Friday, December 31, 2010

Layer 412 . . . Weird Scenes, Doors of Perception, Education, Standards, Blake, Huxley, The End of 2010, a Happy New Year and a Brave New World

Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine

Can you picture what will be?
So limitless and free . . . ?
Desperately in need of some . . . stranger's hand?
In a . . . desperate land?
Lost in a Roman . . . wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain . . .
There's danger on the edge of town
Ride the King's highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine . . .

The Doors - from "The End"


    "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern."

 - from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell


Brave New World's ironic title derives from Miranda's speech in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act V, Scene I:

    O wonder!

    How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in it!

    "Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion,
    Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
    From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
    Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing
    from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell."

- William Blake
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell


In the town called Education they refer to the examinations known as A levels as the 'Gold Standard'. Everything flows from this. The gold mines and the Factory Schools flow from this.

Entry to university flows from this. The structure of the school system flows from this. The academic curriculum flows from this. The rejection of sensible proposals to broaden the curriculum into something resembling the international baccalaureat  flows from this. The rejection of the idea that children should not have to specialise in either the sciences or the arts, flows from this. The prohibition on pupils following their own learning journeys flows from this. Pupil angst and alienation flow from this. Teacher angst and alienation flow from this.

Is it any wonder that so many teachers leave the profession so soon after qualification?

Is it any wonder that so many children, and so many adults, are borderline insane? And so many of them are . . . literally . . . driven insane. Or become morose, depressed, angry and resentful.

You don't believe me? Take a look are the statistics for teenage drug taking in this country. Also for adult drug taking. Does taking heroin, cocaine, and all the rest, strike anyone as . . . sane? Where does the urge to do those things come from? Where does the failure to control that urge reside? Whose town? Whose government - which cares only about the gold standard? Which tries to shift the blame to individuals. Which sets up the system that is policed by an agency called Ofsted whose mission is to track down and persecute anyone who is deemed to be failing to support the Gold Standard. I use the P word advisedly. Nobody escapes the Ofsted inquisition . . .

If A Levels are the Gold Standard, then what are the tests that are administered at the age of eleven called? Let's call them the Bronze Standard. Or the bog standard. And then it neatly follows that the tests we give to sixteen year olds should be called the Silver Standard. Pupils who achieve success in at least five subjects at grade C and above at the Silver Standard might be considered as being 'on track' to achieve the Gold Standard. You see, it's all one big race.

Who are the drop outs? Why do they drop out? Are they dull and dumb? Have they no stamina? Do they lack motivation? Do they take drugs?

We just. Don't. Know. Although some of us think we do; and some of us don't even care.

How many of our children drop out before the age of eleven - let alone before they reach the Gold Standard? The Town Council would have us believe that the drop-outs have been badly taught. They'll tell you it's all the fault of the teachers. We need to hunt down those failing teachers. We need to sack those failing teachers.

There's danger on the edge of town . . .

The Town Council employed a Director of Education, who we'll called Mr Mutt. The Town Council were unhappy that so many pupils were not on the Gold Standard. Not on the Silver Standard. Not on the Bronze Standard. Not on any damn standard. They were desperate to raise standards.

"It's mainly the fault of the headteachers," said Mr Mutt. "They don't care enough about raising standards. They don't know how to raise standards."

Ironically, Mr Mutt didn't know anything about education. Or children. Particularly Primary age children. But really - not ANY children. Neither did he know anything about pedagogy. Or about how to be a school manager or a school leader. And why should he know? He was simply a bureaucrat. All he needed to know about was Standards and bureaucracies. And how to get rid of people who didn't raise standards. Which is what he did. And still those standards didn't rise.

So Ofsted came along and said this man hasn't been raising standards. He's a failing Director of Education. He doesn't know how to raise standards. Neither does he know how to provide decent services for schools. He can't even ensure that people in his department get paid the right amount, and at the right time. Which is surely something quite basic  to his job description. Why can't he even run a proper payroll system? Let alone a school system . . . No wonder the unions and the headteachers are so angry . . . Why has this Town Council been employing him for the past ten years?

Since the Town Council couldn't answer that question they decided not to employ him any more. So they gave him a year's salary and said would you mind pushing off, you hopeless bureaucrat? (Though they continued to employ a man, the Chief Executive, who was supposed to have been responsible for the performance management of the Director of Education throughout the previous decade. In fact they made him directly responsible for the day to day running of education, following the departure of his ex-best buddy. Even though he was an accountant and knew nothing about education.)

Weird scenes inside the gold mine . . .

The ex-Director of Education re-trained as a Performance Management consultant and began travelling the country, advising school governing bodies on the performance of their headteachers. In his heart of hearts he was a little bit in love with headteachers. In the deepest, darkest recesses of his twisted soul he truly hated  headteachers.

Ride the King's highway . . .  Ride the snake . . .

It all makes sense, in a weird kind of way . . .

Why do so many of the town's teenage girls become pregnant? Why does the town have so many teenage fathers? Have these children not heard of contraception? Do they not have access to contraception? Do they not want to use contraception? In what sense have we educated these children? Or have we, in effect, NOT educated these children? Which bits of them are educated?

What makes them carry knives? What makes them use those knives . . . on one another? What makes them get drunk and throw up on one another? What makes them steal and rob? Don't they know it's wrong to do these things? Don't they have any values? Have they not been educated?

Or shall we just say that they're feral children who are beyond education? Beyond any help? Beyond caring about? Beyond any decent standards . . .

Maybe we could blame the parents. Or television. Or the Internet. Or computers.

Lost. In a wilderness of pain. Desperately in need, of some stranger's hand . . .


A child-like man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention.

A democracy which makes or even effectively prepares for modern, scientific war must necessarily cease to be democratic. No country can be really well prepared for modern war unless it is governed by a tyrant, at the head of a highly trained and perfectly obedient bureaucracy.

All gods are homemade, and it is we who pull their strings, and so, give them the power to pull ours.

An intellectual is a person who's found one thing that's more interesting than sex.

Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.

Cynical realism is the intelligent man's best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation.

Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant and interesting.

Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you.

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects... totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have by the most eloquent denunciations.

From their experience or from the recorded experience of others (history), men learn only what their passions and their metaphysical prejudices allow them to learn.

I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.

I'm afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery.

If human beings were shown what they're really like, they'd either kill one another as vermin, or hang themselves.

Most of one's life is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself thinking.

Orthodoxy is the diehard of the world of thought. It learns not, neither can it forget.

The vast majority of human beings dislike and even actually dread all notions with which they are not familiar... Hence it comes about that at their first appearance innovators have generally been persecuted, and always derided as fools and madmen.

People intoxicate themselves with work so they won't see how they really are.

The worst enemy of life, freedom and the common decencies is total anarchy; their second worst enemy is total efficiency.

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.

Words, words, words! They shut one off from the universe. Three quarters of the time one's never in contact with things, only with the beastly words that stand for them.

Writers write to influence their readers, their preachers, their auditors, but always, at bottom, to be more themselves.

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.

Thank you, Aldous.


Happy New Year!.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Layer 411 . . . Glorious Winter Weather, Heathrow Chaos, British Business Ownership, PLCs, Gradgrind Gove, Betraying Our Children, Booktrust, Dylan's Favourites, Spotify, Trenet, and Boum!

Day Three in Melbourne, Trott undefeated on 168, the lead more than 400, Bresnan playing a blinder, the Aussie batsmen all out for little more than 100, and with only their bowlers left to bat it'll all be over before lunch tomorrow. How long have we waited for England to play this well, and for Australia to play this badly, in Australia?


The 'Definitive Collection' of Charles Trenet is now available on Spotify. Includes 'La Mer' and 'Boum!'. C'est magnifique!

Apparently the basic (free) version of Spotify is again available to anyone who wants to download it in Britain. No 'invitations' required.

Also on Spotify I stumbled across 'The Best of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour'. Bob's choices are, as you'd expect, immaculate.

