Friday, June 10, 2011

Layer 472 . . . Alfie Bowe, Songs and Singers, AC Grayling, Rowan Williams, Blair, Bunnies, Private Equity and Phone Hacking

Opera singer Alfie Bowe, brought up in Fleetwood, Lancashire, said this on Desert Island Discs -

"I never actually go to the opera. It's not my world. I don't feel comfortable in it. I love singing and performing, but sitting in the audience I'm bored stiff."

So there we have it. I love the honesty of this man.

And his choice of music! First disc - Bob Dylan: Knocking On Heaven's Door.

He's from a family of nine, whose father used to deliver groceries on his bike.

"I don't just like one genre of music. I like good music and good singers."

He also chose The Beatles' "A Day In The Life", Led Zeppelin's "Rain Song", and the Floyd's "Comfortably Numb". Brilliant. This is a guy who REALLY knows about good singers. "Robert Plant is the Rock God."

He also said, "It's an incredible thing - being present at the birth of your child, and the death of your father."


SJ hits the nail right on the head in today's paper - as ever:

AC Grayling has caricatured British universities. No wonder they're fuming

The New College of Humanities founder has exposed higher education as a luxury consumable for the middle classes

By Simon Jenkins

This has been a purple week for red rage. The hirsute philosopher, AC Grayling, may call himself a "pinko" but his embryo London humanities university in Bedford Square has induced apoplexy in the old left . . . The Kropotkin of our age, Terry Eagleton, claims to be fit to vomit.

What Grayling has done is caricature the British university. He has cartooned it as no longer an academic community but a high-end luxury consumable for the middle classes, operating roughly half a year, with dons coming and going at will, handing down wisdom in between television and book tours. Just when state universities have been freed by the coalition to triple their income per student (initially at public expense) to £9,000, Grayling has mischievously doubled that to £18,000

Grayling thus reveals today's "anti-fees" demonstrators for what they are: middle-class militants protecting their parents' incomes from fees today and their own incomes from a graduate tax tomorrow. He wants to make the rich pips squeak.

The academic left needs the comfort blanket of state finance for a reason. It covers the unpleasant truth that universities are a benefit chiefly to the present and future middle classes. Universities in general redistribute money from average tax payers to rich ones and are anti-egalitarian. Their staff do not teach in sink schools or give literacy classes in prison or wrestle with Haringey social services.

I blame the Liberal Democrats. Their impact on every coalition policy has been dire, but nowhere more than in abolishing university fees while still pretending they exist. By converting the student cost of a university education into a postponed surtax, and loading the immediate cost on to the Treasury, the coalition relieves thousands of families who could well afford fees from doing so. Why should any parent meet their offspring's future tax liability at age 18?

Yet by implying that fees still exist, the Lib Dems must have deterred thousands of poorer students from applying to university. The policy is as cruel as it is mendacious. 

This is the desperate state of affairs that Grayling and co have ridiculed. Their college is exploiting the global intellectual melting pot that is London, to make a point and make a profit. In this they are no different from any publisher, broadcaster, magazine or private clinic.

They have lobbed a few well-aimed grenades at the preference of state universities for incomprehensible research at the expense of teaching, for science at the expense of humanities and for scholarly pursuit at the expense of career opportunities. The proposed emphasis on developing a student's critical, logical and life skills is admirable, as is the determination to draw on London's cultural vitality. That said, I would still be amazed if the venture succeeds.


Archbishop of the opposition

While Labour's leader Ed Miliband is muted, it is right for Rowan Williams to speak out on social justice

by Giles Fraser

Should the church get stuck into the mucky world of politics? How ridiculous – of course it should. Dom Hélder Câmara, former Roman Catholic archbishop in Brazil, put it perfectly: "When I give to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."

The coalition government is letting down the most vulnerable in our society.

Where is Ed Miliband? Has he gone to sleep on the job?

The archbishop's electoral deficit does not disqualify him from speaking out on issues of social justice where he has the overwhelming majority of the church behind him. The very fact that his opinions do not need to be muffled by the deadening constraints of the focus group helps to generate a public debate in areas where career politicians are often too bland and cautious. What the archbishop said is only controversial because the elected politicians are not saying it themselves. Even-handed in his criticism, the archbishop rightly bemoans the lack of a coherent vision for society emerging from the Labour party itself: "We are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like."

Like it or not, the voice of the theologian is back in the public square.


