Friday, March 27, 2009

Layer 141 Springwatch, Zen lessons, Seismic Shifts, the Year of the Ox, the G20 and the Art of Living.

This should have been posted yesterday.

Springwatch 7


Devon is glorious in the Spring. Two months ago the first camellias made an appearance, and some of them are still only now coming into full bloom, with their blazing scarlets and deep reds. I even spotted one with yellow flowers.

Thousands of trees are in blossom, with the first slight appearance of the brilliant white blossoms of flowering cherries this week. Can’t wait to see the cherry blossoms in the gardens of Japan next week.

Meanwhile, in Devon, daffodils and narcissi are everywhere in full bloom, plus the first tulips, and the hyacinths, with their incredible fragrance. There’s also the brilliant yellow of the forsythia and the yellow pom-poms on the shrub whose name I’ve never known.

There’s masses of wallflowers, primroses, and humble white daisies. The first delicate green and red leaves of Japanese maple have started to unfurl. Strange that these fragile-looking acers come into leaf before our more robust native trees, most of which still have their winter bareness. It must be the longer daylight hours that trigger their buds.

There are tiny blue flowers on the rosemary shrubs, and small purple ones on the heather. The gorse is studded with bright yellow. The periwinkle is a mass of purple and dark blue. There are some magnificent magnolias full of creamily exotic flowers, which have always struck me as almost unreal.

By next week there will be the first clematis and a lot more tulips. Still to come are the magnificent blues of the cyanothus trees and the wonderful reds and scarlets of the rhododendrons and azaleas.

Arguably the Spring is even more glorious in this country than the summer, especially if you happen to appreciate blossom on the trees more than green leaves, and if you prefer the varieties of Spring flowers to those of the summer.

This particular Spring has been more glorious than any I can remember. Parts of England have had thirteen consecutive days of bright sunshine and blue skies, as the high pressure system continued to hang around and shield us from the usual cloudy and wet westerly anti-cyclones and the northerly gales.

Zen tells us to pay attention to nature and to learn from nature. Nature, the natural world, has the power to inspire awe and wonder, and through this power to lead us along the Way towards better living, to character development and enlightenment. The mere observation of incredible beauty in both form and colour refreshes and recharges our jaded spirits.

Thanks to the weather and the wonders of Spring it seems to me there’s a change in most people out in the streets, which seem weirdly calm and quiet. And not just in Devon. Last week in Broadway Market in the East End there were masses of people out enjoying the sun, even people picnicking on the grass in London Fields. In March!

Last winter was the best in living memory as well - the coldest overall for a century, but many more bright and sunny days than normal, and the best and deepest snowfalls for decades.

I think it’s more than coincidence that my journeys along 700 miles of motorways and city streets this week, travelling between Devon, London and Hastings, have been as pleasant and hassle-free as I’ve ever known. Well done the drivers of England! Long may it continue!

Year of the Ox

So far the Year of the Ox is living up to expectations.

Last year’s Rat year began a new cycle, and was seismic in many, many ways. The sense of breaking with the past was immense. The near-collapse of capitalism, which has been shaken to its very foundations, echoed the collapse of communism in 1989/90. Huge sums of public money have been poured into repairing and propping up what's left of the old financial system.

The Year of the Rat brought about the beginning of vast numbers of people starting to question old assumptions about values, money, economics, the way they live, and their quality of life.

There was the rise of Obama and the demise of Bush and Cheney. A truly seismic event if ever there was one. The felling of those two arseholes, those twin towers of evil. The World Enslaved Centre, or the World Corrupt and Depraved Centre. The Project for the New American Century! Ha! What a project it turned out to be. The ‘Washington Consensus’ is well and truly a pile of rubble.

Clearly the Ox year is about building on last year’s beginnings, and recreating our world, re-imagining our lives, taking a fresh look at politics, economics, finance, business, social policy, equality, climate change, sustainability, education, etc. Those that don’t participate don’t deserve a say. No play, no say.


Next week, dammit, Oxzen is going to be away on the other side of the planet just as huge events unfold in London - the meeting of the G20 and massive demonstrations in the City and elsewhere, when people will at last take to the streets in an organised way and make clear their demands to what is the nearest we currently have to a World Government. It’s going to be very interesting.

My advice is to book a day’s holiday, wherever possible, and either join in the various demonstrations, or stay at home and watch what happens live on News 24. Or possibly do both. Hopefully the BBC’s coverage of events will be re-run throughout the evening on News 24. There’s bound to be plenty to watch and to think about. There’s a hell of a lot of anger waiting to be expressed, and a hell of a lot of demands to be voiced. This is the Big One.

There were two very good pieces in the Guardian on Monday on pages 24 and 25 under the headline, Grave new world: hard choices leaders face to solve the crisis. It behoves everyone to read carefully and to form their own opinion.

Larry Elliot, the economics editor, “suggests five areas for leaders at next week’s G20 summit to focus on”, in which he describes the need for a new economics, reform of the IMF, tougher global regulation, etc.

Aditya Chakraborty, under the heading ‘The pursuit of happiness’, says: “Forget growth: let’s focus on wellbeing”. Some interesting thoughts there on The Art of Living, which is probably worth a google as well. We’re talking here about rethinking our entire attitude to who we are and why we do what we do, as well as re-making the entire global web of economic and cultural relationships.

Katharine Ainger wrote a good opinion piece in the Guardian this week - on the G20 and 'global social movements'.

Dr Jonathan Sachs

His Thought for Today focused on the transformations that are due to global communication technologies. Are we equal to the challenge of thinking in global terms, realising that we share a common fate? Only by turning outward can we create a movement for change. Moving from national pride to a new age of global responsibility.


More headlines this week about the Primary Curriculum Review and its implications for schools - more right-wing commentators getting hot under the collar about the possibility of teaching kids to use Facebook and Twitter, and dropping the teaching of history. Hilarious. Those bastards sense the beginnings of a fightback against all they’ve done to diminish the rights of children and to destroy the work that had gone on over two or three progressive decades to make education and learning in this country fit for the needs of children in the 21st, and not the 19th, Century.

Not that it was ever fit for purpose, even in Dickens’ lifetime, when the first national network of state-run schools was constructed. Children should NEVER have been so inhumanly treated. They should never have been made to sit passively and silently focused on a teacher who saw his/her role as doling out imperial gallons of facts, and been punished if they failed to do so.

This morning we hear that the NUT and the NAHT have got together to formulate motions which they’ll put to their respective annual conferences this Spring demanding that this year’s KS2 SATs will be the last of them. Leaving aside the fact that these two large and potentially powerful organisations should have done this a decade ago, in fact prior to the imposition of this evil idea, this is incredibly positive news. My flabber is ghasted. This is seismic. I really didn’t imagine, after all this time, that they were up to such sensible collaboration.

Having given the government notice that they’ll no longer collaborate with such anti-child, anti-teacher evil fucking nonsense, it will only remain for their members to have absolutely no further truck with either coaching kids for the tests or indeed implementing them. What’s the government going to do? Sack them all?

Gandhi said this about chasing targets and results:

"He who is ever brooding over the result, often loses nerve in the performance of duty. He becomes impatient and then gives vent to anger and begins to do unworthy things; he jumps from action to action, never remaining faithful to any. He who broods over results is like a man given to the object of senses; he is ever distracted, he says goodbye to all scruples, everything is right in his estimation and he therefore resorts to means fair and foul to attain his end".
If that sounds like New Labour and the majority of Westminster’s political establishment, and their obsessive whipping of public servants towards often unattainable targets and results, then so be it. Ed Balls’ instant repost to the unions’ statement was to the effect that headteachers had better not get involved in any test boycotts because they’ll be breaking the law. Tough talk, Mr Ed.

I wonder what’s better, and which is right - breaking an immoral politician-made law, or doing what’s right for children and teachers? Gandhi would have known. Gandhi took on the whole of the British state and its empire, without resort to arms or violence, and won. He was thrown into prison for his beliefs, and still stuck to doing what he knew was right. Is it too much to expect for headteachers to do the same? Especially if they have the vast majority of the public and parents backing them and urging them to do what is right.

Never mind a ballot of their members for a SATs boycott. The NUT and NAHT need to launch a major campaign against the vile SATs and league tables’ terror and then ballot the English public. No need to bother with Scotland and Wales - they have no truck with SATs anyhow.

Public Sector Workers Unite Against Blunkett!

The Blunk lumbered into action this week with a Guardian column expressing astonishment that the bloody ungrateful public sector workers are telling pollsters that they’re not going to vote New Labour next time. His point is that under a Tory government many of them will lose their jobs through budget cuts, and the bastards should recognise how much the public sector has been expanded under Blair & Brown.

The world’s most hideous politician, (after Hazel Blears - what is it with these Northern twat politicos?), ought to take a moment to reflect on the fact that the public sector workers care more about the people they serve and being true to their own professionalism than they do about looking after their own job security. For that they deserve applause.

