Tuesday, 30 November 2010

OK Ed, this one's for you

Ed (see comments in my previous post) has an encyclopaedic knowledge of late Breeders, so here's a track from Fate to Fatal which I have to admit is good, though not as thrilling as Cannonball, perhaps because that track is so much of my youth. And no, I haven't heard their cover of 'Collage'

More musical mayhem

Two lots of music today - from opposite ends of the spectrum.

First up is the Bowed Piano Ensemble. I've no idea how I came across them, but they make a beautiful, ethereal noise by, well, bowing piano strings (which are usually hit by padded hammers). Ten people gather round a single grand piano and make this wonderful noise, which sounds more like an orchestra than a single instrument. What's cooler than taking a long-established instrument and turning it into something else entirely?

If that's not to your taste, how about The Breeders? The Byzantine lives of the women at the heart of the band would go on for ever (Kim Deal = ex-Pixies, Tanya Donnelly = ex-Throwing Muses, later Belly then Kelley Deal replaced Donnelly etc. etc.) so I won't. They're been around forever and have done lots of interesting things. Pod was fun pop-punk. Last Splash is my high point, perhaps because the opening bass notes of 'Cannonball' instantly takes me back to the sticky sweaty dancefloors of my late teens (dance fans might recognise it: Prodigy's 'Firestarter' sampled it). It's youth and energy and fun all in one shiny pop package.

Play this very very loud:

After a few years of drug problems, side-projects and the usual stuff, they reformed in the past few years - Title TK is a lo-fi gem, while Mountain Battles is a lovely, rough, fuzzy slab of fun.

And while I'm in the mood: some Veruca Salt

Democracy… that would be nice

Number of elected representatives in the House of Commons: 650
Number of unelected representatives in the House of Lords: 851.
Result: an oligarchy. Cameron has (and will continue to) appoint as many of his Tory Scum friends as he likes (think Lords Young and Flight).
Even worse - he's planning to reduce the number of MPs to 600 because we 'don't need so many expensive representatives'.

Oh well, I enjoyed democracy while it lasted.

Boil that Kettle

If you're stuck at home or in college away from the Kids v. Cops fun, don't despair: play Kettling online and learn how to crack heads.

Those wacky Taiwanese

Another brilliant animation, summarising the Wikileaks story with accuracy and considerable verve.

Students out again!

I'm sure the government is hoping that the desperately cold weather will end the student actions - but it's not working so far. There's another day of action today, and they're out there in their thousands (though not in The Hegemon yet) and there are more occupations.

There is a big police presence around Westminster, scores of vans parked up the side streets on Whitehall including at least one carrying police horses.
A couple of hundred people gathered in Trafalgar Square, with a very vocal group gathered underneath Nelson's Column chanting "give us back our EMA" as well as some rather rude things about Nick Clegg.
The march set off down Whitehall as agreed, but half way down was a line of few hundred police. Demonstrators turned and ran back up towards Trafalgar Square, sprinting across Horse Guards Parade and generally scattering everywhere.
Police are now giving chase across Horse Guards Parade. The demonstration is much smaller than last time, but there's definitely two or three thousand here.

So the cops are - as usual - facilitating citizens' rights to freedom of assembly and protest. Follow the fun here. I'd like to see a mass snowball pelting of Gove and Clegg. The central clearing house for the protests is here: anticuts.com. Big students/sixth-formers occupation in Cambridge and lots of fun in Newcastle.

If you think UK students are a bit wet (though they seem to be leading the cops in a merry chase around London), have a look at Italy: mass rally in Rome and other cities, a cathedral occupied in Palermo and a motorway blocked near Bologna.

Top quality article on the future of humanities here.

"All of this sounds exactly like France"

For some reason, the British government employs 'Prince' Andrew as a trade representative, presumably because he has no actual skills and they'd rather he was out of the country for long periods.

One of the fascinating Wikileaks documents is an account of a lunch held in Kyrgyzstan. We've had a lively debate about it in class: should an individual's privacy be disturbed? In this case, yes: Mr. Windsor is a government representative, and what he says is disturbing: repeatedly attacking Britain's (rather pathetic) anti-corruption investigators and the journalists who pursued British Aerospace's bribery until Tony Blair cancelled the investigation.

Having exhausted the topic of Kyrgyzstan, he turned to the general issue of promoting British economic interests abroad. He railed at British anti-corruption investigators, who had had the “idiocy” of almost scuttling the Al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia.  

His mother’s subjects seated around the table roared their approval. He then went on to “these (expletive) journalists, especially from the National Guardian, who poke their noses everywhere” and (presumably) make it harder for British businessmen to do business. The crowd practically clapped. He then capped this off with a zinger: castigating “our stupid (sic) British and American governments which plan at best for ten years whereas people in this part of the world plan for centuries.” There were calls of “hear, hear” in the private brunch hall. Unfortunately for the assembled British subjects, their cherished Prince was now late to the Prime Minister’s. He regretfully tore himself away from them and they from him. On the way out, one of them confided to the Ambassador: “What a wonderful representative for the British people! We could not be prouder of our royal family!”

Andrew's perspective is exactly that of a Tory golf-club bore: nothing should get in the way of corporations making a fast buck, journalists are liberal scum, corruption's just an occupational hazard. To top it off, his saloon-bar sense of humour is encapsulated by the repeated claim that every instance of corruption 'sounds exactly like France'.

How his guests roared with laughter.

Ziggy lives!

Is there life on Mars, as Bowie asked? Probably not, but there may be on Titan, given that a lot of NASA scientists interested in Titan are holding a press conference on Thursday, claiming 'an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life'. It's probably chemical evidence of bacterial activity, but all civilisations have to start somewhere.

At last!

It's snowing! Only delicate little flakes, but at least The Dark Place is going to be obscured for a short time. Call it God's Photoshop. I wonder how many students will turn up for my lecture on Celtic mythology. I left them hanging last week with the promise of the Three-Penised God.

Yesterday I did a lecture on new media which saw me saying complimentary things about Twitter, within reason. I'm sure @benjaminjudge would be proud. I see from his feed that he's reading Thoreau's Walden. It's one of the very few books which I would say changed my life and my philosophy. Not only that - I recently bought the t-shirt!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Is £9000 a fair price for your education?