Matzo Balls                   by Slim Gaillard
Alimony Blues               by Eddie 'Clearhead' Vinson
Tulip or Turnip              by Duke Ellington
Midnight Hour               by Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown
Let Me Play With Your Poodle        by Tampa Red
Deep Purple                  by The Ravens
Tennessee                     by Carl Perkins
John The Revelator       by Blind Willie Johnson
Pistol Packin' Mama     by Al Dexter
Telephone Is Ringing     by Pee Wee Crayton
Mystery Train               by Little Junior Parker
This Train                     by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Take The 'A' Train      by Duke Ellington
Good Morning Heartache        by Billie Holiday
etc . . .


This glorious winter weather

Snowy slopes, blue skies. Ignore what you read in the papers – most people are having a lovely break

by Simon Jenkins

The world is mad. Most Britons have, like me, just enjoyed the most glorious weather of the year. The western shores of the British Isles have seen a week of almost continuous sun, open horizons and star-filled nights. Freezing air has kept the early snow from melting. With brief exceptions, main roads have been open and supplies plentiful. An exquisite Christmas beckons, with snowy slopes and blues skies, a photographic negative from the usual greens and greys.

So what is the Britain we have read about in the papers and watched on the news, one of relentless, total misery? It must be one that is enmeshed in London and can't stay still. It is a metropolis of the damned, hyper-mobile, frantically trying to get into or away from itself, stranded in motorways and on railway platforms, entombed in detention centres that claim to be airports. The inhabitants all incant, "I was only trying to get away for Christmas", to a chorus of "When is the government going to do something?" An aviation company was even quoted as claiming it was Whitehall's job to keep it supplied with de-icing equipment.

The Heathrow airport boss, Colin Matthews, even said he would "give up [his] bonus" because of the snow. Most travellers could not care less about his bonus: they want a plane. As for the bonus, the truth is out. It is apparently no longer a reward for exceptional achievement. It is standard remuneration on top of salary, at risk only if it snows and is considered a risk to public relations.

Philip Hammond has been browbeaten by sufferers from acute seasonal mobility disorder, and by their media cheerleaders. It would be gratifying if, just once, a transport secretary had the nerve to stand up and tell everyone that when the weather is bad it is a good idea to leave their cars in the garage, tear up their rail passes, forget Marbella and tuck up at home with a good book. They should see their loved ones some other time. Normality cannot be guaranteed.

Simon's taken a heavy panning for this article on CiF, and of course for most people the snow and ice have been a massive inconvenience and often dangerous. However, it's good to get a half-full view of the effects of the winter weather. For many of us the snowy landscapes and cityscapes ARE beautiful - if we only have time to walk, and stand, and stare.

Maybe more people ought to re-think the wisdom of travelling during the winter, and reconsider the benefits of just staying at home. Maybe people ought to invest in better clothing, better boots, and some bags of grit. Maybe people ought to plan for snow and ice, instead of just hoping there won't be any. Maybe the people who run airports and railways and buses and ambulance services ought to re-think their priorities and do some proper contingency planning. Maybe we all should re-think our attitude to the elderly and the disabled and the housebound. Maybe we should all re-think what we do in our homes and our families, and re-think how we spend our time together. Or our time apart.


Heathrow's chaos is indicative of a wider national malaise

We have the oddest and most regressive constitution for private ownership anywhere in western capitalism

by Will Hutton

It was not Heathrow's finest hour. The pain was there to see in the pictures of thousands of passengers delayed without information, left to camp for hours on inhospitable floors. Less visible were many thousands of others, like some friends of mine, who, courtesy of the internet and the closure of Heathrow's slip roads, thankfully never made it to the airport at all. The freakishly heavy snowfall would have disrupted any world airport, but not for as long as Heathrow, which was still suffering acute delays three or four days later.

The country has never seriously debated what good ownership of assets might constitute – whether by a football club or a public company. Instead, the response to the social and economic irresponsibility of some private ownership has been to call for nationalisation and public ownership, while the response to the waste and lack of innovation of some public ownership has been to call for private ownership. There has been too little attempt to think through what the constitution and process of ownership might be that would create great owners, whether in the public or private sector, or among the many other forms of ownership, ranging from partnership to co-operatives.

Instead, with the rise of the neoconservative right, there has just been the unquestioning assumption that the best form of ownership is private; in Britain, that necessarily means our idiosyncratic variant of the public limited company. This represents the oddest and most regressive constitution for private ownership anywhere in western capitalism. British company law makes no requirement on shareholders and directors to have any obligation to be good stewards of their assets, their employees or their customers. Shareholders' rights to do what they want with their shares to maximise their immediate value is more stark than anywhere else and directors' responsibilities are only to serve the interests of these madly unconstrained shareholders.

The debacle at Heathrow is one consequence of this insouciance, but the wreckage stretches across the economic landscape. British companies think, strategise, innovate and invest their way to success far less than their competitors in different ownership regimes. They know the penalty for one wrong move is to be taken over as responsibility-free shareholders sell out to some opportunistic predator advised by London's network of lawyers, accountants and investment bankers who grow fat on the lush fees.

No other capitalist economy organises its affairs in this way. When British Airports Authority was privatised in 1986 – with the not unreasonable aim of making it more innovative and freeing it from the stultifying anti-investment rules of the Treasury – there was no creative thought about what constitution of ownership would be the best for an airport. The Americans require their airports to be owned by, not for, companies whose constitution obliges the owners and managers to put the public interest of efficient and comfortable travel first. In Britain, the issue was not even aired. BAA was simply to become a British public limited company, whose sole objective would be profit maximisation.

This self-serving ideology is betraying Britain. The public limited company is a remarkable institution. Incorporation allows the sharing of risk by many providers of private savings. In return for incorporation, the company receives the licence to trade and to make profits as long as it observes the law of the land. The public company is the great engine of capitalist growth. But the constitution of the company matters. Shareholders and directors can be required to take interests into account other than their own immediate profits. Other countries do this and prosper. Not the British.

The lesson is that ownership counts, a view that as disaster piles on disaster is at last gaining some transaction. I chair the recently established Ownership Commission to investigate how better ownership might be achieved, from both introducing mutuality and co-operatives into the public sector to potential revisions in company law for public companies. It reports next autumn. The subject matter is not just technical stuff. This Christmas, there will be people who are not with those they love thanks to BAA's priorities. Good ownership matters very much indeed and Britain has too little of it.


Michael Gove is betraying our children yet again

The decision to stop funding Bookstart, with its free books for the young, is unnecessarily cruel

    * Editorial
    * The Observer, Sunday 26 December 2010 

For most book lovers, the affair starts early and the earlier the introduction is made, the deeper the affection. The benefits of parents reading to their children, as a bonding experience and as a step on the road to literacy, are well documented. Promoting that activity was the founding purpose of Bookstart, the government-sponsored programme which gives starter packs of literature to every child in the country.

The scheme is run by an independent charity, Booktrust, but it depends on a £13m government grant. The trust says that, with the support of the publishing industry, it gets £4 pounds in value for every £1 it receives in public money. It was announced last week that, as of next year, Booktrust will get nothing.

The arguments for austerity are well rehearsed. The money to reduce the deficit has to come from somewhere. A soft target for cuts is presented by this relatively new service, which has yet to embed itself in the nation's consciousness as a cherished institution. It surely would, if allowed to continue. The coalition is, in theory, committed to investment in early years development. Ministers lose no opportunity to express their determination to give children from all backgrounds the best start in life. But they have clearly decided that giving out books is an inefficient way to achieve that goal.

It is impossible to know what return the state might be getting on its investment in Booktrust. The system hasn't been running long enough to tell whether the beneficiaries are more literate than they otherwise might have been, or whether they have more vivid imaginations, or whether they love books more. Only a minister inspired by Thomas Gradgrind, the crudely utilitarian headmaster in Dickens's Hard Times, would attempt such a calculation.

In fact, the decision to axe Bookstart over Christmas suggests education secretary Michael Gove gets his inspiration from a different Dickens character… Free books for children? Humbug!


Monday, December 27, 2010

Layer 410 . . . Furious Writers, Free Books, Education, Diana Athill, More Burlesque, Buzz Words, and Saving The Daily Show

The batters have continued the good work from where the bowlers and the openers left off. Trott is back in the groove, with another big century. First innings lead is approaching 400 with only 5 wickets down. There are still three days to go. And Ponting has lost his rag.