Cameron has said that the NuLabour targets regime is vile and must be scrapped, and professionalism and local autonomy must be restored to the public services. So why not vote for him? What’s not to vote for? Blunkett, of course, as a dinosaur trade unionist thinks only in terms of how many jobs he can create or preserve for ‘the workers’ - what he sees as operatives in miserable results factories.

He can’t understand either that many of us have very long memories and we still hate his guts (and Blair’s, and NuLabour’s) for what he did to education post-1997 - not only retaining Woodhead as his stick to beat the teaching profession, but going even further than the Tories would have done in micromanaging education through central diktat, publishing league tables, making Ofsted even more nasty and vindictive, payment and promotion by results, focusing exclusively on test and exam data, etc, etc.

We remember well his words to those who work in the most challenging schools - “No excuses for failure.” We’ll never excuse his failures, or those of NuLabour, through over 10 years of nasty neo-conservative dictatorship.

The only way we’d vote for his party next time would be if they came out and recanted, admitted that they’ve done all the wrong things, and declared their intention to reverse all their policies on running the public services, including privatisation and marketisation.

But that won’t happen. As the Blunk says in his column, “The government has to avoid blinking”. So carry on Blunking. Blinking is something the Blunk will never do. Never has, never will. His belief in his own infallibility is absolute. And he pays no attention whatever to what every sane, intelligent person had been saying for years.

His, and NuLabour’s, approach to improving public services has been entirely on the Soviet model. Invest in setting up more and more collective farms and tractor factories. Install compliant managers who agree to chase output targets. Give them precise directions as to how to achieve their targets. Punish them ruthlessly if they fail to reach their targets (No excuses for failure), and then wonder why the bloody ingrates hate them and rebel against them, plus the tractors are rubbish and crop production generally diminishes. Animal Farm indeed.


This week sees the reopening of the newly refurbished and extended Whitechapel gallery. A full-sized tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica, which normally hangs in the United Nations building in New York, is the centrepiece of the first exhibition of the gallery. This is clearly a must-see show, and it’s brilliant that the gallery has had these improvements.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Layer 140 Thoughts for Today, Anatomy of an Uprising, Ticking the Boxes, Learning from the Crisis and Battlestar Galactica.

Thought For Today

The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sachs, whom I admire greatly, has been reading Oxzen. How else to explain his thought for today, today?

He’s picked up on the bit in Layer 139 about the Zen approach to life’s difficulties and setbacks. Zen says we need to see such things in a positive way - as an opportunity to do work on our spirits and our souls - that in the act of coping we learn things about ourselves and learn to make those coping parts stronger and more resilient.

I can’t remember his exact words, so I’ll paraphrase.

Shit happens. We deal with whatever life throws at us. We improvise and we stumble through. Eventually we learn to relax when crises occur, and we turn them into learning experiences. We then realise that these experiences are necessary steps on the way to becoming the person we’re supposed to be.

The Chief Rabbi says he asks himself, how does God want this crisis to make me a better person?

Of course we know there is no God, that nobody’s ever brought forward any proof that there is one, but fair enough - Dr Sachs works within an organisation catering for the spiritual growth of millions who long ago decided that the concept of an almighty God helps relatively unenlightened souls and some fairly simple people to engage in a dialogue about spiritual growth and spiritual intelligence.

Coincidence? Synchronicity? Zeitgeist? Oxzen reader?

Anatomy of an Uprising . . .

. . . is the title of an article in yesterday’s G2 that I got round to reading this morning. It’s another zeitgeisty or synchronicity thing - considering what Oxzen said yesterday about Burmese monks, and taking to the streets in a spirit of demonstration and peaceful uprising.

It’s written by Anders Ostergaard, a documentary film maker based in Copenhagen, who collaborated with a young Burmese video journalist called ‘Joshua’. (Something there about bringing down the walls of Jericho?) Joshua worked for a broadcaster-in-exile based in Oslo called the Democratic Voice of Burma.

They started off putting together clandestine footage of everyday life in Rangoon, including scenes of street kids and the state of the railways. Joshua hoped that such an intimate portrait of everyday life in a city full of informers and secret police would be at least a small contribution to creating a better Burma. Creating even a small peephole into such a closed society would be some sort of subversive achievement.

Then stuff happened.

What we got was beyond my wildest imaginings. In the summer of 2007, a few protests grew into an uprising that swept the streets. Soon Joshua and his fellow activists-turned-VJs were feeding CNN, the BBC and the rest of the world's media with stunning videos, showing the Burmese people's fight for freedom and the brutality of the military regime. The VJs underwent a tremendous rite of passage, turning from young, spontaneous activists into war-torn veterans of a media revolution.

Back in the editing room in Copenhagen, our lives also changed. We started off being in full artistic control of a nice little project, but then graphic footage of beatings and shootings by the military and the police began to flood in. We were now chroniclers of world history.

We were able to establish the development of demonstrations as they moved through the city. Slowly, the anatomy of the uprising - and perhaps, indeed, of any uprising - fell into place.

It was fascinating, with each stage clear and well defined. We saw the early, hesitant days when the first groups of protesting monks would start marching at a fast, nervous pace in silence, cautiously applauded by onlookers. The next stage was more daring: the monks would begin their religious chanting and the public joined in, an expression of their yearning for freedom camouflaged in Buddhist generalities. Then came a euphoric outburst of political slogans and direct demands to the government, which echoed through the streets. This defiance turned into panic as the military beast finally got on its feet and struck back. Even though we knew the end of the story all too well, we were still heartbroken to see all those hopes for change and liberation dashed, as the protest transformed into a fight for survival in the course of a single afternoon.

Time to stock up on your digital video tape, and extra memory for your video phone. Everyone needs to become their own documentary maker, diarist, activist and archivist.


Learning From The Crisis

An item on the Today programme. The crisis of capitalism. The dearth of proper debate. Following the death of capitalism - what are the real alternatives? Social solidarity. The moment of truth for the Left, which has no clear or positive alternative programme. So the left just becomes moralistic and legalistic. A socialist version of capitalism? Is this the big task of the Left - to help save capitalism from itself?

How amazing that day by day we’re having public discussions about the death of capitalism and what needs to be put in its place - all played out on the mainstream media! Beyond one’s wildest imaginings! Fascism, neo-fascism and conservatism haven’t been this much on the defensive since World War 2, the last time the world’s economic and financial system was in very deep doo doo. The 1930s and 1940s.


Ticking All the Boxes.

“A hospital is able to tick all the boxes, yet still utterly fail patients.”

This is another article in yesterday’s G2. Read it and weep. Actually I defy anyone to read it and not end up by commenting, “You fucking NuLabour bastards!”

“The vast majority of doctors were out there doing far more then their fair share of work, because they believed in the delivery of a good service in the best interests of their patients. Unfortunately, no one could measure goodwill and professionalism.

So we went from a system driven by professional pride and duty of care, to one that would accommodate market forces. This led to the paramaterisation of everything the bureaucrats could find to score.

The result is that all the areas in the hospital that aren’t measured have less attention paid to them. Literally anything that isn’t a Foundation target becomes a Cinderella service.

Non-clinicians have become incentivised to drive clinical processes that they understand only partially, if at all. Clinical process is so much more complicated than a business that buys and sells stock items. Yet we’re trying to apply the same rule book.

What we’ve seen over the last 20 years is a systematic deprofessionalisation of doctors and nurses within the service. Those not involved in management are regarded simply as service delivery providers.

The changes that were started in the 80s - which were then vociferously opposed by the then Labour opposition - were extended and amplified by Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown.

By reducing healthcare to a few measurable statistics, to create a target-driven culture, we have all but destroyed the essence of what was the NHS.”

Of course you can transpose everything said about the health service and hospitals in this article into the education service and schools. I wonder if anyone’s going to do that?

Yesterday’s Thought for Today, by the Reverend Dr Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney, concluded, “It’s hard to even describe something that’s much more than just measurable and testable. We make bureaucracy and efficiency gods at our peril”.

Literally, at our peril. The G2 article points out that at least 400 patients may have avoidably died at the Stafford hospital at a time when the management and their hireling consultants were focused on achieving ‘foundation status’ for the hospital. The Healthcare Commission’s chairman, Sir Ian Kennedy, described it as a story of “appalling standards of care and chaotic systems for looking after patients . . . with inadequacies at almost every stage”.

Which reminds me of schools and LEAs taking days, weeks and months to prepare for Ofsted inspections, and spending massive amounts of time focusing all their efforts on rising in the league tables. Covering their own backs for fear of getting stabbed right in them. And to think that the new ‘short notice’ inspections were supposed to reduce the amount of time preparing for the arrival of the death squad. As if.

Maybe the kids and the teachers don’t physically die, like patients do in the health service, but their spirits are certainly massacred, mauled and emaciated, and true learning, and the love of real learning, also dies an agonising death.


Battlestar Galactica - Better than The Wire?

G2’s reviewer, Richard Vine, in an epic 4-page article, calls it a groundbreaking piece of TV. Drat! Missed it already!

Passionate. Intelligent. Emotionally articulate. Mystical. “Not afraid to take you on an epic, existential journey during which . . . characters wrangle with metaphysical issues such as the nature of humanity and god.”

