Sunday, December 30, 2007

A class act

At this time of year reading comes in two types, the serendipity bought as Christmas presents from my over-long Amazon wish list and the books that I should read, determinedly ferried backwards and forwards from England, usually lying untouched in my suitcase. The now relenting cold gave me the perfect excuse to engage in the former and, once again, neglect the latter.

My Rugby League addiction was satisfied by Stevo, the autobiography of the former Great Britain hooker and Sky TV summariser, Mike Stephenson. It isn’t a great read, although it isn’t one of those anodyne, ghost written sports books (if it had been there would have been a few less exclamation marks). Punches are pulled towards the end about the creation of Super League, bringing to mind the embarrassing Pravda broadcast on Sky where Eddie Hemmings and Stevo pretended the fans were all in full agreement with the proposals. (I had just come back from Keighley, who were being denied promotion, where the crowd, whipped up by the chairman, demonstrated against them on the pitch. Some towns held protest marches, whilst I always remember a foul-mouthed, belligerent female Featherstone fan who attended matches all the following season wearing her "Maurice Lindsay is a wanker" tee-shirt. The fans won a partial victory when the proposed club mergers never took place).

It was the start of the book that grabbed me, celebrating the game’s Northern, working class roots. A Dewsbury miner’s son, Stevo had an upbringing that we would now think of as shockingly poor. There was little money, his schooling was weak, and he was in minor trouble with the police as a youth but sorted himself out through sport. This was the 1960’s, romanticised as the era of youth rebellion, hedonism and affluence. Not for the Northern working class. The way that players were treated by club owners, with their general parsimony towards those who earned a part-time living by playing the toughest sport of all, can only be described as feudal. The game was hard, bordering on psychotic, scrums were real, and the camaraderie amongst the players, cemented by a common upbringing, was boisterously blokeish.

Stevo played in the Great Britain team that won the World Cup in 1972 (many years before the Rugby Union even dreamt of holding one), an achievement studiously ignored by the Southern-based, national media. It was only afterwards, in 1973, when he went to play in Australia, that he became a sporting star with something like the rewards associated with being an international of the highest class. Not bad for an asthmatic with a twisted spine.

Self-deprecation is second nature in the North. It is to be expected that Stevo would take the mickey out of his looks, especially after fourteen broken noses. However, he also talks of his lack of brains. The old joke is that it is a requirement for playing in the front row of the scrum, but that isn’t what he is saying; he means it.

And this is a man who, as a lad, hitchhiked to Italy so that he could indulge in his love of art, who later became a successful restaurant owner, a print journalist and a broadcaster. This is the man who set up a travelling exhibition of Rugby League memorabilia all round Australia and now has his own museum at the birthplace of Rugby League, the George Hotel in Huddersfield. All this was achieved despite the impressive proportion of his life that has been spent pissed. He still thinks he is thick.

Just imagine where he would be now if he had not been good at sport. Probably, he would be like many another working class sixty-year-old - in poor health; recently retired from clearing drains blocked with the detritus of other peoples' affluence; and still with an unfulfilled passion for art, forever held back by the inferiority complex he was taught to embrace. Never doubt the damage done by inequality, by class prejudice, and a lack of expectations that stifles the aspirations of the best. Celebrate every attempt at social inclusion, especially in education, at all times of life, instead of falling back into a lazy elitism of defending 'standards' against 'dumbing down'. There are loads of talented Stevos out there; the only difference is that they are not world class sportsmen.

There would seem to be no connection at all with my other gift, Anne Fadiman’s delightful collection of essays, At Large and at Small. I have already posted on the extract read on Radio 4 about naturally nocturnal people.

The whole book is full of such gems. There are essays on favourite indulgences, coffee and ice cream; marvellous pieces on the Romantics, especially the one on Charles Lamb; and others on Arctic exploration, butterfly collecting, literary criticism and more. It ends with an acutely observed tragedy. The essays are an examination of the world in miniature and, at times, the book is no less profound for its small compass.

So where is the link with Stevo? Fadiman is impeccably middle class, East Coast American, the well-educated daughter of a writer. The answer comes in her post 9/11 essay on her relationship with the American flag.

In her youth she rejected flag waving. Why? Nominally, she would have associated it with her opposition to the Vietnam war. Now, after 9/11, she is clear that her "disdain for the flag wasn’t political; it was social". Patriotism was associated with the working classes, with which her circles "professed heartfelt solidarity" whilst never meeting anyone from them and scoffing at their tastes and way of life. This was the Sixties too, days "which pretended to be egalitarian but were in fact unthinkingly, unapologetically, unbelievably snobbish". Days when a young, art loving, Dewsbury miner’s son learnt how to see himself as thick before becoming a plumber’s mate and going on to be a star in the most unpretentious sport on earth. Have we become more egalitarian since? I am not so sure.

The grass is always greener

This is a second hand story as my awful virus forced me to linger in bed and miss a social gathering in Lafkos this evening. Apparently, when my absence was discussed, the topic of Hull came up. Someone had been designing way markers for the network of old donkey paths that criss-cross the hills in partnership with a small copy shop in Volos. Volos is the nearest small city, an hour’s drive away. It is an attractive port at the head of the Pagasitic Gulf and sits snug against the base of Mount Pelion. It is near the site of the ancient city of Iolkos from where Jason set out on his quest for the Golden Fleece. The owner of the copy shop has his own dream too. He wants to live in Hull.

Yes, you read that right. Apparently, he did a degree in graphic design in Hull and fell in love with the place. And now, when I sit in my office in Hull, dreamily watching my screen saver taunt me with pictures of Pelion, I will know there is a man in Volos, who sits longingly in front of his own computer gazing at a slide show of the sights of Hull. We are like lovers with the wrong partners, each wanting what the other has. Who knows? One day we may put it all right.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Man flu

Ok it is really only a cold, but I claim the privileges of my gender to make the most of it. It has been pretty debilitating though and not what you want on holiday. I have often noticed that the body decides that once the pressure of work is off it is alright to be ill. No it isn’t body. I want to be ill so that I can miss work not when I am missing it already.

It has been an odd stay. The weather has been bleak and cold. We arrived to a funeral. The man who owned the plot of land next to the house died of a stroke at the age of only 63. A nice, friendly man who had learnt some English when he was at sea, he always greeted us, helped himself to our water for his vines, and kept himself fit. He is a loss. More prosaically, the dishwasher decided to blow up. And yes, for those bucolic fantasists amongst you, we do have dishwashers in rural Greece; I am also hoping that we have people who can fix them.

The beauty is still there and sneezing and sniffling beside an olive wood fire with good books is preferable to being holed up in Hull. I look out of the windows to see the citrus trees laden with bright oranges and the silvery leaves of the olive groves on the far hill. Wood smoke hangs over the village, many people are away and it is very quiet. The local butcher, Costas, has once again made his late entry for the Turner Prize with his amazing strings of fairy lights flung haphazardly over the tree outside his house. Boxing Day was accompanied by the gunfire of the hunters and I hope that I will be over this virus in time to join in the New Year’s Eve cacophony.

The skies look unremitting and I do not think that we will have any warm winter days this year. And once again, given the utter unreality in England about Greece and the failure to realise that winter exists, when I get back I know that people will say, “at least you have been sitting in the sun”.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy hols

The office is tidied, everything is switched off and a very tired fatman is off to Greece for a Christmas break.

There isn't much chance of a post for a few days so I would just like to wish everyone who drops by here all the best, even if they feel like this.