Not if you read this speculative costing of a year's teaching at UCL, one of the country's most élite universities. Goodall thinks that the current cost of providing teaching is £4500 p.a. I wonder what the figures would look like here…

Meanwhile, congratulations to the ongoing UCL Occupation (Facebook, Twitter), South Bank's victorious occupation, Manchester Met's effort (not sure if they're still going), Oxford's struggle (it was occupied before - it was the Royalist capital during the civil war: make amends, you lot), and all the other occupations, some of which are still going.

There's another action day tomorrow, and more on December 3rd. Hegemon students are getting organised, but the Students' Union (which is in the pocket of management) is proving to be a real roadblock. Here's their official and deeply pathetic statement:

In light of the recent student protests in London and around the country over the past few days the Students’ Union of University of Hegemon would like to make it clear that we do not condone or support any form of violent protest.
We do support the needs of our students who want to peacefully outline their opposition to the proposals presented by coalition government.  On November 10th 2010 we attended the National Demo in London taking 200 students and staff, where we peacefully demonstrated with over 50,000 students.  This we feel was a more proactive approach to highlighting the serious implications of H.E. funding cuts and the raising of the tuition fee cap. 
We feel that whilst our students are keen to take part in peaceful protest, these protests and marches have the potential of being hijacked by individuals and groups whose sole objective is to cause havoc and damage that is fuelled by violence.  These acts of violence and disorder detract away from the serious message and the real issues.  Such savage cuts to Higher Education funding will seriously disadvantage the majority of students.  
We do recognise the rights of students to attend the protest and will support those students who wish to do so.  The Union will not however be having an official presence on December 3rd, but will be considering an alternative campaigning strategy.

I have no idea what 'support' means in this context. As to 'potential' violence - well, any children's tea-party is fraught with 'potential' violence. So are my lectures. And my dinner. Martin Luther King would be so proud of their stand. Time for new elections?

But don't despair: an independent student organisation is taking up the baton. Join them.

Winterval fun

The snow is a source of considerable joy for some people; me and these delightful creatures, who are being reminded of home. Thanks to Ben.

Also experiencing joy at the moment are these students: University College London's occupation - still going strong.

Unlike the spineless weasels in The Hegemon's SU, who are refusing to support any proper activism.

Snow joke

A few more pictures of the Shropshire countryside in winter and its birdlife- see the rest here.



Walking in a winter wonderland

I went home to see my dear old muvver this weekend, and obviously needed to get out of the house after a while (only joking, mother). I took a few pictures - see the whole set here. Click on these samples for bigger versions.

Hail shining morn (except for the Yanks)

Well, it's damn cold, but the light of exposure is shining on the US diplomatic service: Wikileaks has published 250,000 documents exposing opinions, activities and gossip about the US's relations with other countries. Here's a Guardian video explaining why it's significant.

The US and its allies are, of course, condemning the release as loudly as possible. Unflattering things have been said about US allies, the UN has been spied on by the US (surprise surprise) and awkaward truths are emerging. On the other side, Wikileaks and their friends are proclaiming that we're living in a new world of information freedom and dispersed networks of wisdom.

Both sides are wrong and right. Diplomats need to express themselves frankly, and we shouldn't be surprised that the US's self-interest is more important to it than the interests of its friends. Countries don't have friends, they have interests. However, it's important to the publics of all these countries that we have some insight into the real world of international relations. We are at war, yet our political leaders never, ever, admit that they disagree sometimes, that they have concerns about our allies (I particularly hate it when they claim to be 'good friends' with people they've met once or twice), that they don't trust each other - we're kept in the dark an awful lot of the time, and needlessly in a lot of cases.

I don't buy the Wikileaks argument wholesale either. I don't think they have blood on their hands, as some Republicans are claiming (rather cheekily), but I don't think that many citizens will read those 250,000 documents. We still need a professional old media to use their powerful resources to analyse them, contextualise them and interpret them for us. I don't know what Julian Assange's motives are. Is he a weird libertarian out to smash states in principle, or is he a good socialist? Our governments are elected - who made Wikileaks the arbiter of the public sphere?

On balance, I'm pleased these documents are available, because I'm largely opposed to US and British foreign policy as it's currently practiced. Would I feel differently if I supported the government being exposed so publicly? I don't know. Maybe.

The ever-reliable Paul Mason has a Captain Renault take on it all. Shocked, shocked, I tell you!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Or perhaps I shouldn't

My little contribution to resisting the government's senseless abolition of the Schools Sports Partnerships scheme has doubled - letter in the Observer today, though it looks a little lame compared with the one signed by about 5000 teachers just above it.

Still, it's really important. Gove and his pals seem to be on a mission to abolish all sport except for the Eton Wall Game.

I should just resign

My alter ego, David Mitchell, not only agrees with me on everything, but says it better.

Students bring out a violent streak in me. When I see NUS spokespeople on TV talking simplistically about tuition fees, even though I basically agree with the sentiments they express so unattractively, I want to punch them. But I also like watching them chuck stuff at the police, smash windows and jump up and down on vans. I'm not so keen on the fire extinguisher hurling – I lose my appetite for the scuffle if I think someone might get killed – but a bit of a ruck with some bobbies dressed as X-wing pilots seems entirely appropriate.
It's the peaceful protesting that winds me up: the super-keen "political" students who've nosed their way into being interviewed to show how clever they are. They seem unrealistic and unaccountable and you can smell the self-interest and grubby ambition lurking beneath the veneer of unworkable ideals. Like pre-election Lib Dems.
My inner Victorian thinks they should be seen and not heard. But I don't mind seeing them piss through the letterbox of Nick Clegg's constituency office. 
A few short clips of jerkily televised vandalism make the government look like it's failing to govern. The fact that more damage gets done to public property every day by people turning round quickly while holding something hot is irrelevant. A photo of broken glass is a thousand times more politically threatening than a kid with an unwise haircut whining about his allowance. 
At least the protests are being taken over by independent organisations rather than the NUS, which is just a kindergarten for obedient New Labour MPs (almost every President since the 1950s has become one).  

