Saturday, July 19, 2014

Another blow

There were two models adopted by adult education, particularly in the university sector. The first used high fees and rarefied subjects to run self-financing courses with the majority of students being affluent enthusiasts. The second was to engage with the community, work with trade unions and the voluntary sector, teach in prisons and outreach areas, and the like. That was the route we chose in Hull. Funding regimes changed. We closed.

And now that dilemma is hitting the City Lit in London, the largest adult education centre in Europe. I have a personal connection, my first boss in Manchester went off there to be principal and saved them from a near terminal crisis. A man of horrifying energy, he left early, utterly exhausted, to be a freelance adult education tutor and consultant. I am still in touch with him even after all these years.

And it appears that the City Lit is now choosing to go down the self-financing route at the expense of Access courses and the like. The Guardian report imposes its own agenda by denigrating 'hobby courses', which those of us who have worked in adult education know can be life savers for many and safe entry points for others, but it makes it clear that the erosion of Access courses is particularly damaging.

In another report on education, this time about universities, Aditya Chakrabortty starts with this anecdote:
Last November a letter appeared in the London Review of Books that should be carved into stone. It recalled a reception held in the early 90s at the British embassy in Tokyo, where some attache was guffing on about how the dreaming spires of Albion were going to become centres of enterprise – just like the private sector. On hearing this, a normally "polite and reserved" Japanese professor felt moved to protest: "Your universities – they will follow British business model? But British business is … I am sorry … it is not well. It is dead, and your universities are famous and respected. They are not dead."
It is when management talk about being more like businesses when you know you are in trouble. Because they would make lousy business managers too.

We can say the same about adult education. It was one of this country's success stories; thriving, entirely voluntary and open to all without any restrictions at all levels. And if you want a sense of how important it is and what second chance education can achieve, read this feature on the NUS student of the year, Natalie Atkinson.

And what have we done with it? Inspect the ruins and see.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Religion is passé, writing a management text is how to make money from bollocks these days. John Naughton tells us what to do:
It's a pernicious genre based on one simple principle: the "idea" must be big enough to seem profound, but it mustn't be so profound that it cannot be memorised by halfwits and used in PowerPoint presentations.
Spot on.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


I have just read Doug Saunders short book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide. It is a beautifully clear dissection of modern mythologies about Muslims. Saunders demolishes the writing of those like Mark Steyn, Bruce Bawer, Melanie Phillips and their ilk and goes further by taking on the batty conspiracy theories of Gisèle Littman that animate the new far right.

You see, something strange has happened. As the far left has adopted anti-Zionism with zeal and supped at the trough of anti-Semitism, the new far right have adopted Israel as one of their own because, as they see it, it is sticking it to the Muslims. The old Jewish world conspiracy has morphed into a Muslim world conspiracy, Eurabia. According to Saunders, Littman fingered a committee based in Brussels called the Euro-Arab Dialogue. This was founded in 1973 and she saw it as a body where the European elite was conspiring to Islamise the West. The committee met four times and was wound up in 1979, but then reality and conspiracy are usually strangers.

Faced with this lunacy, Saunders calmly debunks it, together with the more mainstream myths, using evidence and historical detail. All the demographic and cultural assumptions made by the 'Muslim tide' authors are just plain, empirically and verifiably, wrong. Not only that, but identical arguments were made about Catholic and Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Assimilation took time, we often underestimate how long, and, he says, the same will happen with Muslims. We are in the early part of a familiar, and very human, cycle of migration and change.

This doesn't mean that he lets either jihadi terrorism or Salafist politics off the hook. The violence is by no means over and many more will die at its hands, but the point he makes is that it is not an inevitable and integral part of Islam. Instead it is a self-contained political movement that has sprung from two sources. Firstly, there is the 'privatisation of religion', a process of secularisation where Islam has become decoupled from cultural certainties, become a matter of private belief and has entered the modern market place of ideas. Secondly, radical Islam springs from the identity politics that was a twin reaction to social exclusion and to a particular form of multiculturalism, as opposed to religious and cultural pluralism, creating "the prison house of culture." It is not the product of a changeless tradition, but is a totalitarian utopianism springing from the uncertainties of change at a time of radical modernisation. It is nasty stuff and likely to persist for some time to come. As he says,
While these Islamist parties … reflect a transient political moment, they are neither benign nor to be celebrated. They represent reactionary, repressive, intolerant and anti-Semitic forces at a moment when the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are badly in need of the opposite. We should not wish such parties upon anyone. But they are not evidence of a conquering Islam … or that American immigrants could not be trusted.
What Saunders does is to bring sanity and historical perspective to bear on contemporary anxieties. He does this by looking at the facts and undertaking the simple task of differentiating between migrants and their descendants, who just happen to be Muslims, with political movements that prey on them and abhorrent cultural practices that still persist amongst a minority. This is a judgement that neither the new far right, together with their fellow travellers – the 'Muslim tide' authors – nor the far left, with their embrace of Islamism as an expression of an undifferentiated Muslim anti-imperialism, have attempted. I sometimes wonder what both Israelis and Palestinians have done to deserve such unsavoury champions.