The Boxing Day edition of The Observer carried several good articles and features.

Writers furious at plan to axe free books scheme for children

Philip Pullman, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McEwan and Sir Andrew Motion round on decision to slash £13m government grant to the Booktrust charity

Britain's poet laureate has accused the government of behaving like "scrooge at his worst" after ministers decided to axe all funding for a free book scheme that benefits 3.3 million youngsters a year.

Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed poet laureate in 2009, leads a series of writers who have attacked the decision to cut all government funding for the Booktrust charity which provides free books for children from the age of nine months until their first term of secondary school when they are 11.

Duffy said: "Support for Bookstart is support for the dreams and imaginations and futures of British children. To withdraw that support is to behave like Scrooge at his worst. Here's hoping the powers- that- be see the light in tiime, as he did."

Children's author Philip Pullman attacked the move as an "unforgivable disgrace", while the former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion described the cut as "an act of gross cultural vandalism".

These uncompromising views were echoed by Viv Bird, chief executive of the Booktrust charity, who said she was "astounded and appalled" when told all government support for their work was going to be scrapped. "There was no dialogue. It was completely devastating," she said.

The reaction by authors to Gove's latest move has been furious. "It's like seeing someone smashing aside a butterfly with the back of their hand: wanton destruction," said Pullman. "Sheer stupid vandalism, like smashing champagne bottles as a drunken undergraduate. It doesn't matter: someone else will clear it up. Well, if you miss the first years of a child's development, nothing can clear it up. It's gone. It won't happen. A whole generation will lose out."

Referring to the charity's early years programme aimed at babies, he said: "Bookstart is one of the most imaginative and generous schemes ever conceived. To put a gift of books into the hands of newborn children and their parents is to help open the door into the great treasury of reading, which is the inheritance of every one of us, and the only road to improvement and development and intellectual delight in every field of life."

Motion backed these words: "The decision to scrap Bookstart is an act of gross cultural vandalism. For the last 20-odd years the scheme has successfully introduced an enormous number of young people to both the pleasure and the necessity of reading and has been of tremendous benefit in the drive towards literacy. Very well organised, and very well run by Booktrust, it has become a national institution, and the envy of the world [24 other countries now run a similar scheme].

"The savings made by its abolition will be negligible; the damage done will be immense," Motion added.


Diana Athill is still a rebel at 93, and ready to take on the Archbishop of Canterbury about God

During her special edition of the Radio 4 flagship news programme, she will be discussing infidelity and challenging the notion of religious faith in a prerecorded interview with none other than the archbishop of Canterbury.

Athill, a fearless champion of the right to live outside accepted moral codes, rejects the idea that we need a belief system as a guide or as an emotional crutch.

When, in the last decade, Athill published a series of provocative memoirs, she became a phenomenon in the book industry by tackling questions of age, morality, faith and sex at such a late stage in her career. "In Italy, they have published six editions of my book, Somewhere Towards the End. They have sold 20,000 and I suppose when I think about it the Italians are very fond of their old people."

Perhaps Athill is a natural subversive, and so makes a good radio interviewer?

"In so many families there is one person who is a questioner, I think," says Athill. "My brother and my sister, of whom I am very fond, both follow the family line. They still go to church, for example. I liked my parents, though, and I didn't want to violently rebel, so I went underground."

Athill's edition of Today will launch blithely into another taboo area: infidelity. "I have written a little piece about it I think they will use, although I do feel there is too much emphasis on sexual fidelity."

Athill will argue that there are two kinds of physical betrayal: the "awful" kind that marks a breakdown in a relationship, and the second kind, an unfaithful act that takes place when someone, "usually the man", succumbs to a little temptation.

"To mistake the second betrayal for the first is madness, because a marriage is far more important than that," she says.

The problem, she adds, is that women feel their value depends on it. "They are often really collapsed by it." Her own long, loving relationship with poet Barry Reckford notoriously involved a period of ménage à trois when he moved a younger woman into their Hampstead home.

Writing, she has found, is an obsession that can make relationships difficult. "It is about having a strong addiction to something that is so important to you. It can become more important than your wife or partner. For me, it was different: perhaps from having a long discipline of being a handmaiden to other writers, or perhaps because of the way Barry and I were together. Not possessive at all."

It might well look as if Athill's world has shrunk down in old age to the size of the room in which she lives and the garden she looks out on, bemoaning a drop in the bird population that she has detected. Yet her world is still as wide as human thought, encompassing all that books continue to give her.


It's Barbara Ellen's turn to wade in about burlesque.

This sub-porn for ladeez is not my idea of erotica

The movie Burlesque is a watered-down, weedy attempt to make stripping acceptable to women

In the film, Burlesque, Christina Aguilera plays a small-town girl with a dream. "I just wanna sing wearing slutty knickers!" Actually she doesn't say this, but she may as well have done.

. . . basques, pants, boas, leatherette, doffed sparkly bowler hats, and tapped canes. A queasy mix of Showgirls meets Seaside Special.

Shocking. But not in the way you'd think. Burlesque isn't a convention-defying movie about freedom, destiny, art; it is a boring movie about how nice your pants are.

The theme of "Cor, underwear!" was so strong I sat in the cinema feeling like a teenage boy furtively perusing the bra section of his mum's Kays catalogue.

I once spoke to renowned burlesque star Dita Von Teese, a doll-like beauty with flashing intelligent eyes. She told me that . . . burlesque was just stripping, and people who claimed otherwise were in denial.

This seems to be the true burlesque – clever creative strippers who got so good at putting a twist on what they do they turned it into an art form.

Yet in recent years burlesque seems to have fallen into the wrong hands, become restyled as sex with the safety brakes on, watered-down erotica that even women, Stephen Fry's pathetic sex-hating fools, can handle.

On the plus side, this has led to much nicer "burlesque-style" underwear, even in M&S. On the minus, it led to the kind of stripping a guy can get away with watching with workmates because: "It's not stripping, it's burlesque innit?" Hey, its so sanitised they can even take the little lady along.

Is this the real difference between stripping and burlesque – stripping is more honest? Men can't usually con their women into accepting stripping as an evening's entertainment the way they can with burlesque.

However, men can't be blamed for this. The most offensive thing about the movie Burlesque was how obviously this tedious feeble sub-pornographic baloney was aimed straight at the "ladeez". I simply don't think men would lower themselves going to the cinema for a 12A-rated peek at Xtina grinding and hair tossing in the style of Miss Piggy on heat.

Men wouldn't waste their time. The ones who are into porn have always stuck to their guns on this issue – they like the genuinely dirty stuff and that's that. You can't talk them out of it. It's not as if the internet has been getting any cleaner over the years.

Therefore the lukewarm weed-porn of something such as Burlesque must be aimed directly at women. And you wonder: how did women get so welded to this idea of sex as a fashion opportunity? How did they allow themselves to get conned?

The scratchy basques and tragic bowler hats of mainstream watered-down burlesque don't seem to be about female desire, or even male desire, rather female pleading and bartering for male desire. It makes Mr Fry look like he got it right.


I like this humorous piece:

The buzz words of 2010 explained

Every year sees new words coined and old ones gain new meanings. Rafael Behr decodes some of the key terms of 2010


I'm distraught to hear that The Daily Show will no longer be shown daily on More4:

Give us back this day our Daily Show

The decision to drop Jon Stewart's show is a huge loss for all those who treasure proper television

by Sarfraz Mansoor

The Daily Show, my favourite TV programme, is being taken off the air. More4 has announced it would no longer broadcast it every night; instead, it would run a weekly round-up edition.

The Daily Show is essential viewing not just because it is funny but because it often does journalism better than the mainstream news media it so effectively skewers. The show brilliantly dismantles the absurdity of 24-hour rolling news.

In Jon Stewart The Daily Show has an anchor who has become a figurehead for those in the reasonable centre whose opinions are often drowned out in the polarised world of Fox and MSNBC. I find it bewildering that More4, where you are never more than 30 minutes from property porn, wants to ditch a show with such a strong international reputation. President Obama, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have all appeared, a sign of how important it is to the political classes.

The justification More4 gives is that The Daily Show only attracts an audience of around 80,000 – the audience might be small but it is devoted.