Hats off to one of Mitchell's commenters for this line too:
You can say what you like about this government, but it took Margaret Thatcher 3 years to achieve riots and a royal wedding. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have achieved it in 6 months.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Hounding Baskerville

I've read a couple of books on typography recently, and been accused of geekishness. I don't particularly care. If you want a chatty, informative and fascinating account of the strange world of typography, I recommend Simon Garfield's new Just My Type.

Amongst the things I learned was the story of John Baskerville. More than the designer of Baskerville type (a very elegant font indeed), this Brummie was a radical atheist and freethinker, friend of Benjamin Franklin and all-round Enlightenment hero.

He was buried - vertically - in his own back garden to make an atheistical point, but when the house changed hands and a canal sliced off some of the land, his body was first discarded, then stored in a warehouse, before being bricked up in the crypt at Warstones Lane Cemetery. The site of his old house, Easy Hill, is now in central Birmingham, and the very spiffy rebuilt 1930s block which replaced it is called Baskerville House, complete with a not-very-good Baskerville typeface sculpture.

I fancy a trip to the grave. Anyone with me?

Magical musical tour continues

After the secular miserabilism of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, the next CD in my collection is some Byzantine church music. As you can probably guess, it's religious. Beyond that, it's all Greek to me…

Sorry. Have you regained your chair yet? If so, I'll carry on. You may have gathered that I'm quite an enthusiastic atheist, but that I'm also a cradle Catholic. My parents always played religious choral music at home and in the car, and I was in the school choir for many years. I couldn't sing, but it got me out of lessons at the expense of learning to lip-synch. I'd have been a great pop star, come to think of it.

Anyway, the effect of all this is that I acquired a great love of choral music. The church was the only employer with the resources to fund composers and provide the highly-trained choirs and musicians needed, so of course the majority of this stuff is religious (and who knows, some of them may have even believed in the Big Man). What do I like about choral music? The complexity, the determination to push the human voice to the absolute limits, the discipline, the willingness to cut off boys' testicles in pursuit of aesthetic satisfaction (no, wait, that's not very nice), the genius not only of the composer but of the singers, who have to have such incredible control and awareness of their own abilities and of what the rest of the choir are doing.

My favourite groups are the Chamber Choir of EuropeThe Sixteen and Stile Antico, but I'm happy to listen to any choir (except local amateur church ones). I particularly love this Byzantine music because it's such an astonishing mix of influences, it relies on musical ideas which didn't exist (or didn't survive) in Catholic/Anglican churches, and because it's in a language I don't understand. This is really important. I've got enough Latin to follow Western texts, so if I catch the words I get annoyed with all the silly spiritualism, whereas I can completely ignore meaning in this case. I've got a GCSE B grade in Ancient Greek, which doesn't quite cut it. So I'm free to listen to this soaring beauty without a care in the world.

This didn't happen.

The head of the Metropolitan Police says it didn't:
the Metropolitan police chief said tactics "did not involve charging the crowd".

Definitely didn't happen. In case it doesn't happen again, a pocketful of marbles may come in very useful.

Run! The Students Are Coming!

The campaign to demonise students is preceding apace. The head of the Metropolitan Police is issuing dire warnings of 'civil unrest' - conveniently for the cops, as they're facing budget cuts too. The Mail, as I detailed yesterday, fears the onslaught of the Gymslip Amazons hellbent on destruction, and my own institution has put on extra security in case the student body disturbs disgraced tax-avoiding expenses-fiddler Lord Paul while he has his lunch (which may well require a pastry fork). Heaven forfend that the Chancellor of a university should meet some of its students…

The origin of the violent student hordes is a mystery - I blame tabloid journalism and rolling news. Certainly the presence of extra security here is both an insult to the students, a marker of the massive divide between institution and students, and proof that management has no idea what our kids are like. There's no need to fear our lot, as I pointed out yesterday.

How to calculate social value

The new visa system for immigrants is very scary indeed.

If you have an MBA or a £150,000 salary, you're in at Tier 1: immediate visa. If you have a PhD and an academic salary, you're Tier 2: limit of 20,000 people across all industry.

So to sum up: if you're one of the thrusting business monkeys with an expensive qualification in the kind of economics which bankrupted the entire country, come on in. George Bush has an MBA.

On the other hand, if you're a young academic with a PhD, which in itself announces that you've made a clear contribution to your field (and most brilliant books and amazing discoveries are made early in a researcher's career), you can sod off, however many things you might invent and students you might inspire.

The Hegemon is suffering already from the reduction in visa sponsorships it's allowed.

Clearly, Britain's on the right track.


All Icelandic music is now apparently designed for natural history programmes or Lord of the Rings soundtracks (the poor old Sugarcubes must be turning in their bankrupt graves): too ethereal by half.

That said, I'm rather taken by Rökkúro. I've got their first album, which I can't spell on Blogger because it won't do Icelandic characters - but you can find it here.

Now, who's got the mushrooms?

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Fear the wrath of the Hegemon Student!

Or rather, don't, judging by this pathetic response to an enquiry as to whether the SU was going to support the Day of Action:

The students' union has taken the decision not to support a local demonstration due to the possibility of public disorder detracting from our message. 
Well, that'll show them. I wasn't expecting Emily Davison or the Buddhist monks incinerating themselves in protest at the Vietnam War, but this truly is shameful. 

Meet your local tax evader!

Lord Paul is Chancellor of The Hegemon. He's has £500 million in the bank and a lot of time on his hands, having been suspended from the House of Lords for fiddling his expenses to the tune of £40,000. This member of MIT's advisory board's defence is that 'main residence' is technical language which no Indian would understand, which seems a bit racist to me.

He's also a tax avoider, claiming 'non-dom' status, meaning that he was happy to occupy an unelected place in Britain's legislature secure in the knowledge that he wouldn't suffer the consequences of his votes. The early Americans proclaimed 'no taxation without representation': I say to Lord Paul 'no representation without taxation'.

If you're in The Hegemon tomorrow, you can meet him. You could even try asking him to pay your £9000 tuition fees!

What Tories are really like

It's been a good day for Tories speaking their minds, inspired by Lord Young's aristocratic observation that 'people have never had it so good'.