This is also excellent -

The journey's over, Tony Blair

Tony Blair supports the Arab spring and wants to heal Africa. Laudable aims but breathtaking hypocrisy

by Ian Birrell

Switching on the Today programme yesterday, it was like an unwelcome blast from the past. There was Tony Blair, that familiar mixture of evangelical fervour and earnest sincerity, putting the world to rights with his views on the coalition, Europe and events in the Middle East.

Money, of course, lay behind his appearance on the show, since he was promoting the paperback edition of his biography. Just as money lay behind his decision to take free holidays at the expense of the Egyptian people while in power, ignoring complaints from families of those being tortured in the country's notorious jails.

As blood began to run in the streets during the tense standoff in Tahrir Square, Blair hailed Mubarak as "immensely courageous and a force for good".

But what breathtaking hypocrisy to place himself in the vanguard of the movement for change in the region, diminishing the Arab spring to a struggle between modernisers and reactionaries and saying the Gulf states must change or lose our support. This is the man, after all, who earned a seven-figure sum advising the Kuwaiti royal family, and rakes in a fortune giving speeches in the region.

Just recall, if you can bear to, how he cosied up to the Libyan leader he now wants to see overthrown . . .

Little wonder the dictator's son saw him as "a personal family friend".

Even worse was Blair's appeasement of the Saudi royal family in perhaps the most disgraceful episode of his time in office, when his pressure led to the halting of the landmark BAE bribery case. This was an incident that demeaned our country, usurping Britain's legal process to avoid upsetting a repressive and – to use his own words – reactionary regime.

The BAE move sent a signal round the world that Britain turned a blind eye to allegations of corruption, ensuring autocrats could feel safe laundering their stolen money here with the help of pin-striped pimps in our finance houses, law firms and estate agencies. Large-scale larceny by the likes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and the Assad family in Syria was one of the primary sparks for the explosion of protest – and all had substantial holdings in Britain.

Shameless corruption is one of the primary causes of poor governance across Africa. Now Blair proclaims it as part of his mission to heal the continent he once called "a scar on the conscience of the world". 

Now he has the effrontery to speak about the importance of freedom of expression in north Africa.

You can almost admire the brazen way Blair ploughs on, ignoring his past and brushing aside uncomfortable facts as he seeks to play a part in shaping the future. But then you remember how he backed an ethical foreign policy before ending up an apologist for torture.

As well as promoting his book, it is part of a desperate bid to promote himself as a future elected president of Europe. Someone should tell him the journey's over.


This is the best article I've read so far on the debate about "childhood sexualisation" - because it focuses on children themselves, and their points of view, and it also highlights the whole agenda to suppress sexuality in general and sex/relationships education.

Playboy bunnies? We should be more upset by Poor Kids

The moral crusade against childhood sexualisation isn't top of most parents' agenda – or that of the children allegedly at risk

by Libby Brooks

What goes through the mind of an 11-year-old girl as she picks a Playboy bunny-emblazoned pencil case from the shop display? . . .

I wouldn't want to speculate further because I'm an adult, and thus can't speak for children.

Still, since the publication of the Bailey review on Monday, grownups have been speaking a lot about children . . . 

It may be too late to backpedal to a point where we can usefully define what is actually meant by "sexualisation". And it is problematic to ask children about a term that is so freighted with adult anxieties. Very little work has been done that takes into account young people's views – and when they are included it's usually in a limited fashion, responding to an adult-set agenda.

But when researchers have looked beyond the generalised public account of innocence corrupted, young people present themselves as active, knowledgeable and nuanced consumers.

Anyone who watched Poor Kids, Jezza Neumann's powerful documentary about some of the 3.5 million British children living below the poverty line would have been prompted to ask whether sexualisation is indeed the most pressing harm facing our young people. Of course, a social concern is not rendered benign because it is the least of the evils on offer. But this is a preoccupation favoured by the white middle classes who have the means to buy their way out and, on occasion, the inclination to use it as a method of policing other people's parenting choices, and their taste.

There is deep disquiet among professionals that this crusade will end up cutting off young people from the sexual advice and support services they need. As much as we require more effective research into the links between, say, thongs and teenage pregnancy – with more input from young people themselves – we owe it to ourselves and our children to interrogate whose agenda this serves and what that agenda is. It's all too easy for legitimate, loving adult anxieties to be used as window-dressing for a far harsher and more insidious governmental moralism.


