Sunday, August 29, 2010

Layer 346 . . . Elgar, Pomp, Circumstance, Estates, Proms, Englishness, High Art, Ignorance, Culture, Duke Ellington and the Swing Thing

I love it when someone comes out and says that the reason why the majority of us don't enjoy  opera and classical music is because we don't 'understand' it. If there's one thing that cheers me up no end it's being patronised and spoken about pityingly. I do love a good ruck, and being treated as an ignoramus and a prat is a guaranteed way of getting me going on the subject of so-called high art versus low art, culture versus non-culture, proper music versus popular music.

Lynsey Handley, the Guardian's self-styled 'expert' on what it's like to live on a council estate (author of Estates: An Intimate History) is the latest to wade into the culture wars, and in so doing shows what a shallow and ridiculous young woman she really is.

Lynsey, naturally, no longer lives on a council estate, and it's unlikely she even lives in an inner-city area. I assume she now thinks she's joined the middle classes. So this is what she says:

Us and them is the cultural problem, not Pomp and Circumstance

The kind of elitism that leaves so many ignorant of Elgar reinforces social divisions

Lynsey, sweetie - you patronising young puppy: I'm not ignorant of Elgar - I just fucking hate Elgar. Having read this crappy article I tried again to listen to the Enigma Variations, Pomp and Circumstance, Jerusalem and even a bit of the Cello Concerto in E minor, and all it did was reinforce my ignorance that this is a load of dull, dreary, dry, deathly, life-diminishing, clapped-out, corny crap. But that's only my plebian working class sensibility speaking, obviously. If only I had enough intellect and cultural awareness to understand Elgar and all his works . . .

Hitler would probably have loved Elgar, but then again Hitler had Beethoven and Bach. And Wagner. Intelligent and cultured people seem to love Wagner. People like Stephen Fry - the current pin-up boy & icon of middlebrow Britain. Elgar might not have made it with Hitler.

I quite like bits of Beethoven and Bach. The Brandenburgs are OK by me, though I doubt I fully understand them. I can dig the odd fugue. Bach gives good organ. But I have to be in the right mood for such things, which, in the case of Elgar, seems to be a mood either patriotically pompous, depressed, or in the throes of actual mourning.

Middle class Brits seem to somehow convince themselves that they're listening to something that's quite 'spiritual', perhaps - probably because they've been taught that Elgar's music is 'spiritual' during their musical appreciation lessons at grammar school. Or maybe mummy and daddy were influential with their taste in music, and possibly they came from a long line of educated people who really do understand Elgar and co - who've made the annual pilgrimage to the Albert Hall and the Proms, etc. Fair enough.

In case anyone's interested, here's what Lynsey had to say:

A large proportion of Britain is culturally impoverished, with one-third of those surveyed never having listened to classical music and three-quarters unable to identify Edward Elgar as the composer of Pomp and Circumstance.

[Reader's Digest] magazine [another cultural icon that's about to disappear] was right to suggest that "uninspired teaching" and "alienation", brought about by elitist notions of who can enjoy classical music and who can't, have served to make people ignorant of large parts of their cultural heritage.

At present it feels like there's little useful communication between consumers of high culture and that third of Britain that has never listened to classical music – for reasons to do with mutual contempt, ignorance, and the accretion of privilege and disadvantage at opposite ends of the divide.

Fuck off, Lynsey. So I'm really, really disadvantaged, am I? It's a lot more complicated, and a lot more simple too, than you can possibly imagine. Elgar v Peter Green and electric blues? No contest. Life's too short to be wasted on Elgar.


Moving on to something more positive, there was a superb programme on BBC4 last night about the era of jazz and swing music - pre-rock and pre-pop. This is definitely worth catching up with on iPlayer. Also repeated tonight on BBC4 at 23.10.

The Swing Thing

Documentary telling the story of swing, an obscure form of jazz that became the first worldwide pop phenomenon, inspired the first ever youth culture revolution and became a byword for sexual liberation and teenage excess well before the Swinging Sixties.

In the process, swing threw up some of the greatest names in 20th century music, from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. The film uses archive and contemporary accounts to shed light on why it endures today.

It was Duke Ellington who said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." The programme also had some great footage of Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Cab Calloway, etc. Strange there were no references to Louis Jordan, though.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Layer 345 . . . Devo, Zapatistas, Naomi Klein, Marcos, Joumana Haddad, More Football and No More Forgetting

"When up or down, light and dark, progression and regression are viewed not as opposites, but as contraries, different manifestations of the same basic energies, then devolution becomes not only possible, but viable."

The name "Devo" comes "from their concept of 'de-evolution' - the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society. - Wikipedia

I'm not sure why I started looking into Devo's musical history - I think it was because of a half-heard snippet on the radio recently. They're a weird bunch, Devo. Can't argue too much with their philosophy though. The very idea of bands having something coherent to say about life, the universe and everything, some sort of challenging philosophy, is pretty unusual these days, apart from odd exception such as Manu Chao.

Devo reckon that most people live in a state of constant anxiety, possibly even fear. This is part of the reason why most people are unable to think logically, critically, coherently and abstractly. Another reason is due to not having any education or training that would help them develop critical, abstract and coherent thinking. But where are the political parties that have identified and highlighted this fact? say Devo.



Glancing through some old Guardian magazines this morning I noticed an article by Naomi Klein, written in 2001, which focused on the Zapatista movement in Mexico – it’s history, philosophy, membership and leadership. This seems synchronous with recent Oxzen musings about Che, Cuba, Chavez, and Oliver Stone’s movie about left radicalism in South America – ‘South of the Border’.

The unknown icon

Next week, rebels will march on Mexico City demanding rights for the country's indigenous people. But they will not fire a single shot, for this is a new kind of revolution. Naomi Klein describes the appeal of the Zapatistas and their 'voice' Subcomandante Marcos.

The caravan, nicknamed the "Zapatour" by the Mexican press, is being led by the council of 24 Zapatista commanders, in full uniform and masks (though no weapons), including Subcomandante Marcos himself.

Perhaps only a man who never takes off his mask, who hides his real name, could lead this caravan of renegades, rebels, loners and anarchists on this two-week trek. These are people who have learned to steer clear of charismatic leaders with one-size-fits-all ideologies. These aren't party loyalists; these are members of groups that pride themselves on their autonomy and lack of hierarchy. Marcos - with his black wool mask, two eyes and pipe - seems to be an anti-leader tailor-made for this suspicious, critical lot. Not only does he refuse to show his face, undercutting (and simultaneously augmenting) his own celebrity, but Marcos's story is of a man who came to his leadership, not through swaggering certainty, but by coming to terms with political uncertainty, by learning to follow.

Having failed as a Marxist missionary, Marcos immersed himself in Mayan culture. The more he learned, the less he knew. Out of this process, a new kind of army emerged, the EZLN, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which was not controlled by an elite of guerrilla commanders but by the communities themselves, through clandestine councils and open assemblies. "Our army," says Marcos, "became scandalously Indian." That meant that he wasn't a commander barking orders, but a subcomandante, a conduit for the will of the councils. His first words said in the new persona were: "Through me speaks the will of the Zapatista National Liberation Army." Further subjugating himself, Marcos says that he is not a leader to those who seek him out, but that his black mask is a mirror, reflecting each of their own struggles; that a Zapatista is anyone anywhere fighting injustice, that "We are you".

