develop it.


Coincidentally, this week the BBC also broadcast the Oasis concert that took place at the Round House as part of their ‘Electric Proms’ series of concerts. I still don’t really get Oasis, especially their lead singer, and the band seems to work a lot better when he steps back and leaves the vocals to brother Noel, who’s clearly the talent driving the band.

Liam’s entire body language at the microphone is a total turn-off, and his singing is less than inspirational. What IS that idiot stuff about bending his knees in order to sing upwards into a downward-pointing microphone? Ridiculous.

The concert was interesting, though, for its employment of a huge choir behind the band, which certainly added another dimension. The show ended with a very original version of the Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’ which was certainly arresting and powerful, and completely unexpected. I don’t get this stuff about Oasis being some sort of clone of the Beatles. Clearly they’re not, and their music has never had even a passing resemblance to the wit and originality of the Beatles. Fair enough, though, to say that a love of the Beatles’ music is what got them wanting to play and to write their own music.


Noel G is a big mate of Russell Brand, and Russell and his mate Jonathan Ross are in big trouble today over their antics on Russell’s Radio 2 programme 10 days ago. Seemingly they did some pretty childish things - making obscene phone calls to a well-known actor - and the Beeb allowed it to be broadcast. The ridiculous thing is that when the show went out there were only two complaints about it - because the audience for Brand’s show actually enjoy the stuff he does.

However, thanks to everyone else piling on the bandwagon and calling for the sacking and disembowelment of Brand and Ross, including the bloody Prime Minister it seems, they’ve seemingly offended at least half the population, who wouldn’t otherwise have known or cared about it.

Brand has apologized and says he’s made a mistake. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. Odds must be on the BBC dropping his programme, which would be ludicrous, considering Brand is not only incredibly talented and funny but he’s also one of the lone voices calling for a saner, more spiritual and more human society, which presumably means he’s even more annoying to reactionaries and Tories.


Gok Wan (crazy name, crazy guy) is also in trouble today.

His new TV programme, Miss Naked Beauty, which was broadcast last night, showed women being blasted with a water hose to remove their makeup. Big Deal.

I really like Gok. He’s a great character, and he’s done so much to promote the idea that women should be proud of their bodies, no matter what they look like. Apparently he was once 21 stones in weight himself, which is quite hard to believe.

His work always seems to promote the idea that women should stop worrying about their body shapes and concentrate of wearing flattering, well-made clothes as well as the minimum of makeup, together with a decent haircut. Most of all, women need to really believe they’re worthwhile as an individual, no matter how different they look from the contemporary ideals and stereotypes of womanhood.

Amazingly he’s never, as far as know, advocated either dieting or cosmetic surgery, which goes completely against the grain of our culture’s contemporary fixation with both of those things.


There was a very interesting article in G2 yesterday about women and stiletto heels, called ‘Are we just masochists’. The article takes up three whole pages, such is the importance of this subject.

There’s a quote from Dr Gad Saad (crazy name, crazy guy!) who’s associate professor of marketing at Concordia University, Canada, and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption: “High heels may well be the most potent aphrodisiac ever concocted.”

Hmmm. And they might not.


Meanwhile, the main article in G2 was a four-page piece on whether we’re seeing the beginning of the death throes of our planetary civilisation, and whether the financial chaos is likely to lead to the destruction of the world’s financial and economic system, with predictable effects on human life on earth. It also links with the climate and the ecological disaster that’s being widely predicted.

I must say these same thoughts have been occurring to me for some time now in my darker moments.


On the brighter side, my record of the week is a new triple-disc CD of the early recordings of Ray Charles, roughly 1949 - 1956: The Great Ray Charles (Not Now Music).

This was the period before rock and roll, and before the mainstream acceptance in America (and elsewhere) of black musicians. Ray plays incredible blues and jazz on this collection, and as the CD notes point out, he’s pretty much the originator of soul music through his fusion of blues, R & B and gospel.

Subsequent to this period he regrettably, though unsurprisingly, moved on to make more ‘commercial’ records, cashing in on the public’s new-found taste for rock n’ roll and pop & rock generally. He did some great stuff, but nothing better than what appears here, which shows his true inventive genius, regardless of its lack of commercial mainstream appeal.

Also of note on this album is the quality of the musicians Ray chose for his band. This quote from Will Flannery’s piece on Amazon gives a flavour:

“The best slow sax tune ever recorded, in my opinion, is residing right on this CD. Unfortunately, at the time of this review, Amazon has not sampled it for your online listening pleasure, but, maybe by the time you read this, they will have. The tune - "Ain't Misbehavin", the sax man - Ray's regular sax man at the time of this recording, David "Fathead" Newman. It's a great tune to begin with, but Fathead doesn't play it straight. He throws down one incredibly perfect phrase after another, taking the tune and twisting it just a little, pulling the listener into his own unique harmonic space, and it is as pleasurable a place as you'll ever find yourself. This is a unique tune, and, of course, Fathead never plays cliches, and the result is incomparable to any other performance I know. It is completely relaxed, but full of fascination and energy. Is it really the best slow sax tune every recorded? Well, that's a subjective call; for me, it is, and in any case it is an extraordinary performance.”

