Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Layer 162 Social Intelligence and Creative Classrooms.

Reflecting on human groups (Layer 161) brings me back to the subject of social intelligence, and, looking back, I notice I referred to Daniel Goleman's book called Social Intelligence in Layer 22. A year's gone by and I've still not finished the book!

Goleman sub-titled this book “The New Science of Human Relationships.”

Here's a taster.

"In this book I aim to lift the curtain on an emerging science, one that almost daily reveals startling insights into our interpersonal world.

The most fundamental revelation of this new discipline: we are wired to connect.

Neuroscience has discovered that our brain's very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain – and so the body – of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.


To a surprising extent, then, our relationships mould not just our experience but also our biology.

That link is a double-edged sword: nourishing relationships have a beneficial impact on our health, while toxic ones can act like slow poison in our bodies.

The spotlight [of this book] now shifts to those ephemeral moments that emerge as we interact. These take on deep consequence as we realise how, through their sum total, we create one another.

Our enquiry speaks to questions like . . . Can we do a better job of helping our children grow up to be happy? How can a teacher or leader enable the brains of students or workers to do their best? What helps groups riven by hatred come to live together in peace? And what do these insights suggest for the kind of society we are able to build – and for what really matters in each of our lives? (My italics)


Today, just as science reveals how crucially important nourishing relationships are, human connections seem increasingly under siege. Social corrosion has many faces.

To the extent that technology absorbs people in a virtual reality, it deadens them to those who are actually nearby. The resulting social autism adds to the ongoing list of unintended human consequences of the continuing invasion of technology into our daily lives.

Email and cell phones penetrate essential barriers around private time and family life. The cell phone can ring on a picnic with the kids, and even at home mum or dad can be absent from the family as they diligently go through their email every evening.

Of course the kids don't really notice – they're fixated on their own email, a Web game, or the TV screen in their bedroom.

The social brain is the sum of the neural mechanisms that orchestrate our interactions as well as our thoughts and feelings about people and our relationships . . . The social brain represents the only biological system in our bodies that continually attunes us to, and in turn becomes influenced by, the internal state of people we're with . . . Whenever we connect face to face (or voice to voice, or skin to skin) with someone else, our social brains interlock.

By repeatedly driving our brain into a given register, our key relationships can gradually mold certain neural circuitry. In effect, being chronically hurt and angered, or being emotionally nourished, by someone we spend time with daily over the course of years can refashion our brain.

Thus how we connect with others has unimagined significance.


The social responsiveness of the brain demands that we be wise, that we realise how not just our own moods but our very biology is being driven and moulded by the other people in our lives – and in turn, it demands that we take stock of how we affect other people's emotions and biology. Indeed we can take the measure of a relationship in terms of a person's impact on us, and ours on them.

The biological influence passing from person to person suggests a new dimension of a life well lived: conducting ourselves in ways that are beneficial even at this subtle level for those with whom we connect.

Relationships themselves take on a new meaning, and so we need to think about them in a radically different way. The implications are of more than passing theoretical interest: they compel us to reevaluate how we live our lives.


The education section of The Guardian today is a real dog's breakfast. There's good stuff in Phil Beadle's column, 'On Teaching': “The Human Cost of Exam Success”.

“Routinely kept in after school and bawled out for their own good, their once bright eyes have taken on a harried nervousness. They are corralled, lectured, cajoled, told it's all in their best interests, and led in the direction of the epiphany that the best preparation for a joy-free life of institutionalised overwork is a joy-free life of institutionalised overwork.

Jemma, who was delicately pretty at the beginning of the year, still is, but she has lost something nearly tangible and replaced it with a ghostly expression . . .

Jodie, Tina, Rita and Janet have joined the ranks of the disappeared. They used to come to school – they don't any more.”


And that's just the teachers.

Estelle Morris, as ever, writes a bland little column that's all sweetness and light and perfectly reasonable and inoffensive and useless. Should schools be prepared to spend some of their own budgets on providing artistic and cultural experiences both in and out of school for their pupils? Yes.


There's a whole page headed, “We Want the Wow Factor”. OK, OK – but let's force ourselves to read on.

“Is it possible for schools to shake off the constraints of the curriculum and be creative? Says Naomi Westland.”

Who she? Some sort of cub reporter on her first assignment? WHAT constraints? What do you mean by is it POSSIBLE to be creative? OF COURSE IT'S BLEEDING POSSIBLE YOU DIMWIT!

This is the kind of report that ought to be a beacon of hope and inspiration and is in fact utterly depressing in that we really shouldn't be thinking this is brand new and innovative and the answer to everything when it's no different to what good schools have been doing for decades, only now there are so few good Primary schools that offer children meaningful and stimulating ways of learning that's it's worth printing a whole page on the delights of thematic, integrated learning through creative first-hand learning experiences.


Now go away and write another page around those questions, Naomi dear.

For the record, here's some snippets, so you can see what I'm pissed off about:

“We wanted a 'wow factor' in our curriculum. We wanted the children to have lots of visitors, to go on lots of trips, and to have the chance to learn by doing rather than just by reading and watching videos.”

“We want the children to be outside as much as possible, doing hands-on activities and getting dirty . . .”

“The important thing is that children have deep and rich learning experiences, whether their school follows a creative curriculum or a more traditional one.”

“He believes teachers are at the heart of the creative curriculum and that the 'overly prescriptive' approach of the last 15 years has had a 'deprofessionalising' effect. “The lack of emphasis on creativity has turned teachers into technicians. If teachers are empowered and enthusiastic, that rubs off on the children. This is an exciting time if you have passion, vision and are prepared to take risks.”

“School leaders and teachers should be given time to work out what the needs of the children and the school are and respond to them – the benefits are that children achieve well and teachers enjoy teaching.”

“She maintains that that is the point of a creative curriculum – schools can teach all of the key skills but using the interests of children and teachers to make it fun and engaging for both, she says. “It has had a very positive impact on children's attitude and engagement because we are teaching with relevance and purpose. And my staff are happier.”

Well fucking hell. Just fancy that.

What I want to know is, why did these people ever do things any differently? Didn't they always know this stuff? Why did they allow or encourage their staff to work in any other way? What was stopping them doing the right things all these years?

I think we know the answers to these questions. As the article itself says:

“Tim Burgess, headteacher at Chandler Church of England school in Godalming, Surrey, and author of a report entitled Lifting the Lid on the Creative Curriculum, says schools are often reluctant because of "an oppressive data-police mentality and fear of the standards agenda". He explains that the Excellence and Enjoyment strategy for primary schools introduced in 2003 gave schools the green light to be more flexible with the curriculum, but at the same time they were "under huge pressure to meet targets and adhere to standards". "Moving to a creative curriculum involves taking risks - some schools don't believe it will improve results," he says.


Last Saturday Mike Baker wrote a column called “Benefits of Creative Classrooms” for the BBC website. This one is actually worth a read, since it deals with WHY the government-commissioned report “All Our Futures” was never actioned.

"Ten years ago this month a 243-page report on the importance of promoting creativity and culture in schools landed on ministers' desks.

It had been commissioned in the heady early days of the Blair government to recommend ways to make progress in the "creative and cultural development of young people" both in and out of school.

The review was led by Sir Ken Robinson and included leading scientists, business leaders, and key figures from the arts world.

It was widely acclaimed.

It argued that creativity was a skill that could be taught.

It was not about progressive teaching or loose discipline. Nor was it in any way an alternative to the essential skills of numeracy and literacy.

Rather it was about encouraging pupils to be innovative and to develop the ability to problem-solve in all areas of the curriculum, from maths to technology.

It argued that such skills were essential to individuals, employers and the whole economy.


But what has happened since?

There has certainly been cultural activity in schools but even the strongest champions of creative and cultural education would have to admit that the report - called All Our Futures - has not dominated schools policy.

That's because it came out just at a time when the new Labour government was investing its energy in boosting standards in the "three Rs".

Determined to show it was tough in standards, Labour's drive was focused on the Numeracy and Literacy Hours.

Ask a primary school pupil in England what numeracy or literacy is and they will have no hesitation in describing what they do in class for an hour each day.

But creativity? Even if All Our Futures had suggested a "creativity hour" it would probably have been seen as a distraction from the key message on standards.

Of course, it did not recommend anything as gimmicky, since the whole tenor of the report was that creativity and culture are not some sort of bolt-on activities, but are skills that should be developed throughout all aspects of teaching and learning, in science as much as in the arts.
In some ways the report was ahead of its time.