Marcos himself - the supposed non-self, the conduit, the mirror - writes in a tone so personal and poetic, so completely and unmistakably his own, that he is constantly undercutting and subverting the anonymity that comes from his mask and pseudonym. It is often said that the Zapatistas' best weapon was the internet, but their true secret weapon was their language. In Our Word Is Our Weapon, we read manifestos and war cries that are also poems, legends and riffs. A character emerges behind the mask, a personality. Marcos is a revolutionary who writes long meditative letters to Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano about the meaning of silence; who describes colonialism as a series of "bad jokes badly told", who quotes Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare and Borges.

Something radical has changed in the balance of power in Mexico. The Zapatistas are calling the shots now - which is significant, because they have lost the habit of firing shots. What started as a small, armed insurrection has in the past seven years turned into what now looks more like a peaceful, and mass movement. It has helped topple the corrupt 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and has placed indigenous rights at the centre of the Mexican political agenda.

This is a movement keenly aware of the power of words and symbols. Which is why Marcos gets angry when he is looked on as just another guy with a gun: "What other guerrilla force has convened a national democratic movement, civic and peaceful, so that armed struggle becomes useless?" he asks. "What other guerrilla force asks its bases of support about what it should do before doing it? What other guerrilla force has struggled to achieve a democratic space and not take power? What other guerrilla force has relied more on words than on bullets?"

The Zapatistas have come to represent two forces at once: first, rebels struggling against grinding poverty and humiliation in the mountains of Chiapas and, on top of this, theorists of a new movement, another way to think about power, resistance and globalisation. This theory - Zapatismo - not only turns classic guerrilla tactics inside out, but much of leftwing politics on its head.

Unlike classic revolutionaries, who preach through bullhorns and from pulpits, Marcos has spread the Zapatista word through riddles. Revolutionaries who don't want power. People who must hide their faces to be seen.

The Zapatista uprising was a new way to protect land and culture: rather than locking out the world, the Zapatistas flung open the doors and invited the world inside. Chiapas was transformed, despite its poverty, despite being under constant military siege, into a global gathering place for activists, intellectuals, and indigenous groups.

The strategic victory of the Zapatistas was to change the terms: to insist that what was going on in Chiapas could not be written off as a narrow "ethnic" struggle, and that it was universal. They did this by clearly naming their enemy not only as the Mexican state but as the set of economic policies known as "neo-liberalism". Marcos insisted that the poverty and desperation in Chiapas was simply a more advanced version of something happening all around the world. He pointed to the huge numbers of people who were being left behind by prosperity, whose land, and work, made that prosperity possible. "The new distribution of the world excludes 'minorities'," Marcos has said. "The indigenous, youth, women, homosexuals, lesbians, people of colour, immigrants, workers, peasants; the majority who make up the world basements are presented, for power, as disposable. The distribution of the world excludes the majorities."

The Zapatistas staged an open insurrection, one that anyone could join, as long as they thought of themselves as outsiders. By conservative estimates, there are now 45,000 Zapatista-related websites, based in 26 countries.

So it's worth asking: what are the ideas that proved so powerful that thousands have taken it upon themselves to disseminate them around the world? A few years ago, the idea of the rebels travelling to Mexico City to address the congress would have been impossible to imagine. The prospect of masked guerrillas (even masked guerrillas who have left their arms at home) entering a hall of political power signals one thing: revolution. But Zapatistas aren't interested in overthrowing the state or naming their leader, Marcos, as president. If anything, they want less state power over their lives. And, besides, Marcos says that as soon as peace has been negotiated he will take off his mask and disappear.

What does it mean to be a revolutionary who is not trying to stage a revolution? This is one of the key Zapatista paradoxes. In one of his many communiqués, Marcos writes that "it is not necessary to conquer the world. It is sufficient to make it new". He adds: "Us. Today." What sets the Zapatistas apart from your average Marxist guerrilla insurgents is that their goal is not to win control, but to seize and build autonomous spaces where "democracy, liberty and justice" can thrive.

Marcos believes that what he has learned in Chiapas about non-hierarchical decision-making, decentralised organising and deep community democracy holds answers for the non-indigenous world as well - if only it were willing to listen. This is a kind of organising that doesn't compartmentalise the community into workers, warriors, farmers and students, but instead seeks to organise communities as a whole, across sectors and across generations, creating "social movements". For the Zapatistas, these autonomous zones aren't about isolationism or dropping out, 60s-style. Quite the opposite: Marcos is convinced that these free spaces, born of reclaimed land, communal agriculture, resistance to privatisation, will eventually create counter-powers to the state simply by existing as alternatives.

This is the essence of Zapatismo, and explains much of its appeal: a global call to revolution that tells you not to wait for the revolution, only to stand where you stand, to fight with your own weapon. It could be a video camera, words, ideas, "hope" - all of these, Marcos has written, "are also weapons". It's a revolution in miniature that says, "Yes, you can try this at home." This organising model has spread throughout Latin America, and the world. You can see it in the anarchist squats of Italy (called "social centres") and in the Landless Peasants' Movement of Brazil, which seizes tracts of unused farmland and uses them for sustainable agriculture, markets and schools under the slogan "Ocupar, Resistir, Producir" (Occupy, Resist, Produce).

Zapatismo, according to Marcos, is not a doctrine but "an intuition". And he is consciously trying to appeal to something that exists outside the intellect, something uncynical in us, that he found in himself in the mountains of Chiapas: wonder, a suspension of disbelief, myth and magic. So, instead of issuing manifestos, he tries to riff his way into this place, with long meditations, flights of fancy, dreaming out loud. This is, in a way, a kind of intellectual guerrilla warfare: Marcos won't meet his opponents head on, but instead surrounds them from all directions.

It occurs to me that Marcos isn't Martin Luther King; he is King's very modern progeny, born of a bittersweet marriage of vision and necessity. This masked man who calls himself Marcos is the descendant of King, Che Guevara, Malcom X, Emiliano Zapata and all the other heroes who preached from pulpits only to be shot down one by one, leaving bodies of followers wandering around blind and disoriented because they lost their heads.

In their place, the world now has a new kind of hero, one who listens more than speaks, who preaches in riddles not in certainties, a leader who doesn't show his face, who says his mask is really a mirror.

In the words of Marcos –
The kaz-dzul , the false man, rules our lands and has giant war machines,
like the boob, half-puma and half-horse,
that spread pain and death among us.
The trickster government sends us the aluxob,
the liars who fool our people and make them forgetful.
This is why we became soldiers.
This is why we remain soldiers.
Because we want no more death and trickery for our people,
because we want no more forgetting . . .


Here’s another piece about a remarkable non-conformist – a woman who’s clearly bursting with spiritual intelligence, courage, and a determination fight for what’s right and to go her own way:

Joumana Haddad: 'I live in a country that hates me'

Joumana Haddad is a ferocious critic of sexism in Lebanon, and her erotic magazine has brought death threats. A new book is her fiercest attack yet on Arab culture. So what drives her?


Football Ownership

I'd meant to include this reference in a previous Layer on the state of football in Britain:

How can football clubs capture the social value of the beautiful game?
Football still has vast social value despite financial crises. Do we need more supporter-owned clubs to restore its rightful place at the heart of communities, asks David Conn

Released earlier this summer . . . was a report that found that for all its crises and financial overkill, football remains a sport of immense social value, and its clubs – when not falling into ruin – are widely considered to be rallying points for civic pride.