Here’s an interesting piece on Ray Charles that Van Morrison wrote for Rolling Stone a few years back:

Stop Press

Sex Gag: Ross And Brand Suspended

I guess the young lady at the centre of this row might do quite well out of the publicity, as might her ‘burlesque troop’, Satanic Sluts.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Layer 79 Spiders, Government, Doctor John and the Dome.

Having a shower last Saturday I noticed a medium sized black spider, not the common or garden variety, hanging around where the wall tiles meets the ceiling. I’ve never seen a spider in the bathroom before, and have never seen any flies in their either, for that matter.

Nevertheless, as the shower filled with steamy damp air, the spider became very active and started dropping down on a line all the way to the water control knob, attaching the line, and then climbing back up to where it started, then down again, and so on. It had attached about 4 or 5 lines by the time I’d finished showering, by the time I needed to crank the water knob back round to the off position and destroy all its work.

Unlike Robert The Bruce, who was seemingly inspired by the persistence of a spider, I could only conclude what a futile and desperate business life on earth is, for the most part. The spider dumbly assumed the shower control, and the shower cubicle for that matter, would make a suitable website. Think of all the dumb things we humans think, and do, and waste our time doing.

Wikipedia has some interesting stuff on Robert The So-Called Bruce, who’s never been what I would see as an inspirational figure. Wiki says,

On 21 March 2008, Dr. Bruce Durie, academic manager of genealogical studies at the University of Strathclyde, opined in The Guardian, "that despite his romantic reputation, Robert the Bruce was an absolute scoundrel". "The first thing he did after taking power was destroy Stirling castle and he was a self-serving, vainglorious opportunist who was determined to be king at any cost," Durie added. Sounds like most of the politicians who are striving for power and influence today.

As a non-historian who’s now more able to read history, the first thing I notice when I take time to read about ancient times is how appallingly nasty and violent life was for the majority of people, especially when the so-called leaders and monarchs spent most of their time planning to attack and kill people in order to increase their power and prestige.

Spiders ought to be role models in that they catch insects only in order to stay alive, insects that arguably catch themselves by venturing into sticky webs, and they have no wish to dominate, control and exploit other spiders.

Robert’s ego, of course, let him imagine that the spider was an inspiration to make even greater efforts in his self-serving murderous quest to become the head honcho. From the average peasant’s point of view it doesn’t matter a damn which particular King, ruler or oligarch is in power and using brute force to maintain their ascendancy and exploit the population in general. The struggle for existence goes on regardless.

As is the case today, of course.

Major news at the weekend was a meeting of head honchos from around the globe, getting together to discuss what’s to be done about the world-wide financial crisis, and the planetary chaos that’s been unleashed now that the tipping point has been crossed.

Bringing order to chaos that’s the inevitable result of worldwide deregulation of finance and capitalism is a pretty tall order. We have a European Parliament, and there are regional forums on every continent - so why not a World Parliament? Is there any other way of ensuring a world order that’s based on human values, justice, peace, love and concern for the weakest? Because that’s not what we have in the world.

First, of course, we’d have to agree on a guiding ideology. Maybe the current situation will be a big enough shock and a spur to do just that. Even our own Chancellor of the Exchequer is now talking about “economic imbalances”, which I take to mean economic injustice and desperate poverty in too many countries. At least these things are under discussion in certain quarters. And there’s more chance of these issues of justice and human values being addressed in the big one, the USA, if Obama wins the presidency.


The real power on the planet, however, is wielded by wierdos and werewolves like the super-rich and their henchmen - the oligarchs of every nation, along with the Rothschilds, the Bullingdon cliques, the Mandlesons and so on.

Marina Hyde, whose writing in The Guardian is invariably funny as well as bullshit-revealing, had this to say on Saturday:

Even a Bullingdon baronet can struggle in the rarefied air above democracy.

Osborne's Corfugate error was to break the club rules of the powerful rich who, sweetly, let political types appear important.

Poor George Osborne. He is a sort of anti-Groucho Marx. One cannot help but suspect he has spent his life desperately caring to belong to clubs that don't really want him as a member.

To class Osborne as socially out of his depth in all of this might seem odd: he has led a gilded life, after all. But reading this tale of yachts and billionaires and people who need not trouble themselves with anything so vulgar as democracy, he seems a mere parvenu, whose maladroit grasp of etiquette now threatens to destroy him

George's family are in wallpaper. Trade, I suppose you'd call it for a laugh, and though he wouldn't be required to use the back entrance - his father is the 17th baronet - there is much to suggest he has always been more Charles Ryder than Sebastian Flyte.