He’s obviously talking about the new version of BG which started in 2004, not the original clunky Star Wars rip-off. Sounds good to me.

“What really sets the show apart from the original are its politics.

The idea to revive the show came shortly after 9/11, and its influence permeates the story.

At first, we sympathise with the humans (read: America), under attack from a horde of impossible-to-detect alien invaders within (read: al-Qaida). Then you realise that it's the cylons, the baddies, who believe in a more Christian-sounding "one true God" - and the humans who worship a bunch of different gods. And that even though they've perpetrated mass genocide, it's nonetheless the cylons - created and then turned upon by humans - who believe themselves to hold the moral high ground.

In its third series Battlestar manages to pull off one of the most extraordinary leaps in American TV when the surviving group of humans find themselves living under cylon occupation on a new planet and our human heroes decide to use suicide bombing against the cylons. It's the sort of move you can only pull once you've taken viewers with you on a properly engaging journey.

Suddenly you're looking at a collection of people that you've come to know and respect - rather than a string of dramatic archetypes - and being asked to watch them, even identify with them, as they debate the merits of terrorism. So it's Colonel Tigh, the brilliant, bitter, drunken military man, who decides to sacrifice innocent human bystanders for the sake of taking down a few "frakking toasters" (as they call cylons).

Even if you don't agree with their actions (and the show's not so glib that you're supposed to), you understand how they've come to them, and that's the key to BSG's genius. It doesn't ever talk down to its audience, or pander to gung-ho-American-war-on-terror rhetoric. Instead, it plays out issues in an adult fashion, allowing characters to debate what they're doing, to remember what they've done, to question why they're doing it - and crucially, to be called to account for their actions later. It's this sense of time passing and actions being remembered that gives the show a real depth. Characters grow, change their minds, fall in and out of love, quit jobs and get arrested, lose themselves in drink binges and then pull themselves together.


Baaba Maal - Desert Island Discs.

“Giving voice to the concerns and problems of the masses, through melodies and lyrics.” He describes himself as a nomad, and a griot - a story-teller - an essential profession in a country that didn’t have radios, TVs, books, newspapers or cinemas. Maybe bloggers are a species of griot, passing on stories and information.

Orchestre Baobab. ‘Melodies and chords common in Cuban music’.

Burning Spear. - great dub master

Otis Redding - the master of soul

Bebe Manga - great African rhythms

Johnny Haliday (Noir C’est Noir!)

Sisoko - Senegal Mauratanie - kora

Miles Davis - ‘So What?’ Classic Miles.

Bob Marley - One Love

Now that’s what I call music, (apart from the Johnny Haliday), chosen by someone who’s a musician, a lyricist, a politician, an ambassador, an advocate and a storyteller.

Baaba Maal says that love is the solution to our problems. Well at least it’s a start, says I & I.

One Love is his favourite. His luxury would be his guitar, obviously.

He describes his mother as a beautiful and open woman who liked to help people with their problems. How great is that? Lucky man!

Some great video and music on Baaba’s own website:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Layer 139 Wabi Sabi, Yin Yang, and the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists

I’ve been trying to think of some practical examples of Zen’s wabi sabi philosophy, which I now think might also be compared to Taoist yin yang philosophy.

The fundamental idea in all Buddhist and Taoist thinking is that life is impermanent and imperfect, insofar as it doesn’t accord with human absolutist ideas of perfection, whereby there are rigid ideas about how things ought to be.

We might think that things should remain the same, if we like the way they are - but that’s not going to happen. We might think that things ought to change in accordance with our wishes, if we don’t like the way they are, but that may not happen either.

According to Zen, however, every day is indeed perfect, since it’s life’s frustrations and sadnesses which challenge us and force us to do work on our spirit and our soul (the yin/yang of our psyche?) in order to develop less egotism and more of an attitude of non-attachment, which in turn reduces our angst and suffering.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to make the world a better place for ourselves and others - it’s not about resignation and defeatism. It merely says that we should do the work cheerfully and in the knowledge that our efforts may not be properly or fully rewarded in the way that we’d like.

Shit happens. But good things happen too, often without effort or struggle. We can only play our part, and the most important thing we can do is to work on ourselves so that we seek enlightenment, try to make ourselves the best we can be, and help others.

Going back to practical wabi sabi, I think of homes where everything is ‘perfect’: every room looks like the prevailing culture says it should look; everything is beautiful, tidy, uncluttered and clean. Many Japanese homes, for example, are stunningly minimalist and lovely. What could be wrong with that?

From an aesthetic point of view, maybe nothing. But maybe the price of that sort of perfection is that there are no books or magazines or newspapers to hand that catch one’s attention, that perhaps stimulate and inspire new thoughts. Maybe there are no notebooks or sketchpads at hand to capture fleeting ideas and creative thoughts. Maybe there are no musical instruments or art materials casually to hand to encourage creative self-expression.

Yin yang, and maybe wabi sabi, is also about balance, and about the opposing forces of order and creative disorder, light and dark, coexisting peacefully and productively. It’s the odd ‘blue’ note cropping up in an otherwise perfect pentatonic scale that adds contrast and colour to the music which gives jazz and the blues their unique pleasures and satisfactions.


Referring back to my thoughts on The Class - the film’s website carries this sentence: “The greatest lessons are learned when life enters the classroom.”

One might also say the same for letting real life enter academia’s ivory towers, for letting life enter the fortresses we call our homes, etc.

How many of us are happy to let life enter our lives, instead of trying hard always to keep the real world and its unruly forces at bay?


In Our Time - The Boxer Uprising.

And talking of unruly forces, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time programme on Radio 4 today focused on the ‘Boxer’ rebellion in late 19th Century China.

Spiritual values underpin Japanese and Chinese culture, and indeed all cultures that are influenced by Buddhist philosophy. In China the prevailing culture and spiritual ethos was, and arguably still is, a mixture of of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, each of which reinforces the other, and produces a whole which is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Tolerance, patience, kindness, generosity and compassion were shown to the outside forces, the foreign ideas and indeed the strange religions that entered China in the 19th Century. But when those forces of imperialist expansion and exploitation, aided and abetted by missionary, evangelic Christianity, pushed their luck too far, then in order to preserve their own spiritual values, relationships and customs the ‘common’ people of China rose up in rebellion against them.

The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a resistance movement prepared to use Buddhist martial arts in what they saw as the self-defense of the people and the culture of China, appeared out of nowhere in Shandong province.

There were no specific political leaders. But everyone understood and believed in their cause. Imperialist forces and values were stopped in their tracks, and China remained, and remains, uncolonised.


In our time the forces of unfettered capitalist and imperialist greed, aided and abetted by right-wing fundamentalist Christianity in the USA, have pushed their luck too far.

The people are angry and there’s a whiff of rebellion in the air. There are no obvious leaders for such a rebellion, and no-one really wants to acknowledge the current sense of foreboding and disquiet too much, for fear of being accused of being a rabble-rouser. No matter. Things are as they are. Even the likes of Max Hastings, who is a decent man it seems, recognizes that people have a right to their anger, and that socialists (having been ridiculed as losers and dinosaurs for so long) have been shown to be right in their predictions of planetary destruction and economic meltdown if capitalist excess was allowed to continue. Well it did, and we are where we are.

As Max says, we’re into a period of phony war, when battle lines have been declared, sides taken, and nothing much else seems to be happening. But everybody’s waiting with some anxiety to see what happens in what may prove to be a long, hot summer.


Whatever happens, it ought to be non-violent. There is absolutely no mileage for anyone in violence. We should take our cue from the Buddhist monks of Burma and Tibet, from the example of their spiritual and political protests last year, and be prepared to dress distinctively (as the ‘Boxer’ rebels did too) out on the streets, in demonstrations of our numerical strength, as we make our demands heard.

We demand a return to the ideals of government for the people, by the people. The specifics of our demands still need to be thrashed out in proper democratic debate, and that doesn’t mean in Parliament, either.


Working For The Man

Chris Mullins MP’s recent diaries of his time as a junior minister in the Blair government are being serialized in Radio 4’s Book of the Week this week.

Today’s extracts were fairly hard-hitting, especially the references to Blair and to his immediate boss, Jack Straw.

Blair, “The Man”, is exposed for his inability and his unwillingness to listen to what others have to say to him. Mullins remarks that this is what happens to people who have been in power for some time. However, I’d argue that this is part and parcel of being a power-crazed egomaniac manipulative psychopath politician all your life.

According to Henry Maudsley, psychopaths are moral imbeciles. Check.

Cleckley pointed out that psychopaths can maintain a mask of normality. Check.

Kernberg said that the pathological narcissism of psychopaths prevents them from learning from past mistakes, and helps create individuals who are completely devoid of conscience. Check.

Dr Robert Hare’s checklist for pathological aggressive narcissism consists of 8 factors:

1. Glibness/superficial charm
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
3. Pathological lying
4. Cunning/manipulative
5. Lack of remorse or guilt
6. Shallow
7. Callous/lack of empathy
8. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions


“I did what I thought was right,” said Mr Tony. Lest we forget. I I I I I I I I I I

Maybe we should run this diagnosis on the rest of our elected representatives. Urgently.