And something for the government to mull over from Patrick Geddes, written in 1917;

"Let it not be thought, however, that in the coming polity, the mature and the aged are to be excluded from the joy of educational militancy".

UPDATE
Just heard from Greece. They have been without power for 16 hours and the cleaner found two dead rats under the sofa. Paradise.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Stop whining

Can modern life deal more cruel blows to the middle classes? Now the Torygraph reports on the stress of "second-cheapest wine syndrome". They know a thing or two in these parts though:

Those in Yorkshire are most likely to choose the cheapest bottle on the menu.

A state of fear

John Pilger reckons that,

Britain is now a centralised single-ideology state, as secure in the grip of a superpower as any former eastern bloc country.

It is also a "murdochracy" (make your mind up please), "an empire devoted to the promotion of war, conquest and human division".

Thank God I escaped. To think that a few hours ago I was in the office of a sinister, baby-eating minister to discuss adult education. Luckily he had to dash off to his constituency for a big Christmas event with local children before he could order his minions to pounce. I hope to God the children survived.

Already anxious about our disagreements, I was transported away to the centre of power - the grotesquely gothic Houses of Parliament - by an MP who is also a government whip. There the monster punished me harshly for my dissent. She bought me coffee and a beer, before sharing a taxi back to Kings Cross. Now I gaze anxiously from my hotel window as I type anything I want, to be read anywhere in the world, by anyone who is so inclined. There is no freedom of speech in this country any more.

What is this? A new tab has appeared on my screen. How did it get there? I do not believe it is simply because I clicked on the link. It is the blog of a shadowy man, known for his "contortion of intellect and morality", the dreaded Norm. He thinks the article is bollocks too.

What did the Middle Ages ever do for us?

Sometimes it is hard to resist temptation, a Madeleine Bunting column is such a rich source for a blocked blogger. Eric at the Trots cannot really be bettered, but I will still rise to the bait of a truly terrible piece. This time she has got carried away reading Mediaeval history. And joy upon joy it confirms to her that we are at fault for everything, society is fragmented and that we are "baffled and insecure" - and it is all the fault of the Middle Ages. Yikes.

Her discovery of "one the most influential and controversial books of medieval history of the last 20 years", R I Moore's 1987 book, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, has got her all aroused. Excitedly, she continues, "The relevance of its argument today is uncanny". Actually, there is nothing uncanny about it. It is part of the process of writing history. Whilst it is clearly a distortion to project the concerns of contemporary society backwards, inevitably what often interests historians are the aspects of the past that concern the present. Even with my scanty knowledge of early history, I would have thought that persecution of groups is hardly a phenomenon that only emerged in the Middle Ages. Instead, the gloomy turn of her mind has joyously leapt on a study that confirms her interpretation of a "fear of Islam" that is rooted in anomie rather than the corpses of the arbitrary victims of Jihadi terrorism.

My specialism is the 19th Century, and if Bunting had paused for breath she would have thought about all the Gothic revival buildings littering our towns and cities and realised that other ages felt an affinity with the Middle Ages too. For 19th Century radicals, it was a period when skilled workers could control their own destinies. William Morris saw it as the unity of art and craft; for Peter Kropotkin it was an exemplar of mutual aid.

Take your pick of "cultural shorthands" - as for myself I have always been suspicious of utopias based on idealised pasts as well as imagined futures, and so reject the use of history as polemic. All that Maddy's disastrous article proves to me is that a little learning is a dangerous thing, especially if posted on Comment is Free.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Down south

I'm in London for the British Library, a meeting with a minister about adult education cuts, and a beer with a fine chap. The internet connection from this hotel is dire, posting will be light but I don't think that I can resist today's classic from Maddy of all the Sorrows. Watch this space.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hope

It seems a long time since I have felt able to say that the Guardian is the home of some outstanding writing, but this is certainly the case today.

First, there is a moving account by the novelist Khaled Hosseini of his return to Afghanistan. Amid his shock at the devastation of war, the legacy of the unimaginable brutality of the Taliban, the continuing desperate poverty, and the disillusion with the pace of reconstruction, is a feeling of hope.

But here is the most amazing thing of all: amid the despair, sickness and destitution, I saw beauty and kindness that brought me to my knees. And I saw what I had come to Afghanistan to see: signs of rebirth and hope, signs of a people allowing themselves to dream again. I saw men planting grapevines and trees on the hill that leads to Bagh-e-bala, King Abdur Rahman Khan's old palace, which overlooks the city. I chatted with a young shepherd playing the flute on that hill, the bells on his sheep jingling as they fed on grass. He thought his life was much better since the Taliban had been largely ousted - he could play his flute again. Children flew kites from rooftops and young men in pirhan-tumban played volleyball at the Shar- e-nau Park. People smiled and little schoolgirls sang songs as they skipped to school, holding hands. I saw people painting old homes, building new ones, digging gutters, going to the movies and playing Bollywood soundtrack songs and rubab music at street corners.

The article is a robust reply to the negativism of those like Simon Jenkins. However, it is also a call to speed up development and, in the words of a policeman he talked to, "to find ways to put the aid money where it was most needed, in the pockets of average people". Read it all.

The second is a long report from inside Burma. It is a recounts a nation in the grip of fear, of ever present violence and brutality, of suppression by a remote military elite. But still there are voices of hope.

Thet Pyin:

"There are divisions in the army. The core of the dictatorship is small, it is at odds with the military in its larger role. This government will fall."

Ludu Daw Ahmar:

"People are very much afraid of the government but this can't go on forever. There will be a day when the people break this"

A senior cleric in Mandalay:

"But we know it will not change tomorrow. It might take five years, it might take 10, but it will be go. It has no solutions."

A political activist in hiding:

"Nobody won in September because it's not finished"

If there is one thing that gives hope, it is that the human capacity for horror, brutality, genocide and sadism is always confronted by a greater power, the capacity for resistance. That longing for freedom, for an assertion of all that is best in humanity, is indestructible. It wins in the end. It is where we, with our privileged lives, should stand, not with the cynics and the 'realists' who would abandon hope and thereby betray the oppressed.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Educationally challenged

The Torygraph gets worked up about University Challenge.

Apparently, it "stands accused of neglecting undergraduates in favour of teams stacked with "ringers", in the shape of mature and graduate students".

I have news for them, most mature students are undergraduates and there are now more of them than the kids straight from school. This cliché ridden attitude is of piddling significance in terms of prejudice about Higher Education, but it is symptomatic of the stereotypes that stand in the way of those of us who want universities to be open, inclusive institutions for the whole community and they inform the most crass decisions of government. Wake up. The world has changed - though not enough.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Who's right?

Make your own mind up.

In Afghanistan there is no realistic mission, no achievable objective, no long-term strategy, only the fruitless pursuit of failure.

Simon Jenkins

Almost universally, the Afghans I know see the presence in their country of foreign military and assistance workers as a necessary means to an end. Some of them even agree that if the foreigners left today, Afghanistan would collapse tomorrow.
Anja Havedal

A clue:

Anja Havedal has been living and working in Afghanistan since May 2006.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Confusion

Norm has dealt with one aspect of Gary Younge's muddled piece in the Guardian, in which he develops a familiar theme of Western hypocrisy around criticism of the refusal of an Iranian-German footballer to play for the German under-21 team in Israel. Norm points out that the German experience is precisely why the present generation might just have pertinent comments to make about anti-Semitism.