Yet there is always hope. Once again, when real people emerge from the demonology of ideological hysteria, they appear to be not so different from everyone else and often rather nice.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Advice to Paxman

I wish I had heard this at the right time. But after Jeremy Paxman's step into the ring with George Szirtes last month, I think that this is the lesson he learnt.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Keen swimmers amongst you may be pleased to know that Ian Steadman has done the maths in the New Statesman:
You are more likely to be bitten by Luis Suarez (1 in 2,000) than a shark (1 in 3,700,000)
Of course he is not the only sportsman to be punished for biting. There is a list here. My favourite, complete with accompanying YouTube, is Francisco Gallardo.
In 2001, the Sevilla striker was fined and suspended by the Royal Spanish Football Federation for biting the penis of his team-mate José Antonio Reyes during a goal celebration. The federation said that his behaviour was not in line with the "sporting behaviour and decorum" of La Liga's players. Gallardo for his part did not see what all the fuss was about. "I am sure I didn't offend anyone," he said. "I don't think what I did was very noteworthy."

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hot stuff

A mini heat wave sent temperatures near to 40C, perfect for spicy food. So it's time to make some τυροκαφτερή (tirokafteri), a salad dip made from cheese and hot peppers. It is really easy.

First grow your peppers.

OK, I'm showing off. You can buy them instead. The ones you get in Greece are long green peppers, not like the chillies you get in the supermarkets in the UK. A good Asian grocer will have some, they have a different flavour and are soft and fleshy.

First, you fry a pepper lightly so that the skin lifts off and you can peel it. Taste it when you do this as it may determine how many you use. I picked two, had a little taste, ran round the house a few times breathing fire and then used one. Skin and deseed it. Chop coarsely and put in a blender with some olive oil and either wine vinegar or lemon juice. Give it a good whizz up and then add cheese. Feta is the basic ingredient, but it is nicer if you add a blander, soft cheese as well. I use fresh ανθότυρο, (anthotiro), a whey cheese, but you could use ricotta or even a very thick set yoghurt.  Blend the lot together adding olive oil if it is too solid, until you have a coarse paste. Stick it in the fridge for an hour or so for the flavour to develop and that is it. Serve with fresh bread or anything you like. Spectacularly good and simple.

Friday, June 20, 2014

I feel your pain

The white working class - this is the latest object of political fascination. And so the cry goes up from the left to listen to them on immigration, to reach out to UKIP voters, to prove that you will be tough on benefit 'scroungers'. Then the right joins in about the need to strengthen declining social capital, build the 'big society' out of a 'broken Britain' and to improve the incentives to work. All share the assumption that this mythical beast is rather a nasty brute, inclined to violence and irrational hatreds. Throw it some raw meat and it will stay in its corner, growling but not menacing.

I have never bought it. So it was nice to see some empirical research from Open Society Foundations, a think tank funded by George Soros. And what they found didn't surprise me after my own work in outreach adult education. People hated the stigma and the blame being thrown at them. There was a strong work ethic, of course, and very strong communities where, "People will reach out to neighbors in a time of need before they turn to public authorities." The concern over immigration appears when it is perceived as a threat to the stability of these close-knit communities. But why? The summary concludes:
It is by no means inevitable that boundaries are set up against outsiders or newcomers. Some of the six communities have been ethnically diverse for decades; others are just starting to experience change. Though there was prejudice towards outsiders among some, many also expressed interest in contact with people from other backgrounds and a desire to build new shared values. In some cities such as Aarhus in Denmark, ethnic diversity was seen as a positive development and a source of pride. 
One of the benefits of in-depth research like this is its measured response to questions about sensitive subjects of inclusion and immigration. At a national level, in a country like the UK, immigration is linked with popular discontent, but when the questions are asked at the local level, individuals will demonstrate a willingness to negotiate differences and find common ground with newcomers, as well as understand the wider social and economic factors that are having an impact. An older resident from Manchester declared that: 
"If there was work, and there was houses, and there was everything what’s needed, I wouldn’t have a problem with [immigration]. The problem is that there’s too much looking for too little, and you’re bound to get trouble when that happens. If you have starving people and throw a loaf in amongst them, there’ll be a murder committed to get that loaf. That’s what’s happening here on a much bigger scale. There’s not enough."
In other words it is the old concerns of the left that should be animating them today - employment, housing, health, education, the basics of a decent society. These are modest enough demands. Meeting them should be an article of faith on the left. Actually doing something could pay big political dividends. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

1066 and all that

Owen Jones takes on David Cameron's assertion that Magna Carta is a good thing, by trotting out his own list of good things. It is hard to read either without cringing. One historical myth is replaced with another. Both are Whig theories, in that they assume incremental progress, one through paternalism, the other through struggle.

