Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Excellent night of stand up at the Bloomsbury Theatre last night. This was a benefit gig in support of the Amnesty campaign to free Iranian journalist Hengameh Shahidi. Good cause and a good laugh - what more do you want? As an added bonus I was able to take a short cut through UCL and have a look at Jeremy Bentham in his glass case. Was that a wink of approval I thought I saw?
Sunday, 27 September 2009
Congestion Charge, Tube Strike, Road Works, Fare Increase. Essential travel is a huge preoccupation for Londoners. It would be interesting to know how many people in Greater London are employed close enough to home to be able take a fifteen minute walk to work. Very few I suspect. The 'school run' is an expression that has now become part of modern English and sometimes these kids are being driven miles. Driving kids to school. Travelling to work. Travelling back to arrive home and slump exhausted in front of the telly. Is this a life? Was it for this that the labour movement of old struggled? Of course, no one wants a return to the isolated and parochial communities of the nineteenth century. Exploring the world at large is one of life's great pleasures. Perhaps this is the key to the whole problem. If work, education, shopping etc. can be provided locally travel could then assume it's rightful place as an adventure, rather than a stressful, dreary, alienating necessity.
Saturday, 26 September 2009
Europe on the eve of the First World War was on the one hand a continent on the brink of socialist revolution and at the same time, to a large extent, the private estate of one very powerful extended family. The British Monarchy and their close relatives the Hapsburgs, Romanovs and Hohenzollerns were about to have a family falling out that would result in millions dead on the battlefields, human misery on an unprecedented scale and the unravelling of a social order. Almost a century later and in many ways Europe is unrecognizable.We might be no closer to a socialist utopia but at least that ludicrous Gilbert and Sullivan cast of Kings and Queens, Archdukes and Emperors has finally been consigned to the great historical waste disposal unit. Apart that is from our very own House of Windsor who seem determined to hang around like a bad smell on the landing. It is easy to laugh off the Royals as nothing more than inbred buffoons who, if they do no good, are capable of doing little harm and at least provide amusement for American tourists. It's just that with the civil list standing at 14 million quid annually it's probably a joke that we can ill afford. No matter how much we snigger at Mad Charlie and the rest, I can't help thinking that they are having the last laugh.
Sunday, 20 September 2009
The triangle of land sits between the stretch of railway connecting Queenstown Road and Vauxhall stations, the South bank of The River, and to the West, the Queenstown Road approach to Chelsea Bridge. The long disused Battersea Power Station, an arts project in waiting, towers over the last port of call for London's ever expanding pack of unwanted Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Battersea Dogs Home. The busy Nine Elms Lane cuts through a landscape that includes a large Postal Sorting Office, the approach road to the New Covent Garden Market and a collection of offices and warehouses, not all of them empty. At the Vauxhall Cross end of the triangle a number of expensive looking blocks of the dreaded 'riverside development' have sprung up, surely a taste of things to come. This is the part of town chosen for the new United States Embassy and I predict that this very ordinary area of post industrial South London is soon going to be scene of a financial and security drama of Olympic proportions. The Battle of Nine Elms may make all those Grosvenor Square skirmishes seem quite pedestrian.
Thursday, 17 September 2009
At one time comics used to give away free gifts to encourage sales, maybe they still do. I wonder if any of those gifts have survived and if there are perfectly respectable grandfathers who lock themselves in the loo from time to time and stare lovingly at their dog eared Desperate Dan Club membership card? Everything came full circle this week with the Guardian giving away reproductions of classic comics of the seventies and eighties. Dandy, Beano, Roy of the Rovers, all good stuff but it was the 1971 first ever issue of Tammy that did it for me. Tammy, why didn't I know about this at the time? I can only assume that Tammy was written by ex LSE students who thought that it might be more fun than Red Mole. Take a look at My Father-My Enemy the heartening tale of Julie Jeffries-The Rich Girl With The Rebel Spirit. Julie doesn't rebel against her Victorian mine owner dad by doing a bit of spliff, or spending a few days at climate camp. No, Julia helps organise the miners in there first ever trade union. Bit vanguardist and all that, but blimey! And anyway what did Roy Race ever do for the class struggle?