Mullins also highlights Blair’s inability to concentrate and to focus on important issues, especially those which don’t really interest him, like Africa. He clearly didn’t read the briefs that were sent to him, and was given to saying to colleagues like Mullins on the day of meetings and conferences, “Tell me what to say - in a word!”

When Blair met with the Dalai Lama in his capacity as a Buddhist leader he didn’t even have enough respect for his visitor to prepare properly for the meeting so that a productive dialogue could take place, and confined himself, therefore, to anodyne chat and questions. When the issue of the right-wing BJP came up - the so-called ‘Indian People’s Party’ - Blair apparently said he thought their political ideology was similar to New Labour. Check.

Mullins concluded that “we are turning a blind eye to some very bad things”, and “it’s impossible to get the paperwork under control” in spite of working all the available hours. This is indeed Britain under New Labour. And will no doubt continue to be if we end up living under a New Tory government.


The estimable Jon Cruddas MP had a good column in the Guardian yesterday.

Labour has misunderstood Britain. Time to start afresh.

We need to rebuild a community-focused party, embrace electoral reform and pursue - dare I say - a New Socialism.

On top of the recession, 2009's big story looks like being a crisis of political representation.

And palpable fear about what lies ahead.

New Labour has had increasingly little to say about [people’s] struggles. Indeed, by 2001 its policies were based essentially on a mythical middle England, drawn up by pollsters and located somewhere in the south-east, with affluence taken for granted. In this model, politics always had to be individualised. A leading cabinet member claimed that Labour's essential message was to help voters "earn and own". People were seen as being fixated only on themselves, with no wish to think in terms of collective experience. Aspiration was about buying more things rather than wanting to build the "good society".

Julian Baggini, in his book A Journey into the English Mind, identified a postcode in Rotherham as the typical centre of the country in terms of how we live and think. His exploration of the philosophy of England beautifully defines the conservative, community-orientated outlook of the mainstream, Protestant centre of the country with its rich sense of tolerance and fairness.

Labour misread this communitarian disposition - grounded in a deep and still dominant working-class culture - for a shrill politics of individual consumerism. We assumed people would only respond to a sour, illiberal politics about consuming more, rather than a deeper ethic of fraternity and what we aspire to be as a nation.

Labour lost the language of generosity, kindness and community as it lost the tempo of the country. England's abiding culture was never socialist, but as we misunderstood its essential ethic of solidarity we lost our ability to build a politics beyond the market - to mould a radical hope for the country.

Working-class culture tolerated Labour as long as it promised economic uplift. Sixty quarters of growth helped disguise our cultural distance from the country. The material class politics that we never confronted - around housing, employment insecurity and pensions - was submerged by the housing bubble.

The Labour party is therefore at a critical moment. Already in government hardline market fundamentalists are regrouping, arguing for further dismantling of the state, more privatisation and suspending any equality agenda to placate business. On the left, a movement to leave Labour and form a new workers' party is stirring. What both sides share is a desire to polarise debate.

But now is the time to build a different Labour party, to develop a new kind of economy and determine the just distribution of power and resources, in which government and the people work together toward a vision of the Good Society.

A grown-up Labour party needs to embrace proportional representation - not as a preserve of the liberal metropolitan intelligentsia, but as a core mechanism with which to combat a sense of working-class alienation.

Now, before it's too late, we need to rediscover [traditional] Labour politics. And, not that I want to scare the horses, we might even call it a New Socialism.


Well, Jon, you can call it what you like, but what you’re really talking about is embracing spiritually intelligent values. And none of the political parties has any monopoly on them. They’re all free to embrace them. The original Labour party grew out of them. Jesus Christ, the Buddha and Mohammed certainly advocated them.

Reading Cruddas’ article, you surely have to see parallels with the Boxer rebellion. The majority of the people, who live decent lives and abide by spiritually intelligent values have become disgusted with the values inflicted on this society by the advocates of greed and the American Dream - selfishness, individual enrichment at the expense of the communal good, and so forth. They’ve had enough and they’re not going to take any more.

These people have no particular political programme, belong to no political party or faction, have no particular leaders, and they wish only to see our national affairs return to a greater state of enlightenment - to see social justice, the eradication of violence, exploitation and poverty - and they desire much greater equality and a better life for all, not just the few.

Unless the current political parties start to show some concern with their desires and interests then they won’t vote for any of them. Maybe a new party will form to represent them, but in the meantime the masses will just have to stage demonstrations and protests, to show their anger in their willingness to stand up on their feet and get out in peaceful gatherings on the streets.

I suggest they wear the same colours as the monks of Burma and Tibet, if only to show solidarity and a belief in non-violence.


Simon Jenkins wrote his usual excellent column yesterday.

Some excellent postings after the article too, such as the one by Trevisco:

THIS IS OUR FUCKING MONEY. WE DESERVE A FULL EXPLANATION AND ACCOUNTING. NOW. Frankly, it makes me feel like paying those bankers a visit in the dead of night with a baseball bat and persuading them to come clean about that £100 billion.

Jonathan Freedland said some perceptive things in his column about Noam Chomsky’s observation that the USA has not so much supported Israel as supported the right wing in Israel and in fact supported each and every right wing party and right wing government everywhere on the planet.

Layer 138 The Class, Unhealthy Preoccupations, Outbreaks of Common Sense, and Wabi Sabi.

Entre Les Murs

The Class (Between The Walls) takes place within the claustrophobic confines of a Parisian multi-cultural secondary school. It examines the dynamics within a very mixed ability class of 14 - 15 year olds, and their French language teacher, Francois, played by the author of the piece, based on his own experiences as a teacher. It also shows the dynamics within the staff of the school, including the school’s director.

It’s incredibly well written, acted, directed and edited, and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Apparently the actors are all real teachers and pupils, not actors and drama students.

It’s a compelling account of what it’s really like to work with such adolescents, with their attitudes, issues and challenges. It’s a pretty overwhelming task - one that most of us are ill-equipped to take on.

The kids, for example, can’t see the point of being forced to learn the refined and grammatically correct versions, the ‘standard’ forms, of the French language, since they themselves don’t need them, use them, or even aspire to using them.

The kids and their families have backgrounds that include Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Ivory Coast, the Caribbean, China, Vietnam, and so on. The tensions between the groups are brought out through their support for the football teams of their ‘home’ countries, and indeed France.

Questions of identity, loyalty, self-image, culture clash and conflict are seriously explored.

The film raises serious questions about the purposes and methods of education. They’re essentially decent kids, but tough, hard-bitten and streetwise, and they resent a world that pays scant respect to them, or to their culture and community.

The teachers are portrayed as decent and sometimes heroic figures, though also with their limits - their weaknesses and biases.

There are also interesting explorations of the sanctions available to schools and teachers, and how they are applied. The sense of hopelessness and helplessness of some of the kids, and their parents, is palpable.

You can get a taster of the film through the trailers on the film’s website:


A Buddhist Thought for Today - on Radio 4 today.

This is maybe worth repeating - from my recollection and my notes, with apologies to the Buddhist gentleman who offered this thought - for forgetting his name:

Mr Brown now says the era of laissez-faire capitalism is at an end. Inequality has now been shown to be a major factor in human happiness and the breakdown of social cohesion.

Social policy is very important for wellbeing, and social policies that reduce equality between individuals have been shown to be necessary and important for everyone’s wellbeing - not just the less well-off.

Gaining self worth from comparisons with others seems to be endemic in humans.
It’s hard to be immune from such things. Human competitiveness and drive for ‘status’, wanting to keep up with the successes of others, seems to be pervasive.

But is this in any case a sound basis for our sense of self worth? We should consciously avoid comparing ourselves with others.

We need to focus on our inner dimension of heart & mind - not look externally for feelings of self-worth.

We need to discover our inner dimensions of honest communication, love of nature, love of music, and so on. This is where real happiness and self-worth are to be found.

Through a process of calm reflection and meditation we can cultivate patience, generosity and compassion.

We need to learn to love ourselves first. If we find ourselves unlovely, then we should reflect on how we can change in order to be more pleasing to ourselves.

We also need to respond to ourselves with greater kindness. We must cultivate an inner abundance that others can share.


An Unhealthy Preoccupation?

This week there was a Scots woman on Radio 4’s Today going on about what she sees as an unhealthy preoccupation in our schools with children’s ‘feelings’. She’s against using the ‘SEAL’ programme’s materials, (social & emotional aspects of learning), some of which try to cultivate ‘emotional literacy’ and the ability to identify ‘feeling states’. She thinks children whose feelings are ‘hurt’ should be told to pull themselves together and ‘just get on with it’. Very Scots. Very Presbyterian.

The woman’s a complete idiot, of course. The SEAL materials can be very badly used, and used in ways that simply create boredom and frustration because they’re dealt with in an almost academic way.