It called for a reduction in the burden of assessment and said the national curriculum should be reduced to take up no more than 80% of the timetable.

The latter recommendation probably now seems too modest, an indication of how far the call for greater freedom for schools has been reflected in subsequent reforms of the curriculum.

Results 'boost'

But any satisfaction the authors of All Our Futures may draw from subsequent events must, surely, be tempered by recognition that there is still a long way to go before creativity is seen as fundamental to teaching and learning in schools.

The current fierce debate about the national tests, or Sats, at age 11 hinges on whether they contribute to a narrowing of the curriculum, with many teachers and schools feeling they dominate the final years of primary school.

Indeed, the accountability criteria that determine success or failure for schools and teachers are overwhelmingly based on formal tests, particularly covering English and maths, not on indicators that reflect pupils' creativity.

So you could not blame head teachers if they felt it was more important to secure their school against league table failure - or the triggering of an Ofsted inspection - than to promote creativity.

However, a report published this week by the new charity Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE) highlights research suggesting that a focus on creativity in schools need not be at the expense of achievement in the basics.

Indeed, it claims the very opposite: that creativity boost exam results and attendance.

The report looks at the record of a programme called Creative Partnerships.


And so on.

The piece concludes by saying:

"The evidence so far seems to back the view that putting a real emphasis on creative and cultural education in schools has broad benefits.

However, getting all schools to take this route will continue to be difficult when the accountability measures that determine the success or failure of schools continue to emphasise short-term improvements in formal qualifications.

Perhaps the government's proposed new School Report Cards can find a way of indicating whether a school is successfully promoting creative and cultural education?"

Monday, May 25, 2009

Layer 161 Human Groups

Yesterday's Monaco GP was won by Jensen Button driving a Brawn. Crazy names, crazy guys.

Actually I was pleased for Jensen. For several seasons now, for reasons I don't understand, and in spite of being very obviously a hugely talented guy, he's driven uncompetitive cars and has struggled to even finish races, let alone win them. Suddenly he's won 5 out of the 6 opening races this season, which is phenomenal by any standards. The real measure of his talent is his ability to avoid mistakes and to consistently out-perform his team mate who's driving identical machinery - who also happens to be a guy who drove for Ferrari for several seasons, so he's clearly no mug.

Jensen's a genuinely pleasant and engaging individual – intelligent, calm, reflective, modest and level-headed. Everything that any of us should aspire to be. Frustration and failure, through no fault of his own, have clearly had their benefits in terms of his spiritual and emotional intelligence.

The same positive things can be said about Martin Brundle, who commentates on the sport, and Lewis Hamilton, the current world champion. These are three guys from fairly modest backgrounds, by Monte Carlo standards, working and living in a world of rampant egos, who make you feel that Englishness is OK after all.

On the other hand there's Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosely – two very old and wizened guys who represent all that's nasty and unsympathetic about these strange islands. Two phenomenally rich guys who are ruthless, competitive, aggressive and highly devious. Laws unto themselves. Highly intelligent, and highly able - in terms of their ability to manage, manipulate and control people and money – but so what? You don't get to be in their positions with their sort of wealth unless you have those qualities and those sorts of egos. Not unless you've very lucky. They certainly don't seem to have any other talents or skills, other than those you need for leadership and domination in a highly competitive business environment, which is all the Grand Prix circus effectively is these days.


The guy who cuts my hair was in a chatty mood yesterday. I was his final client of the day, and his place was empty apart from the two of us. We had a coffee in the 'garden', in glorious late Spring sunshine, and he rambled on about his recent trip to Australia to see his son and daughter in law, and his grandson. He's very people oriented. He talks only about people. I've no idea what he made of Australia.

He lives in the northern outskirts of London, the Home Counties, and commutes to his business in his Porsche roadster - a present to himself for having survived parenthood and marriage. He's still having problems with the new woman in his life, and seems to have decided to call it a day. Or maybe she has. The final straw seems to have been when he failed to be sufficiently chatty with her sister and her sister's partner at a dinner party.

It probably wasn't what you'd call a match made in heaven, though, no matter how much he helped her with her horses, or she helped him with his business.


There are people who like to listen to other people's stories, and there are people who like to tell stories. There are people who like to do both, and there are people who like to do neither.

My barber reckons he's a people person. He's highly sensitive to other people, in the sense that he has a very sharp sensitivity to how people are reacting to him, and what impression he's making.

On the other hand, he's useless at tuning in to other people's internal moods and feelings, and in fact has no real interest in what other people are feeling – whether they're up, down or sideways. I guess to him that sort of empathy is a waste of time. The only thing that matters is whether or not people are responding positively to him, whether they like him, and whether they currently enjoy his company. He's a pleasant guy, but suffers from a strange mixture of insecurity and egocentricity.


As far as I'm aware, dinner parties are things that happen between consenting middle class people in the privacy of their own homes. They seem to involve mainly either young 'professionals' who've yet to start families, or older people whose kids are off their hands. Though there are some people who have kids and who seem to put them to bed before the guests arrive, or take them to the 'party' and hope they'll go to sleep in a carry basket or spare bed somewhere. Others just get baby sitters.

I'm not even sure that the more discerning elements of the middle classes call these things dinner parties any more. In order to establish that they are indeed the more discerning elements, and to differentiate themselves from the petite bourgeoisie, they seem more likely to say “Would you like to come to dinner?”, rather than, “We're having a dinner party”. Followed by, “Frederika and Justin, Lizzy and Edward are also coming”.

Dinner parties are like a kind of group sex, but without the sex. The intercourse consists of everybody looking at everybody else, sizing them up, deciding just when to pull out their party pieces, their best bits, their anecdotes, and their simply hilarious stories of their latest encounters with life and humanity, and then sticking them in. The verbal replaces the physical. Everyone eats too much, gets tipsy, and has a simply marvellous time. Or not.

The competition to establish who's the one with the highest status, the most wealthy, the best travelled, the greatest wit, etc, can be quite intense if you get a group of experienced party-goers together and in the right (or wrong) mood. Things can turn quite nasty between those who don't 'hit it off'.

And heaven help you if you don't actually take part in the fun and games. Nobody likes a guest who doesn't throw into the 'conversation' something entertaining or some sort of anecdote. Mind you, the best bits probably happen before the pudding arrives, by which time people have generally run out of steam and are content to sit back and discuss property prices, the credit crunch and holiday plans.


On the other hand, I've always enjoyed outdoor lunches where three or four generations get together round a big table on a sunny day. Such occasions are fairly infrequent in our climate, but when they do happen they can be brilliant. Before and after eating, the kids scamper around, after getting over their initial shyness, and entertain the adults with their natural sense of fun and excitement. The oldies can sit back and be waited upon by their more energetic offspring, who will hopefully wash up afterwards as well. The retired folk can enjoy hearing what the others have been doing with their lives, and also enjoy chatting to the grandchildren. Just sitting in the sun is in itself enjoyable, for most of us.

Most of all, since there is continuity and love in the lives of old friends and their relatives, there's unlikely to be any sense of insecurity and or competition between those present. No-one need say anything, or feel obliged to contribute anything. And if anyone does say anything untoward you can always tell them to piss off, since they're family.

Last week I had the pleasure of eating lunch whilst listening to a young man, the partner of a friend's daughter, talking about his interest in philosophy, which he studied as an undergraduate, and his thesis, which was on the I Ching. How brilliant is that! I've always, since my early twenties at any rate, been interested in The Book of Changes, and the wisdom it contains. Whether or not you use it as an aid to meditation and a means of reflection on life's problems, it's a book that embodies the essence of Taoist thinking and philosophy, which has always appealed to me.

As it happens, the young man in question is of Chinese (?) extraction, though he grew up in Richmond on Thames. (What a brilliant name that is – literally, Riche-Monde.) It's so rare that I meet young people who have any interest in philosophy or anything metaphysical, and also a delightful sense of humour. It's a real treat to spend time with such people. His partner, my friend's daughter, who's an artist and highly creative, and whom I've known since she was about 14, is similarly lovely – humorous, clever and modest, with a real sense of the absurd and a real love of living life very simply and unpretentiously.


Mind you, it's possible to overdo that kind of thing. I've heard of people who go not just en famille but as a tribe on holiday, with a huge group of friends and relatives who meet up year after year in the same spot. I know other people who cluster together en masse every Christmas with extended family and friends for nearly a week.