Younge segues from his original arguments that there is "a far less murderous recent history of antisemitism in his Iranian heritage" and that (conveniently overlooking the past sixty-two years) "if any nation exemplifies the limits of integration without a vigorous culture of anti-racism it is Germany - the European nation where Jews were most assimilated and almost found themselves wiped out", to yet another tiresome discussion of Islamophobia. He writes,

It has become a Europe-wide habit to refer to Muslims in particular and migrants in general as though they are barbarians who must either be civilised or banished, before they pollute the egalitarian societies in which they were either born or now live. Lacking all sense of humility, self-awareness and historical literacy, Europe's political class acts as though these communities not only manifest homophobia, sexism, antisemitism, political violence and social unrest, but also as though they invented them and introduced them to an otherwise utopian continent.

Please Gary, if you want to criticise, get it right. Not only is this the creation of a straw man through vague generalisations, it does scant justice to the anti-totalitarian left, which does not conflate Islam the religion with Islamism the political ideology. Instead it makes the specific point that Islamism has imported into its world view precisely those aspects of European irrationalist thought - nihilism, death cults, anti-Semitsm, etc. - that caused carnage in the 20th Century. Our European experience shows that these ideas are not only repugnant but also unbelievably dangerous and that they have to be confronted.

This misrepresentation is compounded by a strange false analogy with the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

Even as these scandals have run parallel with the war on terror, no one is claiming that Catholicism represents a threat to our civilisation.

Eh? Well there is a reason for that. It isn't. The clergy in the Catholic Church are actually supposed to be celibate. Therefore there was no way in which anyone could claim "the abuse was essentially religious" as it took place against the express commands of the religion. Despite the appointment of sex offenders to the priesthood, there also doesn't appear to be any Catholic militias decapitating Protestants, wishing to bring back the Inquisition, stoning to death adulterers, hanging gay men, or suicide bombing Anglican jumble sales and coffee mornings. Perverts ruining the lives of choir boys to satisfy their repressed sexuality isn't quite the same thing. The reason why Jihadi movements can be seen as a threat to our civilisation is that they have declared themselves to be just that and have set about a campaign of random murder in an attempt to bring it down.

To pretend that the dead of New York, London, Madrid, Bali and the far more numerous Muslim victims in Muslim countries are not witness to the existence of a murderous political movement is to abandon all sense. To claim that Europeans are unable to act in solidarity with the victims of those movements is equally ridiculous.

I am an atheist and do not like religion of any type, but I can certainly spot the difference between Islam and Islamism, in the same way that I can distinguish between European Enlightenment values and European Fascism. I would hope that Gary Younge could be similarly discriminating.

Saturday night

I went to the pub on Saturday; nothing remarkable about that except for the snapshot it gives of the effect of legislation. Over the more than 25 years I have frequented the place it has never been one of those boozers you left early, that is until the licensing laws were changed and hours were extended. Then, all of a sudden, everybody started going home at around the old legal closing time. Late drinking had lost its appeal. Now many are not coming at all. The smoking ban has coincided with cold weather and so the pub is empty for much of the time. The family that run it are worried about how long they can stay in business. It is an old, small pub; a cosy social institution.

There is no doubting the overwhelming evidence on smoking and health, but such gems of British life are now being squeezed by the smoking ban on one hand and by cheap supermarket drink on the other. The big bars will continue to prosper but the ban has accelerated the decline of the traditional local. Even as a non-smoker who prefers a smoke-free environment, I wish that the protection of livelihoods had been considered as well as the protection of health. And smokers now have another health risk - exposure. Glad I never started.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Avuncular pride

My nephew, the film maker Simon Ardizzone, was the guest on Little Atoms this week. I will post the link when the broadcast is available on-line.

Friday, December 07, 2007

More on music

The answer to stress? Alcohol, music, blogging, and sometimes all three. This time I neglected the wine as I was gripped by Roger Norrington's live recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. I am sipping it now to catch up.

I ordered the CD after reading a profile of Norrington's search for authenticity and war against vibrato in the Guardian this summer. After today, I was in the right mood to listen to it attentively.

Mahler's Fifth is one of his most joyous works - and, although everyone associates him with death, I always find Mahler joyous. The work is famous for the Adagietto, played as a searing, tragic dirge to accompany the death of Aschenbach in Visconti's film of Death in Venice. This is a misinterpretation. The Adagietto is a delicate love song and was the basis of Mahler's proposal to his future wife. It is life affirming rather than being about the merging of an obsessive love with death, as popularised by the film. Norrington gets it sparklingly right, making it beautiful, tender and touching.

The clarity of sound in this recording is startling and grabs the intellect as well as the emotions. It is a well known piece that I listened to as if for the first time tonight. I have become enamoured with 'authentic' recordings. Sometimes masterpieces need the patina removing so that they can shine anew.

Stockhausen

The avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has died. Many of the eulogies will mention his appearance on the cover of Sergeant Pepper, but will they also remind us of Thomas Beecham's famous judgement?

"Have you heard any Stockhausen?" Beecham was asked. "No, but I believe I have stepped in some."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Away for a day

Luke Johnson writes in the Financial Times,

...wheezes such as conferences, workshops, awaydays and seminars are the biggest waste of time and money known to the business world. ... mostly they are for people who haven't got enough work to do. As Samuel Johnson said: "There is no kind of idleness by which we are so easily seduced as that which dignifies itself by the appearance of business."

Guess what I will be doing tomorrow.

(Hat tip Daniel)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lords a leaping

...in indignation at the changes to the funding of lifelong learning .

Sorry that this is turning into an adult education blog at the moment. It was not my intention when I started it, but then I was not expecting a crisis like the current one to hit.

The House of Lords debated the proposals on Monday and gave them a savaging. Labour peers were particularly harsh.

Baroness Blackstone: "I regret having to say this but I passionately believe that a little less haste and a bit more consultation would go a very long way, so I hope that my noble friend will be able to reconsider the matter".

Lord Puttnam: "This is a bad policy; it is a policy that is based on a false choice and, like all false choices, it inevitably results in a poor decision".

Lord Plant: "I think that this policy is spectacularly misconceived. It cuts entirely across the lifetime learning agenda, a good deal of which takes in things such as certificates and diplomas, which will be put at an acute disadvantage by the consequences of this proposal".

Lord Morgan: "...the Government have championed many admirable principles in higher education and I fear that this policy on ELQs runs counter to almost all of them. ...The deckchairs will be rearranged but the iceberg will still be there. ...The proposal will be deeply damaging to many English universities".

Lord Griffiths: "I speak in the name of all those who redirect their lives and seek appropriate skills for the new direction that their life takes, my two sons included; they started abortively with bad careers advice from their schools but ended up finding their way, retooled themselves for their jobs and are now happily ensconced in them. In the name of all that is decent—I know that my noble friends on the Front Bench are decent if nothing else—I do ask for a reconsideration".

There is a bigger point to be made here. Francis Sedgemore, on his own site and at the Drink-soaked Trots, has posted about losing faith in politics and this debate gives us a taste of just why this is the case. The policy was being defended by David Triesman, now a Labour peer and junior minister, but formerly the General Secretary of my union, the AUT. Its successor, the UCU, is vehemently opposed to the changes and if he was still in his old job, I suspect Triesman would be too. In fact, he probably is and is cursing his brief.