But it’s absolutely crucial that teachers, teaching assistants, heads of year, pupil mentors and headteachers use every opportunity that presents itself to help children develop a better understanding of human conflict, its causes and effects, and remedies. For heaven’s sake - the negative things that take place in schools are learning experiences, if they’re properly handled.

There’s no better time to learn individually about feelings and about real social and emotional intelligence than when someone’s personally or tangentially involved in some sort of crisis or conflict. Of course we must also ensure that children consider as whole classes, in the context of a planned curriculum, things like human values, anger management, loving kindness and non violence. But we must also use real-life situations to the full in order to help children learn better, more deeply and more quickly.

Giving angry, sad, aggressive, vengeful, frightened and tearful children opportunities to calm down and calmly reflect on whatever’s happened, and a chance to think about what went wrong, and what should happen next, are vital if children are to develop high levels of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, which should be a priority in all our schools. This should be so bleeding obvious it’s unbelievable that anyone should need to say these things.

The lady in question is unhappy that schools take on this work, which she sees as an attempt to “supplant the family”. What an idiot. How can she not see that it’s vital that schools supplement the learning that goes on in families, not supplant it? How can she not see that precious little of such learning takes place within many families, even the materially well-off ones, and that the learning must therefore take place in schools, from Nursery onward, or else it won’t take place at all?

If skilled Nursery and Early Years practitioners fail to involve themselves is such learning then many children wouldn’t even be able to access the rest of the curriculum - the academic and intellectual core. Classrooms would be simply chaotic and totally unruly, unless she’s just proposing to expel children who don’t immediately conform to expectations, and to use that draconian form of punishment to frighten the rest into ‘good behaviour’. In which case you have a system of externally imposed classroom discipline which breaks down elsewhere, on the streets and in real life, because no-one has learnt the need for, and the skills of, self-discipline.

It’s also a simple fact that many families teach their children to be aggressive, to be selfish and to be bullies in order to get what they want in life. In which case schools do indeed need to supplant the learning that happens in those families. And in those cases it’s not helpful for the long run to simply suppress bullying and aggression. Children do indeed need to learn why these things damage themselves as well as others, and to change what’s in their hearts, their souls and their minds.

Learning to be patient, generous and compassionate, learning to cultivate an abundance that can be shared with others, is a long, long journey, especially for those who are already spiritually lame, crippled and blinded. As the Buddhist teacher would no doubt agree.


Wabi Sabi

As I was saying the other day, there was an interesting documentary on BBC4 about the elusive concept of wabi sabi. The presenter, a certain faux naïf called Theroux (Louis’s Brother?) was pretty irritating - but no matter. Better to consider wabi sabi in this imperfect way than not at all. After all, according to him, wabi sabi is the beauty of imperfect things.

As far as I can see, wabi sabi is an attitude or state of mind that’s engendered by an awareness of the impermanence of things, not their ‘imperfection’. From this comes an attitude, a Zen attitude, which can be characterised as ‘non-attachment’. Through living with this attitude we can more readily accept that everything is impermanent, and everything changes. Impermanence is neither good nor bad. It just IS.

My feeling is that the origins of this philosophy can be traced back to Taoism and the ancient Taoist book, the I Ching - the Book of Changes. The way of the Tao is described in the other classic text - the Tao Te Ching. Zen grew from Buddhism, which was assimilated into Taoist China from its origins in India. Discovery of The Way and one’s individual Tao, and following one’s proper course through life is essential to becoming the best we can be.

Attention to nature, and to the cultivation of gardens, shows us that everything has its season. A time to live and a time to die. A time to blossom and a time to bear fruit. A time for germination and a time to wither and disappear. Everything happens in cycles.

A life based on Zen and wabi sabi seeks simplicity and authenticity. Manifestations of this ideal can be found in pottery, music and gardens. The best examples of such art can arouse in us feelings of serene melancholy and spiritual fulfilment, or satori.

Having just listened to an hour and a half of David Gilmour and Rick Wright and co on Sky Arts 1, Remember That Night, performing Pink Floyd classics such as High Hopes and Comfortably Numb, cranked up loud through the hi fi, I’m Zenned and blissed out, and I’m off to bed. It’s been an incredibly beautiful Spring day, sunny and warm from start to end, with blossom and daffodils everywhere. Life doesn’t get any better than this. Remember That Day.

You can watch the BBC programme on iPlayer at


An Outbreak of Common Sense

Robert Peston reports that the Financial Services Authority is now proposing we abandon the prevailing dogma that the market always knows best and that the market should be left to regulate itself. The FSA now wants bank lending to be limited to avoid taking on too much risk, and wants banks to hold more liquidity in case money markets shrink or dry up.

The words stable, bolted, door, closing, after and horse come to mind.

Also stating, obvious, the and bleeding.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Layer 137 The Theory of Everything and the Source of All Our Ills.

Oh well, back to the politics, the financial meltdown, the appalling lack of spiritual intelligence in our public life.

There was a fascinating programme on BBC4 last night (twice - I caught the late show) about Zen and wabi sabi, but I’ll come to that in a moment.

The front page headline on the Guardian this morning is “Brown: I should have done more to prevent crisis.” And “PM says he accepts ‘full responsibility’ and declares laissez-faire era over.”

"Gordon Brown attempts to launch a political fightback today by declaring that he takes "full responsibility" for his role in the banking failures that led to the global recession, and claims that the downturn marks the end of the era of laissez-faire government.

In an interview with the Guardian, the prime minister concedes that in retrospect he wishes he had mounted a popular campaign 10 years ago to demand more responsible regulation of the world's financial markets. He attempts to draw a line under calls for him to make an apology by admitting that the national system of regulation he helped establish in 1997 could not keep pace with the massive global financial flows.

In some of his most extensive comments on his role in the recession, Brown said: "I take full responsibility for all my actions, but I think we're dealing with a bigger problem that is global in nature, as well as national. Perhaps 10 years ago after the Asian crisis when other countries thought these problems would go away, we should have been tougher ... keeping and forcing these issues on to the agenda like we did on debt relief and other issues of international policy."

So what Brown actually said to the man from the Guardian was, “I take full responsibility for all my actions”. Of course he does. Why wouldn’t he? What he deliberately fails to say is that he takes full responsibility for all of his INactions which allowed and encouraged the bankers and the fat cats to ruthlessly exploit the gullibility and naivety of millions of ‘ordinary’ people - i.e. non-insiders (even people like Max Hastings, more of whom later) - and effectively rob them and steal from them their life savings in the capitalist casino, which, like every casino, operates for the benefit of those that run it.

He argues that "only progressive, centre-left governments can address the problems of the global change".

Brown also claims that "the 40-year-old prevalent orthodoxy known as the Washington consensus in favour of free markets has come to an end", but signals a refusal to return to Labour's comfort zone by saying there will be no return to "big government", or any let up in public service reform.

What a fucking nerve - suggesting that New Labour has been a progressive, left of centre government when we know damn well that it’s gone even further than Thatch and Major in its privatisations, deregulations, giving independence to the UK’s central bank, appointing useless bankers to key advisory and regulatory roles, etc. Bastard.

What a fucking nerve - telling us that the 40-year old ‘Washington consensus’ has (thankfully) come to an end when he and Blair did fuck all to try to end it when they came to power in ’97, as they should have done. As if he’s played any part in ending the era of voodoo economics and the reign of the Chicago School! He fucking supported it!

And now he’s opportunistically trying to follow Obama’s lead on everything - from suddenly adopting Keynesianism and ditching the Friedmanite Chicago School theorists, to advocating the end of the bonus culture, raising taxes on the rich and putting ceilings on executive pay. Bastard.

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show neatly skewered Brown last week by running clips of several of the bits of his speech to Congress that milked standing ovations, and then showed the much older clips of the bits of Obama’s speeches that Brown had copied word for word or plagiarised.

As Jon S put it, “What is this guy? A Barack Obama cover band?”

He said nothing original in that speech, and only stated the bleeding obvious when he called for concerted international action to deal with the world economic crisis. Big deal. We could all do that.

"Laissez-faire has had its day. People on the centre-left and the progressive agenda should be confident enough to say that the old idea that the markets were efficient and could work things out by themselves are gone", he says.

What’s this? You don’t say! Laissez-faire capitalism should have had its fucking day way back in the 1930’s - since it took a world war to kick-start economies out of the great depression that L-FC had caused, and post-war it took Keynesian enlightenment, the Marshall Plan and the creation of the United Nations and the IMF (before the Chicago Boys took up residence there) to pilot the world into a new era of peace and prosperity. These were institutions and international agreements that came into being because it was clearly understood back then that unbridled, unregulated capitalism could only bring misery, recession and ruin to entire populations.

And as for Brown saying that “people of the centre-left and the ‘progressive agenda’ should be confident enough blah blah” - WE fucking WERE confident enough to say that markets needed regulation and public accountability! Only Brown and Blair and their crew weren’t fucking listening!!

“The prime minister also argued that the world recession was changing the public's expectations of business values, and they no longer believe a successful economy has to be based on high levels of risk.

"Most people want business to have the same values as they practise in their everyday life. People would rather reward hard work rather than risk-taking.”