I can see how it must be wonderful, on the whole, for all of the generations; but for myself I think I'd suffer quite a lot if I was constantly feeling obliged to take part in things prearranged by others, instead of being able to do my own thing and go my own way. It's sometimes very difficult to live up to the expectations of others, and I need my quiet times, my retreats, my meditations, my reading time, my writing time, my music time and my selfishly alone time.

Getting together with a group once or twice a week for an al fresco lunch is probably about perfect for me.


Last night's party, for a friend's 50th birthday, was another matter entirely. It didn't help that it took place in the upstairs room of a pub in the demi-monde of East Dulwich. But when the pub charges £3.80 for a small bottle of Budvar, then that's just taking the piss.

The live band was frankly awful – untalented local musicians churning out hopeless middle of the road easy-listening (!) so-called rock. Pap. Badly judged pieces as well – for example playing “Dolphins” at a birthday bash: “This world may never change / The way it's been / And all the ways of war / Won't change it back again
I'm not one to tell / This world how to get along / I only know that peace will come / When all our hate is gone."

Rubbish. Angsty, simplistic nonsense. I bet dolphins hate that song.

"I've been searching / For the dolphins in the sea / And sometimes I wonder / Do you ever think of me?"

Rubbish. Happy Birthday.

I was hoping that in the break there would at least be some decent tracks played from CD, but not a chance. More dire background sludge. Surprising really, because my friend really has good taste in music. With so much brilliant music in the world, how come people still manage to choose endless garbage?

A roomful of middle-class South London 'professionals', mainly in their forties and fifties, was quite something as well. As dull a bunch of people as you could ever meet. All of them absolutely lovely people individually, of course – all of them doing worthwhile things in the public services and the arts, and so on. But nobody with an aura that spoke of individuality, originality, optimism, vitality or vibrancy. Apart from my friend, who 's lovely.

And I'm very sorry, but middle-class middle-aged South London professionals with middle class genes in their blood simply have no idea how to dance. Not unless they genuinely have soul, and have a feel for music and rhythm. They just shouldn't do it, except in the privacy of their own homes. Especially when the live band has no sense of rhythm and doesn't swing either.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Layer 160 None of Our Business, The Main Purpose of Religion, Contrition, Mass Exile, Greedy Pig Fever and Dr. Strangelove.

At times like this I'm glad we have a left/liberal paper like the Guardian/Observer. Consider these crucial pieces.

1. Despite menacing noises from Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's leading centre-left daily has refused to stop demanding answers to 10 questions put to him over his relationship with a Neapolitan teenager, Noemi Letizia.

Nor has there been any explanation of the latest revelation that the 18-year-old Ms Letizia is the owner of four houses. This is about more than media prurience. His wife has said she can no longer stay with a man who "frequents minors" and that he is "not well".

The press remains one of the few forces of critical appraisal in a society where almost all the television channels are answerable to Mr Berlusconi.

When a reporter from La Repubblica tackled him this week, Mr Berlusconi lost his rag. "What right have you to ask?" he stormed. The answer in a democratic society must be: "All the right in the world." La Repubblica is ploughing a lonely furrow and deserves support.

Guardian Editorial

Doesn't this piece remind us of Totnes MP Anthony Steen? The South Devon Herald Express said,

“In his interview, broadcast at lunchtime yesterday, Mr Steen insisted his behaviour was 'impeccable' and he had merely been 'caught on the wrong foot'.

"I've done nothing criminal, that's the most awful thing, and do you know what it's about? Jealousy," he told World at One.

"I've got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral. It's a merchant's house of the 19th century. It's not particularly attractive, it just does me nicely."

“What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None."

Of course he eventually came to his senses and apologised, but not before his party leader, Mr Cameron, told BBC Radio 4 it was "an appalling thing to say".

"I gave him a very clear instruction after that interview - one more squeak like that and he will have the whip taken away from him so fast his feet won't touch the ground," Mr Cameron told BBC Radio 4's the World at One.

"It was a completely unacceptable interview. It was a completely unacceptable thing to say. He's announced his retirement from Parliament."

The problem with Berlusconi, of course, is that he's the leader of his party and the leader of his country.


2. A wonderful piece in “Face To Faith” in yesterday's paper, by Nitin Mehta, founder of the Indian Cultural Centre:

Faiths that originated in India have a long history of toleration and openness to new ideas, says Nitin Mehta

Religions that have their roots in India – namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism – believe all paths to God are valid, and over the centuries this sublime belief has helped avoid violence and strife. There are thousands of sects within Hinduism, and violence between them is unknown.

There is a great parable in Buddhism that describes a blind man touching different parts of an elephant and describing what he thinks it looks like. In his own way he is correct in his description, and the same is true of religions.

According to the time, circumstances and the culture it is born in, a religion will interpret the truth as it sees it. Indic religions believe there is nothing to fight about in these apparent differences. Indeed the whole concept of "my religion" is an extension of my race, my country, all of which the Indic religions call maya or illusion – at death all these attachments are severed.

When the Zoroastrians known as the Parsees came to India having been driven out of Persia for their religious beliefs, the Hindu king welcomed them and not only tolerated but encouraged them to continue practising their faith. Parsees have lived happily in India over the centuries, and there has not been a single incident of confrontation with the majority Hindus. Indeed the Parsees have paid back by excelling in so many fields that have put India on the map as a economic giant. Sikhs have defended other faiths facing persecution.

This unshakable belief in diversity has meant that religions of India have never sought to convert others. The root of cause of violence in the name of religion is the desire to convert – indeed entire civilisations have perished whenever a new ideology believing in the supremacy of its truth has decided to impose its version of truth on others.

The other unique advantage the Indic religions have is that precisely because of their tolerance of ideas they are able to reform whenever negative practices creep in, as they do in any long-­established religion. Mahatma Gandhi and many others in India were able to confront long-established but outdated and corrupt practices which had taken root in Hinduism. Much earlier Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavira had also challenged practices such as animal sacrifices that had crept into some Hindu sects. In many faiths such reformers have faced violent persecution, but Hinduism welcomes valid criticism.

This permanent revolution, to use a Trotskyite term, keeps the faith in touch with the ever-changing world. And this freedom of thought and expression is the reason why democracy is thriving in India. Until the recent Indian elections, the communists had been in power in West Bengal for a long time; in true Indian tradition, they had become integral to the all-encompassing mosaic of Indian life. The significance of this can only be realised when one considers the likelihood of communists running the show in one of the states of America!

New thoughts and new ideas do not frighten the people of Indic religions; neither do they stifle them. As Mahatma Gandhi said: "Let my windows be open to receive new ideas but let me also be strong enough not to be blown away by them." In the heart of New Delhi there is a beautiful Baha'i temple. This new temple sits comfortably in its new home and Indians visit it in large numbers hoping that there will be something new to learn from it which will enrich their lives. Until and unless all faiths around the world acknowledge the unique diversity and the rainbow of different cultures and faiths that God has given us and which so enrich our lives, religions will create strife instead of the peace that is the main purpose of religion.



3. “We want real contrition for our abuse.” Some excellent letters in the paper yesterday:

“It is entirely of a piece with the fact that the English Catholic hierarchy have made no statement about, nor set up an independent inquiry into, the possibility of child sex abuse in Catholic institutions in England, despite the fact that it is inconceivable that the church in England should have completely escaped the practices that have been shown to be endemic in the churches in the US and Ireland. I do not believe the church has any concern for the victims of the child sex abuse that has taken place and instead is primarily concerned to limit the damage to itself.”

And so on.


“Abuse of children was the norm in Catholic educational institutions in Ireland throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, not the exception. Catholic parents were told suffering would help their children into heaven. I remember the small bumps on the back of my head where nuns would hit me, always leading with the ring finger, I was locked in a cupboard so I would know what the dark hole was like before entering the fires of hell.”

From Richard Lanigan


“As a solicitor representing victims of child abuse, particularly in the Catholic church, I am completely unsurprised by the comments from Vincent Nichols, the new Archbishop of Westminster. As Archbishop of Birmingham he fought legal claims by child abuse victims tooth and nail, delaying justice for many years. Moreover, even when legal claims have succeeded in the courts he has been unwilling to apologise for the archdiocese's failings. His mask may have slipped publicly for the first time, but for Nichols this contempt for victims and unwillingness to learn lessons is par for the course.”

From Richard Scorer.


