“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Thursday, 27 February 2014

What's done is done.

Munching my way through a slice of toast and marmalade with a background noise of the Today Program on the radio. It was Bishop Tom Butler's turn to speak on Thought For The Day and I wasn't paying much attention. I heard mention of the 1190 massacre of the Jews in the city of York. The Bishop then went on to talk about a proposal by the Spanish government to make amends for the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews some five hundred years ago. Apparently decendents of these Jewish victims of the inquisition may be offered Spanish citizenship. Having practised on the Jews the devoutly Catholic Isabella and Ferdinand proceeded to get rid of the larger Muslim population. Would the decendents of expelled Muslims also be entitled to a Spanish passport? Like much else in life there would of course be an EU dimension to all of this. I spread marmalade on another slice and poured coffee. I always have misgivings about historical hand wringing. Apologising for past injustices that happened generations ago always seems a bit pointless somehow. I mean how far back do you go? Roman Empire? Norman Conquest? Far better surely to try and do the right thing now. Anyway, as I say, I was only half listening. Suddenly the Bishop had my full attention. Did I hear him mention Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean? That some Sephardic Jews took revenge on the Spanish crown by looting the Spanish Main and sailing under both the skull and crossbones and the Star of David? Was the Bish having a bit of an ecclesiastical wind up? I know that Tom Butler is fond of a drink but surely he wasn't pissed at quarter to eight in the morning? Not a bit of it. It's all true. There is even a book. Bound to be at least one website devoted to Jewish Pirates. A whole new field of anoraky enquiry opens up. If only Harriet Harman had nailed the NCCL colours to the mast of the Jewish Pirate Appreciation Society rather than to that of the Paedophile Information Exchange how much easier would her life be today. But like I say, what's done is done.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Yarmouk. Is this all there is?

The philosopher John Gray maintains that much human misery has resulted from the mistaken belief in the perfectibility of humankind. I tend to agree and when people tell me that anarchist ideas are impractical and will always fall foul of "human nature",  rather than argue the toss about the nature of humanity, I prefer to suggest that if we are as malevolent as they think then that is all the more reason to have a system that holds in check the greed and ambition of some individuals. I have no idea what humanity is capable of achieving. I do know that the unchecked lust for wealth and power has combined with modern firepower to give us a world where grief and misery fill the days of so many. I also know that  it is not possible to watch and listen to Lyse Doucet's moving report from the Yarmouk refugee camp without thinking that surely we can do better than this.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Kiev shows the power of the masses but what now?

It is almost impossible at this distance to make any meaningful comments about the fast moving situation in Ukraine. It looks as though the masses on the streets of Kiev have driven Yanukovych from power but it remains to be seen what will follow today's interlude of comparative calm. I see little point, however tempting it might be, in trawling the internet or the Ukrainian diaspora for traces of a political current that mirrors our own opinions; but that of course is exactly what the left in Western Europe will be doing. For myself, the one beacon of hope beyond all of the nationalism and religious fervour that we are witnessing on our TV screens, is the example of a courageous and determined population who decided to take matters into their own hands. As has been shown by so very many revolutionary situations, up to and including the  Arab Spring, from here on things can move in quite unexpected directions.  All we can do is wish the people well and urge them to remember that oldest of political lessons - never trust a politician. No Gods. No Masters.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Atos protest could do with Wu Ming.

Triton Square is a unwelcoming canyon hidden between some of the Euston Road's more hostile office blocks. It's a fitting location for the UK HQ of the hated work capacity assessors Atos. Today has seen a national day of protest against the company who have been the scourge of the disabled, the mentally ill and the lost souls of the employment market. I don't know what happened in other locations but the Triton Square turnout can't have exceeded three dozen and will hardly have Atos bosses shaking in their boots.
Back home I switched the radio on and was just in time to catch Radio4's Europe's Troublemakers. Today's episode featured the Italian literary collective and political pranksters, Wu Ming. Cheered me up no end.

Monday, 17 February 2014

On the Brussels Beat.

What is it with Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho? Not content with constantly slagging off the Arsenal he is now telling the Jocks that an independent Scotland will not be able to join the EU.
I think I got that right.

Friday, 14 February 2014

How skiffle inadvertently told the truth about the Wild West.

Popular culture frequently distorts history, and usually presents a sanitised version of the past that fits in with the "national story" of the status quo. If you relied on the Hollywood and pulp fiction version of the American West you could be forgiven for thinking that the frontier was a peculiarly white undertaking. When I was a kid  Western films, comics and novels influenced  how we viewed "adventure" and also helped form our ideas of what it meant to be a "hero" and in this world of hard riding, fast drawing action a black face very rarely appeared.