I am desperately hoping that some other broadcaster will swoop in and save The Daily Show. It's hard to imagine 2011 without it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Layer 409 . . . Boxing Day, Prague, Christianity, Jesus, Cricket, Sandie Shaw, Rowan Williams and Fair Shares of the Burden

Bit of a strange Boxing Day morning for me.

First of all a pre-dawn phone call from Brother B on Skype, already ensconced at the pool side at the Hotel Splendide, on the slopes of Mount Kenya. As ever I'm not at liberty to divulge the contents of private conversations, so let's just say the old boy's feeling as frisky as ever. A splendid example to us all.

Clicking on the radio I stumbled upon a church service being broadcast from Prague - a city I like very much. You have to admit - some of those Christmas tunes are very good. Carols sung by choirs can be very uplifting. Carols played by brass bands are good as well.

As for the rest - oh dear.

Those dreary bloody preachers. I found myself thinking - what if Jesus was a pretty funky guy? What if he had a sense of humour, and lots of joi de vivre? What if he liked to sing and dance and party? What then would he make of the dull, po-faced, dreary people who profess to act in his name?

It's not that these people don't sometimes say some worthwhile things about the state of the world - but then the other religions all do that as well, as do atheists.

No - I think Jesus might forgive the fact that people acting in his name have created world-wide multi-national corporations, based on the Christian franchise, but I think he'd be damned keen, if he returned, to show how his message ought to have been broadcast, and how organisations acting in his name ought to be run.

With flair. With imagination. With intelligence. With joy. With wit and panache.

In fact Jesus must be wringing his hands in despair at the kinds of people who claim authority and ownership of his message. The Pope, for one. All Christian fundamentalists. The happy clappy nutters. The cultists. The Irish Christian Brothers (and Sisters). The brain-dead conservatives who make every church service and every  funeral such an unbearably dull and frustrating experience.


Radio 5 Live Sports Extra was playing the Test Match commentary highlights on a loop, so I listened to it continuously for an hour or so. My oh my.

Boycott's first comment of the day was, "A draw will do this Test. I can't see how England are going to win this. And I'm supposed to know what I'm talking about. That's why I'm an expert."

Yes, Geoffrey.

When it was all over he said, " I'm so sad for Australia - there are tears running down my face . . . " Clearly a man - an expert indeed - who couldn't give a monkey's about being completely and utterly wrong. Especially after England had scored 157 runs for the loss of NO wickets.

It's undignified to gloat in these circumstances, so I'm going to make no mention of Australia's first innings total.


Continuing with the radio thing, Sandie Shaw was on Desert Island Discs. I can remember how popular she was back in the 60s, even though her singing style wasn't exactly . . . gripping - as far as I was concerned. Evidently she eventually decided for herself  that singing wasn't really her thing. First she became a Buddhist, which gave her 'courage'. Then she became a psychotherapist.

She ended her second marriage because she needed to find a 'spiritual companion' . . .


To be fair to Rowan Williams, the Archbish said some good things yesterday:

Rich must shoulder their fair share of the burden, says Rowan Williams

• Archbishop of Canterbury gives his Christmas Day sermon
• The Queen highlights sport as a way of building communities
• Pope Benedict urges Catholics in China to have hope

See this? Williams says something worthwhile and meaningful. The Queen drones on about the importance of sport. The Pope tells Chinese Roman Catholics (who they?) to have 'hope'. Please!

There is a "lasting sense" that the most prosperous in society have yet to shoulder their load in the economic downturn, the archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday.

In a rebuke to the rich in Britain, Rowan Williams used his Christmas Day sermon to stress the importance of people working together to rebuild confidence and trust. "That confidence isn't in huge supply at the moment, given the massive crises of trust that have shaken us all in the last couple of years and the lasting sense that the most prosperous have yet to shoulder their load."

Williams also warned of hardship ahead and its likely impact on society. "We can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out."

Worth taking a look at this for the mad rantings of a CiF poster called MACDONALDBANK.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Layer 408 . . . Christmas, Nordic Noir, Scandinavia, Crime Fiction, the Millenium Trilogy, Larsson, the Dragon Tattoo, Wallender, Existential Angst,The Pope and Thought For Today

I suppose it was quite an odd thing to be doing on Christmas Eve: watching a documentary called Nordic Noir, whose subject was Scandinavian crime fiction. However, since I seem to be one of very few people who have yet to either read the book or see the film of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I'm aware I'm missing out on quite a worldwide phenomenon - the Millenium Trilogy. It seems Stieg Larsson is just one of several Scandinavian authors of crime fiction who are well worth reading. This documentary, narrated by Mariella Frostrup, is well worth watching. I obviously have a lot of catching up to do. I haven't been watching the Wallander series either.

The programme was particularly good on the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, both journalists and both politically radical, met in 1961 while working for magazines published by the same company. They married the next year and the carefully planned crime series (essentially police procedurals), 10 books in 10 years, was written in the evenings, after their children had been put to bed.

[They apparently each wrote alternate chapters of each of their books.]

According to Wahlöö, their intention was to "use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type."

The Nordic countries seem similar to Scotland in many ways - various interviewees in the documentary talked about the 'cold, bleak, and dark winters', and the 'long, dark nights', that frequently lead to depression. There was an example given of someone who went to live in Sweden (or was it Finland?), found themselves becoming horribly depressed, and yet found the angst and depression lifted immediately when they returned to London. Which is interesting - since London itself can often be cold, gloomy and depressing. Perhaps not quite as 'dark, grim and difficult' as more northern climes.

Peter Høeg is a Danish writer of fiction who wrote an acclaimed book called 'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow'. "I feel more highly for snow than for love", says Høeg/Smilla. Interesting thought. I do admire Danish intelligence.

Karim Fossum, on the other hand, says of her (crime) books, "I'm really writing about death  - and how it affects us." We need more books about death and how it affects us.

Jo Nesbo - who comes across as quite hardboiled and sardonic , said,  "Norway was a very poor country that became a very rich country - thanks to the discovery of oil and gas. Money corrupted us, though many of us want to stay small and simply get by - by doing our own thing." Apparently his books ask questions about why so many people are nowadays so violent, and about what's happening to our increasingly affluent, corrupt and degenerate societies.

In an interview about the Wallender character the actor who plays him in the Swedish TV series draws an interesting parallel between being a 'good detective' and being a 'good professional' in other fields that are personally and emotionally demanding. He rightly makes the point that a good practitioner in any 'caring' profession works 'like an artist', using intuition and instinct.

Or at least they used to, before the era of targets, performance management, payment by results, bonuses, league tables, covering your back and looking after Number One - first and foremost. No room for that touchy-feely, self-sacrificing stuff these days. Deliver or die. I do hate that word deliver, in the context of professional practice.

The Swedish TV series of Wallander apparently explores ideas about professional self-sacrifice through episodes like the one where his daughter decides to become a police officer. Wallander is shaken because he understands just how much the job demands - and how it's almost inevitable that the side effects will be  'alcoholism and loneliness'. I know far too many good people who went at least some way down that road in their chosen profession.

When the daughter says she'll just quit if things get too rough, he replies, "Good cops don't quit! They allow themselves to be ground down! Without doing a thing to stop it . . . The job absorbs you . . . You don't even notice you're losing the people you love . . ."

How many good people do I know who've suffered relationship breakdowns, physical breakdowns or personal breakdowns . . .

"You end up with a world-weary disenchantment because of the things you witness . . . "

And so say all of us.

The tragic irony is that the superb young actress who played the role of Wallender's daughter committed suicide whilst still young. Maybe the world is too unbearable for sensitive and brilliant minds. But I wonder what happens if such people decide to set aside their own pain and angst and focus their lives on serving others and helping to make the  world a better place for others. Maybe this is what actually keeps the Wallanders of this world functioning, in a strange, lonely, alcoholic, ironic way.

World-wearyness and disenchantment might be the starting point for some careers, and not just the end point. Witness the increasing numbers of people who have given up on shit like banking in order to do something worthwhile with their lives.

Happy Christmas!


PS The Pope

Ratso was quite a catch for the Today programme yesterday - giving us the benefit of his wisdom and spiritual insight in the Thought For Today slot.