Commissioned by Supporters Direct, the government-backed initiative to encourage democratic, mutual ownership of football clubs, the report documents the beneficial impact that clubs can have in their communities, and recommends a series of ways in which this can be improved.

Principally, it argues that football clubs should formally recognise their social role and adopt it as one of their core purposes . . .

The report, The Social and Community Value of Football, suggests a range of ways in which clubs might commit to having a positive impact in their communities – many, at all levels, do some of them already. They include developing local transport plans, environmental best practice, supporter volunteering schemes, opening club facilities to disadvantaged groups, operating preferential local employment and purchasing schemes, and pricing match tickets at levels that "recognise economic exclusion".

Also included is "broadening ownership structures", and this is a key element of the report, setting out the social value of clubs incorporating some democratic form of ownership by supporters.

The chief executives of clubs that were mutuals or feature large stakes held by supporters argued that their model delivered "clear social benefits", including the promotion of democracy, keeping the club linked to the community, creating stability, and even a business advantage, because of improved working relationships with the local authority.

Norrie Stewart, chief executive of supporter-owned Exeter City, describes the mutual model as an "important [ownership] alternative".
The 'mutual model' is also described these days as the 'John Lewis Model', and it's time we all thought about how many of our companies would benefit from this model of ownership.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Layer 344 . . . Grandma's House, Hendrix, Machine Guns, Politics, Manu Chao, Hugo Chavez and Professor David Harvey

Grandma's House

Back on the theme of comedy and laughter I've been meaning to say something about 'Grandma's House', which is now three programmes into its series on BBC2. All three available on iPlayer.

TV presenter Simon Amstell plays a version of himself in Grandma's House, a new six-part comedy written by Simon and his long-term collaborator Dan Swimer.

The series stars Simon Amstell as a TV presenter who is quitting his job to try to do something more meaningful with his life.

Each episode is set at Grandma's house, where Simon's family regularly congregate to catch up. Everything happens under the watchful eye of Grandma, who is desperate to see everything going well.

The show also stars Bafta winner Rebecca Front (The Thick Of It, Nighty Night) who plays Simon's mum, Tanya, a larger-than-life single woman who's looking for love and who dotes on her famous son . . .

It's a kind of middle class version of The Royle Family - with virtually everything taking place in the family sitting room, involving three generations of wildly different characters.


Was Jimi Hendrix 'political'?

There was a programme on Radio 4 yesterday called 'Star Spangled Hendrix':

When Jimi Hendrix returned to his native America as a star, the country he knew had changed. This programme, presented by Tom Robinson to tie in with the 40th anniversary of the guitarist's death, explores the pressure Jimi was under to make an explicit political declaration.

Tom explores Hendrix's 14 months in the Screaming Eagles 101 Airborne Division that saw him parachute a total of 26 times before he was invalided out with a broken ankle.

When Hendrix first came to Britain he'd speak with friends about the need to defeat the Viet-Cong in order to prevent the whole of South-East Asia going Communist. All the standard domino-theory clap-trap he'd picked up from the American media and in his Marine Corps indoctrination. He was no sophisticated student of politics.

On the other hand, by the time he was performing with the Band of Gypsies in 1970 Hendrix was ready to come out on stage and introduce a song called Machine Gun with these words:




The final words of this piece are:


And in between those first and last words there's about 12 minutes of very 'political' guitar playing, with Hendrix giving his musical interpretation of urban and jungle warfare as only Hendrix could - clattering and screaming guitar blasting his audience with high-powered sonic bullets, and with musical rockets and bombs - expressing rage, hatred, savagery, pain, fear, terror and madness.

You can hear several versions on YouTube (and Spotify) including

What Hendrix was recreating with every live performance was an incredible work of art that took the blues to a level never seen before or since - smashing through the average concert-goer's indifference and apathy and confronting his audience with what it feels like to live with death, destruction, injury, pain and misery - whether in the urban ghettos or in the horrors of VietNam. Not what you'd call pop music, then. Hendrix thankfully never made it to Nam himself, but he knew plenty of people who did. Just imagine what we'd have missed if Hendrix had died fighting the VietCong. And for what?

Wikipedia says this:

It is a lengthy, loosely defined (jam-based) protest of the Vietnam War, and perhaps a broader comment on conflict of any kind. Although a proper studio recording was never released, there are several other live recordings on album, including Jimi Hendrix: Live at Berkeley and Blue Wild Angel: Live at the Isle of Wight. The Band of Gypsys  performance is often lauded as Hendrix's finest, and is widely considered the finest electric guitar performance in the history of recorded music.

The Band of Gypsys  version of "Machine Gun" is roughly 12 minutes long. Hendrix's long guitar solos and percussive riffs combine with controlled feedback to simulate the sounds of a battlefield, such as helicopters, dropping bombs, explosions, machine guns, and the screams and cries of those wounded or grieving. The rather sparse lyrics, which differ in every performance, relate the point of view of a soldier fighting in war.

As with his version of Star Spangled Banner, Hendrix let his guitar, his imagination, his feelings and his emotions do the talking. He painted incredibly vivid pictures with sound, and left the rest to our imagination. Was it political? Isn't everything?

It was also personal, spiritual, emotional, original and sensational. You can't say fairer than that.


Stumbling around on Spotify I noticed that Manu Chao has also recorded a track called Machine Gun, on the Radio Bemba Sound System live album, and also on Baionerena. Manu's a highly 'political' guy.

"After arriving in Madrid, Chao and other band mates from Mano Negra formed a new group, Radio Bemba Sound System (named for the communication system used in the Sierra Maestra by the Castro-and-Guevara-led rebels in the Cuban Revolution), featuring groups from diverse backgrounds, such as Mexican Tijuana No!, Brazilian Skank, and Argentinian Todos Tus Muertos. The goal was to replicate the sound of street music and bar scenes from a variety of cultures; to that end, Chao and the group spent several years travelling throughout South and Central America, recording new music as they went. The resulting music differed drastically from Mano Negra; the songs were primarily sung in Spanish with far fewer French tracks and the musical style had shifted from punk and alternative styles to the street vibe Chao was aiming for. The songs were collectively released as Clandestino in 1998, under Manu Chao's own name. Though not an instant success, the album gained a steady following in France with hits such as "Bongo Bong" and "Clandestino", and the album eventually earned the Best World Music Album award in 1999's Victoires de la Musique awards."  -  Wikipedia


Which reminds me that I finally got round to watching the film made by Steven Soderbergh of Che Guevara's participation in the Cuban revolution - Che - Part 1 - A Revolutionary Life.

Cinematical's James Rocchi described the biopic as "expressive, innovative, striking, and exciting" as well as "bold, beautiful, bleak and brilliant". Rocchi went on to brand it "a work of art" that's "not just the story of a revolutionary" but "a revolution in and of itself". Columnist and critic Jeffrey Wells proclaimed the film "brilliant", "utterly believable", and "the most exciting and far-reaching film of the Cannes Film Festival". In further praise, Wells referred to the film as "politically vibrant and searing" while labeling it a "perfect dream movie".


Professor David Harvey

The professor was featured on HARDTalk last week.