3. "A reshuffle of these grubby MPs is futile. Try mass exile” - Polly Toynbee

Britain has always held its politicians in low esteem . . .

So will this prove to be the tipping point in which "throw the bastards out" candidates overwhelm the old parties? Pollsters think almost certainly not. Labour may well be thrown out, but probably only a handful of independents will squeeze through the first past the post two-party barrier to uppity citizens.

As that hard reality dawns on people, here is the best opportunity to take electoral reform from the realms of anorak academics into popular politics. If Labour had an ounce of sense left, it would see that radical reform is its last chance to regain a shred of credibility – and the best reason not to hold an election until a constitutional convention draws up propositions for a referendum to be held at the same time.

Only a savage act of House cleaning, with famous faces removed, might persuade voters that Labour is worth listening to again.

It will be for backbenchers and junior ministers to make that happen. I have not a shred of evidence, no wink or nod that she would, but Harriet Harman – again this week declaring herself a non-runner – has a unique authority to galvanise her party to save itself after 5 June. Despite being the one elected minister not dependent on prime ministerial patronage, she may have neither the inclination nor the nerve.

The party may recoil from this cleansing ruthlessness, but after a crushing defeat they will have to do it anyway. So why not now, before disaster strikes?"


Two 'cultural commentators' – Mark Lawson and Hadley Freeman – wrote interesting pieces.

4. Westminster greedy pig fever is tearing up the media rulebook. - Mark Lawson

A solemn principle of higher journalism is that writing a cheque before writing a story devalues the information gained; defence counsel in libel cases often discredit witnesses by pointing out that they sold their evidence. And so parliamentarians and disgruntled journalistic rivals tried to direct attention to the money allegedly going out of the Telegraph rather than the cash spilling into constituencies.

Such bleats, however, are now silent because, even if it were to turn out that the paper got the documents by mugging a blind octogenarian nun, the import of the information would justify almost any way it came to light.

The haughtier newspapers and broadcasters have long decried the pack-attack atmosphere of elimination TV shows such as Big Brother, while many articles have argued that the Blair ­government was more or less responsible for the death of Dr David Kelly by exposing him to cruel scrutiny. Yet this last fortnight has produced hundreds of Dr Kellys – anonymous figures suddenly squirming in the searchlights – and the mood of the Question Time audience resembled humiliation shows in the savage desperation to vote the House of Commons mates off their show.

Clearly, parliamentarians who see public office as an opportunity to better the accommodation of their ducks have done more to deserve hostility than either late weapons experts or witless twentysomethings in a TV house.

5. Mr Cheney, please, tell us about it. - Hadley Freeman

Babbling away like a Speaker's Corner regular, Bush's former guru is doing him a final favour.

I don't want to start any libellous rumours here, but it's hard not to wonder if someone (Rush Limbaugh? Rahm Emanuel? It could work either way) has been putting cocaine in Cheney's morning coffee. The man just will not shut the hell up. Cheney was once the Republican party's mysterious Thomas Pynchon, but in the past two weeks he has become a media slut of Ulrika Jonsson-type proportions, with an accompanying sense of cringing embarrassment, and I would not be surprised if he turned up in the Big Brother house this summer, railing about the benefits of Abu Ghraib to fellow housemates Vanessa Feltz and Marcus Brigstocke.

On Thursday the all new Chatty Cheney gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute on his favourite subject – Torture: it's Super! – while, as chance would have it, Obama happened to be giving a talk at almost exactly the same time on the proposed closure of Guantánamo Bay.

There is no question that there is something about Cheney that still fascinates people. Last week, a Newsweek reporter claimed that Joe Biden – another talkative VP, coincidentally – revealed at a dinner that he had been shown an underground "bunker-like room" at the National Observatory in Washington, where Cheney lived during his time as vice-president. With its "steel door secured by an elaborate lock" and a "narrow ­connecting hallway lined with shelves filled with ­communications equipment" (neighbours had apparently complained of loud construction work – for some reason that's my favourite detail), it fits in so perfectly with the popular perception of Cheney that not even the Biden office's hastily issued semi-denial (apparently, it was just an "upstairs workplace") could quell the idea that for eight years America was ruled by Dr Strangelove.

But Chatty Cheney may kill that idea himself. The reason for the chat, of course, is that Cheney feels he has a legacy to defend, which says much about who he feels was actually running the country during the past two terms. Yet in defending what little there was left to defend, he has ended up decimating it. The wizard has stepped out from behind the curtain and he has shown himself to be, far from the horrifically fascinating mastermind he occasionally seemed during his time as VP, rather a ranting old man who wouldn't look amiss at Speakers' Corner and who thinks the best way to govern is to incite fear and paranoia.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Layer 159 Towards A New Politics: Bring It On.

As I was saying yesterday before running out of time and energy - hopefully people are waking up and realising that the only thing they have left to believe in and trust is themselves. Not the City. Not Westminster. Not the Queen. And not God either.

In yesterday's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland was saying something similar:

The Speaker exits with revolution in the air. I say, bring it on

The essence of the piece is summed up in his final paragraph:

“In the 21st century, we can no longer accept that 646 individuals plus an unelected monarch are sovereign. Power should belong to all of us. And if that means revolution, bring it on.”

He also makes these key points:

“For years, those of us who yearned for a radical shakeup of our constitution were told we could dream on. Save it for the seminar room, the critics said: what people care about are jobs and services, not dry, academic discussions about governance.

Well, guess what. They care now.

Michael Martin the first Speaker of the House of Commons to be forced out since Sir John Trevor in 1695 . . . in the age of revolution.

It is revolution that is in the air now, as voters share a sense of revulsion that has no recent precedent. When the nation loathes not this individual or even that political party, but the entire governing class – yearning to throw out the whole rotten lot of them – then the ground begins to tremble.

That is why the expenses affair dwarfs the sleaze episodes of the 1990s. Then the outrage focused on the Tories alone, allowing Labour to present itself as the clean, unsullied alternative. It's different now. People revile the party of Elliot Morley, Hazel Blears and Shahid Malik, with their bogus mortgage claims, flipping and home-cinema systems – but they can hardly hail the men of moats and manure in the Tory party. All they feel is contempt for the system itself.

They're right too. For the great expenses fraud is not some freak ailment in an otherwise healthy body politic. It is a symptom of a system that is wholly dysfunctional, diseased to its very heart.

Speaker Martin's fate was to embody several aspects of that rottenness. Its secrecy, fighting through the courts to keep expenses hidden; its profligacy, claiming £4,000 for his wife's taxi fares and spending £700,000 refurbishing Speaker's House, as well as its antiquated procedures and clubbishness.

With his departure, though, he has performed a valuable service. The fact that nothing like it has happened for more than three centuries confirms that these are indeed revolutionary times – and that radical, convention-breaking change is possible.

That does not mean simply dealing with the specific business of allowances, though of course that is necessary.

It's the attitude that says, "We're in charge: who are you to challenge us?"

It is this, not the mechanics of expenses, that has to change. It will require MPs to see themselves not as masters of their own universe, who expect the taxpayer to pamper them with silk cushions and country houses as if that is their divine right – but as employees of the people who elect them.

Rhetorically, our politicians have nodded to this notion: Blair promised Labour would be "servants of the people." But now we know they never truly saw themselves that way. If they did, they would have had to undertake the revolutionary move our ancestors shied away from more than 300 years ago – and which has eluded us ever since.

It is the shift from our current system – which rests on the belief that the crown-in-parliament is sovereign – to the simpler notion that it is the people who are sovereign in their own land.

Plenty of other nations have made that move, most famously the US, whose founding document asserts that power starts with "We the people". But we never did. Instead, in Britain, power still belongs at the top – with the crown and the palace of Westminster

Today the Guardian launches online A New Politics, a call for a radical shakeup of our constitution, arguing for reform of everything from party funding to the role of the attorney general. But the common thread that must run through any new constitution for Britain has to be the shift from parliamentary to popular sovereignty. Once you understand that in a true democracy the people are sovereign, the next moves become obvious.

Of course the second chamber has to be elected: a sovereign people chooses who writes the laws that govern them.

Keep applying the same logic and it all becomes pretty obvious. Of course there should be fixed parliamentary terms: it's the boss who decides when the employee's contract terminates. Yet in our system it's the other way around, with the prime minister telling us when he plans to "go to the country".