Oh Lord.

If we have to have Popes then I personally want them to sound Italian, or at least Mediterranean.  I definitely do not want a Pope whose accent resembles the cartoonish characters we used to know and hate in the old films about World War Two. Or even Basil Fawlty doing a German accent.

I need to make myself clear - I am not anti-German, though goodness knows plenty of my extended family have, or had, good reason to be. There are many things to admire in modern Germany, and in German history, since in many ways it's been a cradle of European civilisation. It has an amazing track record in philosophy, science, engineering, technology, invention, and manufacturing. It led the reaction against corrupt Roman Catholicism - German protestant thinking insisting that we can all have a direct, personal link with the metaphysical and spiritual, without any need for priestly channeling. Its version of social democracy has been far more enlightened than ours.  It's been the key player in the European Union.

Ratzinger, on the other hand, is the opposite of a progressive, enlightened leader. He's been a key figure in the cover-up of the child abuse scandals, and the decades-long refusal to give any ground on the use of condoms. So what does he now have to say?

Not much. The Messiah was a great leader. He brought liberation to humankind. He was the saviour of people throughout the world. [Mmmmm - even non-Christians?] He was born in poverty and obscurity and opened a path that leads to fulfillment in life. [Admittedly the Buddha was born an Indian prince and not a pauper, but didn't he do something similar?] God gives us hope, and brings us life. [Not me he doesn't - I get mine elsewhere.] May God bless you all.


Have a nice day.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Layer 408 . . . Winter Solstice, Julian Assange, John Pilger, Education, Spiritual Intelligence, Affluenza, Inequality, and Zen

It's the Winter Solstice, and a lunar eclipse. We couldn't see the eclipsed moon this morning, which seemed to be the actual point, really.


Julian Assange

Speaking on Radio 4 this morning Mr Assange said,

"Capable, generous people don't create victims; they try to prevent people becoming victims."

Very well said, Mr A.


John Pilger has been working hard to support Julian Assange. His new website is here:

The documentary he produced for television recently is still available here on the  website: 

Here are some key facts from the programme:

The killing of civilians is a war crime.

In WorldWar 1 just 10% of deaths were civilians.
In World War 2 they were 50%.
In Vietnam they were 80%
In Iraq they were 90%


This video, on the Guardian website, is well worth watching:

Jody McIntyre: 'What the government are trying to do is to widen the gap between the rich and the poor'

Activist Jody McIntyre on inequality, political process, and the student demonstrations


Thinking about inequality, Christmas, and Taoist philosophy, I had another look at Layer 74, which focuses on values, affluenza, and education. In particular it suggests we all buy and read Oliver James's book, 'Affluenza'. Will Self said this about it:

“Oliver James is our foremost chronicler of what ails us. Affluenza should be mandatory reading for everyone, but especially those in politics, business and the media who are intent on upping our society’s dosage of toxic affluence”.

Ideal for Christmas presents.


Thinking about Assange's statement, above, and the true spirit of Christmas, I think it might be worth thinking again about this passage from Layer 148:

I’ve reached the conclusion that in true Zen style it might be easier to describe what spiritual intelligence and enlightenment are NOT, rather than describe what they ARE.

They’re the absence of malice, spite, viciousness, violence, anger and hatred. The absence of racism, sexism, snobbery, elitism and other forms of prejudice and self-aggrandisement.

It’s the absence of greed, envy, jealousy, pettiness and unpleasantness. It’s the absence of exploitation, abuse and other forms of immoral behaviour.

Some of these things can be attributed to a lack of social and emotional intelligences, but through the grace of spiritual intelligence we see the need to work on our current levels of these other intelligences in order to raise them higher.

Through spiritual intelligence we aspire to make ourselves and our world a better place. We aspire to raise levels of wellbeing and enlightenment in ourselves, and crucially to assist in raising them for others, since in order to live well ourselves we need others to also live well.

As the story says, it was impossible for Siddartha to find contentment and happiness when he was aware of the sufferings of others. Through doing what we can to assist others to overcome ignorance, want and suffering we enjoy happiness and wellbeing ourselves as a kind of by-product.


And let's keep in mind this is where we're all heading, hopefully:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Layer 407 . . . Citizens of Poverty, Washington DC, Chairman Cameron, Cuts, Reforming Zeal, Students, Trade Unions, Len McClusky, Unite, and Charlie Brooker


Symbols of democracy, pinned up against the coast
Outhouse of bureaucracy, surrounded by a moat
Citizens of poverty are barely out of sight
Overlords escape in the evening with people of the night
Morning brings the tourists, peering eyes and rubber necks
To catch a glimpse of the cowboy making the world a nervous wreck
It’s a mass of irony for all the world to see
It’s the nation’s capital, it’s Washington D.C.,_D.C.

Gil Scott-Heron wrote this back in the days when Reagan was president. In those days it was inconceivable that a man or woman of colour could become president of the USA. So things have really changed in America, in Washington DC? Hell NO!

Listen to this excellent report on Radio 4, and ask why nothing changes.

In fact things get worse. Working class people in the city are even less able to live there these days. America is governed  by the rich, (supported by the middle class), for the benefit of the rich, (and the middle class). Any notion of social justice and reduction of inequality is completely out the window.

And let's not get smug about it in Britain, in London. But at least we still have some social housing, some decent public healthcare, some decent public schools. It remains to be seen how quickly this government can bring about irreversible change. They've given themselves till 2015, and are cracking on at a hell of a rate. See below.


Chairman Cameron's regime is not a million miles from Mao

Anywhere you look in Whitehall, there's a secretary of state unleashing upheaval with reforming zeal

by Andrew Rawnsley


Can anyone actually DO anything to prevent the neo-conservatives and the government from succeeding in their schemes?

Unions, get set for battle

We must join students in a broad strike movement to combat attempts to strangle the welfare state

by Len McCluskey

Britain's students have certainly put the trade union movement on the spot. Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach.

We know the vast rise in tuition fees is only the down payment on the Con-Dem package of cuts, charges and job losses to make us pay for the bankers' crisis. The magnificent students' movement urgently needs to find a wider echo if the government is to be stopped.

The response of trade unions will now be critical. While it is easy to dismiss "general strike now" rhetoric from the usual quarters, we have to be preparing for battle. It is our responsibility not just to our members but to the wider society that we defend our welfare state and our industrial future against this unprecedented assault.

Early in the new year the TUC will be holding a special meeting to discuss co-ordinated industrial action and to analyse the possibilities and opportunities for a broad strike movement.

The bigger issue is winning working people to the conviction that the cuts can be stopped. It is vital to rebuild working-class confidence.

Unless people are convinced . . . that there is a coherent alternative to the Cameron-Clegg class war austerity, then getting millions into action will remain a pipedream. That alternative needs to be one the whole movement can unite around. A key part must be a rejection of the need for cuts. "What do we want? Fewer cuts later on", is not a slogan to set the blood coursing.

I would argue there is no case for cuts at all: the austerity frenzy has been whipped up for explicitly ideological reasons – to provide the excuse for what the Tories would have loved to do anyway, completing Thatcherism's unfinished business by strangling the welfare state. If the deficit is seen as a problem – it is not high by either historical or contemporary standards – a positive growth and tax-justice programme should be the main means of addressing it.

Kettling, batoning and mounted charges against teenagers have no place in our society.

And we should work closely with our communities bearing the brunt of the onslaught. That is why Unite has agreed to support the broad Coalition of Resistance established last month, which brings together unions and local anti-cuts campaigns from across the country.

The TUC's demonstration on 26 March will be a critical landmark in developing our resistance, giving trade union members the confidence to take strike action in defence of jobs and services. These are Con-Dem cuts, and this is a capitalist crisis. An attempt to blame Labour local authorities for the problem is a shortcut to splitting our movement and letting the government off the hook.

That doesn't mean Labour councils should get off free. There are, alas, Labour councillors embarking on union-bashing under cover of cuts, something we won't tolerate. Labour needs to understand that any social alternative to the present misery needs strong trade unions. And this is the moment when we have to prove ourselves.