Negotiator of the Week is Brian Coleman, unelected head of the London Fire Authority, currently in dispute with fire officers:

Coleman described the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which represents over 90% of London's frontline firefighters, as "thugs and bullies" and said its officials were "thick" and "can't string a sentence together". "The union are a thoroughly unpleasant and nasty lot – they always have been ... you just have to stand up to thugs and bullies." "We have to break the FBU frankly because they are not a union operating in the interests of their members and certainly not taxpayers.. they've been a block to modernisation right along the line. They will fail in the end because neither I nor the fire authority, nor the mayor of London, nor this government is going to give away to this kind of intimidation."

And then there's Howard Flight, another unelected Tory who doesn't think much of the poor or the welfare system. He seems to think that cutting benefits and throwing the poor out of their houses will somehow encourage them to 'breed':
 "We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible."
What a great mind. And some of you wonder why I call them Tory Scum.

I think I'm beginning to understand where we're going wrong

Who said this?

 “I’m sorry, I’m not a tax specialist.”

Dame Lesley Strathie. No reason why you should recognise that name. Let me explain.

Dame Leslie is the Chief Executive of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. She is the chief collector of taxes for the United Kingdom. This was her defence when questioned why HMRC let Vodafone off a £6.2 billion bill and agreed that any more money they hide in Luxembourg will be tax-free too.

Anatole! Amenez-vous les pâtisseries, s'il vous plaît

I went for lunch in the canteen today. First with a heavy heart, soon with a heavy and unhappy stomach. As I tucked into my spaghetti and unidentified flesh with little cheer, I realised what was odd about the day's dining experience.

In the metal box of cutlery were the usual assortments of battered institutional knives and forks, bent and twisted. Yet amongst these humble, proletarian items was a mutant fork, small, delicate and strangely thickened along one edge. It seemed familiar, a mute reminder of autre temps, a suggestion of a place and time when food wasn't a commodity to be shovelled down in obscene quantities before the 'taste' assaulted your senses, yet I couldn't place it.

The madeleine-moment struck once I was seated and attempting to enjoy my repast. This curious utensil was… a pastry fork. No, really. A lone survivor of the days in which different foods required customised tools, a distant relative of the fish fork and the grapefruit spoon.

How does such a nostalgic curio reach the canteen of a tired and abused institution like The Hegemon? Is there a secret dining club, a cabal of plump managers being fed dainties by bow-tied flunkies? I now dream of turning a corner in some obscure campus building and finding my senses assailed by the aroma of fresh pastries, meringue, tarte tatin and fine pain au chocolat. A kindly gentleman will relieve me of my marking and my paper cup of unconvincing peppermint tea ('not today, monsieur, not today') and guide me to a plush armchair with a side-table groaning with delicacies on fine Staffordshire china. As Debussy wafts gently from the quartet in the corner and the flunky offers me a choice of periodicals, my cares and waistband ease.

Oh well. A vole can dream.

(Anatole is the temperamental culinary genius of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, by the way).

It's a start

Some Hegemon students are starting to organise: get involved.
For academics, there's a good piece on what we can do for the future of higher education here.

Women! Know Your Limits

Or rather, to the Daily Mail, 'girls' who apparently 'led' the 'riots' yesterday. It's apparently much more shocking for females to express anger… even though it allows poor-quality misogynistic newspapers to use pictures of pretty ones to frighten the parents.

Rage of the girl rioters: Britain's students take to the streets again
Young, bright and pretty: The day girl students went to war over tuition fees... and the pupils who just wanted a photo for Facebook

Rioting girls became the disturbing new face of violent protest yesterday.
Another faction simply came along for the excitement. They were remarkably young, and, in many cases, frighteningly naive. This was the Facebook and iPhone generation who posed for souvenir photographs against the backdrop of carnage for which they played truant or left school early to witness.
Thus, for the first time in a protest filled with confrontation and hatred, young girls took centre stage
They were mostly young, bright and pretty, the kind of girls who would ordinarily make their parents proud. One was going to study to become a lawyer, another a doctor.

This could be your daughter! Prettiness and righteous anger are just wrong together. Only ugly poor people get angry. But don't worry - it's all a fashion, like Facebook. This is what's known in the trade as a 'moral panic', and it's what the Mail does best.

But among the thousands of people who brought chaos to Westminster yesterday, a remarkable turn-out of well-dressed, well-spoken teenage girls swelled the ranks.
In a corner near the Treasury building in Whitehall, I found the front line girls. It was a group of 17 and 18-year-olds and they were doing each other’s make-up. Not with mascara or eye-liner, but cat’s whiskers and painted slogans.
Now for action. If you had seen them in their short skirts and trendy scarves, you might have thought that a few chants and a bit of banner-waving would be the limit.
But almost as soon as some mindless thugs began trashing a police van abandoned in the middle of Whitehall, the girls went into battle. Elsewhere a group of female friends, maybe aged 16 or 17, put themselves within inches of the police line and began to scream abuse. It wasn’t quite Cheltenham Ladies College, but several of these girls, it emerged, were from respectable schools and decent homes.

Even more dishonestly, the photo of some fruity teens posing like the traditional A-level results day is captioned 'A New Facebook Photo?' as though this was selfish larks - despite the photograph bearing the copyright notice of a professional journalist. All the photographs are credited to photographers and news agencies, which makes me think that they were asking these kids to pose, knowing they'd be bought by rags like the Mail.

If it was your daughter - brilliant. There wasn't much violence - the cops left a van in the middle of the crowd (not, as the Mail lied, 'fled the van') and some hotheads trashed it, but that's the lot. Why shouldn't young women - even middle-class ones with good nails and delicate accents - be angry and vocal? This is the Guardian's version (and unlike the Mail, it didn't find a 'war' - the headline is 'Student Protest Largely Peaceful'):

It was just after 1pm that police van 313C, parked on Parliament Street in cental London, became the sudden, angry focus of youthful opposition to the government's plans to charge students significantly more for their education. The vehicle, unoccupied and stranded amid a sea of mainly teenage protesters, was set upon.

 I'm really proud of everyone who demonstrated (and some occupations are still ongoing). French schoolchildren have a long tradition of participating, and the late 60s/early 70s in Britain saw a surge of youth protest - hence the infamous OZ Schoolkids' Issue.

However, much respect to Megan Thomas, aged 16. She knows exactly what the Daily Mail's news agenda is - not that it stopped them.