Should there be a written constitution? Naturally. If you own a house, you have a copy of the deeds; if you buy a car, you get an owner's manual explaining how it works. And we are the owners.

Attached to that document could be a full statement of our rights. Not the "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" proposed by the two main parties, because that implies our rights are handed down by our masters, conditional on good behaviour. But fundamental rights are ours unconditionally – because we are in charge.

All the flummery and archaic language should be banished too: it shrouds parliament in a cloud of mystique, opaque to all but a select priesthood. But if it belongs to us it should be conducted in a language and a style any one of us could understand.

This is the simple rule that should be run over every part of our constitution. Right now it is shaped by the assumption that the crown, today represented by the executive, is in charge, in harness with a parliament it dominates. Any change must rest on a different premise, that the people are sovereign.

This is why Gordon Brown's statement was disappointing . . . Twice he made the ritual bow before "respect for parliamentary sovereignty". He doesn't yet understand that it is this very idea that lies at the heart of the problem.”


The problem with simply replacing the Queen with a president is that we end up with George W Bush, aided and abetted by a compliant legislature pretending to be representatives of “we, the people”, when in fact they're the puppets of their parties, which in turn are the playthings of corporate and billionaire funding.

Still, having an elected head of state and an elected Upper House would be progress, providing we had a media and an Internet-linked electorate that kept them all under proper scrutiny and analysis, providing we have a political culture that people are able and willing to engage with.


Here are some extracts from Seamus Milne's piece in the Guardian yesterday:

Purge the professionals and let party democracy breathe

This meltdown creates opportunities as well as dangers. But more than technocratic fixes, we need real political choice.

"What started as a political scandal has tipped over into a full-blown crisis of Britain's entire political system. There's no doubt that the Commons Speaker's resignation was long overdue. But if MPs imagine that by scapegoating Michael Martin for their own scams they will appease popular revulsion, they are dreaming. The drip-drip revelations of help-yourself entitlement have only entrenched a gulf between the political elite and the public that's been widening for two decades: the product of narrowing political choice, professionalisation of politics, shameless government deceit about war and peace, and devastating financial collapse.

Now both Britain's governing and business classes are discredited. And what the Daily Telegraph, orchestrator of the expenses leaks, yesterday called "a very British revolution" is going to have to go a good deal further than a change of guard in a largely ceremonial post of fake feudal flummery to steady the horses. Gordon Brown seems at last dimly to perceive what has to be done.

But the public doesn't want apologies, cheques or promises of further inquiries – it wants heads on a platter without further delay. That's why the only way to restore some confidence in Labour MPs – the most damaged by the scandal – is to drive through a sweeping round of reselections by local parties.

To avoid the kind of stitch-ups by regional officials which have packed parliament with New Labour clones, the normal procedures would have to be opened up. But putting all but the most blameless MPs through a process of reselection would offer the chance both to revive local democracy and replace some Tweedledum career politicians with more independent, rooted and working-class candidates.

But Brown is still balking at sacking his communities secretary Hazel Blears for her expenses profiteering, letting it be known he has "full confidence" in her while at the same time describing her behaviour as "totally unacceptable".

A purge of miscreants, however, is clearly not enough. What has become a crisis of democracy can only be overcome with a programme of democratic reform. Both Brownite and Blairite members of the cabinet are now talking about launching a constitutional convention to reshape the whole political structure, covering everything from an elected Lords and independent select committees to electoral reform and an overhaul of party funding.

Anything that cracks open the system and dispenses with perennial British complacency about the "mother of parliaments" has got to be welcome. But technocratic fixes won't by themselves solve the problem. Unless parliamentary democracy is about choice, it's meaningless. The legacy of New Labour is a contest over the narrowest of political and economic options, presided over by highly centralised party machines, where internal democracy has withered and party members have drifted away.

There is no reason why any of the reforms being discussed would automatically overcome that dismal inheritance. Unless new parties are able to break the existing political monopoly – a mountain to climb under first-past-the-post even in current circumstances – that would require an end to authoritarian party control, space for internal pluralism, and the local right to choose election candidates freely.

For Labour in particular, such an upheaval would mean a reconstitution of the party. But without a profound change in the kind of people who are chosen as MPs and a reconnection between electors and elected, underpinned by a right of recall, this crisis of representation will not be overcome.

The political crisis triggered by the Commons expenses scandal is itself linked to the economic crisis that preceded it. Both are the product of an economic model that brooked no alternative, was built on greed and drove people to see themselves as consumers rather than citizens. And just as in the case of the economic crash, the constitutional meltdown creates opportunities as well as dangers for progressive and radical politics.

By bringing to a head long-running alienation from mainstream politics at a time when the economic system is seen to have failed, the crisis offers a chance to bust the cosy political cartels that have underpinned it, and create new alliances for a real change of direction. Everything is potentially in play, including the survival of the parties in their current form. If Brown were able to seize the moment, the government could shape the direction of reform.

But there is also a risk that disgust at the antics of the political class can feed a reactionary mood that rejects the idea that politics can improve people's lives and embraces the call for a small state at a time of retrenchment. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in Downing Street is febrile. As one close ally of the prime minister told me yesterday: "There is a dangerous void. If the governing elite doesn't grab the opportunity, the people will overthrow them."


For anyone needing some gen on Hazel Blears here's a very comprehensive piece by John Harris:

'It will take years for my reputation to recover'

The sight of Hazel Blears brandishing her cheque on TV may prove the most enduring image of the whole expenses furore. But how did this straight-talking, working-class MP become the focus of the scandal? And can she possibly survive it?

Surely the real question is, what reputation? Surely her reputation is for being a hideous Blairite unprincipled conniving NuLabour clone? No recovery necessary.


A New Politics website.

The “A New Politics” section of the Guardian's website can be accessed here:

Lots of good stuff, and lots of responses and contributions from readers.


The Christian Brothers and Sisters.

For anyone who can stomach it, the Guardian's report on the abuse of children in Ireland by The Christian Brothers and The Sisters of Mercy can be seen here:

See also:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Layer 158 “A Political Revolution of Great Historical Significance.”

The seismic developments in politics are so interesting. They’re obviously a response to the offence that’s been caused to people’s spiritual intelligence - our sense of justice and fairness. Issues of unfair rewards, corruption, deception, honesty, integrity, etc, are in the end matters that impact on our spiritual sensibilities. We talk about truth, ethics and morals, but these things are subsets of the spiritual.

This has nothing to do with God, however. Atheists can be every bit as ethical, moral and spiritual as religious folk. These things offend against that which is truly human within us. We’re appalled and outraged because we know in our souls and our spirits that something very wrong has taken place.

The question which then arises is what we do about it. What on earth do we do when the people we elect to govern our affairs are themselves responsible for the outrages? Either by commission or omission these people are responsible, and they’re hardly likely to want to change the system that’s been responsible for their advancement, their promotion and their income. They’re hardly likely to want to punish themselves.

We may want to see them all blasted away by the jet of a cleansing hose, but what if they resist? What if they’re determined to stay, and to preserve the status quo?

Admittedly there are hundreds of MPs who are indeed honourable and untouched by the scandal, but what if they too are resistant to changing the system and making politicians more accountable? The proposals for change that are being put forward at this time (see Layer 157 for examples) are sensible and reasonable and radical, but they’re not necessarily going to be adopted by our essentially reactionary politicians.

I don’t see too many MPs admitting that their complacency, idleness and inattention contributed to their colleagues doing what they did. Virtually NONE of them voted against invading Iraq, and even less of them spoke out consistently against the Shock Doctrine, voodoo economics, the behaviour of the bankers and financiers, the Big Brother legislation that’s been passed, or the laxity of the system that allowed and encouraged MPs to scam thousands of pounds from the public purse.

So what do we then do? Is there anything we can do?

Even Alan Duncan, speaking on Today, says, “The current model of political representation is under serious strain”. And “A quiet political revolution of great historical significance is taking place.”

Hilary Benn talked about apologising and making reparations. He said that ‘everybody’ now recognises that the rules on expenses were unacceptable and had to change. He doesn’t seem to see that the failure on the part of people like him to notice these things previously is also what’s making us so angry. It seems obvious now that the rules were too lax. Why wasn’t it obvious before?

The BBC’s political correspondent says there’s a fear in Westminster that the ‘public’ “wants heads”. Last week Diane Abbot had the honesty to admit that a great many people would like to see politicians swinging from lampposts.