Unions warn of massive wave of strikes

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey vows to work with students to fight government's austerity agenda

The UK faces the prospect of widespread and co-ordinated industrial action in the new year, with the leader of the largest trade union today warning that it is "preparing for battle" with the government over its "unprecedented assault" on the welfare state.

The Unite leader's intervention comes as the prime minister is preparing for a key meeting with union leaders today. David Cameron has invited leaders of the biggest unions in the country as well as the TUC for Downing Street talks, although a spokesman for No 10 would not confirm this last night.

McCluskey is believed to be among those invited, but in a hard-hitting intervention in today's Guardian that puts Unite and its members at the forefront of the anti-cuts campaign he:

• Praised Ed Miliband for drawing a line under the party's Blairite past but called for a clearer alternative to the coalition's "austerity frenzy".

• Said student protesters have been treated as the "enemy within" in a similar way to trade union activists on picket lines in the 1970s and 1980s.

• Criticised police tactics of "kettling, batoning and mounted charges" on recent demonstrations.

• Said the trade union movement must not be paralysed by "anti-union laws" introduced in the 1980s.

• Called for a rebuilding of confidence in working-class communities that are likely to be the hardest hit by the government's plans.

• Accused the Tories of whipping up "austerity frenzy" in an attempt to complete "Thatcherism's unfinished business".

McCluskey's comments come amid a growing anti-cuts movement in the UK and across Europe, with strikes taking place in France, Spain and Greece.

In the UK this weekend protesters against corporate tax avoidance staged demonstrations in more than 50 towns and cities – under the banner of online campaign group UKuncut – arguing a government clampdown could bring in an extra £25bn in tax, greatly reducing the need for spending cuts.

Student leaders, who have organised four national demonstrations and scores of sit-ins to protest about the rise in tuition fees and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, are already preparing a fresh wave of protests and demonstrations in the new year.

McCluskey said the meeting in January had been organised by the TUC and would be attended by leaders of the UK's main unions. He said one of the first tasks was to "reach out" to the student protesters.


For something a little lighter, try today's Charlie Brooker column:

How to cut tuition fees

We should teach only the useful stuff: scavenging, strangling and how to operate a water cannon

And if this doesn't start a proper debate about what education is actually FOR, then I don't know what will.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Layer 406 . . . Comic Genius, The Two Nicks, Cliff, Bill Bailey, Ross Noble, Bruce, Student Activists, Syndicalists, Anarchists, and Revolting LibDems

Lawks - a whole programme on Cliff Richard on BBC1. Something to avoid, surely?

In fact it was a very well made documentary - well shot, well edited, good interviews, etc. And the man, regardless of what anyone thinks about his music and his Christianity, is interesting. For a start - 70 years old and still sounding young; only more confident, more relaxed, more articulate.

I'd no idea he'd lived in India for so many years before coming to England, and no idea his parents had both been born in India and had lived there for their entire lives before moving to England. None of the family had even visited Britain before moving their home to this country.

He talked about discovering rock n roll, and his love of those first great performers - Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers . . .

I hadn't realised he'd left school at 16 and went to work in the same factory as his dad, or that his family were 'dirt poor' and lived in a council house.

You have to admire his continuing joie de vivre, his openness, his quiet sense of humour, his quiet convictions, his obviously spiritually intelligent approach to life. Just don't listen to his saccharine music. He talks far better than he sings.

The best part of the programme was listening to him describe how, when he was quite young, he'd run into his parents' bedroom one day and found his dad 'on all fours - praying'.

No, Cliff. That wasn't praying.



The Springsteen documentary that was shown on TV last week was a superb piece of work. The key idea that came out of it, for me, was that Bruce and the E Street Band really grew up together during the three years they were writing and recording the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. They developed a 'ferocity' in their attitude and their performances, and "took no prisoners". They also developed a vision of NOW - a feeling about how to live life in the present moment, to avoid looking forward too much or backward too much, to enjoy every day to the full, and to be authentically themselves - with no compromises for the sake of becoming more popular or selling more records. Truly a Zen band.


I came across a newly refurbished pub the other day that had pretentions to being a bit of a gastrobar. It had quite a good menu too. However, it listed these items -

Ploughman's with cheese or brie (!!!)
locally sauced fish  (it was on the coast)
baked potato with tuan
garlic bead

Now, call me a pedant but . . .  Is the proprietor someone who
i) can't spell
ii) doesn't check the spelling and grammar of people who are paid to produce the menus
iii) makes mistakes even his friends dare not point out to him
iv) is such a creep that no-one would bother to help him correct his mistakes
v) is all or several of the above


Ross Noble
Ross Noble was on the Merton and Hislop show this week, and managed to be effortlessly the funniest person in a brilliantly talented group of people. Even Merton was giggling at Noble's improvisations. Time to make an effort next year to get out and see at least one of his live shows.
The best of his raps for me was sounding off about politicians appearing on light entertainment programmes such as Strictly Come Prancing. He imagined himself being the MC on the show and leading people like Ann Widdecombe and Vince Cable out of  the studio and into the street, and shoving them into a skip. 

"Politicians - Do your job, or get in a skip!"


More Comic Genius
QI had a stellar group of panellists this week - Bill Bailey, Rob Brydon, Rich Hall and Alan Davies. These are all fantastically able and funny individuals, and must-see performers. National treasures, indeed. (Rich is an honorary Brit.)

The Guardian printed a feature article on Bill Bailey yesterday:

Bill Bailey: 'It's genius, evil genius'

Bill Bailey has been described as the world's seventh greatest comedian. But he's a lot better than that. Who else could make inverse femtobarns (look it up) funny?

Bailey's current show is more overtly political than hitherto.

"I thought supporting Labour and being leftwing is an outlook on life. It's wider than politics. That kind of life was, and is, being eroded. Somehow the Tories have deflected the righteous anger at the bankers who we bailed out. The Tories manage to take that outrage and direct it at benefit claimants. It's genius. Evil genius."

He has been a keen supporter of students protesting against the rise in tuition fees, tweeting his backing to student sit-ins. "It's the spirit of the 60s. Fair play to them. That's the time to do it – when you're a student and filled with unshakeable conviction. I'm desperately envious of that. One of the lines in my show is that I'm envious of certainty."

Susanne Moore certainly nails her colours to her mast.

Anarchy rules! But it's about a lot more than just lobbing things at police

It's more often used now as a jibe against someone who throws something at a protest, but anarchism has a long, complex history, and it's never really gone away

Just for once, I am quite "on trend" with this anarchy lark. Someone called me an anarchist when I stood as an independent candidate in the last general election. As though that is a bad thing. Now it's all the rage.

So these are heady days for those, such as myself, who are attached to the cause. Not, of course, that we will agree on exactly what that cause is. The word anarchist has become lazy shorthand for anyone who wants to bring about disorder and upheaval. But an anarchist is really somebody who advocates the abolition of government and wants a social system based on voluntary co-operation. To be for mutualism or syndicalism these days is to want the moon on a stick. It is to be hopelessly deluded or romantic. Maybe. But that's still better than being Eric Pickles.

I find myself entranced by anarchists again. I don't mean by the idiot thugs. I mean by hearing again lovely utopian fantasies.

Anarchism has a long and proud history, a complex and symbiotic relationship with Marxism, and has been an important international movement. The splits within it and away from traditional and centralising parties of the left have meant it has had very different incarnations in different parts of the world, from Spain to Bangladesh; from Kropotkin to Proudhon, Bakunin to Emma Goldman, from Noam Chomsky to Jello Biafra, anarchism has never gone away.

To have this complex movement – which, at heart, is about total redistribution of power – reduced to little more than a jibe at someone who throws something at a policeman is a travesty. The more political parties merge into one seamless entity, the more we are told that there is no more money, that there is no alternative, the more we need to be reminded that there is. The paradox for anarchist groups is always how to take power without becoming an anti-democratic and hierarchical operation.

This new generation is using the old anarchist methods of direct action, civil disobedience, graffiti and sabotage, but with thrilling expertise and brilliant uses of technology. Still, the anarchist vision of a leaderless society with no bosses, of real as opposed to virtual freedom, runs counter to the sometimes blind allegiance to the Wikicult.