More recently this version of the past has been challenged and we now know that as many as a quarter of old time cowboys were black. In the first half of the twentieth century the cowboy was seen as the epitome of the decency and honest self-reliance that was central to the American Dream. To admit that this square jawed hero was just as likely black would question the right to treat Afro-Americans as second class citizens so the black cowboy was airbrushed from frontier history.

At the same time that pop culture portrayed the western hero as exclusively white the black male was shown to be generally decent but dim, downtrodden and subservient. The reality was that even in the worst years of Jim Crow many blacks refused to toe the line and lived a dangerous, marginal, renegade life. There were black outlaws as well as black cowboys.

Meanwhile, in the wild east of Leyton I was graduating from practising fast draws with my Gat air pistol and starting to take an interest in music and leaning provocatively against the jukebox in the local cafe. Lonnie Donegan was popularising an up tempo version of American folk and few of us had a clue what he was singing about or about the roots of the music. Railroad Bill was a favourite and if the identity of Railroad Bill remained a mystery the idea of, "A 38 pistol on a 45 frame" sounded unbearably cool. It would be years later before I discovered that the Railroad Bill referred to was one of those black gunfighters who's very existence was denied by books and film.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

University fears spaghetti monster may offend the faithful.

Humanism can be a bit worthy and po-faced at times so it's good to see some light hearted baiting of the god-botherers. Less amused are the apparatchiks at SouthBank University who have banned this poster by the uni Atheist Society. These days universities seem incredibly concerned about causing offence to followers of any crackpot medieval superstition and the authorities in every second rate college of knowledge consider themselves to be arbiters of taste. Is this in any way connected to the huge sums of money that universities make from foreign students not to mention the endowments from rich but religious parts of the world? Perhaps these academic bureaucrats should have a re-read of their old course notes on The Enlightenment. But what do I know?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

It's not posh down on the flooded plotlands.

It's a popular misconception that all of the Thames Valley is a posh area populated in the main by  stockbrokers and rock stars. But it's not all like Henley, Marlow and Cookham. Further downstream, the places that we are seeing on the news every night, Shepperton, Chertsey, Sunbury, are far from affluent and are in fact old plotlands where the shacks have been partly replaced by brick built bungalows. It's a neck of the woods that I know quite well from my time working on the river. The eccentric, marginal world of the plotlands is best recorded in Colin Ward and Denis Hardy's wonderful, Arcadia For All.
People built in places like Jaywick, Canvey Island and the floodplain of the Thames because the land was cheap and it offered the opportunity to have a little place of your own in the country. The old former plotlands are many things but posh and affluent they are certainly not.

Monday, 10 February 2014

And you thought that it was going to be a flood of Romanians!

The waters are rising and so it seems are tempers and expectations of someone, anyone, doing something about it. One thing that we do seem particularly good at these days is apportioning blame. I TOLD you that there was climate change. Eric Pickles blames the Environment Agency. One hydrologist has gone on record as saying that Pickles would be more use as a sandbag. Where are the army? The dredgers? I'm only surprised that Cameron has not yet blamed the deluge on "the mess left behind by Gordon Brown". Look, let's be honest. It must be an incredibly depressing experience to have your home and belongings ruined by flood water and the raw sewage that frequently accompanies it. But apart from sandbags and evacuation there is little that can be done at this stage but wait for the waters to recede. Then the clean up operation can get underway and people can start rebuilding their lives. Just a couple of things to dwell on. Take a walk around The City and Canary Wharf and then tell me that this country can't afford a proper integrated flood defence system. And just thank your lucky stars that you don't live in Bangladesh where flood resulting in a death toll in the thousands are not unusual.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Putin voted top gay icon. Everything to play for in Sochi.

The Winter Olympics has never really captured my imagination until recently. The events must be great fun to participate in but don't do it for me as a spectator. That is until I started watching the snowboarding yesterday. Amazing! Just totally gobsmacking skill and courage. I thought that Jenny Jones was a frizzy haired woman from the Green Party, but no, she is in fact Bronze Medallist in "slopestyle". The snowboarders seem like such a nice bunch of kids who love their sport and genuinely want each other to do well. Bit like the skateboarders at the Southbank.
Of course the other big talking point at Sochi is President Putin's demand that this year only sex of the most traditional variety will be permitted in the Olympic Village. But could anything be more camp than an Olympic Opening Ceremony and who would have thought that Putin himself would turn out to be the biggest gay icon since Dusty Springfield? Word to the wise Vladimir - you can't go flashing yer pecs at every opportunity while indulging in every ultra-manly pursuit that the great outdoors can offer without some people putting two and two together.
I did ask Her Indoors what was meant by "traditional sex" but she just muttered something that I didn't quite catch.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Financial transparency is the way to go.