When we have a system that demands the defence of a policy as defective as this by someone who, in all likelihood, is as opposed to it as its detractors, we have theatre rather than politics. It is hard not to feel cynical as well as frustrated, even though our local elected representatives have acted impeccably. Could we ever have a system where intellectual honesty trumps defence of a party line? It might just prove to be popular.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fighting the good fight

Michelle Hanson joins the chorus of disapproval of the changes to the funding of Adult Education.

...what does the modern world need with little old ladies learning medieval history and GCSE Spanish for fun? Or people retraining, or getting their qualifications up to date, or anyone who can only study in the evenings or weekends, which is mostly women?

She doesn't get the details of the changes quite right, but is only too aware of the sentiment behind them,

...lifelong learning and flexible or part-time courses suddenly aren't so important after all. All we really want now are courses that increase "employability, career prospects and earnings".

It is heartening to see the mainstream media taking up the issue. However, the Government is showing a grim determination to persevere with this awful policy against all the opposition and evidence of the damage that will be done. Hanson puts it a bit too strongly when she writes,

If they proceed as planned this time, adult education will go down the tubes, together with all those universities and colleges, like Birkbeck and the Open University and Mrs Fielding's college, which have, until now, poured their souls into supporting lifelong learning.

Some certainly will survive, but she isn't that far off about the consequences of this act of vandalism. She concludes, "Optimists may still petition our government at petitions.pm.gov.uk/ELQFunding/". If you haven't signed yet, please do so now.

UPDATE.
As of this morning (5/12) there were 11,768 signatures on the petition. NOW over 12,000 have signed.

Good morning

I am not a morning person. My idea of hell is the latest fashion for breakfast meetings. Late at night I become creative, I can read and write with heightened concentration. Mornings are for prevarication. The worst thing about my tendency towards nocturnal habits is that the rest of the country does not operate in that way, and, even worse, feels morally superior about being up bright and early.

My first meeting of today was at 10.00 am. I got in at 10.02. This time, rather than feeling rushed and harassed, I felt calm and confident. As a result of my late arrival, I had caught a gem of a broadcast on Radio 4. It was a celebration of being a night person, an 'owl', as opposed to the 90% who are 'larks', up in the morning and horribly efficient at an unearthly hour. It made me feel good about myself.

The programme was a reading from the Book of the Week, "At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist", a collection of essays by Anne Fadiman. You can listen to the broadcast here for the next seven days. There were many gems as she confronted the "powerful pro-lark tradition". The one I liked most was her description of her snatched, late night childhood reading. I too remember huddling under the bedclothes with my torch and book, deep into the night. I was always late for school the next day. Being a fat child, teachers put my bad timekeeping down to sloth. They did not realise that it was simply because I had been enthralled by the stories unfolding in the secret cocoon of my bed until the early hours. Fadiman says, "The child who reads at night is likely to become the adult who writes at night". She's right, I do.

It sounds like a super little book about the everyday pleasures of reading and writing. I might buy a copy; ideal for bed time - and later.

Democratiya 11

The latest Democratiya is out and it is a bumper issue. Check it out here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Books

First, there is an excellent review of Terry Glavin's new book, The Lost and Left Behind, in the Observer. It captures it's theme perfectly. I recommend the book highly. (UPDATE: Terry comments on the review here).

Secondly, Rachel Cooke gets depressed by a book called, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.

So why is it that, in spite of all these things, I find How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read so depressing? Why does the fact that it has appeared on clever-clever newspaper Christmas books lists even before it is in the shops make me feel weary to my bones? It's not only that you can have too much irony. It's that Bayard's essay (assuming it is not really by Chris Morris, and a giant spoof) is yet another product of a world that commodifies everything, that regards books pretty much as if they were status handbags. It sees reading only as a social indicator, as a way of getting on or looking cool, ignoring the fact that, at bottom, it is a private pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake.

I wholeheartedly agree, though there is a pang of guilt that will undoubtedly hit many a teacher, especially those like myself who work in subjects like Politics and History. How often we rely on secondary interpretations of classic texts, only to finally get round to reading the originals properly and realise we have got it completely wrong for the past twenty years. There is a part of teaching that relies on received opinion that is often way off-beam. We too have a lifestyle problem, only this time it is integral to earning our living. It involves a need for instant expertise when we should probably remember that wisdom lies in the recognition of the limits of our knowledge.

Cooke gets to the heart of the matter when she writes that,

Fine: dazzle your pals with your (wafer-thin) grasp of why Middlemarch is the greatest English novel. But this is a delight that will last only seconds; reading Middlemarch will give you hours (and perhaps a lifetime) of deep satisfaction.

And this is something to remember. However much you may need to survive in a classroom, the real thrill of reading should never be forgotten. After all, it is how you got there in the first place.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Losing elections

It hasn't been a great start for Gordon Brown, to say the least. Sometimes it may not be the headline news that is all important; it could be an issue that evades the scrutiny of the private polling and focus groups that makes all the difference. Could the cuts in adult education be just such an issue?

The Electoral Reform Society has estimated that fewer than 8,000 votes could decide an election, yet millions of people participate in adult education, and millions have started losing out. I have lost count of the times students have told me that their classes are their lifeline; this is not an insignificant activity and the attachment of people to learning is powerfully emotional. Not only that, though this is only anecdotal evidence, I have noticed that the majority of those that participate are natural Labour voters. Could they just sit on their hands in the next election to register their distress? Could this unnecessary and destructive policy be an election loser? It doesn't seem to have occurred to those in power that this may be the case.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The bloggertarian Vice Chancellor

The Government has finally found an ally in their struggle against the near unanimity of condemnation of their proposals to end institutional funding for students studying for an equivalent or lower qualification to the one they already hold. The Vice Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham - a free market fundamentalist - has risen to their defence. He is their only champion that I have come across so far. It is odd company for a Labour administration to be keeping. He writes in today's Guardian,

I don't often praise ministers, because they rarely do anything praiseworthy, but for once a secretary of state for the universities has done something good. John Denham intends to withdraw state support for students who want to study for a second bachelor's degree.

A sense of despair hit when I read that. Once again, this proposal does not just affect second degrees. It covers Certificates, Diplomas, short courses, Adult Education, continuing professional development, work related learning, etc., and predominantly hits part-time students. The idea that Universities are might be something other than degree factories offering a passport to a high earning job seems to have passed him by, as have the strong arguments against the proposals, which he reduces to simplistic clichés.

So what of the objections of publicly funded institutions?

The Hefce-funded VCs are beggars, and because none of them aspires to independence, they command little ministerial respect. Nor have they earned it.

And the solution?

British universities are being dragged into the market. They do not want to go there, and governments will drive them there only because taxpayers' money is limited, but markets will enrich the universities and incentivise the students.

The students I deal with have a massive incentive already, they want to learn. They want to learn because they want more out of life, not more in their pay packet. And it matters. Not for "the intellectual, cultural and economic capital of the nation", but for human dignity, personal growth, excitement and pleasure; in short, the sheer joy of learning. It matters too for people who have faced nothing but rejection and failure to find success. It can be a form of individual and collective liberation. They have chosen freely to learn, but increasingly many are being priced out of the education system.

Henry Hetherington's slogan on the masthead of his Poor Man's Guardian (1831-1835) was that "knowledge is power". Even if this may be an overstatement, ignorance is certainly the prerogative of the powerless. What value would the market put on this?

UPDATE
My colleague Daniel has a letter in the Guardian (scroll down to the second one). I am disappointed in him. He said that it was all plagiarised from one of my emails. In fact he only took a single phrase. He's not a patch on Will.