Are we seeing the end of capitalism?

Arun Motianey, director of fixed income strategy at Roubini Global Economics, says the global economy is at risk of collapsing inward unless policy makers address the threat of inflation and exchange rate inflexibility.

For Professor David Harvey, Marxist author of The Enigma of Capital, the collapse of capitalism is inevitable. He tells Sarah Montague that capitalism is amoral, lawless, and it should be overthrown.

Well done, BBC, for still making programmes like this one. How often do we get to hear the voices of the radical left? Whereas we hear the drivel of the radical right continuously.

Prof Harvey maintains that for the most part modern capitalism has nothing to do with anything productive, and simply makes money out of money. Smart financiers make money out of slightly less smart financiers, as well as out of dumb financiers and bankers - the dumbest being the Royal Bank of Scotland Group and HBoS, I reckon, since they're the ones that ended up in public ownership.

Harvey says our government has been protecting the banks at the expense of the people. There's been no productive use of the money controlled by the banks. There's been no actual investment in production or in real things.

What we need is investment in people's creative capacities and powers. Do rich people really need five mansions or more? What we need, as a society, is zero 'growth' and a significant redistribution of wealth. Through increasing the spending power of the poorer sections of society we'll become a richer society as a whole. Rich people hoard wealth. Poor people keep it in circulation.

There is currently NO political movement for real change from any of the established parties - Harvey is calling for people to think about alternatives. Utopia is simply about continuous change for the benefit of society as a whole, he says, and about creative engagement in political processes. We need diversity not homogeneity.

"Is it time to look beyond capitalism towards a new social order that would allow us to live within a system that could be responsible, just and humane?"

"Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed. The accumulation of capital will never cease. It will have to be stopped. The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power. It will have to be dispossessed.” - David Harvey


Here's another HARDtalk worth watching, on Hugo Chavez:

President Chavez's socialist world vision

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez intends to inject new urgency into his socialist and anti-imperialist revolution, claiming "capitalism is destroying the world".

In a combative 60-minute interview with the BBC HARDtalk programme in the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Mr Chavez blamed Venezuela's deepening recession on the irresponsible economic policies of the United States.

He also expressed disappointment with President Barack Obama's "very negative signals" towards Latin America.

The 55-year-old Venezuelan president rarely grants extended interviews to the Western media. This one was arranged to coincide with the premiere in Caracas of a new documentary by Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone.

The film, South of the Border, portrays Latin America being transformed by Leftist radicalism.

The leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador all get walk-on parts, but it is to Mr Chavez that Stone gives the starring role.

"What's been going on in Venezuela for the last 10 years is amazing - a piece of history. The least I can do is introduce this man and this movement to the American people," said Stone, with a beaming Chavez by his side.

Whether many Venezuelans will ever see South of the Border remains unclear.

The premiere was full of Socialist party bigwigs and activists who hooted with delight as their president was seen lambasting Bush, beating off a coup attempt in 2002 and generally adopting the mantle of a 21st Century Castro.

In his HARDtalk interview, the president blamed his country's economic woes squarely on America's "rampant, irresponsible capitalism" which was taking the world "on the road to hell".

"In England and in Europe you should know this," Mr Chavez went on. "'You have more problems than we do."

He quoted a stream of economic statistics to illustrate his claim that 11 years of socialism had "begun to redress the balance between a very rich Venezuelan minority and a very poor majority."

He said unemployment had been halved, extreme poverty was down from 25% to just 5%.

"Eleven years ago I was quite gullible," the president said. "I even believed in a 'third way'. I thought it was possible to put a human face on capitalism. But I was wrong.

"The only way to save the world is through socialism, but a socialism that exists within a democracy. There's no dictatorship here."

"Fidel has spent his whole life on his (revolution)," Chavez reflected. "Whatever life I have left I will dedicate to this peaceful democratic revolution in Venezuela."


Here's something upbeat to end on - a blistering performance of 'Rainin In Paradise' by Manu Chao:

Where are the British bands playing with anything like this sort of engagement, commitment and passion? Clearly they don't exist.

In Jerusalem
In Monrovia

today it's rainin
Welcome to paradise
today it's rainin
Welcome to paradise


Politik Kills

Check out the Politik Kills EP on Spotify, especially the remix with Linton Kwesi Johnson.

politik need votes
politik needs your mind
politik needs human beings
politik need lies

thats what my friend is an evidence politik is violence
what my friend is a evidence politik is violence

politik kills politik kills politik kills
politik kills politik kills politik kills

politik use drugs
politik use bombs
politik need torpedoes
politik needs blood
thats what my friend is an evidence politik is violence
what my friend is a evidence politik is violence

Big shout out to Brother B - the Horn of Africa.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Layer 343 . . . Memory, Forgetting, Laughter, Kundera, Childhood, Truth, Reality and Madness

Memory and Forgetting

It's a truism that we learn from experience. However, our greatest difficulty is that we forget as much as we remember. In any case, we're creatures of habit - lazy in thought and deed. It's not surprising therefore that so many people simply stagger through life - repeating the same mistakes, failing to recall things that should stand them in good stead.

Milan Kundera wrote a novel called 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting', in which he considered the political and personal cost of masses of people being mentally lazy, or incapable, or careless.

A blog is at least an attempt to put on record some thoughts and memories - be they simple or complex. We never know what might be useful to remember. Diaries and blogs should be the tracks of our mental wanderings, reminders of where we've been, the ground we've covered, the lessons we've learnt. Followers of the Tao (and Zen) use meditation to sift and (re)construct memory/experience, and writing is a development of memory consolidation & construction.

Wikipedia has an interesting page on the politics of memory:

Here's an example of the importance of memory. Pre-2008, when the economy was still booming and hardly anyone was anticipating a financial crash or a banking crisis, both David Cameron and George Osborne were going around saying that the Tories were committed to maintaining current levels of spending on education, health and social services. They agreed, apparently, that the levels established by New Labour were right and proper. They had no intention of returning to the old Thatcherite agenda of 'shrinking the state'.

Fast forward to 2009/10 and all we hear from those guys is that New Labour allowed public spending to get out of hand, that far too much was spent on public services, and it's now crucial that public spending is drastically reduced. Not just as a temporary measure to deal with the 'national debt', mind you. They now proudly proclaim that their mission is to complete the Thatcherite revolution and in fact intend go much further than even the old bag and her cronies had ever thought possible or desirable.

But how many of us even remember their pre-crash utterances, nay promises?

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting"
— Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)


Memories of Childhood

There was a wonderful programme on one woman's memories of her childhood and the house she grew up in on Radio 4 this week.

I'd never heard of Emma Harrison or her businesses before listening to this programme, but she's clearly a very remarkable individual, not least for the fact that she spent so much of her childhood seriously ill in hospital, and the fact that her mother walked out on her family when Emma and her two brothers were very young, only occasionally coming back into their lives before disappearing again for long spells.

Fortunately Emma's father seems to have been quite a remarkable guy, who gave Emma the  opportunity and the conditions to grow up in with a huge amount of autonomy, and with lots of fun and creativity. "We were always looking forwards - never backwards."

They held regular parties in their large house in Sheffield, with and without her father being present, with lots of friends, music and laughter.