The Today presenter made the point that the word ‘revolution’ is being bandied about quite a lot. (Lord) Norman Lamont, bless, said that it’s just a question of “getting Parliament up to date”. Shirley Williams says she agrees there has to be a revolution. Not just “repairing the roof and doing nothing about the building”. Roy Hattersley said that an election should be delayed until this parliament has been given time to react and put its own house in order. But he’s in favour of ‘dramatic change’.

Which brings me to my main point, which is that George Monbiot had a column in the Guardian yesterday with the heading, “As the political consensus collapses, now all dissenters face suppression”.

“The principal cause of man's unhappiness is that he has learnt to stay quietly in his own room. If our needs are not met, if justice is not done, it is because we are not prepared to leave our homes and agitate for change.

“Yet, though the people of this country remain as mild and as peaceful as they have ever been, our MPs have introduced a wider range of repressive measures than at any time since the second world war.

“[Various Acts] treat peaceful protesters as if they are stalkers, vandals, thugs and terrorists. Thousands of harmless, public-spirited people now possess criminal records. This legislation has been enforced by policing which becomes more aggressive and intrusive by the month. The police attacks on the G20 protests (which are about to be challenged by a judicial review launched by Climate Camp) are just the latest expression of this rising state violence. Why is it happening?

“The police appear to be motivated not by party political bias but by hostility towards all views which do not reflect the official consensus.

“Mainstream politics in Britain cannot respond to realities such as global and national inequality, economic collapse, resource depletion and climate change. Any politics that does not endorse the liberal economic consensus, which challenges the concentration of wealth or power, or which doesn't accept that growth and consumerism can be sustained indefinitely, is off-limits. Just as the suffragettes were repressed because their ideas – not their actions – presented a threat to the state, the government and the police must suppress a new set of dangerous truths.

"By treating protesters as domestic extremists, the state marginalises their concerns: if people are extremists, their views must be extreme. Repression, in a nominal democracy, cannot operate accountably, so the state uses police units which are exempt from public scrutiny . . . There is no place for dissenting views in mainstream politics.

“Our grossly unfair electoral system, which responds to the concerns of just a few thousand floating voters and shuts out the minor parties; the vicious crackdown on dissent within parliament by whips and spin doctors; the neoliberalism forced upon governments by corporate power and the Washington consensus; the terror of the tabloid press – all combine to create a political culture which cannot respond to altered realities without collapsing. What cannot be accommodated must be suppressed.

"The police respond as all police forces do; protecting the incasts from the outcasts, keeping the barbarians from the gate. The philosophy of policing has not changed; they just become more violent as the citadel collapses.”


Tales of Our Times

1) Gordon Brown has said on TV that the behaviour of Hazel Blears has been “totally unacceptable”. But she stays in office drawing her fat salary. “Doing a great job as minister of state”, is what she tells the news channels Gordon has said about her, with that ludicrous smug expression on her ludicrous face.

2) A damning report on Parkhurst prison says that the place is so bad that there are disabled prisoners who haven’t had a shower for a year because prison officers who aren’t trained to push wheelchairs are refusing to push them, and also refusing to be trained on pushing wheelchairs.

3) A damning report on the Catholic church and The Christian Brothers hit the news today. So now it’s official. The Catholic church had tried every means possible to cover up and what everybody knows has gone on for 70 years in Ireland, at least - the gross brutalisation of thousands of children who have suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of priests, monks and nuns.

Of course we knew all of this already. We also knew that the church has systematically and relentlessly conspired to deny and cover up what their people have done to those children.

And so another pillar of our society collapses.

First the credibility of the banking and financial system, and the whole concept of ‘globalisation’. Then the credibility of Parliament. And now the credibility of the church. Hopefully people are waking up and realising that the only thing they have left to believe in and trust is themselves.

Watching the reactions of Glaswegians to the resignation of Michael Martin on TV it really struck me how completely New Labour has destroyed itself, and destroyed our party. The Labour Party used to rely on Scotland to send a big bunch of MPs to the London parliament, and after the recent fiascos it’s entirely possible they’re going to be completely wiped out by a combination of the SNP, Lib Dems and Independents.

Something similar will happen in England and Wales. I think there could be shedloads of Independent MPs elected all over the place, if decent people come forward as an alternative to the established parties.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Layer 157 Charlatans, Fundamentalists, Voodoo Economics, Changing Values and Changing Parliament.

The question today is whether political progressives and radicals should welcome there being a leader of the Conservative party who is intelligent and articulate, and a good speaker. I ask because Cameron was on the Today programme to discuss the demands for the Speaker to resign, and again showed himself to be someone who can speak convincingly and whose radio and TV voice, and whose attitude and manner, is at least easy on the ear and not particularly objectionable.

The question arises because it’s looking like we’re going to have him around for a long time to come, and very likely in the role of Prime Minister. The state of the Labour party is such that the Tories could have a pig as their leader and still end up the majority party after the next election. That’s pretty much what happened in ’97 with New Labour. Substitute "smooth talking public-school egomaniac psychopath" for pig. Yes I know Cameron also has some of those attributes, but I somehow don’t think he’s an out and out psychopath who thinks God talks to him, like You Know Who. He who shall bring peace to the Middle East, the Holy Land.

You must admit that Cameron is different. During my adult lifetime I’ve seen the Tories led by Alec Douglas-Home, Ted Heath, Thatch, Major, Hague, the Quiet Man aka Ian & Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard. I couldn’t stand listening to any of them during their time as PM or Leader of the Opposition. To be fair to Heath and Hague, they at least learnt from their experiences as leader of their party, and showed subsequently they were capable of thoughtful and intelligent opinions.

The problem for Cameron is that he’s still leading a bunch of Neanderthals, many of whom are likely to defect to UKIP if they can’t get that good old red in tooth and claw traditional Toryism from Dave and his chums. It’s not clear that he has the capacity to drive through his version of “progressive conservatism” and to bring his party back to some sort of so-called ‘centre ground’ in the political spectrum, which in the 30 years following WW2 meant liberal/social democratic - i.e. strongly supporting the welfare state, championing the provision of high quality public services, working for the reduction of poverty, and using a progressive tax system to reduce inequality.

I don’t know anyone who actually trusts him to do that. It’s all very well talking the talk of ‘progressive conservatism’ in the run-up to a general election in order to appeal to the floating voters and the basically decent people of this country, but things change when in government. As we soon discovered with New Labour.

The first priority of all governments is self-preservation. It’s very difficult to alter course and drag the rest of the Establishment with you. That takes a lot of commitment and determination, as well as integrity and the intelligence to see a better way of governing and a better way of creating a decent society.

Governments also find they’re dependent on a huge civil service that’s constructed around the maintenance of ‘stability’, ‘continuity’ and the preservation of the system itself. The advice they get from the top civil service is bound to be reactionary and regressive. Going with that grain is always going to be the best and easiest option for any Tory leader.

The problem for the Left is that an intelligent and personable Tory leader is more electable than the average Tory toff. What the left needs is a leader who is even more intelligent and personable than Cameron. And that ain’t Gordon Brown.


Start The Week on Radio 4 this week asked the question - Is God Back? Whereas in this country and in Europe generally there’s been a huge drift towards secularism and the emptying of churches, with massive reductions in their congregations, in the rest of the world there’s been no withering of religion. Quite the opposite. Depressingly, there’s been a huge growth in churches and in church attendance in places like China, Africa and South America.

Pentecostalism began in the back streets of Los Angeles around 1910. It’s essentially an anti-intellectual fundamentalism, and clearly a huge threat to human enlightenment.

In the USA interest in religion really only took off after the Revolution - when church was constitutionally separated from the state. Methodists were the first to actively compete for adherents.

Christianity in Nigeria, to take one example, is now aggressively pushing north into traditionally Muslim areas, using full-time evangelists who are very well funded by collection money sent from churches in the USA.

It’s not just the poor and ignorant who are being sucked in by these hucksters and cultists, either. In Sao Paolo, for example, middle class women can be seen dropping their children off at church crèches and going into exorcisms to take part in mad sessions of agony and ecstasy. It’s very much the upwardly mobile as well as the hopeless and the clueless.

People everywhere are apparently seeking some ‘higher’ meaning and purposes in their lives. Both the materially well-off and the shockingly impoverished.


Coincidentally, I recently spent an afternoon with a friend who makes films for a variety of people and organisations, including churches. He has some amazing stories to tell about these fundamentalist Pentecostalists, etc, and some very clear evidence of fakery in late night ‘services’ when people supposedly go into trances and become possessed by spirits.