In Slaves of War Orphan Farm (prisoners of an evil and ruthless woman) evacuee children from London are farmed out by the woman who is supposed to be caring for them to work in a nearby quarry. The name given this foul oppressor? Mrs Thatcher. It's at times like this that I think that I understand what the surrealists were on about. The Iron Lady was Secretary of State for Education at the time - and clearly Tammy had her number.
Monday, 14 September 2009
You have to hand it to Vera Lynn, still pretty chipper at 92 and still able to top the charts. The 'Forces Sweetheart' was a massive hit with the troops and numbers like 'We'll Meet Again' and 'White Cliffs of Dover' have become a part of the popular perception of WW2. But if you fancy something a little more risque than Vera's clean living, girl next door act, try and get hold of a copy of Florence Desmond's 1940 recording of 'I've Got The Deepest Shelter in Town'. Spirit of the blitz or what?
Independent think tank New Local Government Network have just published a report calling on government and local authorities to release brownfield sites for small scale agricultural use. The report goes on to suggest that the national shortage of allotments should be met by wealthy landowners (including the Royal Family) allowing land to be used for this purpose and that if this can't be done on a voluntary basis compulsory transfer of unused land to local communities will have to be considered. When you recover from the shock find out more here.
Saturday, 12 September 2009
There aren't all that many memorable legacies of the 70's squatting and community action movement but one that does stand out is Vauxhall City Farm. Few visitors to this oasis of calm and common sense located a couple of minutes walk from MI6 HQ probably realise that it all started with a bunch of trouble making lefty soap dodgers thirty odd years ago. I popped in the other day to top up on that good feeling that I always get when leaning on a fence rail and gazing at livestock. A lovely feeling, and a lovely place. From the farm I wondered over Vauxhall Bridge and pausing only to check that Brixton's very own lost river, The Effra, was still flowing into the Thames under the MI6 building, headed North. In no time at all I had arrived at my destination, the illustrious Regency Cafe. The Regency is one of the premier eating houses in town (if you don't believe me ask any cabbie) and unlike many otherwise decent cafes serves a proper quality British Banger with the sausage, egg and chips. This gem of a place is a real cafe with real food and a real cafe atmosphere. Classic cafes and city farms; London at it's best.
Friday, 11 September 2009
Gordon Brown is responsible for many things but the appalling treatment of wartime code breaker Alan Turing is not one of them. We seem to have developed a need to apologise for historical events sometimes centuries old and over which we could not possibly have any control.
Just as the holocaust is not the responsibility of Germans who's parents had not been born at the time so too am I innocent of responsibility for the treatment of gays in the 1950s, slavery and the horrors of the Norman Conquest. We need to learn from history, not apologise for it. We may shed a tear for victims of the past but we must then move on, and address the injustices of today.
Thursday, 10 September 2009
I don't suppose that the NHS can ever keep up. What I mean is that as medical science advances, making more and more procedures available, so the demand on time and resources must inevitably increase as well. This combined with an ageing population and increased expectations means that the NHS will be forever running just to stay in the same spot. Creeping privatization, targets, media sniping and new layers of bureaucracy, none of this helps but by and large the front line staff just get on with it and knuckle down to provide amazing levels of kindness and professionalism. So why have management at Swindon's Great Western Hospital suspended seven doctors and nurses for playing the Facebook "lying down game"? It's not what you think. The game actually involves posting pictures of yourself lying down in unusual places; the floor of casualty and an air ambulance helipad in this case. There are few things more dispiriting than a "no fun" workplace and the more stressful the job and the more committed the workforce the more they will tend to lark about. It builds cohesion and morale. It's what makes the world go round and truly the world will only be free when the last capitalist is strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
There are some books that one has known about for years, seen reviewed and mentioned in passing countless times, but just never seem to get round to reading. Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie was one such book until I picked up a copy a few days ago. It's a wonderful read of course. As an example of the craft of writing alone it stands out, but it is as a record of a lost rural way of life that it is most famous. A way of life that is lost, and I suspect was unlamented, by those who had to endure it. The Cotswolds of Laurie Lee's childhood was replaced eventually by a sterile landscape of second homes for the chattering classes but before we start to wring our hands about the passing of an idyllic, rustic lost age we would do well to remember that for many people the old days were one long round of poverty, ignorance, back breaking work and economic exploitation. The rural past might look attractive from the safe high ground of the London suburbs; less so from a tied cottage with a brood of kids to feed and a wife dying in childbirth.