She now owns a large mansion set in its own estate, in which several friends and their families also have homes. It's more of a collective than a commune, but one in which there are everyday opportunities for friendship, laughter, music, parties and quiet relaxation.

In conclusion she said, "My parents gave me my love of life". I wonder how many of us can truly say that about our parents, how many of us have never felt any real love of life, and how many of us, if we have a love of life, had to find it for ourselves, often after much searching . . .


"The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?"
— Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

The idea of life being based on what is real and truthful is also the main idea of Zen, as is loving life, and also finding satori or spiritual fulfillment in everyday reality.

"There is no perfection only life"
— Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

"Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company."
— Milan Kundera

"Living is being happy: seeing, hearing, touching, drinking, eating, urinating, defecating, diving into the water and gazing at the sky, laughing and crying."
— Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

Chopping wood, carrying water . . .


More interesting Kundera quotes:

"Loves are like empires: when the idea they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away."
— Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

"There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless."
— Milan Kundera

"She loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others."
— Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

"Love is by definition an unmerited gift; being loved without meriting it is the very proof of real love. If a woman tells me: I love you because you're intelligent, because you're decent, because you buy me gifts, because you don't chase women, because you do the dishes, then I'm disappointed; such love seems a rather self-interested business. How much finer it is to hear: I'm crazy about you even though you're neither intelligent nor decent, even though you're a liar, an egotist, a bastard."
— Milan Kundera (Slowness: A Novel)

"The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return."
— Milan Kundera (Ignorance)

"The worst thing is not that the world is unfree, but that people have unlearned their liberty."

"The more indifferent people are to politics, to the interests of others, the more obsessed they become with their own faces. The individualism of our time."

"The only relationship that can make both partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other. "
— Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

"We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has."
— Milan Kundera (Laughable Loves)

"Why in fact should one tell the truth? What obliges us to do it? And why do we consider telling the truth to be a virtue? Imagine that you meet a madman, who claims that he is a fish and that we are all fish. Are you going to argue with him? Are you going to undress in front of him and show him that you don't have fins? Are you going to say to his face what you think?...If you told him the whole truth and nothing but the truth, only what you thought, you would enter into a serious conversation with a madman and you yourself would become mad.

And it is the same way with the world that surrounds us. If I obstinately told the truth to its face, it would mean that I was taking it seriously. And to take seriously something so unserious means to lose all one's own seriousness. I have to lie, if I don't want to take madmen seriously and become a madman myself."
— Milan Kundera (Laughable Loves)


Here's an example of the madness.

Here's what happens in England in the 21st Century. Someone is told they shouldn't bother applying for the headship of a state school which is about to be advertised because there's no way they will even be shortlisted. That person then realises they should give up any hopes of further promotions, so goes off and trains to be an Ofsted inspector, and then goes around schools up and down the country and pronounces on the competence of headteachers.

No-one considers this at all bizarre or frankly mad because

a) competent headteachers who love their work would never even consider becoming an Ofsted inspector (for a variety of reasons), and

b) all that's really required of an Ofsted inspector is to sit in an office for a couple of days and "interpret" so-called "data" which relates to the "performance" of the school during the past few years. They carry out some token interviews with heads and other senior staff, but those interviews are simply a means of getting the interviewees to offer their own explanations of the "data". They're more in the way of interrogations than proper interviews.

The "performance" of the headteacher is, of course, judged according to the "performance" of the school - i.e. the "performance" of groups of pupils in timed tests and exams. The "performance" of individual teachers is judged on periods of 20 or 30 minutes observing two or three teachers working with children - doing science, maths, English lessons, etc - after which the "lesson" is awarded one of four grades.

One day we'll all look back on this madness and have a really good laugh.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Layer 342 . . . Cambridge, the Ebb Tide, the Great Wave, Art, Education, Suicide, Apprenticeships and Arsenal

And so to Cambridge. Such a strange town. So historic and academic, and yet so twee. So busy, and yet so boring.

The worst thing about Cambridge is the lack of pubs. Almost a complete lack of pubs. Why?

If you persevere in tramping around the whole of the town centre you might eventually come across a fine looking pub with a sign outside it advertising the fact that the local newspaper reckons it's the best pub in Cambridge. When you go inside, however, you notice a good range of real ales BUT ALSO very poor ventilation, a lingering stink of cooking, and horrible loud music. At which point, if you have any sense, you walk out. The Mitre truly sucks. Pity poor Cambridge if that's the best of its pubs.

Fortunately there's an excellent tapas bar nearby, with a decent, spacious interior and excellent welcoming staff. The food is good too, and they served the best draught Peroni I've ever tasted, which means it's very good indeed.

Apparently La Tasca is a nationwide chain. I really must get out more.


The Fitzwilliam Museum's not really my kind of place, but it had one exhibition in just one smallish room that was totally wonderful - "Gifts of the Ebb Tide: Japan and the Sea in Ukiyo-e Prints."

The only print on show which was on loan from elsewhere was the famous Great Wave by Hokusai, which belongs to the British Museum. It's an image that draws you back to it constantly.

The rest of the prints in the exhibition were owned by the Fitzwilliam museum - the majority of them being prints by Hiroshige. Pretty amazing they are too.

It's interesting that Monet, reckoned by many to be France's greatest-ever artist, chose to fill his house in Giverney with Japanese prints, and literally nothing else in the way of art. Can't have a much higher recommendation than that.


It's 'A' level results time and university clearing time, and almost back to school time.

I'm starting to think that there are two kinds of  people in this country. Those who give a damn about real education and its benefits, and those who don't. Those who realise that our education system isn't fit for purpose, and those who don't.

Then there's a sub category of people who realise that our education system sucks but haven't much of a clue what to do about it. There's a further sub category of people who think they have a clue or two, but haven't really.

This means that the number of people who a) care about education, and b) truly understand what needs to happen to it in order to improve it and make the system fit for the 21st Century, amounts to less than 0.001% of the population, at most.

Sadly none of them are politicians or journalists - the people who are elected to make decisions on behalf of we, the people, and those who are paid to write opinions which are then broadcast through the media in order to influence 'public opinion'. No wonder we're a nation of over-examined and under-educated fuckwits.

In the Guardian recently we find Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches postcolonial studies at Cambridge University, apparently, who says,

University mustn't again be the rich's hereditary domain

Corralling the young into vocational factory farms or apprenticeships splits further the educated elite from those who service it
"Restricting access to higher education, in conjunction with vicious attacks on the support base of schools, wages and housing, only accelerates the drive towards absolute economic segregation.

A mature democracy thrives by widening access to higher education. Corralling young people into vocational factory farms does not equal progress. Life is not a television show where gruff millionaires airily dismiss formal education and magically transform eager young things into corporate high-flyers. What is masquerading as the good old-fashioned common sense of apprenticeships and skills over higher education is really the politics of dismissing the intelligence and abilities of ordinary people. We must fight hard to retain common ownership of education and have a real discussion about the role we want it to play in our lives and society."

Common ownership? What kind of a fantasy land is she living in? Our education system is directed by, managed by and constrained by a small number of politicians, bureaucrats and professionals who are UTTERLY CONVINCED that our education system, (which is mainly geared up to creating elites through examinations, and a system through which those so-called elites did very well themselves) is still for the best in the best of all worlds.