Fame

In Spain.

(Thanks to the eagle-eyed Will)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Free speech

"... if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up".

John Stuart Mill. On Liberty.

I doubt if even the most ingenious devil's advocate could have dreamt up Holocaust denial, but even if we allow Mill's utilitarian argument to stand and to assert that the absolute right to free speech is an essential guarantee against tyranny, the Oxford Union should be ashamed of itself.

Every right imposes on others the duty to respect it. In the case of free speech, the duty imposed is not to prosecute or persecute those who express opinions other than yours. It does not impose a duty to help those who would spread lies, to spread them. It does not impose a duty to help publish the views of those that express hatred of others. It does not impose a duty to allow those that would deny the right of free speech to pose as the victims of censorship. It does not impose a duty to legitimate fascism.

However, Mill's essay does impose another duty; to stand up for truth, to vigorously oppose falsehood, even if it is not to be suppressed. The Oxford Union have failed in that duty, and those who, like Max Hastings, think that "the debate can do no harm" should remember another, somewhat contradictory, sentence from Mill's essay.

"But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes".

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A fading dream

Two publications have been sent to me in recent weeks that relate to adult education. Reading both was like watching an old movie in which smoking is romantic and ever present, rather than being consigned to pariahs huddled against the cold. They took me back to what now seems like a distant age, though in reality it was not long ago at all. This was the time when Adult Education was a great cause of the left.

The first was Mike Tyldesley's 2002 paper on Watson Thomson, from the British Journal of Canadian Studies. Thomson was a Scots Canadian communitarian thinker and activist and was a follower of Dimitrije Mitrinovic, whose ideas are kept alive through the New Atlantis Foundation. Andrew Rigby's recent biography of Mitrinovic is a good starting point for anyone who would like to know more. My interest was aroused by the fact that Thompson was the Director of Adult Education for Saskatchewan between 1944-1945. The backdrop to his appointment was the election of an avowedly socialist provincial government.

Mike reckons that Adult Education was part of Thomson's radical project to move towards a "participatory and self-reliant society". It was a short-lived experiment. He lost his position as a result of suspected Communist sympathies, though this was far from the case.

Thomson's radical utopianism may have been distinctive, but the second pamphlet reflects the same belief in the significance of Adult Education in creating a just society, this time from a democratic socialist perspective. Published by the Educational Centres Association, Mabel Tylecote: Champion of Adult Education celebrates the life of Mabel Tylecote, an educationalist, socialist, active internationalist, and formidable Labour Councillor in Manchester. She also wrote and published on the history of the Mechanics' Institutes and on women's education. This is more personal for me as Tylecote was the person who championed the building of an Adult Education college at the heart of Manchester's educational campus at All Saints, where I worked for several happy years until it closed. The pamphlet was sent to me by the former principal, William Tyler. Tylecote was still on the governing body when I started there as a part-time tutor, but had retired before I got my full-time job. She died shortly before it closed.

Adult Education was her greatest cause and integral to her political commitment. At one time she had been an Assistant Lecturer at Manchester University and could have had a comfortable and complacent academic career. This didn't fit with the person. On gaining her first degree, she worked at Huddersfield Technical College between 1920 and 1926. As a woman, she got offered the post at a lower salary than a male lecturer and refused to accept unless she got equal pay. They gave it to her. She left her job at Manchester University in 1930, after only two years, to work in Adult Education amongst the miners of the Kent coal field. Marriage returned her to Manchester where she was active in pressuring the government to assist Jewish and socialist refugees escape from Eastern Europe as the Second World War loomed. After the War she worked in Austria and Germany developing adult education as an integral part of the de-Nazification and reconstruction processes.

This was the legacy of activism behind our College building, itself built on a long history of working class voluntary self-education and adult learning. As the Poll Tax hit local government, the cuts forced the College to close in 1990, despite the fact that it was thriving. The building was sold to what was to become Manchester Metropolitan University.

Today, Adult Education is once again under threat. This time it is a Labour Government that is delivering the blow. Where is the socialist idealism of Tylecote and the radical fervour of Thomson today? Why are we under threat from a left party? It is too easy to blame the depressing acceptance of the Neo-liberal consensus, instead parts of Adult Education had become a target for some on the left.

Tylecote herself warned in a 1960 Fabian pamphlet of the danger of a takeover of Adult Education by "a new elite, to the disadvantage of the educationally deprived". In part, that is precisely what happened, especially in the Universities. However, the perception of educational elitism far exceeded the reality and, especially given the enormous changes of recent years, this view is today a gross distortion. Nevertheless, there is a pseudo-leftist posturing that grabbed at this misrepresentation and sneered at Adult Education as elitist, patronisingly saying that what that working classes need are employment skills. Even more tellingly, the talk is all of meeting the needs of employers and the national economy and rarely of meeting the needs, desires and rights of employees.

In her pamphlet, The Future of Adult Education, Tylecote decried the separation of "vocational" and "liberal learning" and argued for the centrality of social equality, adequate funding, and links with trade unions and voluntary organisations. Instead, vocationalism is now being promoted to the exclusion of liberal learning and a tradition is dying. Reading back, Tylecote was right. We need both.

When our building was sold, the University asked the permission of Mabel Tylecote's family to name it after her as a tribute. They readily agreed and the pamphlet has many references to it as her monument. I can never see it like that. Instead, I see the bitter irony of the destruction of her life's work being named after her. It is the sanitisation of an act of betrayal.

A proper tribute to Tylecote and all the other dedicated radicals who saw the struggle for a better life embodied in the Adult Education movement would not be name plates, but a resurrection of their dream and the rebuilding of properly funded Adult Education colleges and centres in every town and city. The prospect seems more distant with every passing year.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The loss of a lion

A lion for Great Britain and a former coach of Swinton Lions, Mike Gregory, died yesterday at the age of only 43. I never heard a bad word said of him.

I posted on his last visit to a Swinton game here. Dave Hadfield, Rugby League's best journalist, has written an excellent obituary in the Independent.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sickies

This sounds like a good idea to me

Almost two thousand people who are too fat to work have been paid a total of £4.4 million in benefit, it emerged last night.

Might just phone in to work.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mortality

The nights are drawing in and low grey clouds brought a heavy gloom to a cold Sunday. I opened my copy of the Observer only to read Nick Cohen writing about the benefits of death. It's November all right.

Cohen doubts the value of extended longevity, given the decline in the quality of life that comes with ageing. I am constantly surprised to find myself to be in my late middle age and, at this time of life, I simply can't agree. I can only think that, whatever the indignities of old age, I will let go of the wonderful privilege of life with the greatest reluctance, resenting deeply the forthcoming oblivion of non-existence.

An extravagant love of life lies at the heart of a sense of justice; anger at the cruelties of the world, at those who, due to their psychopathologies, megalomania, or attachment to malign ideologies, would drain the joy of life from others. So let's relish the sensuousness of existence and when our time is up be very pissed off indeed.

By popular demand

As hordes of fans and admirers have implored me to post, I shall shrug off this virus and the associated headache and point to some things that caught my eye in the press over the last few days .

David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck College, has written about the cuts in Higher Education funding.

A few weeks ago, with no warning, the Government announced its intention to axe the funding for people wanting to take a second degree at the same level in a different subject.