Megan Thomas, 16, stood in front of the police van in a bid to stop people vandalising it. Dressed in her school uniform with her tie around her head, the Year 11 pupil from Dunraven School in Streatham, South London, shouted at people to stop, claiming: ‘It’s a set up. They wanted it to get smashed up. All it is doing is giving the impression we are violent youth.’

If she wants to come to The Hegemon, I'll reserve her a place.

Predictably, I'm complaining to the PCC about the van claim under Clause 1 of the Code of Practice. Do the same.

Sorry about the advert at the start of this. Middle-class ladies: take heed!

Paul Uppal: a tedious, third-rate mind

In true education, anything that comes to our hand is as good as a book: the prank of a page- boy, the blunder of a servant, a bit of table talk - they are all part of the curriculum. (Montaigne)

I'm getting so bored by Uppal's ignorant chippiness. His latest contributions to the public gaiety are on education and empty shops.

In 1950s Kenya, my father received an education that covered the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare as well as British history. Does the Secretary of State not find it ironic that many students in modern Britain are given a less comprehensive education in British history than many students in 1950s Kenya?
He really is laughable. Why does he think that the appropriate education for an Indian family in Kenya is 'Chaucer and Shakespeare as well as British history'? How about Kenyan history? Sikh culture? Not instead of perhaps, but alongside? Some literature written since 1611?

There's something uncomfortably cringeworthy about a child of Empire trotting out the arguments of Victorian English imperialists without any acknowledgement that the world's a more sophisticated place. (I'm not even convinced that Uppal's claim is more than impressionistic: it seems unlikely that Daddy read more than a tiny selection of the massive output by these authors). Does he really think that this constitutes 'comprehensive education'? How about maths, geography, science, languages and all the other skills? What a dumb comparison - completely unsubstantiated.

Unfortunately, Paul omits to mention his own education in the UK (and the general silence around his education is more than a little suspicious). Was it more comprehensive than his father's? I suspect it was… but that would ruin his little fantasy that generations of kids have been turned into Morlocks by Labour. I also suspect that he couldn't dredge up any Shakespeare or Chaucer - and that he doesn't know the names of any of their contemporaries either: they're just the tired old names dragged up by reactionaries like totems - not for nothing is dumbly excessive Shakespeare worship known as Bardolatry. It's boring and only demonstrates the intellectual vacuity of the speaker. Which bits of Chaucer would he like taught? The fart jokes? The bum-kissing? The students having sex with the miller's wife and daughter? The anti-clericalism? The pomposity of the upper classes? The cynicism about the rulers? Perhaps he'd like me to teach the kids all the sexually and socially subversive bits in Shakespeare? Or is he just ignorant?

My dad - who's a very clever man in many ways - is utterly resistant to most forms of culture. Whenever he says 'have you read X' as though X is the most important author in history, my reply is always 'Yes, I'm a professional literature teacher. Why is X mentioned in the Daily Telegraph?', because that's where he always gets this rubbish from.

So a note to Paul: having heard of these people isn't enough. You have to have read them, and their contemporaries, and understand their contexts before you can start throwing their names around. Otherwise you look like a saloon-bar philosopher.

What else has this pocket moron been on about? Well, I hate to shock you, but the man who owns £8million in commercial property is - yet again - begging for tax breaks on empty commercial property - while not accepting that these shops are empty because the economy's tanked, not because landlord's are paying too much tax on their speculative investments. The acorn never falls far from the tree.

I shall leave Mr. Uppal with a few more words from Michel Montaigne, whom I have read - in the original Renaissance French, despite 'suffering' a British state education:

I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly. 
Ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head. 
Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know. 
Fortune, seeing that she could not make fools wise, has made them lucky. 
He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Fangs for the memories

RIP seems inappropriate for Ingrid Pitt - the Polish actress who left behind the concentration camps and became Hammer Horror's greatest female vampire and all-round baddie. I presume her funeral will involve stakes, garlic and sunlight.

Ireland bankrupted: capitalism wins

The Irish government's budget has been announced: cuts in public services, cuts in pensions, cuts in welfare benefits, the income tax threshold brought down to €15,000, cuts in the minimum wage (because obviously the poor caused the recession).

There is good news though: corporation tax is staying at 12.5% (as opposed to the 25%+ current in every other European and Western nation).

So that's alright. Corporations can continue to channel their disgraceful tax evasion funds through Ireland while beggaring that country and their countries of origin. Their reckless behaviour bankrupted Ireland and the rest of the global economy, and yet they're still being treated like favoured guests. A tax rise to 15%-20% would still be lower than most other countries and attract corporations, while making a huge difference to Ireland's economy.

Is anyone else bothered by this? Making the poor suffer to bail out banks and the rich?

Never mind the journalists

I'm hooked on the Guardian's and BBC's coverage of the nationwide student protests. All over the country, university, college and school students are protesting in their thousands - a magnificent spectacle and a little heated in a few places.

What's striking about the BBC coverage is how reactionary and judgemental it is - comments like 'a complete rabble' 'a bit crazy', and surprise that Cambridge students (imagine) are protesting and are angry. There's a concerted effort to focus on the incredibly isolated bits of violence and to praise the 'peaceful' students: the discourse clearly separates 'nice' from 'nasty' with virtually no discussion of the rights and wrongs of the situation. There's no historical context - of education or of student protest - and more than a hint that all these Oxbridge-educated commentators (particularly on the BBC) are revolted by their successors. Certainly the interviewers are parrotting Clegg's and Cameron's lines as though there's no debate to be had.

I like this dispersed protest. The massive London demo was excellent, and certainly caught the media's attention, but concerted efforts in virtually every town in the country from Bolton to Bristol to York means that a much larger proportion of the population have a chance of meeting and listening to them. It's like a mini-general strike. Shame there's nothing happening in The Dark Place, unlike all these towns (rolling updates here).

Manchester, Bristol and Leeds students seem to be doing a magnificent job - as is Simon, the very articulate student talking at length to the BBC, despite their little attempts to bully him ("you condemn the occupation at the previous demo, don't you?", "we only report what we see" - he points out very calmly that news organisations frame all stories, and they choose what that frame is).

The last word on the Irish Government

The red-tops newspapers are despicable, especially the faux-Irish editions of the British ones, but sometimes you just have to admire their gift for précis. ('Gobshite' is one of my favourite Irish words, alongside 'gurrier').

