Sunday, January 27, 2008

Swinton beat St.Helens!

Or more accurately, Swinton's first team beat St.Helens' under 21 side in a low key friendly. One day ... one day ...

Memory v history

Eric Hobsbawm has published short reminiscences of the Weimar Republic in the London Review of Books. I find aspects of his recent writings problematic and I have posted on them before here, here and here. In this piece, Hobsbawm reflects on whether Hitler’s rise to power could have been prevented and concludes that it was unlikely given the prevalence of anti-Weimar sentiment. As this essay is a memoir it would be hard not to conclude that this perception must have been coloured by his own anti-democratic views as a Communist Party youth activist. Whilst the spectre hanging over the whole argument is that of the disastrous Stalinist policy of “Social Fascism”, which argued that social democracy and Fascism were objectively the same, thereby splitting the left and undermining the opposition to Hitler, a line Hobsbawm may have adhered to at the time.

The heart of his argument is contained in this extraordinary passage,

This was the last time Germany was at the centre of modernity and Western thought. It might have held out better if the Weimar Republic had been followed not by Hitler’s wrecking crew but by a more traditional reactionary government. Yet in retrospect this option was as unreal as was the prospect of stopping Hitler’s rise by a comprehensive anti-Fascist union. The fact is that no one, right, left or centre, got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism, a movement of a kind that had not been seen before and whose aims were rationally unimaginable.

There are two elements to this. The first is Hobsbawm's contention that Hitler could not have been stopped by a concerted anti-Nazi coalition. This is a strange view. It would have taken far less to prevent Hitler taking power constitutionally. All that was required was for parties to have continued to refuse to work with the Nazis. As the Nazis were a minority they required support of another party in the Reichstag. Denial of that would have led to their permanent exclusion, meaning that power could only have come from extra-constitutional action, a course of action that was far less likely to succeed. The decision of the traditionalist right to offer support to Hitler must count as the one of the worst mistakes in history, but we should not forget Stalin’s equally disastrous ideological assumptions. It seems that Hobsbawm, whilst not denying the mistake, is excusing the policies of his youth, suggesting that if Stalin had got it right and had instead supported a “popular front” against Fascism, the result would have been the same. Hitler could not have been stopped.

The second element is clearer. It simply says, “OK, we got it wrong, but we weren’t to know. How could we have guessed what they were like; no one else spotted it, did they”? Here he moves from interpretation to falsification. Obscene Desserts has also posted on this article and Will, in comments, demolishes the suggestion that “that no one … got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism”, quoting Sohn-Rethel, Neuman, Gramsci and Laski, whilst forgetting to mention Trotsky. Then there is the response of Ludendorff to Hitler’s accession to power. A firm rightist and an early collaborator with Hitler, he is reported to have written to President Hindenburg,

By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich, you have handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Future generations will curse you in your grave for this action.

The nature of fascism could hardly have come as a surprise. Mussolini had been in power since 1922, Japanese militarism was established and the invasion of Manchuria had taken place in 1931. The threat of a militant and murderous right was clearly apparent. Many chose to ignore, misinterpret or excuse that threat but others did not. The Communist Party got it very wrong indeed in 1933, repeated the mistake in 1939 and reaped the consequences when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

This sounds harsh, but when I read Hobsbawm these days I get the sense of an old man who hasn’t come to terms with the fact that the follies of youth were indeed follies. An understandable trait I suppose, though perhaps not for an historian.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Beware of the Roundheads

Moral puritanism has been stalking the land this week and us fatties have been the target. Words like 'crisis' and 'epidemic' are being thrown about with gay abandon. The Government is in a high state of panic about the dread fear that "almost nine in 10 adults and two-thirds of children will be overweight or obese by 2050 and at risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other health problems, costing society £50bn a year (my emphasis)". I rather like the idea of being an expensive luxury or a burden (and a heavy one at that). However, to me, this is just another tiresome rehashing of conventional wisdom that reflects an acceptable prejudice, one that is exercised against fat people.

These prejudicial attitudes are the worst aspect of this tawdry alarmism. And where else would you expect to see the most grotesque example other than Comment is Free? There the gaunt face of Anne Perkins peers out of my browser to tell me the "truth"; "that being fat is a sad side-effect of feeling useless". Listen Perkins, as I read your pathetic little article I was indeed filled with loathing, but not for myself. I refuse to be the object of your pity and condescension.