It is an effectively argued piece, although I am concerned that the Government's line about this being about second degrees is so slavishly parroted. This is a big concern for Birkbeck admittedly, however, for us at Hull, the real concern lies with our short course programme and the knock on effects of the proposal. Taking away funding for a minority of our students will drastically affect the viability of courses for the majority. Many people will lose their first taste of higher education, including those in the Government's priority groups, a fact which they are studiously ignoring. It is a mad proposal but no one seems prepared to budge.

Next, Hugo Chavez shows signs of losing the plot, or rather having found one. He has announced that Simon Bolivar did not die of TB, but was murdered. This latest conspiracy theory has all the usual features - an alleged 200 year cover up and a lack of any evidence other than an imputed motive. Oh dear.

Continuing in historical vein, Saturday's Guardian had a big feature on John Stuart Mill. Written by Richard Reeves, it is a puff for his forthcoming biography. It is unfair to judge a book by such an article, but his unabashed liberalism gives it the air of a hagiography. I was certainly struck by some odd judgements, most notably this one:

True liberals are unqualified supporters of capitalism - so long as we can all be capitalists.

It seems to me that he is not describing liberal capitalism at all, but Individualist Anarchism, an anti-capitalist creed that asserted that the full value of labour could only accrue to the labourer through direct ownership and extensive property rights. Mill's defence of liberty is important, though it should not be discussed uncritically. Norm sums up the significance of Mill's classic essay On Liberty concisely:

... the arguments for freedom of thought, and on individuality, are inspiring; and the attempt to delineate the proper sphere and limits of individual liberty, though not without its problems, remains a basic starting point for seriously thinking about the issue.

As always, it is best to read the original.

Finally, a piece from the Salford Advertiser. Swinton Rugby League Club have made an important new signing.

The Lions began pre-season training on Monday and they have appointed Doctor Mike Tyldesley as their new associate director after he bought ‘a number of shares in the club’.

He is a lifelong Lions supporter and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. His role at the club will focus on community development.


Good luck Mike.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Over the hills and far away

It has been a bit quiet here as I was up in Scotland for a conference. It was good. There were interesting presentations by old friends whom I have not seen for far too long and a chance to co-ordinate action against the cuts in England (they are not happening in Scotland, which maintains a more benign funding regime). The informal, well lubricated conversations over dinner were helped by sitting with people who I like and for whom I have the utmost respect.

However, all that was overshadowed by the night before. I had the chance to share a lot of drink with two of the best bloggers on the net. At times during the conference, whenever middle-class academic politeness dominated, I thought back wistfully to our raucous debates and wished people would sometimes let go of a little of their respectability and find some passion. Companionship, intellectual stimulation, and sheer fun with brilliant people, especially mediated by drink, always makes for a memorable evening. Just occasionally, something else occurs, a singular moment; a snapshot that you will never forget. That happened too.

At one point, already the worse for wear, I was standing over Adam Smith's grave, telling him to get off his arse and do some serious haunting of those who were carrying out abominations on the basis of a misreading of his work. As if to illustrate my point, the rough sleeper, sheltering from the bitter cold under the neo-classical portico of the church, gave us a resentful glance as we disturbed his peace. Our eyes met briefly. For an instant I was sober. What did I feel? Compassion? Distress? Anger? Relief at my own good fortune in life? I don't know. I turned around and went back to enjoying myself, tucking my conscience away in a drawer, like an unwanted Christmas gift.

We talked politics late into the night. On one thing we agreed. We condemned the self-congratulatory complacency of parts of a 'liberal-left' that cannot comprehend the significance of the grief of the bereaved of one who lost hope under Thatcher or the resentful look of a person, wrapped in bundles of rags, on a freezing night, outside an exquisitely beautiful 18th Century church.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

3-0

Satisfying, though not the best Kiwi side I have seen. But what am I going to fret about now the season is over?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fat Lib

The glorious day is at hand. We now have our place in the academy - Fat Studies.

Fat studies is an important and emerging interdisciplinary area of study incorporating scholarship from the humanities and social sciences. Contributors to the discipline confront and critique cultural constraints against notions of fatness and the fat body. As with women’s studies, queer studies and disability studies, there is a political imperative to the work within fat studies, with an aim to create social change around issues of weight oppression, through promoting size acceptance and body diversity.

Freedom fellow fatties! I can see the promised land - with oodles of milk and honey.

(Thanks to Pam)

Education again

This week I came across an old post in which Will wrote beautifully about the experience of being a working class student at University - "The affluent student is at home in the university; the working class student is a mere visitor".

What can I say? Nothing better than Jane Thompson:

“If educational policy makers, providers and practitioners are to be able to rise to the challenge of providing resources for people in their struggle to change the circumstances of their lives, in the places where they live, they will need to relearn and make a new kind of reality the old adult education ideal of starting from where people are, in ways that are not devoid of context, and which pay tribute to the diversity and complexity of people’s lives. They will need to come off their platforms, out of their offices and from behind their procedures into creative spaces in which dialogue and connection can be established and sustained, They must come prepared to listen and respond; to learn and try to understand; to get stuck in, and to stay” (Thompson 2001:37)


A genuine libertarian sentiment.

Hat tip Gill

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Logic - but not as we know it

Any hopes of a return to sanity on the Guardian's comments pages were dashed by a masterpiece from John Laughland today.

"It is no accident that those who advocate war for humanitarian reasons end up justifying torture"

Hmm … let's try an empirical test. Here is one notable advocate of humanitarian intervention on waterboarding:

"That such a thing can be a matter for discussion is appalling and contemptible. It inspires disgust. It shames those who prevaricate about it. It is a stain upon a great democracy".

Ah. A slight problem with the thesis. Never mind, because "Torture and 'humanitarian war' are similar in many ways". Eh? How? Oh I see. It is because, "Both involve the inflicting of violence in order to force a change of behaviour". Actually I thought torture was the use of violence to extract information or as a disgusting form of punishment, used as intimidation and to create fear. And as for humanitarian war, isn't it supposed to rescue people from, er … torture as well as murder, oppression, and crimes against humanity. I am really having difficulty finding the similarities here.

To be fair he does admit that some advocates of humanitarian intervention do oppose torture, but, in making the case for war, they advance "the same argument as that advocated by the torturer who says he is trying to save lives". Yikes.

Sorry, there is a limit to the amount of non sequitors a humble fat chap can cope with. So let's cut to the conclusion; Laughland's humanitarian pacifism.

"We need instead to renew the deep conviction that seized the collective conscience of mankind in 1945 that the international system, and the ideas that underpin it, should be structured so as to ensure peace at any price".

Any price? The return of Fascism to power? Genocide?

Not for the first time, I am left wondering what on earth the editors were thinking of.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Guy Fawkes

Today is the official Burn a Catholic in Effigy Night. With it being on a Monday, bonfire parties have spread all over the weekend and this is the fourth night running that a pall of smoke has hung over the house as the night sky is filled with bangs and flashes. As a bit of light relief I think it is time to enjoy another fine example of our cultural heritage here.

Smaller government?

Waking a few weeks ago on a dark grey morning to the prospect of having to complete an excruciatingly boring and unnecessary bureaucratic task, with impending cuts looming, I was not in a cheery mood. Bureaucracy is great for inducing a sense of futility and I tend to take refuge in political speculation. Shuggy must have been feeling the same when he struck a pessimistic note in a post on Gordon Brown:

I'm not sure about his diagnosis, but I fear Anatole Kaletsky's prognosis might have been nearer the mark when he said this week's Autumn statement signals the beginning of the end of Gordon Brown's government.