Back-to-bed boycott?

No walkout or demonstration here at The Hegemon, as far as I can see, but London and Manchester seem to be pretty active, with Leeds and Bristol doing good work. There's a mass walkout at nearby Birmingham University too, and a lot of schools have seen very effective walkouts - great to see the younger generation radicalised.

Despite some difficulty from security guards preventing many of our students getting in more than 30 birmingham students are currently in occupation of the aston webb building the site of the prime ministerial debates. this is a copy of our written statement.
Students at the University of Birmingham have embarked on this occupation because we believe the Government's cuts to be economically unnecessary, unfair and ideologically motivated. We stand in solidarity with unions and seek to be active members in a broader anti-cuts coalition. The government must understand that if they continue to destroy the livelihoods of the majority to benefit the rich and powerful minority, they will face increasingly widespread and radical action.

The government is however not the only catalyst for our action. This university currently adheres to a strategy which prioritises corporate profit above the value of education. To this end we have set out an alternative budget proposal that fairly shares the burden of government cuts. If the Government and University continue with their marketisation of people's lives this will only be the beginning.
Plymouth Uni's occupation is so sophisticated that there's a live web feed. Royal Holloway students got started yesterday!

I like this Aberystwyth nerd-banner: 
 '404 Error Funding Not Found.'

I think the tensions between institutions and students will start to grow soon. My institution is so humble and vulnerable that even our management - for whom I rarely have a good word - are on the side of The Kids. It's not the case in the Russell Group élite institutions: their managements think the fees are absolutely brilliant, whereas the students know better.

(As an example, 20% of Oxford University's outreach programme to recruit 'non-traditional' students went to private schools, including Eton, from which 46% of Oxford's intake is drawn - 7% of the school population is privately educated).

UPDATE: the London protest is getting heated, helped by the cops' decision to 'kettle' them - kettles tend to boil. Live pictures here.

Action stations

Morning all. Very busy day today, so you won't be hearing too much from me (a nation celebrates). Today is another day of action by students protesting the imposition of £9000 fees, massive cuts in teaching provision and the appalling abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which keeps 16-18 year olds in education.

Will anything happen here? I don't know. It's an institution of 20,000+ very diverse students. Those who rarely turn up to classes aren't bothered by politics (or the worries of anybody else). Those who do split between the determined who've grabbed their chance and won't let it go for anyone and those who are more relaxed. Also, the student body is hugely fractured - there's little sense of a student body or political leadership. I'm sure a few students will do something, but the rest of us won't notice.

For what it's worth, I'd love it if nobody turned up, or if a building was occupied - a bit of backbone after all these years would be very welcome.

Follow the day's events here.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Christmas time… even for infidels like me

Ah. Tim Minchin. What a genius.

Korean takeaway

Anyone else bothered by today's little spat between North Korea and their southern cousins? I'm not - it's a nasty flare-up, but it won't lead to serious conflict.

What I actually like is North Korea's gloriously dated approach to public relations. No leaking from them. No subtle, nuanced hints. Just a poetic threat of apocalypse from a man with an ironic title:
"If the South continues its dangerous behaviour, Seoul will be the next target. It will be a sea of fire," said Kim Myong-chol, executive director of the Centre for Korean-American Peace.
Such uncompromising style. Got to admire their refusal to engage with running-dog Western capitalist diplomatic discourse. They're ronery, so ronery…

Uppal action

He's asked some humdingers today: a couple of questions about people living too long (apparently it's time to ditch their expensive state pensions and make them save more - in a time of decreasing wages, and interest rate of 0.5% and an economy in stasis because nobody's spending) and one on immigration.

But that's just the entrée. Here's the humdinger.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what steps he plans to take to reduce the incidence of and mortality rate from cancer among men.

That's right. Come on Minister. Stop wasting your time in Parliament and get down to the laboratory. You lazy bastard.

Actually, Paul Burstow, the minister in question, has only ever had one non-political job, as a secretary. Uppal's question is a planted one designed to give the minister the chance to reel off dubious statistics about how the Tory/Lib Dem government will abolish cancer by Christmas while not dwelling on the abolition of NICE's authority, the sale of food and health policy to junk food manufacturers, the abolition of strategic health authorities etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Potteries and Kettles…

Cheeky git:

Stoke-on-Trent like Afghanistan, says pottery director

Poor old Stoke has been battered and abused by businesses, politicians (locally and nationally), authors (like Orwell) and pretty much everybody else for the past 300 years, but it's still a great place: 'an ugly, lovely town', as Dylan Thomas said of Swansea.

He added: “If you go around Stoke these days there is lots of bare land where things have been demolished. I’ve no idea what it looks like in Helmand Province but I get a feeling it would look a little like here.
“There is always this idea that we have got to demolish everything to put things right. A blank canvas they call it. But I’d rather see people use the buildings in regeneration and development.”

The pottery director in question is Matthew Rice, husband of designer Emma Bridgewater, and what a surprise - he has a book to plug (which I've already bought, of course). The reference to Afghanistan is entirely gratuitous and attention-seeking (Stokies buy heroin, not grow it) but his general points are good: that local authorities have paid virtually no attention to Stoke's built heritage in their rush to 'regenerate' the city every ten years (each regeneration a plaster on the gaping wound). Rice is a little unfair: the business élites in the city have largely decamped their factories to eastern Europe and Asia, trading on the Potteries heritage while profiting from its subversion, though Rice and Bridgewater are doing their best to withstand the march of globalisation. You can't just blame the useless and corrupt politicians of an impoverished city.

Rice's book, The Lost City of Stoke on Trent is a beautiful paean to a vanished society of elegant Methodist chapels and public buildings, but I don't see a sophisticated analysis of how such places came into being and were lost. The most famous example is the magnificent Bethesda Chapel, of Restoration fame (my photos here): a massive 'cathedral' of Methodism which fell into dereliction because Methodism - once the backbone of radical, working-class Stoke - fell out of favour under pressure from secularism (excellent) but also of capitalist globalisation and individualism. The force that civilised Stoke was civic pride and unity: these values have been subverted by economic forces (this is the central contradiction of Conservative ideology: they're all for capitalism while also going on about the atomised, selfish, consumerist society it calls into existence).