To imagine that regular people have any stake in our education system, let alone 'ownership', is pure fantasy. Nobody, but nobody, does well out of an education system that is 99% geared up for so-called 'academic' excellence and ignores the development of other intelligences as well as the need for critical thinking, creativity and use of the imagination. I may have said this somewhere before.

The system doesn't even help young people learn how to become autonomous learners - they need to find that out for themselves. As for developing a love of learning for its own sake . . .

"We must fight hard to . . . have a real discussion about the role we want [education] to play in our lives and society."

Who's involved in that fight then? It seems we have to fight hard to even have a discussion about real education. As for actually doing anything about it . . .

The Cambridge Review of Primary education has been and gone, and how many people even noticed its publication? It's pathetic. Practically nobody cares about the real learning needs of children and young people, or has any idea what they might be, or any idea about how schools (academies!), colleges and universities should go about meeting those needs.

We don't need education to "play a role" in 'our' lives and 'our' society. Whose society would that be, then?

 We need education to meet the real learning needs of people of all ages, actually, and to help with the development of all of our intelligences - not just the academic and the intellectual. We need education to help our people to find out who they really are, and to discover a personal pathway towards greater enlightenment and a proper way to live their lives. Naturally this would involve changing a great many things in our society - things that conservatives, including New Labour, including the majority of the bourgeoisie for that matter, are desperate to 'conserve'.

A few comments from CIF:


The problem is class based. Because the Universities in the UK were associated as much with class privilige as with academic excellence, people without degrees were looked down on and not accorded the respect that they should have been.

That is an ongoing problem. But the answer is not to make everyone do dumbed down degrees. The answer is to raise the status and respect we have for people who achieve things outside of university and academia.


Countries such as Germany and South Korera manage to run thriving apprenticeship systems without tying themselves into paroxysms of progressive angst about the 'fairness' of university education vs vocational education.

They don't stuff 3rd rate educational establishments to the gills with gullible teenagers on debt-funded media studies and golf course management courses. They put people on proper vocational courses that lead to decent, well paid jobs in proper trades.

But it's ok 'cos our economy is so much more successful than theirs isnt it? Oh, hang on....


The whole of the system needs changing, starting at the primary level and with a curriculum that meets the needs of a 21st century society. Sadly, I do not see a vision of modern, viable education in the current government, but they sure will feel the affects of their delusions in ten, twenty years time when a great deal of the population is uneducated and unskilled and unable to find employment anywhere on the planet.

More from Tybo

I did mostly arts oriented things (very mixed at Keele) but what shocked me was that whilst my [non-university] squatting mates in Norwich were avidly reading Kerouac and Ken Keysey, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Braughtigen, when I did an American Studies class nobody else had read any American writers at all. Not a single fellow student.

The tutor treated me like I was Christ reborn - it was such a shock to him to find a student studying American literature who was actually interested in it.

95% of the students had not read a book since whatever they had been set for their A level English. They were there because going there was what you did to get a better job. Not because they had a scintilla of interest in what they were studying.

I hate to think what it must be like now.


As a number of posters have already noted, the fundamental problem is silly middle-class left-wing snobs like the author. The upper ranks of the Labour Party, and newspapers like this, seem to be stuffed with them.

Unwilling to countenance the idea that their own precious ones might not get a 'proper professional career', they then have to assuage their left-wing guilt by making sure that all the poor 'working-class' people have the same 'opportunity'. So you end up with an army of people with little or no academic inclination earning honours degrees in Sociology of Batwoman and Lesbotic Yoga from the University of Bootle, and if they're lucky and they know the right people ending up as Transgender Awareness Seminar Facilitators for the local council, or if they're not lucky end up on the dole with a mountain of debt, while proper useful jobs like sparks and plumbing get done by immigrants.


An article by Julia Margo had the title "Learning New Ropes" in the newspaper, but on the website appeared as:

A way out of the mancession

A-levels and university are no guarantee of a job. Particularly for men, an apprenticeship is better

Some time ago a friend who had lost his City job confessed he had considered killing himself. I was appalled but not surprised: while men are being hit harder by the recession than women they are also seem to be showing less resilience in dealing with unemployment and economic insecurity.

[How the hell do we expect people to be personally & emotionally resilient when they've never had much of an opportunity to find out who they are, or develop much in the way of personal, emotional and spiritual intelligence?]

Academic qualifications appear to offer them little protection against unemployment . . .

Research by Mind has shown that up to one in seven men who become unemployed will develop a depressive illness within six months; two-thirds of men under 35 were out of work when they killed themselves.

This trend alone is enough for some to claim that a "crisis of masculinity" is on the horizon. But suggestions of a deeper, potentially seismic shift in our society should make politicians sit up and listen.

The emerging knowledge economy demands a new, softer skill set – empathy, sociability, confidence, resourcefulness. Women are perceived as being better at soft skills, and now they count for more. In the course of just over a decade, Demos research found, these skills became central to life chances: for those who turned 30 in 2000, such character capabilities had become 33 times more important in determining earnings.

[Softer?!! For 'character capabilities' read personal, social, emotional and spiritual intelligences.]

But character can't be taught in the classroom.

[No it can't - which is to say that you cannot learn "character" in the way you can be didactically taught maths and science - not that those things are best taught didactically anyway. However, classrooms ARE the best places for developing "character" - those other intelligences - providing teachers know what to do and how to organise learning so as to facilitate those sorts of essential development.]

If this issue in the classroom isn't addressed, boys, with a skill set that seems to become less valued by the day, will continue on the path to asbos rather than A-levels.

So what can be done? Interestingly there may be a genuine solution. Demos research shows that boys and young men can substantially boost employability, income and wellbeing by doing apprenticeships from age 16 instead of, or as well as, A-levels.

[So that's alright then - we can start work on 'developing character' from the age of 16, or as soon as young people move beyond GCSE.]

Boys who took apprenticeships were more confident, happy and skilled by the time they were 30 than their non-apprentice contemporaries.

Society needs to get over this obsession with A-levels as the gold standard if we want to give boys the chance to succeed in this new job environment. Rigging A-levels won't help. They need training to help them operate in the workplace, not qualifications that prepare them to fail.

[She calls it 'training'. Like you do with dogs. Especially dogs who "operate in the workplace", presumably.]

So here's someone who sees at least part of the problem, but in spite of her very privileged position as acting director of Demos - the leading so-called left wing so-called think tank - and presumably the 'beneficiary' of an 'elite' education herself - has very little clue about how to frame the problem adequately, let alone any real idea about how to transform our attitude and our approach to education from the Nursery onwards in order to make it fit for purpose.

Just another example of how far we have to go in order to promote any real change in how we do things on this island.

Julia - you're fired!


Football Matters

Interesting news this week that Arsenal have decided to work with their supporters to encourage fans to buy part-shares and so gradually move the club towards becoming a supporter-owned community club, similar to Barcelona and Real Madrid, and most of the German clubs.

Arsenal step back from era of rich owners and offer fans a voice

• Club's approach is enlightened compared with debt-laden rivals
• What is the social value of the beautiful game?

Arsenal  supporters will be invited today to buy shares in their club in affordable slices of the £10,250, which is the current prohibitive price of just one. The Arsenal Supporters Trust hopes that its scheme, Arsenal Fanshare, five years in the planning, will enable supporters to slowly build a meaningful stake and voice, and help preserve Arsenal as the only major Premier League club not owned by a single rich individual.