Following Shuggy's link, I read Kaletsky's arguments about a change in the political consensus:

Political parties who want lower tax – and by implication smaller government – no longer seem out of tune with the times. And this ideological shift means the beginning of the end for Labour government.

I concur with Shuggy's reservations about the diagnosis. I was also struck by was the way the article was based on the lazy cliché about "small government" and its automatic link to lower personal taxation. I started this post to respond, but was unhappy with what I had written so I tucked it away in my drafts. Two pieces last week made me come back to it, as they beautifully illustrate current left dilemmas about the state.

The first was Tom Hamilton's splendid dissection of Michael Gove's tortuous logic in his attempt to second guess Gordon Brown's motivation. The theme of Gove's contribution was about the need to "trust professionals" and, judging by the signals Brown gave in his education speech, this is something that he emphatically rejects - "It (the state) trusted professionals to deliver services and the public to accept them. People were treated more as passive subjects than as participants in change". This issue seems likely to become an election slogan differentiating the parties on the management of the public sector. It isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

Brown is offering us extensive state funding and micro management, even down to the level of cultural change (an aim that has historically eluded all governments; remember Thatcher's Victorian Values anyone?). The Conservatives say, 'trust the professionals', but they also propose privatisation and restricted spending.

Herein lies a dilemma. In my own work as an education professional, every nerve in my body is screaming "trust me - please don't make me fill in another bloody form". I also bristle against Brown's simplistic characterisation of the public sector and am currently in despair about the latest government imposed change in funding rules that is threatening a catastrophe in University Adult Education. However, I also know of other professionals who I wouldn't trust an inch. They are the ones who can be narrow and elitist. They condemn widening participation and community engagement, central to my work, as 'lowering standards'. Their mistrust of anyone other than the A level student from the 'good' school is palpable. They are declining in numbers, but I have no illusions that these are the professionals the Tories wish to trust.

However, I am not in the least convinced that cutting our funding and implementing "accountability frameworks and progress targets" are the way in which we will build open and egalitarian education systems. Cultural change may well be required, but this is more a change in the of culture of institutions. Rather than viewing ordinary people as somehow deficient, in need of 'aspiration raising', we should ask first whether the deficiency arises in our organisations, whether they are capable of meeting the aspirations that already exist.

So on the one hand, I would welcome smaller government in terms of the abandonment of micro management. On the other, I welcome larger government in terms of both funding and financial stability, as well as driving changes that would create inclusive Universities that are local assets rather than gated communities. When discussing the state, as well as other things, size does matter. We just need to be clear about whether we are talking about length or breadth.

This is where the second piece came in. Jonathan Freedland produced a thoughtful article resurrecting a libertarian and communitarian left, something long celebrated by the Anarchist writer and activist Colin Ward. He wrote,

The post-1945 rush to build a universal welfare state trampled on too many small, creative hives of ingenuity. Before the Fabian infatuation with the central state, Britain had been host to a whole ecology of mutual societies, cooperatives, Sunday schools and workers' associations. Most went the way of Peckham, crushed under the giant heel of the Whitehall state.

One response to this is to set about rolling back the state, so that we might once again reveal Burke's "little platoons" of social activism, denied sunlight so long. David Cameron's self-described "big idea" of social responsibility argues as much, shrinking the state and letting "society" take the strain. He could - though he won't - look for some succour for this approach from Britain's own anarchistic or left-libertarian tradition, which remains largely forgotten.


Freedland is quite right that Cameron will not be looking towards a libertarian left tradition. That is because there is a libertarian right tradition for him to draw on instead. This celebrates capitalism and market choice and, thus, a Tory approach is one that will usher in the private sector and internal markets in the name of liberty and the smaller state. In contrast, the left libertarian approach favours direct collective control and autonomy and is intrinsically non-capitalist.

The spirit of autonomous organisation is still there. In Adult Education, groups are abandoning the restrictive bureaucracy of state funding, including entire Workers' Educational Association branches, and setting up on their own. In some ways, this is a heartening fight back against a narrowly vocational concept of education. In others, it is a tragedy as it shows the failure of government to sustain a long tradition of voluntary self-education that it adopted in more optimistic times.

Freedland does not abandon the state. Instead, he hopes that such self-direction and autonomy can be brought under its aegis to provide the collective strength to secure localised provision. He optimistically argues for "a renewed notion of what the state is for - first to guarantee universal rights and then to nurture and encourage ... human-scale cooperation".

It is a nice vision, but I am not sure that it is one the government would be comfortable with. In abandoning micro management and passing control to local communities it loses the power to direct those services. The measure could prove popular by promoting the very things that governments do not want and would be reluctant to fund. Liberal learning springs lightly to mind at the moment.

Freedland's article goes to the heart of the debate about the size of the state. He views it as an essential and pervasive instrument for providing comprehensive collective security. However, he also wishes to see it loosen its control and foster a revived community activism and involvement. Whether this is a realistic expectation is doubtful. 'Power to the people!' often only means, 'Power to us!'.

The one thing that I am sure of is that the current balance between central government and local autonomy is wrong and that many of the regulatory mechanisms that are designed make for accountability are obstructive and burdensome. A lack of stability together with complex, and sometimes downright crazy, funding rules produce continual uncertainty and difficulty in long-term planning, which is quite simply a nightmare. Freedland concludes,

Ministers are right to look around for inspiration, but they shouldn't ignore our collective past: they might be surprised, and delighted, by what they find there.

They may well be surprised, but I am not sure how delighted they will be. I would be ecstatic if they were though.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Marksism

Norm expresses his loathing of marking:

Marking is a horror, an outrage, an offence against the human person.

Come off it Norm; it is far worse than that.

Brown on education

Gordon Brown has spoken on education and his speech follows the New Labour formula of posing false dichotomies between simplified notions of left and right. In particular I was annoyed by the following description of a ...

... defeatist left-of-centre assertion that poor children can never overcome their disadvantage at school, it acquiesces in low expectations and it puts up with coasting and failing schools.

Since when has this been a left position? The argument, based on experience, research, and empirical evidence, is that social class fundamentally impacts on the life chances of working class children. To say that this is true is not to accept it. Instead, the left asserted that the facts stood as an indictment of an unjust and unequal society. Of course we should not have second-class schools for second-class citizens; it is utterly intolerable. After all, that was the whole thrust of the debate over comprehensive education. But we also have to tackle the social inequality that is at the heart of educational disadvantage. That was where the left stood and still should stand.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Optimism

Thirty minutes of your time can be very well spent by listening here to Terry Glavin being interviewed on Little Atoms about his book, The Lost and Left Behind.

One year on

It is the first birthday of this blog. What a great year it has been too, enjoyed it. It can take over a bit though ...

(Original by Isabella Bannerman via Norm who got it from Mark Liberman)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A modest proposal

Francis Sedgemore has an illustrated post that celebrates the joys of Morris Dancing. We are not strong on national symbols (apart from tea and moaning) so how about this as an idea? The Great Britain Rugby League team are currently playing a test series against New Zealand. We should teach all the players to Morris Dance so that they can respond to the Haka in a culturally appropriate way. That should terrify the opposition.

(Thanks to Lyn)

Absent friends

I remember the late cricket writer and broadcaster, John Arlott, being interviewed about the reason why cricket had produced a body of high quality literature when other sports had failed to do so. He replied that the length of time that a cricket match took to complete meant that it was impossible for a player to perform without displaying his character. The writer could then write about the game as something other than a sport, but as an expression of the human psyche. I have often felt the same about blogging. It is one of the more intimate forms of public communication and reading a blog regularly is an odd way of getting to know someone's personality and way of thinking about the world.