At the Bullingdon Club he was known as Oik, on account of having gone to St Paul's as opposed to somewhere proper like Eton or Harrow. It's only surmise, but one suspects he was rather more often the Bullingdon's raggee than the ragger, with one such ragging a neat metaphor for what has been happening to him all week. The young Osborne was held upside down by his fellow members, who banged his head on the floor each time he failed to answer correctly the question: "What are you?" He got it eventually. The unexpurgated answer was: "I am a despicable cunt."

Whatever goes on in the rarefied air above democracy will always be politicians' dirty little secret. If it wasn't such a dirty big one, that is. The only mystery is why we seem to restrict use of the word oligarch to Russians.


This weekend was New Orleans weekend in London, or some parts of it, at least. American football was in town, with the New Orleans Saints (geddit?) playing the San Diego Pirates at Wembley. I’m not sure why. The game, on Sunday, was televised by the BBC, and was quite entertaining, if you like that kind of thing, but the real entertainment was at the O2 where Festival New Orleans was taking place on Friday and Saturday, with the best and most legendary New Orleans musicians having been flown in to perform free concerts in the concourse areas of the dome throughout those two days.

It was an absolute gift to people like me who’ve been wanting to see Dr John play live for decades. Whilst I’d much rather have seen him in some little club, like Ronnie Scott’s, the temporary Dome stage (not the O2 auditorium itself) with its poor acoustics and cavernous space was just fine, or at least adequate. Dr John’s live album, “Trippin’ Live”, was, incidentally, recorded at Ronnie Scott’s in 1997, and is a brilliant piece of work, as was this concert on Saturday.

The best American blues and jazz musicians just have a quality that’s truly arresting and outstanding. The drumming and bass playing was tight and crisp, languid almost, and yet dynamic. The guitarist was a good soloist. The horn section adds another dimension, especially when the trumpet, sax and trombone can also play fine solos.

And of course there’s Dr John’s piano and Hammond, ranging from good-time upbeat grooves to delicate, edgy, soulful blues. He was in really fine voice too, though not really comfortable in such a strange venue, I suspect. Certainly there was relatively little communication and rapport with the audience going on.

Unlike Alan Toussaint, who preceded him on stage, who spent part of his set joyfully flinging New Orleans memorabilia - Mardi Gras masks, etc, - into the crowd.

A fairly strange crowd it was too. Ranging from same-generation long-time fans who seemed to find a spot and stay there transfixed and enthralled throughout the set, to youngish folks who spent most of their time hyperactively pushing and shoving backward and forward through the throng, annoying the hell out of the people they were jostling, who were actually trying to concentrate on the music.

Which is what happens when you give a free concert and people just turn up because they’ve got nothing better to do on that particular night - people who know nothing about the music to begin with and whose cloth ears can’t appreciate the quality of what’s going down.

The dome complex itself - tacky, gaudy and visually quite nasty; full of over-priced fast food outlets, cafes and ‘bars’ of various ‘international’ persuasions - seems permanently full of grim-looking young people congregating in an effort to ‘have fun’. It’s a kind of out-of-town ‘leisure’ complex where people shove their way through a fairly narrow ‘street’ full of chain outlets, in the hope that something enjoyable will ensue. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to it in the ‘recession’. Probably not much.

Incidentally, I loved the story about Mandleson, Osborn, Rothschild and Deripaska, the King of Russian Aluminium, leaving the ‘yacht’ and going out to eat in a 60 Euro per head taverna on one of the Greek islands. As one commentator said, that’s a bit like paying £50 each in a hamburger joint.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Layer 78 Education, Regulation, and the Rights of the Child

It’s enough to make you despair when you come across pieces of crap in The Guardian like the one its ex-editor Peter Preston had published in the Opinion pages on Monday this week. Thank goodness so many readers took the trouble to lambast him for it in Comment Is Free - the good old Guardian’s brilliant facility for allowing readers to post an instant response on its website. Modern digital technology can be truly wonderful when it’s used imaginatively - in this case creating a community of interactive writers and readers-who-also-write. Oxzen also posted a response.

It’s not the first time Preston has written appalling reactionary nonsense in the Guardian - not by any means. It was this exact week last year, almost to the day, that he wrote a piece called A Molehill of Mange, taking to task the authors of a report into children’s unhappiness with schools and teachers. Preston ludicrously claimed that these poor little ‘blank slates’ had been grafitti-ed and scribbled on by their unscrupulous teachers and thereby made to believe that modern force-feeding teaching methods aimed solely at raising SATs and GCSE scores were making their lives in school tremendously dull, tedious, boring and frustrating. As if millions of kids up and down the country needed to be told that. As if they were actually enjoying school but preferred to claim the opposite. As if they’d been brainwashed by their lazy leftie teachers into believing something that was clearly untrue.

This sad old ignoramus is literally beyond help. I remember last year emailing him some gentle admonishment which patiently and politely explained the errors in his beliefs. Did I get even a brief courteous acknowledgement for my trouble? No. Did he bother to read what I wrote and allow alternative thoughts to enter his closed and fetid mind? It seems highly unlikely. Oh well - no doubt he’s an extremely busy man in his retirement. Wikipedia seems to suggest as much.