This leads Jones to say that,
The government's crusade to embed "British values" in our education system is meaningless at best, dangerous at worst, and a perversion of British history in any case.
And here we come face-to-face with the complete muddle informing the whole debate about jihadi entryism in British schools.

There are two main problems. The first is the use of history and the second is the ascription of nationality to a specific set of values, usually without defining them in anything other than the vaguest terms.

What we are talking about are not British values at at all, but a cluster of universal rights, liberties and values that fall into several categories. First are human and legal rights, such as the right to life, to liberty, habeas corpus (which indeed appears in Magna Carta, though not much else does), freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from torture, no punishment without due process, etc. Secondly, there are democratic rights, the institutional arrangements that limit state power and allow for some form of popular representation. Third are social values, such as freedom from discrimination, toleration, social equality and liberty of lifestyle. Finally, there are economic rights - welfare, health and, yes, education. You can probably add many more to the list. None of these belong specifically to any nation, though some are at better practicing them than others.

Broadly speaking, these are liberal values and what is being proposed is their defence against a totalitarian movement and its relativist allies. The strength of the argument has been undermined by foolish nationalist sentiment.

But what of history? Well what any national or international history is doing is not defining these values but looking at the ways that they have been developed, implemented, violated, challenged and defended. It is full of ambiguities. For instance, Britain both profited from and abolished the slave trade. Polemicists seize on one or the other, historians look at the interrelation and the reasons for both.

I find history endlessly fascinating, but nothing disturbs me more than it being cherry-picked to create partisan narratives. Some of the worst offenders are nationalists, which is why talk of inculcating British values instead of promoting human rights is so inappropriate. And please, let's leave history out of it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fame in Spain

Oh look. I get a mention in the CNT newspaper. Page 22.
Le siguió la conferencia de Peter Ryley sobre El Manifiesto de los Dieciséis, redactado en 1916, abogaba por el triunfo de los Aliados frente al eje germano. Entre sus defensores se encontraban los anarquistas Piotr Kropotkin y Jean Grave quienes defendían que era inmoral ser neutral o las posiciones antibélicas ante la amenaza que se cernía sobre el mundo. Ryley alegó que Kropotkin tenía razón y que la supuesta integridad moral del pacifismo a veces puede servir a ideas inmorales y que los anarquistas tienen que comprometerse con un concepto de guerra justa basándose en el principio de la internacionalidad. Defendió la necesidad —en circunstancias muy especiales— de abandonar ciertas predisposiciones ideológicas predeterminadas.
I take my fame where I can find it these days. It was all because I was here:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


We are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages. Actually, we are lousy at learning our own. We rarely recognise that we are a multi-lingual nation and it only really becomes visible if you go to Wales, where road signs are in both English and Welsh and bilingualism is encouraged. And then you see signs like this one.

Impressive, unless you can speak Welsh. WalesOnline reports that llid y bledren dymchwelyd does not mean 'cyclists dismount'. It loosely translates as 'bladder disease has returned'. Ah. We're not very good at it, are we.

Thanks to Lucy

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Is it 'cos I is black

Sepp Blatter does his best Ali G impersonation as he tries to fend off corruption allegations that swarm around FIFA. It's all about racism in the media apparently. Maybe he needs to shake their hands.

John Oliver explains it all for Americans.


The virulent anti-vaccination movement is limited in the UK, though the MMR panic, based on what the BMJ is happy to call fraudulent research and encouraged by papers like the Daily Mail, has done plenty of damage. Inexpert, celebrity-led campaigns have taken a much stronger hold in the USA and the fightback is increasingly urgent. Jennifer Raff's post, Dear parents you are being lied to, with multiple authoritative links, is as good a counter attack as any. This ignorant conspiracy theory kills. If vaccination drops below critical levels, people will die. In the same way, Thabo Mbeki's HIV denial may have cost 300,000 lives.