"Custodianship" is the trust's cherished theme; the principle that a football club exists for its supporters, not for speculators to exploit by buying up shares. Arsenal Fanshare allows ordinary supporters to make monthly contributions, from a minimum of £10 to a maximum £1,000, which will be pooled towards buying shares when they become available.

Remarkably, Arsenal Fanshare is enthusiastically backed by the club itself, as a means of encouraging fans to be participate and be "engaged", which is emerging as a core principle at Arsenal and the more enlightened professional clubs. The contrast with the open warfare between fans and absolute owners at debt-laden Manchester United and Liverpool could hardly be more marked.

"In the club's relationship with supporters, the important thing is that fans are valued and nurtured, not exploited," Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal's chief executive, says. "That's not only good for the club's soul; it is also ultimately good for the club overall, because engagement with our fans helps us to be healthier, more vibrant and successful."

"The aim is to increase supporter ownership and influence," Tim Payton, the spokesman for the trust, says. "The vast majority of our members and, we believe, most Arsenal fans, favour supporter involvement in the club and have no appetite for private ownership by a single individual, and certainly not for excessive debt. This is an opportunity for supporters to gain a voice, for a relatively modest contribution, and it should be a model for other clubs too."

Had the idea of mutual, democratic ownership been conceived, and the iconic examples of supporter-owned Barcelona and the Bundesliga clubs been understood 30 years ago, before the Premier League's pay-TV and commercial revolution, fans clubbing together might have had a chance of buying their clubs outright, even one as distinguished as Arsenal.

Arsenal offer 'fanshares' to dampen fears of takeover

The sports minister, Hugh Robertson, told the Guardian yesterday: "This proposal at Arsenal is enlightened and forward-looking. Clearly it is for individual clubs to decide, but this is a model I'd like to see other teams explore."

Arsenal hail new model of top-flight club ownership

• Campaign for democratic involvement led by Supporters Direct

Previous comments about Arsenal here:


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Layer 341 . . . Depression, Joy, Laughter and Linda Smith

There's been lots in the media recently about mental health and about depression, which seems to be more and more common in this century. There was a superb account of it in the Guardian, for example, told by someone who's gone through it.

The very opposite to depression is joy and laughter. Looking around various places recently, both at home and on holiday, there appear to be very few people either expressing or exuding joy or enjoying a good laugh.

Holiday reading this year has been "I Think The Nurses Are Stealing My Clothes: The Very Best of Linda Smith." This may well be the funniest book ever published - hilariously, eye-wateringly funny - which is ironic as most of it consists of words that were never intended to be read, as they're quotations from the late Linda Smith's broadcasting contributions to programmes like The News Quiz, Room 101 and Have I Got News For You, plus some transcripts of various shows and stand-up comedy performances.

On the subject of the US elections: "They want to get Anne Robinson out there. She'd sort it out. 'George W Bush, you are as thick as shit - goodbye!' "

"You sometimes wonder if this government are drug addicts. They just seem to be selling everything off. If you went round to Downing Street, there's probably not a stick of furniture."

"What is a gay mafia anyway? 'Hey, you know what would brighten up this hideaway? Some scatter cushions.' "

"David Gest seems to have had quite a lot of plastic surgery done - but not by a plastic surgeon."

To Neil Kinnock, guest presenter on HIGNFY -

"In 1992 do you think you'd have won if, instead of campaigning, you'd just pissed off on holiday for three weeks? Just gone away, kept your gob off the telly, maybe replaced yourself with, say, a lovely little kitten. A ginger kitten if you'd wanted to be a bit rebellious. A jar of ginger marmalade. Something like that. Do you think you would have sailed in? I mean, I realise you were up against the mighty charisma of John Major. That's a tough old one, isn't it? The man who ran away from the circus to become an accountant."

Linda wasn't simply our most brilliant comedian, she was also an incredible human being who seemed to inspire love and affection in everyone who got to know her. Several contributions to the book consist of appreciations written by those who worked or performed with her.

Jo Brand, for example, wrote, "Linda has been deemed a 'radical', a 'wit' and 'unique' . . . words that are not really enough to describe the essence of Linda and her spirit. I always envied the ease with which Linda turned weighty and unfathomable political topics into something warm, funny and fit for consumtion by Joe Public, who didn't have a degree in PPE from Oxbridge to know what she was on about. Her material was clever, perceptive, politically sharp and above all very funny."

Politics, however, wasn't the only topic for Linda's comedy and satire. She also made fun of Saga louts, The Church of the Vague Sense That There Must be Something More Than This, and the practice of drugging kids who can't seem to make themselves sufficiently passive and obedient at school - "I just need to lie down in a darkened room with a pint of Sunny Delight, Ventolin top, thank you. Once you're nine every day's a bonus . . . "

She did a brilliant bit about what happens when friends have a baby. "So when they come round your house, pantechnicons draw up outside, roadies start unloading great stacks of Pampers . . . and baby swings and changes of clothes and bottle warmers and organic baby food . . . And the parents are like the walking dead - they come in like bush babies just woken from a sleep - they're totally sleep deprived - they're like they've just crawled out of Guantanamo Bay, confessing to crimes they know nothing about. And you're going, "Can I get you anything?" and they say, "Yes, some sleep please, we'd like some sleep . . ." I usually give them a cup of Radox."

"All of a sudden the room fills with an ungodly stench coming from the baby . . . and now what I assume will happen here is that they will put on protective clothing, like for chemical weapons, helmets and gauntlets and some sort of sterile tongs, pick the baby up, run outside with it, leave it by the wheelie bin, hose the street down with disinfectant, phone the public health authority - get everyone in the postal district inoculated against cholera . . . basic measures . . .

Oh no - they look at you as if you're mad 'cos you're vomiting - I think new parents are like soldiers in the First World War - they've seen so much squalor that they've lost all veneer of civilisation, haven't they? They don't know how to behave any more - you have to explain gently . . . no, sick isn't a brooch - not really . . . "

Linda was brought up in Erith. "It's in South-East London, stroke, Kent - it's what's known as Greater London - but to be honest, the further you get away from the middle of it . . . London doesn't really get greater - it's better where there is stuff - it's more Lesser London really - I'll tell you how miserable it is . . . Erith is so miserable and depressing and dreary and soul-destroying and boring that it's not even twinned with anywhere. It just has a suicide pact with Braintree."

"I love civic information generally - I gather it wherever I go . . . brilliant leaflet I picked up in Cleethorpes . . . big list of all the attractions in Cleethorpes and the slogan was . . . 'Cleethorpes - There Has To Be More."

"The competition to name the Erith Leisure Centre was won by the competitor who suggested it be called . . . the Erith Leisure Centre."

"So that's my home town and I come from a perfectly ordinary working class family, and in fact I didn't really meet middle-class people until I went to university - it was quite a shock really . . . people were saying things like, 'Well I was always going to end up doing English because I was brought up surrounded by books - brought up in a house full of books' . . . and I'd think, 'Yes, so was I - but they were full of Green Shield stamps.' I suppose we could have swapped them for some books - but we had our eye on a twin tub."

Sandi Toksvig wrote, "She was a remarkable, kind and generous woman and her loss is incomprehensible."