Though I have an image in my head of the kind of retired country-dwelling reactionary who hangs out every day in his local saloon bar with a copy of the Mail or the Telegraph open on his table, sounding off his trite, ignorant opinions to anyone within earshot, people who in any case already think the same way as he does because they’ve already read the same sort of nonsense in the same newspapers.

There’s a whole gang of media whores like Preston who think the same way as he does because they have broadly similar backgrounds - grammar or public/private schools followed by Oxford or Cambridge. We’re talking here about people like the lovely Mel P (Melanie Phillips), David Blunkett and Andrew Adonis. All of them journalist/politician/self-publicists. Big mouths in the media. Big egos. Presumably they have their own club somewhere. I’d guess they all wine and dine together regularly, in and out of one another’s lives and homes. Chris Woodhead is one of them, and though I’m not sure he actually made it to Oxbridge as an undergraduate he did lecture at Oxford for a while. Tony Blair is their patron saint - public school and Oxbridge background, naturally.

What they have in common is a penchant for claiming they’re on the side of the masses in their wish to have every working class kid in the country raised above their station in life by cramming them for academic tests and exams, regardless of their aptitudes or preferences (because PP and his ilk know best), enabling them all to gain straight A Stars at A level, and giving them entry to the university of their choice, preferably Oxford or Cambridge, but maybe Imperial College if they have a working class bent for using spanners and welding equipment. After all, the country needs its inventors and scientists.

I have the feeling that Preston’s column this week was written mainly as a response and an admonishment to Jenni Russell, who’s written so many brilliant columns on education in the Guardian and last week was at it again - celebrating the fact that the government has quietly abandoned its apparent determination to keep SATs at KS3.

What Preston and co also hate is the thought that by pandering to (i.e. providing an appropriate and creative education for) the less academically able (i.e. less crammable) kids, our schools might be paying less attention to and actually holding back the vast bulk of middle class kids who naturally want and need to go to university in order to follow the life pattern wished upon them by their affluenza-infected parents, who, of course, will always be mortified if their little darlings score less than three or four A stars.

And this is the system we inflict upon our kids - academic success at any price, even if it makes them extremely unhappy and uptight in its process, and even if it turns them into raving egomaniacs with a snobbish distain for the benighted masses. That’s assuming they do ‘well’ out of the system. Pity the poor fucks who don’t make it, in spite of all the cramming. But as good old Dave Bluntit always says, there’s no excuse for failure, and the failures had better not excuse themselves either. If The Blunk can make it, then anybody can. Provided they have their special needs properly provided for, of course.

Preston’s current article makes a very foolish attempt to draw parallels between the worlds of finance and education. His very simple and very stupid thought (and he really only has one) is that if Guardian readers, including teachers, believe that it’s necessary to have our failing financial system much more tightly regulated then they shouldn’t be rejoicing that the government has decided to get rid of KS3 SATs in our supposedly failing education system.

He bangs on about hundreds of thousands of illiterate kids passing out of our schools as if it was a fact, as if he knows what he’s talking about. He rails on about the fact that so many kids fail to achieve five A - C grades at GCSE as if this so-called benchmark has any real meaning, and as if it’s in any case all the fault of the bloody teachers, as if those kids are now doomed to a life of failure and misery.

Because Pete and his mates can’t conceive of anyone being happy or fulfilled unless they’ve been to Oxbridge, or at least have an honours degree from somewhere. Because the only possible way for working class people to have a decent life is to get a degree and thereby get a highly paid job and a career that will enable them to escape from their appalling inner city and council estate ‘communities’. Isn’t that right, Pete? Mel? Anyone?

And here’s another thought for you Peter, old pal. Maybe - just maybe - those so-called illiterate kids would have left school as avid readers and far more capable writers and learners if their teachers had been allowed and encouraged to foster in them a love of literature and an ability to express themselves in writing, in their own ‘voice’, instead of wasting hours, days, weeks and years cramming them for academic tests and exams using the methodology of the so-called National Literacy Strategy.

The real irony is that it’s far more likely that this generation of kids would have achieved higher scores at GCSE if they had been properly taught by methodology that fosters a love of literature and writing, and a love of learning for its own sake, instead of being force-fed on the methodology of those who maintain a Victorian belief that children are empty vessels ready and waiting to be filled with Imperial gallons of facts, or those like Peter Preston who maintain a belief that children are merely blank slates just waiting to be written on by their teachers.

At heart, of course, these neo-conservatives are just fascists and elitists, and they can’t conceive of any system that isn’t top-down and imposed on the rest of us by the Special Ones like themselves who’ve been to Oxbridge or some other university and therefore have proven superiority of mind and spirit. Some of them may pay lip service to the concept of equality of opportunity, but that’s as far as it goes. There’s no way that common people could actually be their equal.