As reported elsewhere, I was in London for some serious drink-soaking with fellow bloggers, people I had read, had discussions with, but had never met. The Arlott theory was proved correct, as they were all as intelligent, stimulating, and downright nice as their blogs would have suggested. We were hosted by the splendid Little Atoms people and joined by my documentary maker nephew. It was great fun. Though it was Terry's evening to celebrate his superb book, there was someone missing - the alchemist who had brought us all together and without whom we would not have been in the pub that night - Will.

And as we drank the talk turned to Will; the late night insomniac email conversations, the scope his networking, his intelligence and perceptiveness and, of course, the quality of his tirades - of which we had all sometimes been the target as well as the observer. We never thought to raise a glass to absent friends; we should have. So, despite the weekend's over indulgence, the wine bottle is now open and I might just acknowledge our friend in the North with a wee sip and a nod of the head, and do so as I think back warmly to a comradely evening spent with the people that I had known and liked for some time, but had never before met.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Lost and Left Behind

It is amazing what you can pick up by blogging. My invitation to join the Drink-soaked Trots introduced me to the work of the Canadian author and journalist Terry Glavin. I have always been impressed with his anti-totalitarianism and his passionate defence of Canada's presence in Afghanistan. However, this is only a small part of his output, and I have just finished reading something more substantial, his new book, The Lost and Left Behind. Without my blog it would have been a book that passed me by. What a loss that would have been.

Subtitled, Stories from the Age of Extinctions, the book examines the huge destruction of species and loss of diversity in a world becoming blanketed by "sameness" – the sixth great extinction. The scale of the devastation is staggering. The book is not a dry ecological text, nor is it a Green polemic, Terry is a far better writer than that. It consists of what it says, stories. This is important because when he writes of extinctions, he means more than the loss of animal or plant species. He is as concerned with the loss of human cultures, of languages, of mythologies, and of stories – the stories that enable us to interpret and understand our place in the world. And so Terry takes us on a series of journeys to places that symbolise loss and, on occasions, regeneration.

He is a fine story teller but just as the world is complex, each story is too. Each chapter is like a Russian doll, within every tale is another, and, as you open it up, yet another appears underneath it, and many smaller stories spill out from the shell of the narrative about the places he visits and the people he meets. History, politics, science, anthropology and more are encompassed with a deftness that entertains and a touch of humour that always amuses. Yet this layered approach is more profound than a literary device; it is the key to his understanding of ecology.

In the great vortex of extinction, there are always those cycles within cycles. There are ecological forces, cultural forces, and demographic forces. (p.278).

Stories help us to understand those cycles and show that our attachment to bio-diversity is more than utilitarian, it is aesthetic. We find life and nature beautiful, and we capture that beauty in our folk tales and urban myths, and in symbolisms, like the giving of flowers and taking pleasure in wild places.

Terry is no romantic though, he doesn't celebrate a mythical wilderness. His ecology is a landscape shaped and populated by human beings. And whilst humans are the main cause of the extent of current extinctions, he doesn't lapse into crude misanthropy. We are here to stay. Instead, there is a strong political strand running as a sub-text throughout the book until it surfaces in his powerful and emotional conclusion. Where societies collapse, so does ecology. The greatest cause of collapse is exploitation. And thus this book is about something that should be central to the democratic left, it is about human self-determination, resistance to both totalitarianism and an exploitative modernism that diminishes human diversity and thereby destroys human liberty. It makes him as determined to defend sustainable whaling communities and slash and burn agriculture as he would the habitat of a rare and beautiful bird. He concludes:

If it's some great insight you are after, all I can say is that the great insights lie only in the rich variety of humanity's stories, the specific and the particular stories, and the great multiplicity and diversity of our ideas. Our best hopes lie in strengthening the conditions that allow the flourishing of a diversity of living things, a diversity of ideas, and a diversity of choices. (p.306)

I read this book as being firmly in the tradition of the great Anarchist geographers and scientists, Kropotkin, Reclus and Geddes. All advocated the importance of the integration of human and natural ecology and saw that as being part of a political project for human emancipation.

And what does Terry expect of us in the current crisis? "You do what you can ... you do whatever you can". And the least of what you can do is to read this fine, committed, and beautifully written book.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Nasty, brutish and ...

George Monbiot breaks off from an unexceptional defence of financial regulation in the light of the Northern Rock crisis to launch into an extraordinary speculation on human nature, leading him away from a critique of libertarian capitalism to one of liberty itself.

Wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people's resources, they will dump their waste in other people's habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons.

This is certainly a bleak view - and the solution?

We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing.


No room for free will, for ethics, or even social development? No analysis of power structures, conflict, social systems and communities? No co-operation or mutualism? And what of the State in such a brutal world, would it not too replicate this malevolent human behaviour? Monbiot has an answer.

At the same time, we must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good.


How is the State to be "punished"? When put to the test, he was a vehement opponent of the punishing of the Ba'athist State in Iraq. Very curious.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The times they are a changing

As a fat kid at school in the 50's and 60's I remember my loathing of the disgusting, milky, sweet puddings that ended nearly every school dinner. There was tapioca, semolina or rice topped with a revolting looking and tasting dark red jam, manufactured from some unidentifiable fruit, which leached into the white goo and made the dish look like a nastily infected wound.

Though nauseous at the sight and smell, I can recall the teachers standing over me, forcing me to eat this high starch, high fat dessert that was laden with unrefined sugars. It was only when all of this calorie fest was consumed that I was allowed to get down from the table. My reluctance to eat it was such that I invariably missed my play time, the main exercise for the day. I longed for the days when we had spotted dick or jam roly poly, because I liked those and could run out to play with the others, despite my stomach groaning with leaden suet.

It is a good thing that the approach to obesity in schools has changed and we should certainly not romanticise the 1950's as some lost golden age. It is far better that teachers persuade kids to eat salad, presumably without the obligatory slug of my childhood. However, the latest obesity obsession is as unsettling in its own way. From today's Times:

Parents of 5-year-olds are to be sent official warning letters if their child is found to be obese, as part of a national programme to weigh children in schools.

"Warning letters"? Is obesity now to be a crime against parenting? How are they to define obesity? What are the penalties to be? Looking back, despite this diet, I was the only really fat kid in the school, though there were a couple of tubbies as well. Most were thin and thoroughly mobile, despite packing it away. More and more studies seem to be coming to the obvious conclusion, that though sedentary lifestyles and poor diet contribute to obesity, there is a strong genetic factor in determining whether you put on weight or not.

So it will be the parents of the same kids that will be continually getting the shaming letters and the pressure will go on, making their children more and more miserable about themselves. It is as if anorexia and bulimia did not exist.

It took me a long time to be comfortable with my weight. I lost loads in my twenties, through probably unhealthy dieting, and gained a new self image. The pounds went back on again but the self-image remained. I still think I am gorgeous and now I can even use my weight as a jokey title for this blog. Of course dangerous morbid obesity needs medical intervention, but it is rare. Wouldn't it be better if we just let kids be happy?

The irony of the situation is that both my teachers in the 50's and the government today share a conviction that they are doing the best for children, which gave me an odd thought. We wouldn't expect policies on ethnicity to be exclusively formed by the opinions of white people, nor would we expect the politics of gender to be the sole preserve of men. So why is the policy on obesity being made by the thin?