This is bollocks too. Maybe the world ‘recession’ (economic implosion) has changed Mr Brown’s ‘expectations of business values’, but WE, the ‘public’, i.e. the real people, have always espoused the values that he’s now, belatedly, proclaiming. It’s not the bloody public’s values that are now changing..

Brown also says, in the interview spread across pages 14 and 15, that “both government and markets have got to be underpinned by values”. That’s right, Gordo. Socialist values. Belief in fairness, social justice, the elimination of poverty, much greater inequality, the elimination of tax havens, tax avoidance and fat-cat bolt-holes, caps on executive pay, the elimination of the bonus culture, higher rates of tax for the rich, a much higher minimum wage, and so on. All the things that NuLabour has patently failed to even campaign about and argue for, let alone act on.

How this guy has the nerve to paint himself as a progressive and left of centre is beyond belief.


A couple of days ago I was reading the chapters in Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock doctrine” that deal with what happened to the so-called Asian Tiger Economies, which Brown refers to, during the late 1990’s. Read them and weep. Big business and big finance in the USA and elsewhere decided it wanted part of the action in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Phillipines and South Korea - places that had built thriving industries and public utilities that were at least part-owned by the state - and so set out to destabilise their currencies in order to force them to apply to the IMF for support. The IMF, of course, which by this time was firmly under the control of the Chicago Boys, told them that loans would only be available to them AFTER they’d agreed to sell off, to privatise, at knock-down prices, their state assets and their major industries. And guess who stepped in, bought them up, and asset-stripped them, as they had already done in Russia, Eastern Europe, South Africa, South America, and elsewhere? That’s right - fat cats, financial predators and oligarchs.


Two more recent columns in the quality press about the harmful effects of inequality, as researched and reported by Wilkinson & Pickett in ‘The Spirit Level’.

Will Hutton in The Observer:

‘Look no further than inequality for the source of all our ills.’

John Crace in G2:

‘The Theory of Everything’.


Simon Jenkins had another excellent column in The Guardian on Friday 13th, on the deeds and legacy of Thatch and her ilk.

“Where Thatcher - or rather her chancellor, Nigel Lawson - went wrong was in the reformed structure of City finance brought on by the Big Bang of 1986.”

No one was more traumatised by the miners' strike than two young Labour politicians, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A year earlier, Blair had been elected for Sedgefield on a leftwing, anti-Europe, pro-union, pro-CND platform, to begin one of the most spectacular U-turns in political history.

By 1989 Blair was shadow employment secretary, and was demanding that his party quietly accept Thatcher's labour and privatisation laws. He and Brown visited Australia to study Labour leader Bob Hawke's ideal of Thatcherism with a human face. He declared, "We play the Tory game when we speak up for the underclass rather than for the broad majority." Meanwhile Brown demanded that the party "make an almost religious atonement for the sins of Labour's past", in the words of his biographer, Robert Peston.

Brown was so frantic to mimic Thatcherism as shadow chancellor that Peter Hain wrote in 1993: "There is little to distinguish Labour's macroeconomic policy from that of the Tories." John Prescott, Jack Straw and David Blunkett dismissed Brown in Tribune as a crypto-monetarist. He was against tax rises, for privatisation and an ardent defender of Kenneth Clarke's Treasury policies.

This is only relevant since whatever blame attaches to Thatcher for the financial chaos of the last six months attaches even more to Blair and Brown. In truth, Thatcherism was a consensus, built on the experience of the 1970s as the consensus of 1940s welfarism was built on that of war.

The difference is that Brown, in his semi-independence for the Bank of England, was super-Thatcherite. The Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 established the tripartite regulation that has so conspicuously failed. It went far beyond what Thatcher would have tolerated.

Meanwhile history is silent on the downside of the Thatcher era. The command structure she created to crush her foes became unrestrained, over-centralised and inefficient. Her evisceration of local democracy bred a cynicism among Britons towards political participation that remains unique in Europe. It also led to her downfall through the poll tax.

Thatcher was one of the great "nationalisers" of all time, taking control of the public housing stock, the rating system, a previously devolved hospital service, the universities, the courts, crown prosecution and, during the miners' strike, the police. It was Thatcher who turned Whitehall from an elite administrative corps into a demoralised, politicised officialdom which, under Blair and Brown, became besotted with targets, initiatives and useless IT systems.

Thatcher removed former nationalised industries from the state. But ask any doctor, farmer, lecturer, engineer or victim of the health and safety executive if, as a result of Thatcher, they feel less or more liberated from state interference. You will get a sick laugh.

Meanwhile, back at Max Hastings, “Winning the next election should be the least of Cameron’s worries.”

In his previous Guardian column Max, a life-long Tory, had described how he’s lost a shitload of his own money through trusting financial advisers and others who told him to invest in stocks and shares that are now worthless. He’s belatedly woken up to the evils of capitalism. He’s extremely fearful that as a result of the collapse of economies around the world we’re now on the eve of social, political and financial catastrophe.

Well, Max, I hate to say this, but I, for one, could have told you so. Many people in fact wrote books about it. Am I the only one who read “The State We’re In” - Will Hutton’s best-selling 1996 classic? Surely not.

Anyone who had eyes to see could have told Max that American and European economic imperialism and exploitation would one day come to a very bad end. And now it has. People like Max may have lost the most money, but they’ll still be better insulated from the effects than those who lost nothing because they had fuck-all to lose in the first place. Nothing except their jobs, their homes, their self-respect, their life chances and indeed their lives, in lots of cases. The rates of suicide during and after the Asian downturn and buy-out were phenomenal. Millions are still unemployed and impoverished all over the world, and it’s going to get a lot worse.

“We are in a phoney war period, comparable with the winter of 1939. Everyone recognises the gravity of events, but no bombs are falling. Although markets have crashed and unemployment is rising steeply, most people are still going about their affairs more or less as they did a year ago. Few national leaderships are yet thinking or acting with a conviction commensurate with the scale of the crisis.

It is hard to suppose this comparative normality will persist. Hundreds of millions of lives are going to be brutally changed. It is unlikely that any decisions taken at next month's London G20 summit will avert acute social pain. It is implausible that populations will respond stoically. This will be especially so if they see those who created the disaster, notably the banking community, still enjoying absolute or even relative opulence secured by false pretences.

A few years ago, many of us were naive enough to suppose that the global struggle between left and right was effectively over; that capitalism and social democracy were irrevocably triumphant. Peter Flannery's 1996 TV classic, Our Friends in the North, seemed to represent an archaeological dig through old British miseries. The rage of the left that it portrayed, the corruption of capitalism and of the police as its enforcement arm, the violence of the 1984 miners' strike, the class war cliches, were light years removed from the prosperous Britain of the Blair years.

As a Tory, I watched Flannery's series with some complacency. I was confident - and still am - that our side was mostly right in the struggles of the 1980s.

The left's view of capitalism as a conspiracy against working people looked ridiculous. Tony Benn was wrong about almost everything. After Thatcher's fall, for almost a generation, capitalism delivered on an extraordinary scale, conferring prosperity on all but the poorest members of society.

Today, however, few people even in Wall Street or the City of London dispute that we are suffering a historic failure. It cannot be blamed on political troublemakers, workers, asylum-seekers, terrorists or climate change. It is explicitly the responsibility of those who have conducted the world's financial machinery, indulged and abetted by governments. Tim Geithner, the US treasury secretary, speaks frankly of "a systemic failure of regulation".

In the face of this, the innocents who will suffer seem entitled to vent their feelings, armed with a moral authority a hundred times greater than that which provoked the turbulence of the miners' strike or, for that matter, the poll tax riots. To say this is not to countenance violence, but merely to acknowledge the justice of public anger.

It will be strange if, in a new and poorer world, voices of the left do not find audiences such as they have not known for 30 years. As public spending is cut, the jobless find it impossible to regain work, businesses of all kinds struggle for survival, the political map of many nations, notably including Britain, could be redrawn. In the decade ahead, no one will speak without irony of "the enterprise society".

The war had forced upon Churchill's government socialistic domestic policies. These will be equally inescapable amid the 2010 economic crisis.

Privately at least, most politicians acknowledge the probability of civil unrest.

Thus far, what seems most remarkable about the cataclysm is that few prophets have acknowledged how radically it could change the political landscape.

Right on, Max, my man. I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Damn - I’ve run out of time and space to say anything about wabi sabi. Manyana.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Layer 136 All Along the Lea Banks

I’m a complete convert to the idea that cycling is the best way of going from place to place. Especially if you can do it away from roads and traffic. It’s silent, it’s much faster than walking - enabling you to travel much further, it doesn’t cost anything, it gets you fit, it gets the sun on your skin, and it gives a sense of absolute freedom.

Those were pretty much all the things I felt about cycling at the age of 10 or 11 when my parents bought me my first bike. Suddenly the whole world was mine to explore, any time I wanted, and all for free. My estate, the streets and estates beyond my immediate territory, and especially the open roads that led out of the city and into the countryside, the lanes, the woods and the hills on the horizon: all were mine to discover and to enjoy. Life became much more exciting.