Some further reading for Peter and friends might be a little known Ofsted publication - ‘Schools Where Boys Write Well’ - little known because it goes against the grain of the disastrous National Literacy Strategy mentality and methodology. It’s even rooted in actual classroom practice, and some might say common sense, which is more than you can say for the untested, untrialled NLS. This booklet actually makes sense, which is more than you can say for Peter and his pals, who get their opinions from ‘data’ and from fellow ignoramuses, since they have no experience of the reality of life in ‘normal’ communities and ‘normal’ schools.


News headlines this morning - why are so many more Primary pupils refusing to attend school regularly? Now let’s see . . .

Presumably they’ve been brainwashed by their teachers into believing they really, really dislike school. Molehill of Mange. The original classic. Jenni Russell From today’s paper - an article by Dr Mary Bousted in response to Peter Preston’s piece. The original report that inspired Preston’s Molehill of Mange Article on homework Telegraph article from last year. Yesterday’s BBC report on a big increase in the numbers of Primary pupils absent from school. Either more kids are falling sick in some way, in which case we need to ask why they’re less physically and mentally healthy, or they’re more disaffected by school, in which case we definitely need to know why. Either way I blame central Government, local government, the DCFS, Ofsted and their media cheerleaders, as well as the people in schools who sold their souls in order to carry out the orders of their overlords.

PS Oxzen holds no brief at all for all the teachers and senior managers in schools who actually are crap, and there are indeed quite a few of them. However, the majority of these schmucks have been badly trained, brainwashed and bullied for so long it’s hardly fair to blame them entirely for their own inadequacies, or to demand their instant dismissal. Hopefully there will, sooner or later, be a more enlightened regime which can offer retraining of a very high quality, that will enable these people to see the errors of their ways and enable them to become high-functioning, ethically-driven and enlightened professionals who don’t abuse children’s rights to a real education (amongst other things) in the name of raising ‘standards’. See Articles 29, 31 and 36 in particular.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Layer 77 Rapping Bankers, Scrapping SATs.

The events of the past month or so have been so wild and whacky there’s very little that any blogger can really say that isn’t superfluous and hasn‘t already been said. Wherever you look there’s craziness going on that’s almost beyond satire or even comment - the events speak for themselves. 

There's Gordie Broon as superhero, deftly clearing up the mess he’s made, thanks to his admiration for the City and his determination not to regulate its greed and mad excesses. 

There’s the USA and the UK nationalising the major providers and guarantors of mortgages, and the pillars of the banking system, in a manner advocated all those years ago by Michael Foot and various other socialists. 

There’s John McCain trying to make himself electable by selecting as his vice presidential candidate someone who’s obscure even in her own country, and clearly a dimwit even by backwoods standards. 

How do you satirise any of that? Fortunately Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ (on More Four) and Private Eye are still having a very good go.

Stewart and his team are pretty much unmissable in this run-in to the election, especially in a time of financial and economic chaos and meltdown. Last week, commenting on what the Republicans can now do to improve their electability, he swerved around Obama’s crack about McCain choosing Palin for VP as like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’ and delicately settled for any future actions by McC & Co as being like ‘putting perfume on a turd’.

Stewart replayed the footage of the mad woman in one of McCain’s audiences fulminating about Obama being an Arab. Whereas the casual observer might have thought McCain gained some credit from the incident by telling the batty one that Obama was ‘a decent family man’, the Daily Show skewered him for letting the label ‘Arab’ stand as a something true and self-evidently a bad thing - i.e. no attempt to say a) he’s not ‘an Arab’, and b) even if he were, so what? 

The woman was a barking racist, and all McCain did, whilst backing away from her, was condone her racism by merely pointing out that at least Obama had a family, as if that has anything to do with his character and his ability. Later in the programme one of Stewart’s team, in role as a Republican commentator, said to Stewart with pride in his voice, “The McCain campaign speaks for us - the Ignorant - the people who shouldn’t necessarily speak”. 

Meanwhile, the current issue of Private Eye carries an ‘editorial’ by the former boss of the ‘Royal Bank of Gnome’ (i.e. RBS), which begins, 

“The Royal Bank of Gnome has been taken over as of this morning by the Government. I welcome this development and I am happy to give a reassurance to members of my family that my money is perfectly safe. Despite my sadness at leaving a bank that I have done so much for over the years, I can walk away with the knowledge that I have done everything in my power to safeguard my salary, bonuses and pension scheme. Investors may take comfort in the knowledge that although they have lost all their money, I haven’t.”

The Eye also points out that Sir Fred Goodwin last year received a ‘performance bonus’ of £2,860,000 for his work in manoeuvring the Royal Bank of Scotland group into a position where it needed a £20billion bail-out. 

The Eye carries ‘An Apology’ that’s ‘Exclusive to all Tory Newspapers’:

“In recent years we may have given the mistaken impression that the City was the driving force for growth in the economy, and that the “masters of the universe” and “superwomen” in the City who raked in mega-bonuses for deals which had transformed London into the banking capital of the world were people everyone should be proud of, as the wealth they’ve created has benefited each and every one of us in some way.