One final bit of Linda:

On having live debates between leaders of the main political leaders during general election campaigns:

"If these people want to break into showbiz, let them do it the hard way - get an act. Of course Hague already has a lucrative sideline as a voice-over artist - mostly as Wallace from Wallace and Gromit, 'Oh, it's the wrong trousers, Gromit.' Tony Blair and his pal Peter Mandelson could curry favour in their North-East constituencies by remaking Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads with Tony Blair as the socially ambitious Bob, Peter as the eternal batchelor Terry, and Cherie as snooty Thelma Pet."

And a final word of appreciation, from Hattie Hayridge,

"We talked into the early hours and discovered how much we had in common; our working class 'doff your cap' -type backgrounds . . . She's often been described as a female Mark Steel or Jeremy Hardy [or Mark Thomas] . . . I think comedy is best when it puts forward a belief or a purpose . . . I have never felt brave enough to make that push to be political onstage, despite actually having a degree in the subject, but I don't think my views fit into a framework as well as Linda's did. Linda's brilliance lay in her ability to focus her wide range of literary knowledge, petty annoyances, anger, political views, her idealism and her enthusiasm into one laser sharp incisive comment, delivered with a wicked wit and a twinkle in her eye."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Layer 340 . . . Woods, Work, Drugs, Shock, NHS, Iraq and Folly

Why walking in the woods is good for you

It's one of the most enjoyable activities imaginable - and it might also be one of the most beneficial

According to the Finnish Forest Research Institute, one of the most enjoyable activities around can reduce stress and depression, ease muscle tension, counter attention deficit disorder, even calm an erratic heart. What is this wonder therapy? A walk in the woods. As Karjalainen puts it, "Many people feel relaxed and good when they are out in nature. But not many of us know there is also scientific evidence about the healing effects of nature."


All Work and No Play

Given the levels of debt and the low wages in our society, flat-out full time working seems like the only option for most people trying to stay alive and make a decent life for themselves and their families.

The ants march on, but we'd be happier as grasshoppers

The idea that work is the meaning of existence has little basis in biology. Let us guiltlessly enjoy the sweet idleness of summer

Of course, work is a good and necessary thing in its place. It stops you from starving, directs your energies and can even offer friendship and community. But nature writers like Mabey have pointed out that seeing work as the meaning of life is a human, metaphysical invention; it has little basis in biology. Play, not work, seems to be the defining essence of life on earth.

While the new austerity requires us to put a price on everything, play remains priceless precisely because it is pointless: a way of simply enjoying and celebrating life when life is all we have. Play is also free, egalitarian and equilibrium-loving: it costs nothing and asks for nothing in return and is therefore an excellent model for sustainable living with scarce resources.


Angus Macqueen is the guy who made the four-part series on drugs policy, which I commented on yesterday. This is an article he wrote about drugs in last Sunday's Observer:

Why do we so wilfully cover up the failure of the war on drugs?

The vulnerable are left unprotected by our attitudes to substance abuse, argues a leading documentary maker

Drugs policies have little to do with science, health risk or harm. They have been hijacked by the emotive rhetoric of moralists.

This fear of the Daily Mail is a dishonest excuse – the truth is that there is a collective lack of will to address one of our major social problems. We bury our heads and pretend that banning drugs equals regulation. Quite the reverse; driving drugs underground leaves them unregulated and consumers unprotected.


The Shock Doctrine
Coalition is more radical than Thatcher government, says senior Tory minister

Francis Maude defends scope and speed of reforms with claim earlier governments have not pushed ahead vigorously enough


Former MI5 chief delivers damning verdict on Iraq invasion

Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller tells Chilcot that invasion increased terrorist threat and radicalised young British Muslims


Polly Toymbee was on form with this piece on the government's intentions for the NHS:

This is no careful plan: the NHS is being wired for demolition at breakneck speed

Analysts are aghast at the sheer recklessness of the proposals. Yet the Tories proceed with no answers to the basic questions

Simon Jenkins has been keeping up his relentless attacks on our follies in the Middle East:

A history of folly, from the Trojan horse to Afghanistan

By recording failure in meticulous detail, the leaked war logs bear devastating witness to our incompetence

I cannot avoid the conclusion that, just as the Pashtun are said to be "hardwired to fight", so now are certain western regimes. War is about sating the military-security-industrial complex, a lobby so potent that, long after the cold war ended, it can induce democratic leaders to expend quantities of blood and money on such specious pretexts as suppressing dictators in one country and terror in another.

Like puppets dancing to manufactured fears and dreams of glory, these leaders have lost their grip on Plato's "sacred golden cord of reason". Until that grip is restored, the folly revealed by the war logs will continue.

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The coalition inherited a mendacious foreign policy, leading to two disastrous wars. Time now for an honourable peace

Commentators are often asked to predict history's verdict on a particular era, and are well advised to decline. But it is hard not to see western policy in the first decade of the 21st century as sunk in a morass of folly. It was subcontracted to a defence lobby desperate for a role, which it found in exploiting weak leaders by playing on the ideology of fear.

It has led the US and Britain into contentious relations with the entire Muslim world, fuelling anti-western sentiment not only across Asia but, as Manningham-Buller pointed out, among Muslim populations within the west. The last decade has seen an entire foreign policy elite lose the art of friendship. Bred under the communist threat, the west's leaders craved a mighty enemy and found it by exaggerating the threat from militant Islam and elevating terrorist gangs to the status of state enemies.

As a result, British policy has relied on one outdated premise after another.

Foreign policy lurched into paranoid mode. Guantánamo filled with victims and ludicrous sums were spent on security. The world responded in kind. Airports became nests of xenophobia.

This was nowhere better demonstrated than in Blair's dreadful January appearance before the Chilcot inquiry, which now meekly claims to be unconcerned with the legality of the Iraq war (so what is it concerned with?). All evidence has testified that the war was a mistake and undermined Britain's security. Blair's contradictory display of pro-war self-delusion, arrogance and folly should be a textbook video for any school of 21st-century statesmanship.


Seamus Milne pitched in with this:

Now Afghanistan too shows the limits of American power

The catastrophic illusions and acts of official betrayal at the heart of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being progressively exposed, one after another. In London, the former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller confirmed to the Iraq inquiry this week  that the security service had indeed warned Tony Blair's government that aggression against Iraq, "on top of our involvement in Afghanistan", would violently radicalise a generation of young Muslims and "substantially" increase the threat of terror attacks in Britain.

And so it came to pass. A few days earlier, Carne Ross, Britain's former representative at the UN responsible for Iraq before the invasion, told the inquiry that the British government's statements about its assessment of the threat from Saddam Hussein "were, in their totality, lies". In due course, those lies were brutally exposed.

It's easy to be inured to the power of such indictments after nine years of the war on terror and its litany of torture, kidnapping, atrocities and mass killing. But together with a string of earlier revelations they do combine to highlight the utter disgrace of the British political and security establishment, which deceived the public about a war it was well aware in advance would expose them to great danger.

The reason for such official dissembling and recklessness is also now clear enough. The British commitment to join the attack on Iraq was transparently never driven by the supposed menace of Saddam or the legal casuistry advanced at the time, but by an overriding commitment to put Britain at the service of US power, under whoever's leadership and wherever that might take it at any particular time. The "blood price", as Blair called it, for this – David Cameron made explicit last week – subservient relationship had to be paid.


It's good to see Susie Orbach writing again in the Guardian:

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