The cycleway along the River Lea must now be the longest continuous cycle path alongside water in this country. The fact that it goes through the heart of the country’s biggest built-up area and its capital city makes it even more amazing. You can also branch off it and go east towards the Regent’s Canal as far as the Islington tunnel.

At the southern extremity of the Lea is the Limehouse Basin, and the connection with the Thames. Out of the basin there’s another canal heading north-west and a link with the Regent’s Canal at Victoria Park.

If you head north along the canalised River Lea you will eventually arrive in the countryside in Hertfordshire, if you have the stamina.

It must be the most interesting and stimulating off-road cycle route on tarmac and gravel in the entire country. Apart from the river itself there’s Hackney Marshes, Walthamstow Marshes, Leyton Marsh, Tottenham Marsh, nature reserves, ponds, lakes, playing fields, marinas, Springfield Park, Victoria Park, tennis courts, an ice rink, 18 hole pitch and putt, horse riding, the country’s biggest area of football pitches, reservoirs, locks, sailing, fishing, cafes, pubs, houseboats, rowing clubs, and riverside flats, houses, and businesses, both old and new.

There’s also wildlife, especially birdlife, galore. Cormorants, gulls, terns, herons, Canada geese, swans, coots, moorhens, kingfishers, kestrels, as well as the common varieties of city birds and others from far away just passing though - migrating down this green corridor across the metropolis. Yesterday there were magpies busy building nests.

And now we have the vast Olympic Park, currently taking shape and rising up behind fences, but soon to be available and accessible to everyone. Whatever anyone thinks about the Olympics, and personally I hate the jingoistic rivalry and petty nationalism, the medals tables and the sheer phenomenal cost of the things - there’s no getting away from the transformational effect of the building that’s currently taking place along the Lea.

This week and last there were TV documentaries showing some of the negative effects of the construction - the loss of allotments and business premises belonging to small local workshops and factories. There’s no question that a lot of local people are grieving for the loss of their quiet, run-down, post-industrial wilderness.

The question is whether the regeneration of the area - and there’s a huge area we’re talking about here, if you consider the whole of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham - three of the poorest and most desperate boroughs in the country in pure economic terms - is worth it, on the basis of no pain, no gain.

Time will tell. Right now, I defy anyone with any imagination and full use of their senses to stand at the viewpoint overlooking the construction of the main stadium and the water sports complex and not to feel a sense of amazement and excitement at the sheer scale of the activity and the ambition of the project. In the distance stand the watchtowers of Canary Wharf and the Gherkin.

It’s now possible to see the full scale and the outline of the stadium itself, as it reaches its full height, whilst hundreds of hard-hatted project workers and enormous, strange-looking construction vehicles swarm around the entire site. There’s a constant stream of massive concrete-mixing trucks delivering concrete from the adjoining site where it’s produced.

Huge trains deliver raw materials to these works, and there are mountainous heaps of sand and gravel, and many vast silos of cement. Trucks queue beneath them to receive their next fill-ups. They shuttle back and forth, day and night.

The work is relentless, focused, and very impressive. A dozen cranes tower over the site, swinging long metal arms back and forth. Of course you might say it’s only a construction site. Well it’s a construction site, Jim, but not as we know it.

Interestingly, very few people pass by on foot or bicycle along the raised Greenway and its vantage points, and very few stop and stare. In a sense this is way off the beaten track, even though it’s right at the heart of the London conurbation, surrounded by millions of people, and the top of the stadium is now at a height that’s visible from miles away.

Very few people actually know the River Lea, let alone the Lea Valley Regional Park and its facilities, let alone make use of them. This situation will soon change, with snowball effect. The word is bound to spread, as soon as a few thousand more people get the know the area and what it offers, and then a tipping point will be reached, beyond which the awareness of the Lea Valley and its delights will be changed forever.


The absence of people in general along the Lea, especially on weekdays, is even more marked if you think about children. They don’t exist. Or old people either, for that matter.

This is criminal if you think about the beneficial effect of walking down and around the Lea. If a river walk can make even a relatively jaded, self-confessed grumpy old man feel uplifted, inspired, de-stressed and regenerated, then consider what effect it will have on young people who know only city streets and estates, and the confines of busy, crowded homes and small classrooms.

It’s a whole new land of awe and wonder, considering the contact with water and nature, with wildlife and trees, with open skies and the elements, and all the various aspects of the built environment.

And then there’s the Olympic site, and the amazing structures that are beginning to appear there. There was a certain point on my river ride yesterday when you turn a corner just beyond the abandoned Big Breakfast house at Old Ford Locks, start moving across the bridge that spans one of the canal spurs, and suddenly see the massive skeletal structure of the new Olympic stadium towering above the trees and the river in the middle distance. It’s a stunning sight, guaranteed to provoke a ‘wow’ reaction.

My point is that children should be out there, taking it all in, benefitting from it all in every aspect of their development - intellectual, social, emotional, physical and spiritual. Children, especially city children, should be able to do the same things that enrich and inspire adults, to enjoy the same things that fire our imaginations and fill our senses.

There are so many opportunities for learning out there - so many starting points for conversations and discussions, for observation, for questioning, for drawing and photography, for inspiring follow-up investigations, reading and writing. How can teachers (and parents) ignore such opportunities?

It should be compulsory for every child in the area to be taken out and to become familiar with the geography and history of the area. Thanks to the excellent rail and DLR links from north, south, east and west into Stratford, Hackney Wick and Clapton, hundreds of schools could easily organise trips to investigate the Lea and the work on the Olympic site.

So why don’t these things happen? Mainly, of course, because there’s no political will for them to happen. Plus a shortage of headteachers with the vision, the will, the confidence and the determination to make them happen. Plus teachers who lack those qualities, and who might also suffer from fear, inertia, laziness and shortage of zest and energy. Over-large classes and children with behavioural difficulties don’t help, though those things can be catered for and the problems overcome.

Strangely enough, children who go to delightful, interesting, stimulating places tend not to misbehave. Oddly, they seem to become interested in learning when given opportunities for first-hand experience that gets them physically moving, legitimately and purposefully interacting, functioning as a team member, information-gathering, and using all their senses.

These opportunities to simultaneously develop social and emotional intelligence, and their intellectual capacities, should be grasped by all teachers, parents and carers. Parents should demand that their children be offered these experiences and these types of informal and formal learning by their schools.

Spiritual intelligence is nurtured when children are encouraged to use their senses to input directly into their knowledge of the world, and encouraged to use their intuition to see patterns, to question assumptions and draw conclusions. Spiritual intelligence manifests itself in joie de vivre, laughter, curiosity, delight, motivation, self-confidence, participation and self-control.

Physical intelligence - strength, coordination, mobility, fitness and health - is inevitably promoted when children are able to go on long rambles in the open air, with the sun on their faces and on their skin.

The government and the bureaucracy pay lip-service to environmental education - learning about, in and through the environment - but as every head-teacher will tell you, nobody actually gives a damn about these aspects of learning and achievement. No questions are ever asked about whether these opportunities are offered to children. All the attention is on getting bums on seats and eyes on the teacher and the interactive whiteboard, and on worksheets, for hours on end. Active? Ha!


It so happens that one of the best tracks ever recorded is The Lee Shore, by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Written by David Crosby in the key of E minor, it uses only three chords, Em, C and Am, to create a work of great atmosphere, beautiful melody and superb, gentle, insistent rhythm. The song is about the beauty, the atmosphere and the feeling of freedom and spiritual peace to be found when travelling around the Caribbean by yachts and boats of one sort or another.

Most London kids are never going to experience the Caribbean, except possibly some of those who have family living there. The nearest they are likely to have in the way of weekly or monthly experiences of water, of boats, of wide, open skies and landscapes, and of a profusion of beautiful animal and plant life, is therefore a place like the Lea banks and the marshes. It’s criminal that the overwhelming majority are being denied it.

So why don’t we offer, allow and encourage it? Health and safety concerns? Not enough time in the week? Not in the curriculum? Or just because we can’t fucking quantify and measure the outcomes? You can bet your life that if someone could ascertain that through environmental education and outdoor experiences kids could be guaranteed to achieve Level 4 by the age of 11 (or Level 5 if they’re in a posh area) the Lea Valley and places like it would be overrun with crocodiles of children, teachers, teaching assistants, pupil mentors and special needs assistants, all with their little bags with clip boards and packed lunches.

Oh well, back to reality.


Learning from the environment, and from nature, is central to Zen and Taoism. Hence the emphasis in Zen that even in the town or the city it’s possible to create small gardens where the natural world can be contemplated in peace, stillness and silence.


To take a look at the Olympic site from webcams mounted on a school across the river, and other spots, go to
- double-click on the video screen(s) for some funky action.

Take a look at Nina Pope's excellent slide show of the construction on Flickr:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Layer 135 Political Culture, Radical Shifts, the Last Chance Saloon, and Children’s Services

Polly Toynbee had another excellent column in the Guardian this week, with every sentence worthy of the highlighter pen:

Labour has one last chance to catch the public mood

Anger at fat cats and tax dodgers needs a political narrative to sustain it. Brown must look to Obama and take the lead.