We now realise, in the wake of the ongoing credit crisis, that nothing could be further from the truth, and that the City is in fact nothing but a collection of sharp-suited robber barons, crooks, spivs and peroxide blond harpies, all shamelessly feeding at the trough as they scoop up mega-bonuses for dodgy deals which have taken us to the brink of Armageddon, and who are deserving of nothing but stoning or beheading for the misery they’ve wrought. 

We apologise for any confusion caused, and any confusion in the future when we criticise the government’s plan to take a share in the banks, saying that stifling risk-taking in the City will only make us all poorer in the long . . . etc, etc, etc.”


Our government, meanwhile, didn’t shirk the opportunity to slip in, undercover of the cacophony of a collapsing financial system, and their own collapsing credibility, a decision to quietly scrap KS3 SATs, whilst retaining tests at KS2. Well Hoo-ray. Two bloody cheers. A left turn, or a U-turn? Maybe not as momentous a U-turn as now promising to strictly regulate the money markets as well as put overseers on the banks’ boards of directors, but a major reversal of policy all the same. 

Jenni Russell, as ever, in her Guardian column, neatly hit the nail on the head: 

“These are good times to bury bad policies, and the government is making the most of it. Less than a day after the Home Office dropped 42-day detention came the totally unexpected announcement of the abolition of Sats for 14-year-olds. This was a U-turn of the most remarkable kind. The blind defence of the testing system despite a wall of evidence about its failure has been the defining and depressing characteristic of the schools policy for a decade. And on Tuesday, in a near-empty Commons, the facade finally cracked. A test that skews the education of hundreds of thousands of children every year was suddenly found by schools minister Ed Balls to be "not justified", and "less and less relevant" to children's learning. It is a welcome change of perspective from a minister who has insisted until now that Sats are essential.”

Jenni then went on to say, 

“Every argument against Sats at 14 applies even more strongly to those at 11. They are simplistic and unreliable, they usually ruin year six, and they don't reflect what children understand. Almost every secondary school retests its 11-year-olds. At least a quarter can't do what the Sats claim they can. Yet since primaries' ranking, heads' survival and teachers' pay depend on the results, no junior school can afford to let a true picture of children's achievements emerge.

Every recent report on education has concluded that this system of perverse incentives is demoralising pupils and failing to develop their talents. We know why ministers have clung to it: the fake results have been a fig leaf for policy failures. Now we will find out whether Balls has real political courage.

He stepped out of the bunker this week, but if Balls is to retain any consistency he can't stop mid-stride. The biggest problem in education is the boredom and alienation of children. It's good to be acting to cut the disillusionment of 11-to 14-year-olds, but if he really cares about children rather than statistics, he needs to tackle the primary problem too.”

Oxzen’s comment in Comment Is Free, in case anyone missed it, was 

As ever Jenni Russell has done a great job in skewering New Labour’s ludicrous and harmful education policies, and in highlighting the ridiculous and inconsistent arguments used by Ed Balls for not following his own logic and moving to an effective system of tracking pupil progress at KS2 as well as KS3.

Mr Balls must think educational professionals and parents alike are entirely stupid if he thinks he can get away with saying, effectively, that we must have external and objective tests at the end of Primary school because, well, we have them at the end of Secondary school.

This is a typical politician attempting to fudge the issue and behaving like someone who cares more about covering his own back from attacks from both the Tories and from within Labour than he does about the wellbeing and educational success of children. If Balls sincerely believes what he’s saying then he really is stupid, and if he doesn’t then he’s as cowardly and shifty as his media performances would indicate.

As Jenni Russell says, the testing regime has as harmful an effect on the learning and motivation of pupils at KS2 as it's had on the learning of pupils at KS3, and the tests don’t even give an accurate picture of what pupils know and what they can do. Only evidence-based expert teacher assessment and regular tracking against clear learning targets can do that.

The Year 6 SATs results are more often an indicator of the willingness of individual schools to abandon a broad, rich and balanced curriculum and cram their pupils for tests than they are an indicator of actual pupil progress and ability. As for schools producing pupils who love learning for its own sake, who are creative, confident, imaginative and emotionally intelligent - you must be joking. Schools that focus primarily on cramming and "standards" (i.e. their position in the league tables) normally don't even address these issues.

Recent New Labour murmurings of appreciation and praise for the success of the Finnish system of education don't seem to appreciate that the Finns don't formally test pupils until they are 16. They DO, however, rigorously track their progress throughout their school years, instead of relying on formal tests at the end of each Key Stage.

New Labour were wrong about formal tests for pupils at KS1 and had to recant. They were wrong about holding on to formal tests at KS3 and had to recant. Do we really have to hope the Tories win the next election in order for the right thing to happen at KS2?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Layer 76 To Market, To Market.

Driving through the Cotswolds the other week I saw it was market day and stopped off to take a look around. The day was sunny and warm, the locals were out with their bags and their trolleys, greeting one another in slow voices and mellow accents.