The measured "good sense" of the main parties cannot capture the mood of those weird "anarchists" who flashmob and bizarrely insist that huge businesses should pay their taxes. These cases are so manifestly unjust, yet it is ordinary people, not governments, now piling on pressure. It is direct action that focuses on injustice. Such movements may crash and burn, but don't forget, anarchists have protested globally for a very long time, and have been at the forefront of the green and feminist movements.

Indeed, my favourite placard of the recent "unrest" read "Does my society look big in this?"

A friend sent me this wonderful piece of expert analysis on the Irish political and financial crisis:

An Irishman Abroad


Desert Island Discs

His most famous creations are Wallace and Gromit. The world they inhabit is one of Jacobs cream crackers and tea-strainers - so it's little surprise that in real life too Nick Park's own creature comforts are modest: "The thing is, I have everything I want really. I've got my little house, I've got a campervan, I love the British countryside, I'm not after yachts or things like that."

What a strange guy Nick Park turns out to be. Your heart sinks with his first choice of record - Cockney Rebel.

But then he comes up with Neil Young for his second.

I agree with Nick (!) that Elvis Costello is a poet who writes 'clever words' , but he's NOT a good singer or performer.

And then The Proclaimers. Bloody Hell. Say no more.

John Shuttleworth. Sigh.

Give up at this point.

And then he chooses Bob Dylan! "Another poet - fantastic words . . . "
Not only that, he goes for  "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" from Blonde on Blonde. An incredible track that fills a whole side of vinyl. A very enlightened choice.

And then Van Morrison, from Poetic Champions Compose, "I Forgot That Love Existed". Possibly Van's best-ever album, and best-ever track. Amazing instrumental bits. Great rhythm. Spine-tinglingly good.

Nick chose this one as his favourite.


For the sake of balance, on the subject of burlesque, on which plenty has recently been published, here's an interesting piece from the Guardian:

This jiggle-fest has nothing to do with sex or power

As a former burlesque dancer, a new film about the artform confirms to me how it has now been reduced to glib titillation


Roy Hattersley, as usual, writes good sense on the big issues:

Radical Lib Dems must revolt – or lose everything
I can forgive Nick Clegg, but if none of his MPs rebel against the coalition the party will suffer badly
Nick Clegg's position should be understood and forgiven. He is instinctively a conservative, and he should not be blamed for following his heart and head. It is the so-called progressives who have betrayed what they once insisted were their principles. A half-hearted revolt over student fees is not enough to salvage their reputation. Nor is Simon Hughes's occasional grand-standing about coalition policies that he never actually opposes. No Lib Dem who was offered a place in the government declined to serve. No groups have been formed within the party to oppose the coalition in principle. Danny Alexander is the boy who stands on George Osborne's burning deck and Vince Cable is the self-appointed captain of David Cameron's praetorian guard.

If there is a referendum on AV, I shall vote in favour. But if Lib Dems continue to kiss the lash of Tory domination – salivating with gratitude whenever Cameron throws them a bone – they will alienate so many Labour supporters that the chance of starting the programme of electoral reform will be lost. So will the Lib Dems' hope of playing a significant part in the next general election.

All that then remains will be a choice between the alternative routes to oblivion that Clegg has charted – absorption into the Conservative party or independent annihilation when Labour tells the floating voter, "If you want a Tory government, vote Liberal Democrat". I persist in the belief there are still real radicals in the Lib Dem ranks. And I do not want them to be swept away. I want Labour to work with them and I will argue that the door to co-operation must be kept open for when the time comes to form a new government.

But the Labour party has to be convinced that partnership is the right way forward. The creating of an ecumenical majority depends on the emergence of positive evidence that some Lib Dems also want to create a progressive alliance. For the sake of their own future, the Lib Dems are in desperate need of a serious and sustained revolt.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Layer 405 . . . Ivory Towers, Universities, Tuition Fees, Eagleton's Eye, Enlightenment, Academia and the Status Quo

Professor Terry Eagleton wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday, which attracted some excellent comments, as well as the usual less enlightened stuff. Lots of trolls, neanderthals and loonies too, needless to say.

The death of universities

Academia has become a servant of the status quo. Its malaise runs so much deeper than tuition fees

The gist of his piece is that we need the humanities to be taught in universities because the study of the humanities can make us better people who can help create a better world.

But think about it. You can set up ivory towers and call them universities, and you can fill them with people who think about and talk about human values, but that doesn't mean those people will actually become fully evolved humans with a lifelong mission to pursue enlightenment and a build a better world for all of us.

Better for us to have universities than not to have them, but all the coalition is doing is extending New Labour's ideology of seeing universities as places where people fundamentally pursue selfish ends in terms of gaining academic awards that are meal tickets and passports to highly paid careers in the professions and the civil service. According to this utilitarian vision those who gain the passports ought to be prepared to pay the full cost of their gain - and there appears to be a kind of 'fairness' in that idea, especially if you also offer free university courses to those who come from the least well-off backgrounds.

If we really wish to build better and more egalitarian societies, and produce more enlightened individuals, we'd do well to rethink entirely how to go about it. Universities should still play a role, but the rethinking ought to start with questioning the whole purpose and aims of education, and how those aims are best achieved from the youngest ages and throughout life.

As things stand, if anyone really cares to open their mind and pursue their own learning agendas with a view to becoming a more enlightened individual they'd be better off visiting a good library, getting themselves access to the Internet, and linking up with others who have similar ideas. There's probably more chance of finding such like-minded souls outside of universities than inside them.

Well said ArthurHughClough, mwhouse, anax, remusp, sweetdelight, Mortlach, NapoleonKaramazov, HappyHistorian, and others.

We should get together one of these days. Maybe start our own party. Maybe the Guardian could arrange a seminar with Prof Eagleton. I'd chip in for refreshments.

Nice coincidence that this piece appeared the day after a blog about how young people might go about educating themselves, about ultimate values and purposes, and about Taoist philosophy - Layer 404.

Looking back, there's been a lot of blogs recently about education, enlightenment and related issues . . .

As I said to a friend recently, it's not that the politicians are thinking about education, as such. All they think about is what so-called education and academia can to for 'Britain's competitiveness'. Morons. As if Britain isn't better served by people who are enlightened, spiritually intelligent and creative, as well as having a great breadth of knowledge and critical thinking skills. Do our schools, colleges and universities cater for any of that? Really?

And as my friend said to me, they don't really think about education. They reckon that education is about preparing for adult life. Learning is about accessing careers. Thinking is not on the agenda. Enlightenment? They've even misinterpreted that into industrialisation and capitalism.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Layer 404 . . . Taoism, Yin Yang, In Our Time, Young People, Spiritual Intelligence, and Discovering The Way

Young People

You have to feel sorry for young people today. How are they supposed to make sense of a world so complex, so raucous, so treacherous?

There are something like 500 TV channels in the UK alone. Millions of books, hundreds of magazines, and a billion websites. How do they make sense of any of that? Where to start?

How do they figure out who they are, what they should do, what's worth aiming for? Whose voices are worth listening to? Where is there a reliable compass, and a decent map?

Is it worth going anywhere at all?


In Our Time   -   Radio 4

From the IOT website -

An ancient Chinese tradition of philosophy and religious belief, Daoism first appeared more than two thousand years ago. For centuries it was the most popular religion in China; in the West its religious aspects are not as well known as its practices, which include meditation and Feng Shui, and for its most celebrated text, the Daodejing. (Tao Te Ching)

The central aim in Daoism is to follow the 'Dao', a word which roughly translates as 'The Way'. Daoists believe in following life in its natural flow, what they refer to as an 'effortless action'. This transcendence can be linked to Buddhism, the Indian religion that came to China in the 2nd century BC and influenced Daoism - an exchange which went both ways. Daoism is closely related to, but has also at times conflicted with, the religion of the Chinese Imperial court, Confucianism.

The spirit world is of great significance in Daoism, and its hierarchy and power often take precedence over events and people in real life. But how did this ancient and complex religion come to be so influential?

From the programme:

Lao Tzu is the great sage of Taoism, and the author of the key text - the Tao Te Ching

Yin-yang is a key concept.