This should be enough to convince people to counter this nonsense where they can, hoping that people are open to persuasion. But this underestimates the sheer nastiness of convinced obsessives, another example of which I saw today. This Australian report details the harassment of parents who had lost a child to a communicable disease. Yes, the parents of dead children are their target. So perhaps the Aldrin method is the best way of dealing with them after all.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Diving in

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
T S Eliot
George Szirtes has skewered Jeremy Paxman; nicely, poetically, but firmly. He may be wriggling at this moment. In pinning Paxo to the wall, George has written with insight about poetry itself. I particularly liked this:
Poetry is as ancient as language itself, and the sense of the poetic precedes language. Animals could be charmed by music; mere drumming can heal the sick. The poetic even penetrates to football commentators who exclaim "Sheer poetry!" at a particularly wonderful moment. They tend not to exclaim "Sheer prose!" 
Ah yes, the beautiful game. A wonderful metaphor for artistry. Playwrights come out of it pretty well too. There is the "Theatre of Dreams", faking injury is "play acting", a match can be "high drama", a club plunging down through the leagues is "a Greek tragedy".

But what about us prose writers, especially those who get published by a respectable academic press? What do we get? A prosaic style of football, and that's it. Surely we can join in the fun. How about, "that goalless draw was as turgid as a Judith Butler paragraph!" No? Ah well, I suppose we will have to resign ourselves to playing in the Championship, whilst the poets and dramatists fight it out in the Champions' League.

Regaining marbles

Howard Jacobson has stopped being a miserable bugger and has gone on holiday. He liked it. He would, he went to Greece. Not only that, he wants to return the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful place. I have only one quibble with his article and it is this.
God know what would have happened to me had I stayed a year. Well, I know what would have happened to me: I’d have learnt the language ...
Learnt Greek in a year? Wow! I think he needs a reality check from the finest Greek Language book I have ever read, Learn Greek in 25 Years. The book is very funny, but, like all humour, is too close to the truth for comfort.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Big Tom

This is Big Tom. He is called that because he is a big tom. He lives in Greece. I am there too. That is all that is going through my head right now.

Monday, May 26, 2014

You kip if you want to

The media are getting far too excited than is good for them. They have been in a frenzy over UKIP for months. Last week the local election results were reported as a surge of support for UKIP. Given the wall-to-wall coverage and stunts like Nick Clegg's amazing act of stupidity in agreeing to debate Farage on TV, it wouldn't be surprising if there had been. There is only one problem. UKIP gained 22% of the vote in 2013 and 17% in 2014. They had lost support. This should have given pause for thought, but it didn't. Commentators were saved by the European election results, with UKIP topping the polls with 27% of a very low turnout. The media breathed a sigh of relief and their big political story lives on, until they get bored with it that is.

That story isn't as simple as portrayed. European election results rarely correlate to votes in a general election and they hugely over-represent fringe parties. Think back to the last time. Then, it was the BNP that was the talk of the town. Two fascists were elected. Everyone got very excited. Nick Griffin was invited onto Newsnight. This year they were wiped out.

Analysis and reporting has also been lazy (at best) when looking at the figures. In the local elections UKIP lost votes but gained seats. To sustain the narrative, the share of the vote was ignored and the gain in seats highlighted. But the media was keen to paint the elections as a failure for Labour, so in their case they concentrated on share of the vote (the largest, but not enough to win a general election), not on the more than 300 seats gained. The problem of using seats to gauge popular support is that their distribution often reflects the crankiness of the electoral system, rather than share of the vote. Any meaningful comparison has to look at the share of the vote alone.

If you do this, then things look a lot more interesting. Britain seems to be becoming a much more multi-party polity. This will create all sorts of anomalies at the general election as first-past-the-post is poor at giving representation to smaller national parties. The electoral reform debate is not going away.

The second thing that is obvious is that Labour is recovering, pretty slowly, but improving all the time nevertheless. The only two parties that have gained are Labour and UKIP. It is just that nobody seems interested in talking about Labour. Also on the left, there is the continuing support for the Green Party. They are holding their place too.

The Liberal Democrats certainly should be worried, their support is melting away. UKIP is not helping the Conservatives either. They face the prospect of a divided right. The major parties are pretty resilient. I remember back to the times when the SDP was supposed to be the new force that would supersede Labour. They didn't but they did divide the left, leaving the way open for big Conservative majorities. UKIP will not replace the Tories, but they can lose them seats in marginal constituencies.

After the banking crisis and the politics of austerity, some polarisation is apparent. This time the main challenge is coming from an embittered right, itching to be nasty once more. UKIP is its latest indulgence. Certainly they represent an unlovely and authoritarian suburban insurgency, but a new force in British politics? Don't hold your breath.