The big problem is this: what do you do with a city all of whose industries have gone: potteries, coal and steel? Close it down and move everyone elsewhere? Attract exploitative, low-wage, unskilled McJobs? Accept that some places will permanently depend on benefits and the public sector? These are structural problems which need addressing, and I don't see the Tories' Big Society or Labour's 'globalisation with a smiley face' addressing them. Not everyone can be a web developer or management consultant. Without strong, comfortable societies, you get weak communities, poor political leadership, no economic or social vision and endless dereliction. Poor quality 'iconic' buildings built on shonky PFI plans won't do much more than accentuate the dependence and decline - ask Owen Hatherley about that.

Look on Stoke, ye mighty, and despair. What it is now, your town soon will be.

Who's the scab in black?

Scotland's football referees are going on strike next Saturday, having endured a torrid season of abuse and accusation (some of it justified). The Scottish FA are planning to import referees from Ireland or Scandinavia.

If so, the man in black deserves everything that's coming to him. Every referee who turns up is a scab. A picket line is a picket line - if you cross it, you've betrayed your comrades. Scotland's football fans, players and managers should examine their consciences when deciding whether to attend this weekend. 

I'm torn on this one. The referees at Stoke City matches have been absolutely appalling this season - we've lost several matches due to refereeing errors. However, I'm a referee at a fairly high level in my sport (fencing) and it's a shockingly stressful job. Each hit is delivered in well under a 10th of a second, and most of the time, both fencers make a hit in the time allowed before the electronic system blocks out the second hit - 350 milliseconds. 

So my job as referee - especially in foil - is to decide who had right of way: who established a clear line of attack and whether a defensive action preceded the other person's response - replaying a sub-350 millisecond action in my head while two pumped-up fencers and their coaches and their friends and families scream that it's their point. Now there are video appeals too: agonising moments in which your decisions are analysed on a big screen while a crowd goes 'ooh' and 'aah' as the super slow motion breaks down the action. 

So yes, refereeing's a horrible, stressful job. Support your local referee. Without them, chaos rules.

Fame at last

Letter from Vole in the Guardian today, about the government's abolition of school sport funding. Obviously I can't direct you to the great work - that would ruin my carefully cultivated anonymity!

To whom should I write next? I'm thinking an epistolary revolution.

Eat the rich…

This is Greg Philo: leading lefty professor. Enjoy.

Facing down the apocalypse

If you're up for some philosophy and fighting talk, read this excellent piece on our current political and economic condition. 

Ask your MPs: was your education free? Find out what your MP’s degree was in. If they are a Lib-Dem, ask them how they can sleep at night. Ask them whether they want to be re-elected next time. Tell them everyone regards them as a traitor and a hypocrite – unless they do the right thing, unless they vote the right way. If your MP is Conservative, ask them whether they want to be re-elected. Ask them: is this vandalism ‘conservative’? Is it ‘big society’? If they are Labour, ask them whether they want to be re-elected. They can reverse this.
Also tell them this: the theoretical and ideological underpinning of right-wing economic theory and ideology since Thatcher has been based on the classical economics of Adam Smith. Which is great. This is because, in The Wealth of Nations, Smith argues that education falls into the category of a non-economic institution that must nevertheless be funded by the state, because the economy can’t fund the right sort of education (namely, putatively ‘useless’ education); and without an artistic and cultural education society and the economy will fall into a vicious circle of decline and be unable even to provide a workforce, let alone ‘lead the way’ in a ‘global knowledge economy’.
But if they don’t care about other people and other places, then tell them this: if you kill a city or a town’s university, you rip millions upon millions of pounds out of that place’s local economy. You devastate its infrastructure. So it’s not just others who are hurt. You may lose your ‘Marksies’ Food Hall, your Jamie’s Kitchen, your theatre, your art galleries and your ‘cheaper car insurance’.
Tomorrow is meant to be a national day of action - sit-ins, teach-ins, school walkouts: if nobody turns up to my class, I won't be too sad.  

Monday, 22 November 2010

It's OK Paul, don't wear yourself out

Saturday saw the massed cohorts of liberals and antifascists contain the threat of the English Defence League Nazis as they tried to march in The Dark Place.

One notable absence was one Paul Uppal, who is apparently MP for The Dark Place South West. Clearly he's content to allow these Nazis to march unopposed, or thinks that it's not his job - as senior elected representative for the area - to lead opposition to racism.

There's a fairly bullish report of the day's proceedings here - this bit amused me, as a Stoke City (Potters) fan:
The police held them away from the public, while they waited for their West Bromwich coach which got most of those remaining back in time to end their afternoon in further unhappiness as the Potters gave the Baggies a hammering. The handful remaining were escorted away by police.

George's Irish Stew

I linked to the article this clip is based on a week ago, but it's a good little reminder of the man you voted in as Chancellor.

Euro ho ho ho

Red faces for the Tories. They spent the last couple of years forming a special hard-right alliance with some antisemitic, homophobic Polish politicians in the European Parliament. They even fired one of their own MEPs for standing against Michal Kaminiski for the group's leadership, and insisted that the Law and Justice Party was a mainstream conservative party.

Oh dear. The very unpleasant Mr. Kaminski has resigned - on the grounds that the Tories' new friends are too rightwing and extremist. This must be the first time that a man who campaigned against Holocaust memorials has attacked David Cameron's mates from the left!

So: will David stick with the far-right, or dump them and leave his party entirely isolated in Europe - he pulled the Tories out of their alliance with Merkel's Christian Democrats and other 'respectable' centre-right parties.

There'll be some good spinning on this one.

Eric the Red

Full marks for inventive, gleeful, revolutionary fervour from Eric Cantona, who calls for a mass withdrawal of funds from the banks to smash them. Not a particularly far-sighted policy, but the angry lefty in me thoroughly approves.

More doom and gloom

Morning all. What a horrible few days: Ireland's gone bankrupt - and the banks are getting away scot-free (minimum wage to be cut but corporation tax staying at 12%: I genuinely think this is just cause for violent protest), and the Tories are up to more awful tricks. For a government which claims 'we're all in this together', most of the cutbacks seem to be hitting the poor and the young.