Are we in the midst of a radical shift in political culture? Measuring its significance or durability in the febrile moment is not easy. Is this anti-banker, anti-bonus spasm only a transitory fit that will be gone as soon as house prices start to rise again? Forces pull in both directions: governments try to re-assert their power over markets, while the masters of the universe try to carry on as if nothing much will change.

Now even a Conservative press rages at company functionaries still rewarding themselves undeserved fortunes.

See how the Telegraph and Mail follow the public mood with anti fat-cat invective these days: a year ago such talk was "class war" and "the politics of envy".

Yet how profound and long-lasting will all this be? How long before the masters of the universe assert themselves again, ride out the spasm, find new loopholes and intimidate future governments with warnings against any interference that risks the fragile recovery? After all, no sign of culture change reaches the boardrooms. GlaxoSmithKline just gave its CEO a 17.6% pay rise, bringing his salary to £1m with five times that sum in shares.

The cartel of top earners sitting on each other's boards has been blamed, along with the tiny coterie of auditors and remuneration consultants who pumped up pay and signed it off as the "market rate" they had created. Is there a sign the government dares to blow in fresh air?

It now looks as if closing tax havens will be the G20's key success. Obama campaigned on the Stop Tax Havens Act now in Congress. Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel want Switzerland added to the blacklist, along with the 30 to 40 others. Brown has been latest on this issue, with an ignoble record of resisting EU attempts.

Transparency changes things. Labour has a year to lead the public mood; so far it has been dragged along behind it. With no political narrative, this chance to push back the forces of inequality will be lost. What bitter irony if loathing of Labour means the Tories take over despite the first authentic egalitarian public mood in years.


There were well over 200 comments posted on Comment Is Free after this article. Oxzen wrote:

It’s hard to say, sometimes, whose comments are the most annoying to have to plough through in order to get to the good stuff on CIF - ignorant conservatives or rabid leftists. Polly Toynbee has been consistently a thoughtful, intelligent, left-of-centre commentator who deserves the respect and high regard of all social democrats and left-liberals, who after all make up the majority amongst the thinking classes, and indeed the masses who voted for the Labour landslide in 1997.

She's consistently criticised New Labour from a progressive position, and advocated transformational policies that are in line with what most of us want in terms of greater social justice and equality, in terms of tackling poverty, improving schools and early years provision, social services, the health service, and so on.

This latest column was a brilliant summary of how things stand politically in this country, and why Parliament, not just New Labour, must seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enact the reforms that we, the people, demand.

If Brown and New Labour can finally bring themselves to do something truly radical they could even find they have substantial support from swing voters, middle of the road conservatives and the pissed-off middle classes. And lets face it, it's only though radical action they stand any chance of winning back support from true socialists and progressives.

And if radical action doesn't improve their popularity? Too bad. After all, what's the Labour party for? It wasn’t created to provide a little trickle-down wealth, to maintain inequality or preserve dog-eat-dog unregulated capitalism.


Someone signed in as jgm2 wrote this wonderful comment:

Re: “However the nazis are just the most familiar example and by no means the only. It always worry me when politicians try to capture the public mood because government should be about leading, not cheer leading.”

Fred Goodwin is just Gordon 'Big Brother' Brown's equivalent of Emmanuel Goldstein. It's a cliche but it's unfortunately true. This government doesn't consider '1984' a warning. It considers it a fucking blueprint.

Rewriting history. Infallible leadership. Perpetual unwinnable wars with constantly shifting alliances. Privileged Party members and insiders all well looked after. Until they step out of line at which point they are immediately ostracised. Control of the 'media narrative'. Constant surveillance. Constant monitoring of our movements/correspondence/phone calls/e-mails. Individuals being singled out by the state for mass hate-fests.

Sod Jules Verne getting lucky predicting the yanks would pioneer space travel. Sod Leonardo Da Vinci and his drawings of 'helicopters'. George Orwell truly was a fucking genius. Every single fucking nightmare scenario he envisaged. Bang on the fucking money.


Children’s Services

I was listening to people talking on the radio this morning about the Sharon Shoesmith case, and the idea that local authority directors of children's services need to be offered training and support so that they can do their jobs properly. Bless. What a wonderful country we live in - we create these mega high powered jobs by insisting on merging education and social services - huge jobs that virtually no-one is able to do effectively, let alone be qualified though professional training or experience to do them - and after a couple of years we say, wouldn't it be a good idea if we give these poor incompetent underqualified sods some proper training and support? That should fix the problem. At least after that none of them will be able to claim that they didn't know what they were supposed to do and didn't really know how to do it, like they do now.

Incidentally, I’m not commenting here on the rights and wrongs of dismissing Shoesmith - I’ve already done that in previous blogs. Simon Jenkins wrote a good column about it this week:

“Shoesmith's biggest mistake was not to be a bank boss.”

What I’m concerned about is the way this government has played about with bureaucratic structures with little or no consultation or preparation for the changes it drove through, and I’m livid about the way it which it maintains its command and control clunking fist policy with its targets and inspections culture that does nothing for children, and reveals little of value about the true effectiveness of local authorities.

Simon Jenkins rightly berates Mr Balls for the central part he’s played in developing and maintaining the targets culture, and for being a ludicrous lifelong professional politician with no knowledge of, or feeling for, the real world outside of Westminster.

"Balls runs one of Whitehall's worst departments: ask any teacher or social worker. When accidents happen - nobody in authority wanted Baby P to die - the charge of negligence cannot rest with local staff. In this top-heavy and hierarchical public sector, it should go to the top. Those who always claim the credit must take the blame."


I hear on the grapevine about the leadership in certain local authorities running around in frenzies, convening whole-day meetings of 50 or more senior children’s services managers, looking at ‘issues’, doing ‘workshops’ in which directors of education get down on the floor (literally) with flip chart pads and marker pens, trying to map out ‘how to move forward’ with the children’s ‘wellbeing agenda’, desperately trying to think what to do about their latest Whitehall-generated set of targets or the fact that they still have so many schools being hammered by Ofsted, blah, blah, blah . . .

I hear about ‘school improvement’ managers trying to reconcile their concern about children’s wellbeing with the fact that they’ve spent several years banging on about raising SATs scores and GCSE scores to the exclusion of all else. These poor dears must in some dim way realise that they’ve been the very agents of the destruction of real education, as far as children are concerned, since these are the people who have turned schools into soulless and joyless results factories, using and abusing children and teachers for their own wellbeing in terms of career progress.

Forcing children to do ‘Big Writing’ instead of anything meaningful, to use more ‘connectives’ in order to create longer and more middle-class-sounding sentences in their writing (extra marks in tests!!), to use more ‘Wow Words’ (flowery and usually inappropriate terminology - extra marks in tests!!), and forcing children to do less of the things they actually enjoy doing and more of the stuff they hate doing in order to jack up the schools’ test results - all of this amounts to the abuse of children, though no-one wants to admit it.

And of course they’ll all continue to deny what’s happened and insist that they did things they thought were right for children - as if getting a low Level 4 compared with a high Level 3 at the age of 11 really means a damn in terms of ‘access to the curriculum’ at secondary school. As if stressing children, boring them and denying them their human rights (for example to a broad, balanced and interesting curriculum) is better for them in the long run than helping children to see that learning can be enjoyable for its own sake, whatever your current level of literacy. Never mind a creative and active style of learning that’s bound to make children more enthusiastic about school than a dull life of drudgery in the education workhouse.


This is a good column in today’s paper, by Seamoose Milne, especially for political anoraks:

The miners' strike of 1984-5, which officially kicked off 25 years ago today, was . . . a social and political tipping point that has had no real parallel anywhere else in the world. And now that the free-market fundamentalism unleashed by Margaret Thatcher in the strike's aftermath is being so comprehensively discredited by the crisis of deregulated capitalism she championed, it should be a good time to reassess the most determined bid to resist it in the first place.

The full costs of the war against the miners - including the strike, closures, redundancies and economic and welfare costs - are well over £30bn at current prices and far exceed those of the more rational energy policy the Tories rejected to crush the core of organised labour.

A generation later, these debates about the strike can seem arcane. But its outcome could not matter more for the country we have inherited. It's not just the wreckage of mining communities, but the entire political and economic direction has been shaped by the fallout from that convulsive dispute. The enfeeblement of unions, the explosion of inequality, social atomisation, the collapse of confidence in a political alternative and Britain's harsh brand of neoliberalism all flow from its aftermath. Success for the miners would, by contrast, have at least seriously weakened Thatcher, reined in the government's worst excesses and halted Labour's headlong rush for the third way.

The strike was a fight for jobs, but it was also a challenge to the market-driven restructuring of economic and social life already under way. It raised the alternative of a different Britain from the greed and individualism of the Thatcher years, rooted in solidarity and collective action. As the neoliberal order that Thatcher helped to build crumbles before us, that is a message that speaks to our times.