Taoism is a complex philosophy – not a religion

The Tao includes several concepts in one word:

    * the source of creation
    * the ultimate
    * the inexpressible and indefinable
    * the unnameable
    * the natural universe as a whole
    * the way of nature as a whole

The Tao means The Way, The Path.
The Way of Heaven, The Way of Nature, The Way the Universe operates.
It's more than just a moral code.
The fundamental pattern and harmony of the universe.

Taoism is known as The Watercourse Way since water moves from the heavens to earth, and then flows naturally across landscapes until it becomes part of the great ocean, and prepares to rise again to the heavens as vapour. At least that's MY take on it.

Actionless action is seen as the ideal way of living.

This final point, about 'actionless action', seems to me to be the key and the best test as to whether  'experts', like the guests involved in this programme, really do see through to the essence of Taoism and the notion of 'actionless action'.  The people on this programme failed to convey adequately the idea that it's all about discovering the true essence of oneself and then living in accord with it - which the true self can do instinctively, which is the real meaning of actionless action. Instinctive intelligence allows us to do things without conscious thought and action. But it can take a lot of hard work to develop instinctive intelligence if our upbringing has filled our head with a lot of rubbish that needs to be identified, discarded, and replaced with ideas and ways of living that are more appropriate and more enlightened.

Another key point, I believe, is that we can't act spontaneously and instinctively if we're living lives that are shackled by inappropriate professions and occupations, inappropriate religious beliefs, inappropriate fears and anxieties about punishments by 'gods', inappropriate relationships, inappropriate expectations of ourselves, etc. Finding our true, individual Tao is therefore essential to discovering the path that's appropriate for us as individuals - no matter how deviant, bizarre, off the wall, etc, that path might seem to others.


Previous blogs concerning Taoism, Zen and yin-yang philosophy:

Layer 138

Layer 139


These extracts are from elsewhere on the BBC website:

Taoism at a glance

Taoism is an ancient tradition of philosophy and religious belief that is deeply rooted in Chinese customs and worldview.

Taoism is also referred to as Daoism, which is a more accurate way of representing in English the sound of the Chinese word.

Taoism is about the Tao. This is usually translated as the Way. But it's hard to say exactly what this means. The Tao is the ultimate creative principle of the universe. All things are unified and connected in the Tao.

* Taoism originated in China 2000 years ago

* It is a religion of unity and opposites; Yin and Yang. The principle of Yin Yang sees the world as filled with complementary forces - action and non-action, light and dark, hot and cold, and so on

* The Tao is not God and is not worshipped. Taoism includes many deities, that are worshipped in Taoist temples, they are part of the universe and depend, like everything, on the Tao

 * Taoism promotes:
          o achieving harmony or union with nature
          o the pursuit of spiritual immortality
          o being 'virtuous' (but not ostentatiously so)
          o self-development
    * Taoist practices include:
          o meditation
          o feng shui
          o fortune telling (I Ching)
          o reading and chanting of scriptures

Before the Communist revolution fifty years ago, Taoism was one of the strongest religions in China. After a campaign to destroy non-Communist religion, however, the numbers significantly reduced, and it has become difficult to assess the statistical popularity of Taoism in the world.

The 2001 census recorded 3,500 Taoists in England and Wales.

This is also from the BBC website:

There is something fundamentally honest and psychologically healthy in being oneself and striding forward with one's vision facing directly ahead, instead of trying at every turn to satisfy abstract standards of goodness established by a reigning orthodoxy. This is what te/de is all about.    -         Professor Victor Mair

The One

The One is the essence of Tao, the essential energy of life, the possession of which enables things and beings to be truly themselves and in accord with the Tao.

Tzu Jan

Tzu Jan is usually translated naturalness or spontaneity, but this is rather misleading.

One writer suggests using the phrase 'that which is naturally so', meaning the condition that something will be in if it is permitted to exist and develop naturally and without interference or conflict.

The Taoist ideal is to fulfil that which is naturally so, and the way to do this is Wu Wei.

Wu Wei

The method of following the Tao is called Wu Wei. This can be translated as uncontrived action or natural non-intervention.

Wu Wei is sometimes translated as non-action, but this wrongly implies that nothing at all gets done. The Tao Te Ching says:

    When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

    Tao Te Ching

Wu Wei means living by or going along with the true nature of the world - or at least without obstructing the Tao - letting things take their natural course.

So Taoists live lives of balance and harmony. They find their way through life in the same way that a river flowing through the countryside finds its natural course.

    The world is a spiritual vessel, and one cannot act upon it;
    one who acts upon it destroys it.

    Tao Te Ching

This doesn't stop a person living a proactive life but their activities should fit into the natural pattern of the universe, and therefore need to be completely detached and disinterested and not ego-driven.

Perfect activity leaves no track behind it; perfect speech is like a jade worker whose tool leaves no mark.

    Tao Te Ching

And certainly pure Taoism requires individuals to live on the basis that the world is working properly, and that they therefore should not interfere with it.

Yin Yang

Yin Yang is the principle of natural and complementary forces, patterns and things that depend on one another and do not make sense on their own.

These may be masculine and feminine, but they could be darkness and light (which is closer to the original meaning of the dark and light sides of a hill), wet and dry or action and inaction.

These are opposites that fit together seamlessly and work in perfect harmony. You can see this by looking at the yin yang symbol.

The yin yang concept is not the same as Western dualism, because the two opposites are not at war, but in harmony.

This can be seen very clearly in the symbol: the dark area contains a spot of light, and vice versa, and the two opposites are intertwined and bound together within the unifying circle.

Yin and yang are not static, the balance ebbs and flows between them - this is implied in the flowing curve where they meet.


Ch'i or qi is the cosmic vital energy that enables beings to survive and links them to the universe as a whole.

Qi is the basic material of all that exists. It animates life and furnishes functional power of events. Qi is the root of the human body; its quality and movement determine human health. Qi can be discussed in terms of quantity, since having more means stronger metabolic function. This, however, does not mean that health is a byproduct of storing large quantities of qi. Rather, there is a normal or healthy amount of qi in every person, and health manifests in its balance and harmony, its moderation and smoothness of flow. This flow is envisioned in the texts as a complex system of waterways with the "Ocean of Qi" in the abdomen; rivers of qi flowing through the upper torso, arms, and legs; springs of qi reaching to the wrists and ankles; and wells of qi found in the fingers and toes. Even a small spot in this complex system can thus influence the whole, so that overall balance and smoothness are the general goal.

Human life is the accumulation of qi; death is its dispersal. After receiving a core potential of primordial qi at birth, people throughout life need to sustain it. They do so by drawing postnatal qi into the body from air and food, as well as from other people through sexual, emotional, and social interaction. But they also lose qi through breathing bad air, overburdening their bodies with food and drink, and getting involved in negative emotions and excessive sexual or social interactions.

  -  Livia Kohn, Health and Long Life: The Chinese Way


Immortality doesn't mean living for ever in the present physical body.

The idea is that as the Taoist draws closer and closer to nature throughout their life, death is just the final step in achieving complete unity with the universe.

Spiritual immortality, the goal of Daoism, raises the practices to a yet higher level. To attain it, people have to transform all their qi into primordial qi and proceed to refine it to subtler levels. This finer qi will eventually turn into pure spirit, with which practitioners increasingly identify to become transcendent spirit-people. The path that leads there involves intensive meditation and trance training as well as more radical forms of diet and other longevity practices. Immortality implies the overcoming of the natural tendencies of the body and its transformation into a different kind of qi-constellation. The result is a bypassing of death, so that the end of the body has no impact on the continuation of the spirit-person. In addition, practitioners attain supersensory powers and eventually gain residence in wondrous otherworldly paradises.

   - Livia Kohn, Health and Long Life: The Chinese Way

Knowledge and relativity

Human knowledge is always partial and affected by the standpoint of the person claiming that knowledge. There can never be a single true knowledge, merely the aggregate of uncountable different viewpoints.

Because the universe is always changing, so knowledge is always changing.

The closest a human being can get to this is knowledge that is consistent with the Tao. But this is a trap because the Tao that can be known is not the Tao. True knowledge cannot be known - but perhaps it can be understood or lived.

So there. They don't teach you this stuff in school.