Today's attack is one that's close to my heart - school sport, because I've been volunteering at grassroots and élite youth sport for several years now, as a coach, referee and child protection officer. That's a weird feeling: I spent my schooldays trying to avoid sport in any shape or form, eventually compromising by becoming a cricket scorer: trips away, shiny coloured pencils, free scrumptious teas and no physical activity whatsoever.

However, Michael Gove has decided to abolish the School Sports Partnerships, run by the Youth Sport Trust. They organise sports participation and competitions, set up sport classes in schools which lack qualified PE teachers and run major competitions. It's one of the great things Labour did: before they took power, 25% of children received the legal minimum 2 hours per week of sport. By 2010 it was 95% - a stunning achievement. Now it's being abolished, solely to save £162m: a bargain compared with the costs to the NHS of a generation of kids getting fat and wheezy.

Fencing is one of the key sports in the SSPs, which deliberately widened the activities available to attract kids who weren't into netball or football. It's been great for the sport too: from an exclusive bunch of toffs who weren't ever going to do well globally, British fencing has acquired a flood of motivated, fit kids of the kind who'd never get anywhere near a piste under the old system (i.e. often black, working-class, state-educated). The results are starting to show: the teens in the system now are terrifyingly good and will definitely be winning Olympic medals before long.

It's an especially bad idea because the Olympics are coming to London in less than a year. So the world's sporting heroes, sports fans and media are going to descend on the global sporting showcase while Gove deliberately makes sure that there won't be any effective legacy at all: merely another generation of fat couch potatoes.

Gove's sop is £10m for a 'Schools Olympics'.

My Cabinet colleague Jeremy Hunt has got a marvellous proposal for a school Olympics.”

That's a bit weird: there already is one. It's called the UK School Games. It's been running for 5 years and it recreates the Olympic experience - team village, top quality venues, medals, Olympians wandering round talking to competitors, drug tests, the lot. It makes me wonder if Gove actually doesn't care what's going on - he just wants to abolish anything his predecessors did.

David James, the former England goalkeeper, has an excellent piece on this reactionary cut - read it here.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Racists march in Wolverhampton

Word is that the English Defence League (essentially thugs without the strategic skills to join the BNP) are planning to demonstrate in Wolverhampton tomorrow. They marched in Dudley recently and went on the rampage.

A (peaceful) counter-demonstration will meet in Queen Square at 11.30. Try to turn out.

(That said: I'm away).

What did the Druids know about economics?

Well, they were definitely fans of George Bush and Tony Blair's 'shop to save the economy' plan. I just read that the ceremonial dumping of precious objects in rivers and pools (as they did in Llyn Cerrig Bach) may have been a religious cover for stimulating spending: dump your old stuff and buy new! Keep the economy liquid!

Which is fine when the entire population of Europe is a few million at most, not so great when 60 million not so ancient Britons go to Primark every week…

Talking of Hitler…

We're all friends now. And for Airdrie United, a soldier's a soldier. Take a look at their matchday programme from Remembrance Day:

That Hitler and his flying saucers…

Yes children, today's the day that the Daily Mail took a break from peddling racist and misogynist nonsense, and dived deep into the Great Pool Of Lunacy, deeper than it's ever been.

Hitler's secret flying saucer: Did the Führer plan to attack London and New York in UFOs?

Well, did he? Er, no. No he didn't.

The idea of building flying saucers to bomb London and even New York could have been just such a scheme.
It goes on to speculate wildly, including a rather fanciful picture of a flying saucer onto which they painted an Iron Cross, and some pictures 'from the internet'.

Convinced me.

(Let's not forget that if the Nazi Flying Saucers had made it to London, they'd have been welcomed with open arms by the newspaper that supported them right through the 1930s, one Daily Mail).

One Tory down…

Lord Young's resigned as an unpaid government adviser, for saying in public what the rich men governing us are saying in private about what he described as the 'so-called recession' (go here for an economist's assessment of his claims).

The multimillionaire gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph, and thinking he was amongst friends (hint: journalists are never your friends), uttered these pearls of wisdom:

 "For the vast majority of people in the country today, they have never had it so good ever since this recession – this so-called recession – started, because anybody, most people with a mortgage who were paying a lot of money each month, suddenly started paying very little each month. That could make three, four, five, six hundred pounds a month difference, free of tax. That is why the retail sales have kept very good all the way through."
the Conservative peer also said “people will wonder what all the fuss was about” when looking back at the Government’s spending cuts, the deepest in more than 30 years.
He described the loss of about 100,000 public-sector jobs a year as being within “the margin of error” in the context of the 30 million-strong job market as a whole. 

Scant comfort for the individual human beings he - like Stalin - dismissed as statistics - like the 500,000 civil servants due to lose their jobs, and the pensioners who need decent interest rates to keep afloat on their savings.

Fair and Balanced

We think that the Daily Mail's quota of bile is damaging to the public sphere, but it's nothing compared to what goes on in the US.

Roger Ailes is the head of Fox News, that bastion of objectivity, and the fish clearly rots from the head. He gave a very interesting interview. Amongst the revelations is this: the staff at NPR are 'Nazis'. NPR? National Public Radio, a very, very underfunded station which spends most of its time begging listeners to donate so they can continue making interesting documentaries - it's like a nervous version of BBC Radio 4.

They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don't want any other point of view. They don't even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda.
I wonder where the Tea Party gets its rather confused ideas about Obama being a Communist Nazi?

On Obama (no, I have no idea what he means by this either):
He had to be told by the French and the Germans that his socialism was too far left for them to deal with.”

Ailes had defended Fox News firebrand Glenn Beck's attacks on George Soros by saying that there are "left-wing rabbis who basically don't think that anybody can ever use the word, Holocaust, on the air." Beck said that Soros, at age 14, accompanied a Hungarian to help him “deliver papers to the Jews, and confiscate their property, and then ship them off… Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.” Beck added that Soros had no choice but that he didn’t understand why Soros had done no “soul searching” about his past.
Ailes also made a coded attack on Barack Obama, claiming: "He just has a different belief system than most Americans" – a rubric used on Fox News, leading bloggers at New York magazine to note: "Ailes spouted exactly the same rhetoric about President Obama that you hear on his channel." Similarly, Jeff Bercovici at Forbes points out: "It's a commonplace by now at Fox that the President is a socialist."
 What a healthy atmosphere over there.