The village square was quiet and peaceful, surrounded by fabulous old buildings whose honey stone seemed to glow in the morning sun. The old coaching inn was open for breakfasts and coffee. If I hadn’t already stopped off in a sunlit lay-by for coffee and a bacon sandwich from a mobile caff, I’d have been straight in there.

Compared with the Saturday market I’d been to in the Dordogne a couple of weeks ago, this market was tiny. Stalls selling fruit and veg, general hardware, shoes and boots, plants and garden equipment, bread and cakes, pies and pastries, and some very tasty-looking local and French cheeses - and that was about it.

Clearly this market was an important part of local life, and brought people together from the surrounding area - as had the market in St Foy, only on a much bigger scale. I can’t even remember the last time I was at an English country market, and this seemed to be quintessential England. It’s a blessing to have the time to ‘stand and stare’, and take a few photos, out in rural England.

What more could anyone want or need from a market? Here we were with the international money markets just about ready to implode, crash and burn, and everything was going on just as it has for - centuries?

So what would my perfect market be like? What else might it need? Just a few things:
  • A large number of stalls selling fabulous, irresistible foods ranging from curries and stews to French savory filled crepes and Chinese stir-fries.
  • A hog roast.
  • Stalls selling high quality meats, including various sorts of game - rabbit, pheasant, duck, wild boar and venison.
  • Various small cafes with tables and chairs in the sun, inviting you to sit down and watch the world passing by.
  • Various pubs with ditto.
  • A canal on which is moored a Dutch barge selling Thai curries, cakes and coffee, with tables and chairs, etc etc.
  • Various restaurants - Turkish, Italian, Argentinian, even a pie and mash restaurant.
  • A stall selling brilliant old vinyl records at sensible prices.
  • Stalls selling hand-made craft items, photos, paintings, etc.
  • Stalls selling truly exotic fruits and vegetables.
  • Throngs of people of every age, colour and background, including lots of bizarre looking characters, lots of very cool and funky people, creating a genuine buzz in a laid-back and hassle-free style.

And this is exactly what Broadway market has to offer. That’s Broadway, Hackney, just off London Fields, not Broadway, Worcestershire, the Cotswolds.

I’ve been shopping in Broadway Market since first moving to Hackney in the mid nineteen seventies, and it just gets better and better. OK - it’s lost its old working-class-only character, but if it hadn’t been reborn with parts to appeal to the gentrifiers and the incomers then it would surely have died anyway, since most of the traditional stalls had closed down as the locals went off to the supermarkets for convenience, quality and lower prices.

Last Saturday just about everyone was walking around dressed for summer, since the cloudless sky and mid-autumn sun had raised temperatures to the low twenties. It felt better than anything we’ve had these last two lousy so-called summers. There seemed more stalls and shops open than ever, and it was getting to be quite hard to move up and down certain parts of the street as there were so many people.

And so, dear blog readers, if you don’t already know Broadway market then go down there and hang out. And if you do know it - don’t forget it’s there, and keep on enjoying it. But don’t tell anyone else about it. It’s almost too popular already.

And don’t worry about the prices. Of course they’re too high, but you don’t have to actually buy anything. And if you do, tell yourself it’s worth it for the whole wonderful spectacle of cool, funky, laid-back people, some of them quite pretty and sexy, just hanging out and grooving together.


I was very heartened by an item on wonderful Radio 4 this morning about Groovy Old Men. It seems there’s a new section of the population with a more positive, upbeat and altogether more joyful attitude than Grumpy Old Men. Suits me. Something to aspire to.


Another item on R4 concerned memories of one’s very first Blues Moment - the first time you hear some low-down, grooving and grab-you blues and you just go - “WHAT on earth is THAT?!”

With me it was maybe “Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker, and playing live it was maybe the original Fleetwood Mac blues band with Peter Green, or one of John Mayall’s mid-sixties bands with either Eric Clapton or Peter Green on guitar - not that Mayall ever name-checked his hired hands in those days. Not that I even cared who they were, these incredibly gifted young axemen. I was happy just to be blown away by music that clearly came from another planet to the one I’d always known. The Supernatural, with Peter Green on guitar, my all-time favourite blues instrumental. Contemporary version of The Supernatural by Peter Green’s current band, The Splinter group. The Gary Moore version. All Your Love - Mayall’s Bluesbreakers - a live performance on video. Steppin’ Out - Mayall and Clapton.


But let’s face it - it hardly seems to be right and proper to be going on about markets and music when what’s been happening in the world is so mind-numbingly horrendous and appalling. The money markets and the whacky world of banks and high finance are the focus of everyone’s attention, and somehow more terrifying than the Black Plague, Aids and Bird Flu put together.

And what can Oxzen possibly say about all of that? All one can do is pay attention, try to understand what the fuck is going on, and try to imagine the possible consequences, especially for the poor, the sick and the needy. Depending on which pundit you listen to the world is facing Armageddon and going to hell on a handcart, and the very foundations of our so-called civilisation are crumbling and collapsing.