I have been arguing for TOTAL FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY FOR ALL for some time and it has always seemed to me to be a sure fire way of putting the cat amongst the pigeons. I don't just mean finding out how rich the rich actually are but transparency for all of us. Every pay slip, tax return, property deal, shares portfolio should all be in the public domain. Post modern life has created a sexual transparency unheard of in the past. We know all kinds of details about other people's intimacies but the former privacy of the bedroom has been replaced by a compulsive secrecy about financial matters that simply plays into the hands of the power elite. How much we earn is "private" but start breaking this taboo and all kinds of things might happen. I had to deal with "performance related pay" in one job. Of course it was a device to isolate staff from each other  but I made a point of revealing to colleagues exactly how I had fared and asked that they do the same. Management hated this openness. People want to keep their finances secret for one reason only, because they are ashamed. Ashamed of being so rich or, sadly, ashamed of being so poor. There is a long way to go from revealing the full measure of financial inequality to being able to do something about it but a demand for full financial transparency would be a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Out of the mouths of ………..

I disagree with most things on The Commentator site but it pays to keep an open mind and I'm obliged to Comrade Doctor  Llareggub for drawing my attention to this challenging piece on the floods.  Those of you with a delicate constitution are advised to not go exploring the rest of the site. Oh go on then.

And so we say farewell to KP.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Don't let jobs go down the tube.

Boris Johnson reckons that the tube strike is irresponsible and totally unnecessary. That all of the staff reductions can be taken up by voluntary redundancies. Well of course they can. In almost any job you could find a number of people who for a variety of reasons would be happy to take a nice bit of wedge and move on. That's not the point. We know that no one is being forced out but if TfL get their way staffing levels will be drastically reduced. It makes perfect sense to do away with ticket offices and have more staff to man the stations but that is not what management have in mind. Everyone knows that the public, especially late night women travellers,  feel far more safe and secure with a well staffed station. I'm glad that tube workers are resisting job cuts. More power to their elbows.  I've said it before and I'll say it again - Bob Crow might be a unreconstructed old Stalinist but I wouldn't mind having him as my shop steward.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Pain and pus in suburbia.

In the pub a small group of non-rugby fans chatted while most of the punters remained glued to the telly. The talk touched upon parents moving to leafy, expensive suburbs because the schools are good. For "good" read "white". For "poor" read "poor". It's the kind of conversation that I find it difficult to be part of without losing my temper so I was pleased that it was mercifully brief. Back home Michael Mosley's excellent Pain, Pus and Poison concentrated this week on the control of infection and in particular the eradication of smallpox. The dedicated band of workers who set out to inoculate smallpox into the history books had a selfless concern for all children not just their own offspring. A huge gulf of neo-con individualism separates such concern from the narrow interests of today's chattering classes. It was with some delight that I discovered that my own leafy suburb has been given a mention in Crap Towns Returns. Needless to say there has been considerable response from estate agents and suchlike pond life. Here is an example….. "With it's prime location next to the River Thames on one side, Bushy Park on the other, outstanding Ofsted-rated schools, leafy avenues, a buoyant property market and a thriving town centre filled with unique independent shops etc. etc."  I think I had better take one of my tablets and have a lie down!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Unmanaged retreat.

Flood Risk Management, or Flood Control as it used to be known, has no quick fix, one size fits all answers to this winter's flooding of the Somerset Levels. Broadly speaking the discipline can be sub-divided into hard (steel and concrete drainage channels and flood defences) and soft (managed retreat) engineering. Neither hard or soft engineering has all of the answers for every catchment area but the fact remains that the Environment Agency have had a no dredging policy for a number of years now due to concerns about biodiversity. Rivers and smaller water courses are essentially drainage systems and a blocked drain is no drain at all. The "environment" is not some "other place" populated by lovely plants and animals and threatened by nasty Tory farmers and suchlike. The environment is right here where we all live, and we manage the environment for our, hopefully long term, benefit. We can't help the weather but, in part at least, this year's floods look a bit like bad management. The E.A flood engineers on the ground are a dedicated bunch of knowledgable people. Perhaps they should just be left to get on with the job.