This is a brilliant column by Peter Wilby, on a subject a lot of people don't even know exists, let alone know anything about -

Rampant private equity will mean more Southern Crosses

Without tight regulation, this institutionalised corporate irresponsibility – capitalism at its most barbaric – will triumph

Private equity takes over firms and often does bad things – otherwise known as "efficiencies" – such as sacking workers, cutting wages, selling off assets, walking away from pension liabilities and screwing suppliers. But exactly what private equity is, why it does bad things and why it is so important are not widely understood. Business journalists rarely explain it, presumably on the same principle that sports journalists don't explain leg-before-wicket or offside.

Private equity plays a central role in what modish academics call "late capitalism"

Politicians endlessly debate the merits of public ownership versus privatisation. When business people use those terms, however, they mean something different. To them public ownership means not a nationalised industry directly accountable to taxpayers but a public limited company (plc) in which shares are traded on the stock market under strict rules. Such firms are required, for instance, to announce biannual financial results, issue warnings if profits are about to plunge, abide by rules of corporate governance, and publish annually details such as employee numbers, wage costs and remuneration of senior executives. In short, they have to meet standards of accountability and transparency.

A private firm has no such obligations. It is largely beyond the reach of public regulation – or "red tape" – and it can keep many of its financial arrangements, and even the identity of its owners, out of the public eye. After the US introduced new rules for publicly owned companies in the wake of Enron and other scandals, many went private, so they could, as it were, do their dirty capitalist business in the dark . . . 

[Publicly owned companies have] been the dominant form of corporate capitalism for the past 150 years. If it is lost, capitalism in its rawest, most fundamentalist and arguably barbaric form will have triumphed. Public companies are under growing pressure to accept "corporate social responsibility". Private equity institutionalises corporate irresponsibility.

The left needs to focus far more on challenging the argument that regulation equals burdensome "red tape" and on pressing for effective control of private sector firms, particularly where public services are involved. In the future, as health and education as well as social care are increasingly traded as commodities, private equity will pose a much bigger threat to vital public services than the industrial action against which the Tories threaten to legislate.

Four years ago, when private equity was flourishing, there was an intense political debate about more regulation. The result was a voluntary code of conduct, mainly concerning greater transparency. Most private equity firms don't subscribe to it and, of those that do, about half don't observe it. EU regulations take effect in 2013 but, after intense lobbying, are so enfeebled that unions describe the glass as not so much half full as barely above empty. Don't hold your breath for more from a Tory-led government. But Labour and – dare we hope? – the Lib Dems should at least be pressing for tight restrictions on the role of private equity and high debt in companies that supply public services. Otherwise, there will be many more Southern Crosses, with children and hospital patients as well as old people thrown on the taxpayer's mercy.



Welfare reform: Canterbury tales

At the heart of the archbishop of Canterbury's comments is a shrewd and important observation

At the heart of his comments is a shrewd and important observation. His central contention is that the sense of a society underpinned by mutual responsibility – the essence of Beveridge – has been in decline for decades (certainly since his predecessor Robert Runcie tackled Mrs Thatcher about it 30 years ago) and is now on the point of collapse.

This is why language matters. Mr Duncan Smith's welfare reform programme is far from perfect but, in an article commissioned by the archbishop, he describes it in the language of empowerment, of supporting marginalised communities. It is a different animal to reforms motivated by assigning merit and penalising those found undeserving, a view that seemed to underlie – say – the way George Osborne originally proposed a cap on housing benefit. At least in theory, the Duncan Smith approach is meant to work with the grain of community, and the Osborne version against it. It is the difference between a society of rights and responsibilities and an atomised world of individuals. A fundamental question – three cheers to Rowan Williams for raising it.


Phone-hacking scandal: Time for a public inquiry

News Corp has conducted the most feeble non-inquiries of its own. It has denied the allegations, throwing mud at its accusers

The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has a problem. His instincts – and possibly his advisers and lawyers – are in favour of remaking the British media landscape by allowing News Corp to have full control of BSkyB. But with every passing day the politics of the decision become harder as more and more evidence comes to light that questions whether News Corp is really a fit and proper business to be allowed to become easily the most dominant media company in Britain – owning nearly 40% of the national press as well as 100% of a TV company generating £6bn a year in revenues.


Phone hacking: End this toxic culture now

The police, the government – and spineless MPs who've settled with News International – have failed in their democratic duty


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