It’s incredible the lengths these so-called Christians will go to in order to shamelessly trick people out of their money. There are now dozens of these so-called churches up and down the Old Kent Road alone, each one just a small business making big bucks out of people’s gullibility and fear. The fear of God, of course, is planted in their wretched heads by the so-called pastors and ministers. Give us your money, or else.

This particular business model has been very successfully piloted in places like Lagos and Los Angeles, and is now being used in every country on earth, it seems. It’s a form of voodoo, obviously, and amazingly people of every class and every colour are susceptible to being sucked into these cults and relieved of large amounts of money, should they be fortunate enough to possess any.

It’s incredible to me that not only do we allow them to advertise themselves on TV and radio, but we also fail to do anything significant to inform the public about their lies, their tricks, their intentions and their dangers. Surely it can’t be for lack of evidence? Surely no-one with any intelligence and with full command of their faculties doubts how dangerous, greedy and corrupt these people really are?


Start The Week also had a feature on “Animal Spirits”, which was an idea originally put forward by the economist John Maynard Keynes as a description and an explanation of what drives people into irrational behaviour.

The fallibility of human behaviour is fascinating. The sheer absence of common sense. People are driven so often by fear and greed. The Chicago-School model of free-market economics has been driven by the erroneous logic of economic mathematicians, who base their ideas on the notion of rational people making rational decisions about their lives and their money. Which isn’t what actually happens half of the time.

In finance and politics, vanity and greed have been the key drivers, not logic or rational economic policy. Destructive emotions are the key to so much that’s happened in the financial crisis and in the scandals of MPs claiming money from the State for so-called ‘expenses’. The rest of us have been guilty of complacency and tolerance. But the times are indeed a’changing.

Even non-economists can now clearly see that the model of capitalism developed by the Chicago Boys was based on erroneous assumptions and was wrong. The outcome has been tantamount to mass cruelty to millions of individuals.

But just as there was a contagion of those false ideas and assumptions, something like a mass enlightenment is now spreading, and people see the need to change our political and economic systems radically and permanently. It’s possible that even the likes of the Tory leadership can see this.

It seems that so much of our behaviour is conditioned by the stories we tell ourselves - - stories of optimism and pessimism. Why, for instance, do we engage in a competitive struggle rather than living our lives cooperatively and collaboratively?


The New York Times supplement in the Observer this week carried a front page piece called A Change In Values. Zeitgeisty indeed.

The strapline says, “Greed gives way to a re-evaluation of what is necessary in life, and, ultimately, what makes us unhappy.” Unfortunately the article was entirely about the fact that folks in the USA are spending less and saving more. Which makes business leaders very very unhappy.

And there’s a plug in the piece for a guy called David Blankenhorn who is the president of something called the Institute for American Values which advocates “the virtues of thrift”. Not exactly what you’d call a fundamental shift in consciousness.


Madeleine Bunting’s column in the Guardian yesterday says The Age of Entitlement Lies Rotting.

She talks about the collapsed credibility of two major British institutions - politics and banking - and the “outrageous and profoundly unethical” behaviour of their practitioners and leaders. She talks about how we’ve tolerated gross inequality and hyper-consumption, and then moves on to consider a new age of sustainable development and a “radical restructuring of society, economy and politics”.

She reckons there’s “a new and fast-growing appetite for radicalism and an abrupt break with the status quo. At such times political energy and attention move beyond the discredited centre ground in the hunt for fresh ideas.”

“It requires abandoning a half-century of political assumptions.”

“What will be difficult is the governance of these changes: what kind of state will be required to push these changes through and what powers will it need to do so?”

“Equally difficult will be the massive cultural revolution required to reorient a set of values rooted in an entitlement to an unfair proportion of the planet’s resources. The illusion of a good life conceived in terms of individual material advancement has to be exposed as an advertising con . . . ”

[A bit like the illusion of a good life conceived in terms of individual spiritual advancement.]

“Rising affluence has not produced rising levels of wellbeing but a dispiriting scrabble for advantage . . .”

“It is perfectly possible to imagine a way of life with less material wealth that could actually be far more sustaining of human wellbeing. The problem is that we need politicians brave and bold enough to start taking us down that long road - and we discover they are riddled with the very disease we need to cure.”


There’s a bunch of people who have started a website called The Jury Team with the intention of getting more independent, non-party people elected to Parliament and the European Parliament, who have been selected to stand though an internet-based “Primary” selection process.

The general idea is that the major parties are full of donkeys who meekly plod through the lobbies under the whips of their leaders, and what we now need are independently-minded people who vote according to what appears best for the country and its people, and not in the interests of their particular party.

It’s an interesting idea. Their website says, quite rightly, that if, for example, there had been more independent and unwhipped MPs in Parliament then it would never have voted to go to war in Iraq without UN approval.

Then again, neither would Britain have gone to war if the Labour party had been led by people who had the capacity to understand that a war in Iraq was unwarranted, illegal, counterproductive and immoral. So we also need progressive parties that have intelligent, enlightened and progressive leaderships.

There doesn’t seem much hope of any of them getting such leadership any time soon, so no wonder so few people are going to turn out to vote for them.

Cameron stands at a crossroads, and so does Clegg, who also has the potential to become a very good leader if only he chooses the progressive path and sticks to it. If they both refuse to pander to the right wings of their parties then we could even see a complete sea change in British politics. It’s all to play for, and we could soon find ourselves in a very unfamiliar landscape in this country.


Polly Toynbee this week says, “The parliament of ostriches still doesn’t get it”.

“The game’s up and heads must roll - not just the Speaker, but the prime minister and a fat clutch of MPs who protest they were ‘only obeying the rules’. Enough good MPs didn’t claim for food, flat-screens and furniture, making the others look piggish.

“Listen to the call of the wild as people say they want a parliament of independents, hoping that good plain folk, truth-speakers and honest citizens will be elected as a great assembly of the people.

“A host of honest citizens thinking for themselves may sound OK - but if you vote for them, you don’t know their deep true views until far too late.

“The problem is not the existence of parties, but the dead hand the two old monoliths hold on the windpipe of politics.

“Seize this moment to make real constitutional change, bring in proportional representation for the Commons, a fully elected Lords and clean party funding.

“Seats where parties can run a donkey in a red or blue rosette breed complacency and tempt corruption. Nefarious practices thrive in any dark corners of politics unchecked by scrutiny or competition. Time for a constitutional revolution.”


Jackie Ashley argues in her column for a radical cleansing of the Commons, and for bringing parliament into the 21st century. She even suggests turning the Palace of Westminster into a museum and moving to a modern fit-for-purpose legislature.

“The change that must now happen really has to feel like change. A blast of fresh air must smack open the windows and barrel through the chambers.

“And radical action has to come, first of all from the parties themselves - if it doesn’t it will come from the public.

“But what does radical action mean? It has to mean resignations, deselections and byelections for those who have set out to fiddle the system. They should all be told to stand down. The worst offenders, who may face fraud charges, should be told to go now.

“Whatever happened to reform of the House of Lords?

“Only by setting out a radical programme for reform, not just of allowances but of parliament, can Labour have any hope of salvaging some of its reputation by the next general election.

“Certainly, if the main parties don’t get the message, we will see independents and challengers victorious. If the politicians don’t clean up the Commons, the voters will clean it out. And in the end that’s the optimistic thing to cling on to.

“If it contains hundreds of fresh faces, who don’t mistake themselves for members of an elite club, then it will rejuvenate democracy.”

As of today we know there will soon be a fresh face in the Speaker’s chair.


Helena Kennedy had an excellent column in today’s Guardian: Disillusion, Made Rage.

“[People] think too many politicians are fired by self-interest and careerism rather than by a passion to make our society better. They feel utterly alienated from political institutions and formal democracy.

“This recent, shameful farrago over MPs’ expenses has undoubtedly turned that disillusion into rage . . . and contempt.

“Unfortunately, instead of New Labour introducing a new way of doing politics, it rubbed shoulders with the banking classes and bought into the culture of greed.

“The temptation for the parties will be to sack a few people and redesign the allowance system but if public trust is to be restored there has to be a much more radical rethink. There has to be root-and-branch reform of parliament, both the Lords and the Commons, a written constitution, proportional representation, proper funding of political parties, a real curb on commercial lobbying, extended powers for select committees and fewer powers for the whips, a proper pay structure for MPs, more participative democracy and a re-ignition of local government to create new avenues for people to enter the world of politics. Any and all reforms must be guided by the knowledge that what people most want is an ethical political system. It is a moment to be seized and if the government is courageous enough it could even change its fortunes.”