Tuesday, 8 September 2009
I'm not big on DIY and home improvements but yesterday seemed like as good a time as any to paint our old kitchen table so I spread some newspaper on the floor and set to. Now as an atheist I find it a matter of regret that people believe in any of the many brands of medieval superstition on offer and certainly never get involved in religious infighting or sectarian squabbles. I also very rarely find anything amusing in The Observer but there it was, on the kitchen floor in front of me , a piece by one Kevin McKenna that started, "We Catholics are fond of mocking Protestant rectitude. We tell each other that Presbyterians don't like sex standing up as it may lead to dancing." Laugh? I nearly knocked the paint over.
Monday, 7 September 2009
Critics of the Green Party have been known to compare it to a water melon - green on the outside but red at heart. If only. None the less the Brighton conference has seen considerable effort to take the party beyond being a mere environmental campaign group and establish some kind of political world view. There has been much talk of equality, defending the NHS and root and branch changes to our social and political fabric. So are the Greens a libertarian socialist party? Not yet. They still seem to have a real problem about laying their cards on the table. Are they merely looking to create a nice green capitalism, a capitalism without the nasty bits? Indeed do they, like Porrit and his ilk, believe such a thing is possible? Where do the Greens stand on hierarchy, class and profit? More to the point, is the apparent reticence on these issues due to not being sure, not having thought it all through yet, or is it fear that getting too radical may make them unelectable? If it's the latter you can be sure that the New Green modernisers are waiting in the wings. We shall see.
Tuesday, 1 September 2009
Brighton, the summer of 1978. In April me and 80,000 others had marched across National Front turf to see Jimmy Pursey jam with The Clash in Victoria Park. It all seemed downhill from there. Punk couldn't last of course. Not as anything that was even mildly threatening to the bastions of power. Punk was doomed to become just another facet of pop-culture, albeit one that provided hours of fun. People like me had no right to expect anything else, but that didn't help the feelings of disappointment as the 70's drew to a close and the grim reality of what the 80's might hold started to dawn on me. No direction known. I needed a pick-me-up big time and there it was, in the job section of the Argus, WANTED, CIRCUS HANDS.
The Brighton Centre was playing host to a circus for a couple of months and they were hiring local labour as ring-hands. I could join the circus without running away! Perfect. In no time at all I was rigging safety nets for the trapeze artists, leading a camel into the ring (my camel was called Iran and it was love at first sight) and quickly running in with a shovel to remove piles of horse, camel and elephant poo. Bobby Robert's elephant act provided me with my personal high point. Along with another guy I would lug a heavy revolving mirror globe into the centre of the ring. On top of the globe was welded a steel plate and we would go down on one knee, place our hands under the plate to steady it as the elephant did a handstand. Bobby said that it was important not to put our thumbs on top of the plate to avoid having them trodden on. I could see his point. Once the elephant was in the handstand position we would back off and with a gentle shove from Bobby the beast would revolve a couple of times and dismount. That was our signal to run back into the ring and retrieve the prop. We had four seconds to do this before the rest of the elephants came charging into the ring. It's surprising how fast you can run when surrounded by charging elephants.
Lauri Lupino Lane came from a famous theatrical family, had been the star of the pre-war musical hit "Me and My Girl" and had made "The Lambeth Walk" an all time hit. Here he was doing what I came to learn is known as a "slop act", playing the fool with ladders and buckets of shaving foam. Looks easy but is actually a very highly skilled act. I was proud to carry his buckets. I marvelled at the skill and daring of the high flying Star Lords and that legendary trapeze artist Miss Mara and learnt the secret of sawing a lady in half from Ricky and Roddy. Jasmin Smart, legs seemingly reaching to her armpits, rode her beautiful Palomino horse. Chinese contortionists, crazy clowns, unridable mules. Two shows a day, six days a week. The stress levels could have powered a small town but I loved every minute of it. Punk was dead but the circus lived, and just for a while I was a small part of that special world.