On the other hand, “When you got nothing you got nothing to lose”, as His Bobness sang, all those years ago. The hardest hit will surely be the wretched souls who’ve been enticed and seduced into buying property and shares they can barely afford, who will just have to stand and stare incredulously as their hard-earned savings and investments shrivel and disappear.

The smart rich, meanwhile, including the fat cats, financiers and bankers whose greed and lack of scruples brought about this situation in the first place, will have made damn sure that their bonuses and profits are squirreled safely away in foreign vaults and tax havens. And now, thanks to the government, thanks to us, they’re not even going to lose their jobs, their directorships, their property portfolios, their fat-cat lifestyles.

Out and about at the weekend there was still no sign of any marching, charging people; no barricades, no mobs looking to lynch the tycoons and the bankers from the nearest lamp-post.
Well there’s a very big temptation to say, I FUCKING TOLD YOU that capitalism is inherently nasty, brutish, corrupt, stupid, immoral and destructive. Thatcher, Keith Joseph, the Friedmanites, the Monetarists, the Freemarketeers, the Globalisers, the Big-Bangers, the Deregulators and the Neo-Conservatives were, and are, all mad, deluded or downright lying scumbags. And now you’re gonna believe us.

But what’s actually going to HAPPEN? Exciting, innit?


All I can say about it is that you must read two books, one old and one new, to get some perspective on what we might call Selfish Capitalism, to use Oliver James‘ expression: James’ ‘Affluenza’, and ‘The State We’re In’, by Will Hutton. And it’s very interesting how much in demand these guys suddenly are, as commentators on the current craziness. See below for extracts.

Hutton wrote ‘The State We’re In’ back in 1995, and how much attention did Blair and New Label pay it? Er, none. And yet it describes precisely how unregulated capitalism has been fucking up the entire planet. Newrotic Labour have so much to answer for. The bastards. Have they ever suggested that unregulated capitalism was corrupt and evil? Have they ever argued for a proper world-wide system of regulation, even? No. Never. Not ever.

It’s very interesting how the Right has laid into James in book reviews, etc. Quite predictably. The guy was very brave to have launched such a wholesale critique of bourgeois attitudes and lifestyles, and of course the people he’s talking about as being sick don’t like it. Hence their rage and bile.


And finally . . . The best and funniest bit of the farcical England v Kazakstan game last week was Capello’s reaction to the ludicrous punt made by Ashley Cole to gift Kstan their goal. The manager was totally gone in rage, incredulity and frustration! He did a hilarious little dash from touchline to bench, with his little fists clenched and his face contorted. Well Fab - you should have taken note of Oxzen’s advice in the last blog, and I quote:

“Ashley Cole used to be capable of making speedy, timely and skillful forward breaks, but he’s become erratic and considerably slower in thought and action, probably because he’s distracted and under-motivated a lot of the time. I’d drop him for good.”

Please, please Fabio - do it now.


From ‘Affluenza’

My focus is on why we are so fucked up, not with dangling a false promise of the possibility of happiness. In short, my new theory is that the nasty form of political economy that I call Selfish Capitalism caused an epidemic of the Affluenza Virus, accounting for much of the increase in distress since the 1970s. (pages xvii and xviii)

By Selfish Capitalism I mean four basic things. The first is that the success of businesses is judged almost exclusively by their current share price. [!] The second is the strong drive to privatise public utilities, such as water, gas and electricity, or, in the case of America, to keep them in private hands. The third is that there should be as little regulation of business as possible, with taxation for the rich and very rich so limited that whether to contribute becomes almost a matter of choice. The fourth is the conviction that consumption and market forces can meet human needs of almost every kind. America is the apotheosis of Selfish Capitalism, Denmark the nearest thing to its Unselfish opposite. (page xviii)

My main point is that the extent to which a developed nation is Selfish capitalist and infected by Affluenza is crucial to the well-being of its inhabitants. (page xx)

I contend that most emotional distress is best understood as a rational response to sick societies. Change those societies, and we will all be less distressed. (page xx)


From ‘The State We’re In’

I do not accept that inequality, social distress, centralisation of government, privatisation of the public realm, abandonment of society to the market and enfeeblement of Britain’s civic culture are the necessary downpayment for a better tomorrow - or that the future promises to be as rosy as the Right foretells. More of the same promises to be nothing but more of the same, with a weakening of the ties that bind the country together, a steady deterioration in the underlying economy, and a delegitimation of our political system. (page xii)

A reappraisal of Britain’s financial system, the exercise of ownership and control in Britain’s companies, and their pattern of decision-making is overdue - for the sake of every form of British business. (page xviii)

[It was overdue in 1995 when he wrote this, or even in 1945, and it’s FUCKING overdue now!]

Social inclusion, a well-functioning democracy and a high-investing business system supported by a long-termist financial sector are not optional extras; they are interdependent and fundamental necessities. We should not rest until we have them. (page xxv)