And finally . . .

Here’s another plug for Spotify, which has finally provided the Blues Radio that Britain’s been lacking all these years. Just click ‘radio’ and ‘blues’. (Or whichever genre of the eighteen listed that you want to listen to.) You can even specify the decades you want the music to come from. Fantastic.


I picked up this reminder from a track on Spotify this morning, just as I was thinking back over a lifetime working to promote an enlightened education system:

Takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile -
Be yourself, no matter what they say.

I know so many good people who on a daily basis now have to suffer ignorance and still try to smile. And still try to remain true to themselves.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Layer 156 A Musical Interlude, a Vision for Europe, Spotify and King of the New York Streets.

The last time I checked, Albania was an austere little country, minding its own business behind closed borders where people lived simple lives under a grim communist regime.

Clearly, then, there’s been massive social progress during the last 20 years - to the point where Albania now not only has an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest - their entry gets to the finals and features a young woman with big hair wearing a kind of pink and very revealing tutu, singing in English. She was even accompanied on stage by a gyrating group of humanoids wearing masks, hoods and jump suits. What better example of Albanian cultural progress could there possibly be?

Ukraine’s entry, meanwhile, features a young woman with big hair and a short red dress, flashing plenty of knicker, singing in English, who shouts the immortal line, “You are sexy bum!” as she launches into a frenzied bout of drum bashing. At least I’m fairly sure that’s what she was yelling. Marvellous. Classy. So very Ukrainian. The folks back home must have been mighty proud.

The UK’s entry was shockingly bad. Some stupid song by a girl called Jade, blabbing on about “It’s my time, my time, my time now.” Me, me, me. My, my, my. Unbelievably portentous and pretentious bollocks. But superbly representative of Britain’s self-obsessed wannabe culture.

I’m not saying the girl hasn’t got talent, but what a waste of it. Incredibly, on stage accompanying our Jade was the phenomenally ugly and enormously rich Andrew Lloyd Webber, playing piano. Why? We may never know. Give me the humanoids any day.

Germany was in ultra-competitive mode, even prepared to abandon their unlovely guttural language in favour of English, with the bloke who was the lead singer willing to scrap any sort of dignity by wearing ludicrous shiny silver trousers in the true spirit of Eurovision.. His leggy dancers wore a sort of ultra-short black lederhosen as they stomped and strutted around the stage. What a sense of humour! Who says the Germans don’t have one?

To top it all they employed the notorious Deeta Von Teese, burlesque artiste extraordinaire, to do a kind of semi-striptease, getting her kit off on stage, down to a basque that barely covered a perky pair of enhanced breasts. What a prop she was! What a stroke of genius as a way to get the audience’s full attention and put on a truly memorable show. Cabaret it wasn’t.

Whatever next, though? At this rate in another ten years they’ll have live action fornication on stage to back up the singers. At least there’d be a degree of directness and honesty in that. Forget art - let’s just get down to the real basics. Clearly it’s the trend, and damn those Brits who started it off by ripping off their long skirts on stage to reveal - short skirts!

Finland had the best-looking women, with short skirts and fabulous legs, plus guys twirling fire sticks all around the vast stage. Clearly the winner, in my book. Song? What song?


I have to admit to only half-watching the Eurovision spectacular whilst listening on and off to music from Spotify, the create your own radio station website. It was much more entertaining imagining the performers in the ‘song contest’ were miming very badly to the likes of proper songs like Famous Blue Raincoat, Like A Rolling Stone and Shake Your Money Maker. Besides, how could anyone with any love of music possibly listen non-stop to three hours of tragic Eurogarbage?

This week I finally got round to downloading Spotify and discovering the delights of creating one’s own on-line jukebox from a vast library of records old and new. It’s quite an invention. Available only in Europe at the moment, thanks to its Swedish developers.

For example, ever since 1967 I’ve been regretting not being able to find a copy of Jenny Take A Ride, by Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels. Spotify have got it. Radio Caroline used to play it regularly, though it never did well in the ‘pop charts’.

For the past 10 years I’ve been hoping to get hold of a copy of Green Onions (“the grown up, unexpurgated version”) by Roy Buchanan. Spotify have got it. They even list an extended live version of that classic instrumental by Booker T himself, which is brilliant, and which I didn’t even know existed.

They have tracks from the bluesy Super Session by Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Steven Stills, a rare album from 1968, including remixes with added horns.

You can browse through their folders and discover masses of material that’s worth paying attention to, and then send it to your own on-line self-created folders for future listening.

Unfortunately they don’t have everything, and there are some major gaps in their collections. Certain artists have not given permission for their stuff to be in there, and others have only allowed in a selection of their output.

I’ve been trying to find a copy of King of the New York Streets by Dion (DiMucci) - and Spotify don’t have it. I did, however, find it on YouTube, which you can play by clicking below.

This is a truly belting piece of music, which I first saw on TV about 15 years ago and have been hoping to see again ever since. Dion’s got two drummers playing full kits, plus Steve Cropper, of Booker T & the MGs fame, on guitar, and the four guys who make up probably the best-ever horn section, the Miami Horns. Interestingly it was recorded at the Town & Country Club in London.

What’s particularly brilliant about this song is that Dion wrote it from his own lived experience as a young would-be gangster in the Bronx, and the song is anti-drugs, anti-gangs and anti-violence. It’s a rocking piece of brilliance from a guy who also wrote The Wanderer, Runaround Sue and A Teenager In Love, way back at the beginning of rock n roll.

This is also a guy who performed with his band The Belmonts on Buddy Holly’s last tour, and would have died in the same plane crash as Buddy and the Big Bopper if he could have afforded to pay the $35 or whatever it cost to fly to the next gig on a chartered aircraft, instead of going on the tour bus through the ice and snow overnight with the rest of the band.

What is an incredible story that is - to think about in connection with thoughts on the effects of wealth, on being in a hurry, taking risks, and the supposed benefits of privilege, etc. The death of Holly and the others was tragic, and a huge waste of musical talent. As were the deaths of people like Hendrix, Joplin, Lennon, and of course Elvis, who is probably the best-ever case study of someone who succumbed to the temptations of wealth, idleness, fame, isolation, megalomania, drugs, etc.

Dion, who managed to kick his drugs habit, deserves a lot more recognition for his contributions to rock n roll down the years. I notice Amazon are selling the boxed set of his lifetime’s work, called King of the New York Streets, for a mere $99.


King of the New York Streets

People called me the scandalizer
The world was my appetizer
I turned gangs into fertilizer
King of the New York streets

I broke hearts like window panes
For breakfast I'd eat nails and chains
To my kingdom I'd proclaim
King of the New York streets

(Do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat sing ---
(do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(Do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(do, do, do, do, do-do)

I floored my accelerator
All the way to the equator
Just a local gladiator
King of the New York streets

I was only sixteen years
So what could I have known?
In my mind these passing years
The legend sure has grown, no

People come from miles around
To see my royal tenement crown
Always up and never down
King of the New York streets

Schools gave me nothing needed
To my throne I proceeded
Every warning went unheeded
Yeah, a king of the New York streets

(Do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(Do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---

Woh, I stood tall from all this feeling
I bumped my head on heaven's ceiling
Shooting dice and double-dealing, ah
King of the New York streets

I was only sixteen years
What could I have known?
In my mind these passing years
The legend sure has grown

Each time I jumped behind the wheel
Of a pin-striped custom Oldsmobile
The guys would bow and the girls they’d squeal
King of the New York streets

Woh, local bullies I deflated
Back street jive that I translated
Top-Ten girls were all that I dated
King of the New York streets

(Do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat sing---
(do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(Do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---

I didn't need no bodyguard, ha
I just ruled from my backyard
Livin' fast, livin' hard
They’d call me King of the New York streets
Check it out, we walk in the city

(Do, do, do, do, do-do) city
(do, do, do, do, do-do)
(Do, do, do, do, do-do) yeah
(do, do, do, do, do-do)

Well I was wise in my own eyes
I woke one day and I realized
This attitude comes from cocaine lies

--- scat ---

(Do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(Do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---
(do, do, do, do, do-do) --- scat ---

Stuff that in your Eurovision.