Idiotic and offensive drivel may be CiF's trademark, but this takes the butter-rich, sugar-coated biscuit. People who never have to worry about their weight feel free to explain the failings of those who are not as beautiful as them without the slightest recourse to anything remotely resembling evidence, let alone research. For thin conservatives, fat people are morally deficient, greedy and slothful. For Guardianistas, we are pathetic victims. We are neither. We just put on weight and they don't.

Thankfully, a tip-off from the Glavin family was at hand to provide an oasis of sanity and reason. I have been reading Gina Kolata's excellent short book, "Rethinking Thin". Kolata takes on the diet evangelists, including the Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, but her main purpose is to examine and explain to a lay audience some of the scientific research that questions the current orthodoxy on obesity. It is highly persuasive to this layman, not least because much of it makes absolute sense in explaining the real experience of someone like myself who has spent many years struggling against my weight until I joyfully decide to "let myself go".

Kolata is aware that the scientific study of obesity is recent and incomplete but makes the following points.

1. If weight gain is the result of lifestyle, why do only some people who live that lifestyle get fat?

2. Dieting does not work. Studies show that initial weight loss stops however hard anyone tries and then weight is regained (dead right, I have been there). She concludes that people's weight can fluctuate within a limited range and that an ideal slimness is not permanently achievable by those who are not naturally slim. (There goes the government's new strategy.)

3. Variations in weight are due to physiological rather than psychological factors, with genetic predisposition being dominant.

4. That there are epidemiological studies that question the assumptions of the correlation of obesity to ill health and premature death. Instead they find that there are health risks associated with extremes of thinness and overweight but that moderate obesity, especially in old age, can have a protective function against many diseases (the "obesity paradox").

5. And I like this one; people in Western society are getting heavier, taller and healthier. Why are we not worrying about an epidemic of height? Perhaps we should just accept a trend towards a change in body shape.

Kolata is clear that there are benefits to moderate weight loss, most fat people feel better if they are towards the lower end of their natural weight range. Eating good food isn't virtuous, it is delicious and developing food awareness is one of the side benefits of dieting. It just won't make you slim.

All in all, I'm with Shakespeare:

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:

(Julius Caesar, Act I Scene II)

See also Norm here and here and thanks to Will for tipping me off.

Let them eat cake

Shuggy weighs in on the side of the heavy with his take on compulsory cooking lessons in schools.

Listen fatso, as part of the government's latest Eat-Your-Greens initiative, Mr Balls wants you to stop going to the chippie and make a salad instead, ok?

He is more than just being a stout comrade, he has an important point to make about education as socialisation rather than, er ... education.

But as with everything this government does in education, things are never to be taught as ends in themselves. Kids aren't to be furnished with knowledge and skills, which they can then go and do whatever the hell they want with. Like make a big fuck-off chocolate cake, for example. Oh no, they've to be taught cookery so they'll eat what's good for them.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Global day of action - January 26th

The International Council for Adult Education has called for action on January 26th to promote the universal right to lifelong learning.

The local and global challenges that we are confronted with cannot be adequately tackled without guaranteeing and promoting the right of youth and adults -- women and men -- to learn and practice the many skills of creative and productive citizenship. In this light, we are disconcerted with the fact that 750 million adults are deprived of their fundamental right to literacy (the majority of whom are women). Further, we condemn the blatant disregard for the Education for All goals two and three, by various governments and international cooperation agencies the world over.

In view of the Millennium Development Goals, we take the position that universal lifelong learning should not be its result, rather a prerequisite towards its achievement!

And what is England's response to this? A loss of 1,400,000 people taking publicly funded Adult Education courses over the last two years, the cuts in the availability of free tuition in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and a completely insane limitation on who can study at University that will disproportionately affect Adult Education and take out up to a quarter of a million part-time students. (The latter accompanied by a surreal threat that if the funding council doesn't implement the policy then the government will cease to fund the entire English Higher Education system - so there! Please call their bluff HEFCE, please.)

OK, this isn't the pressing need of the oppressed or the struggle for women's education worldwide, but we are one of the world's richest countries with a long tradition of education for adults. Understanding why we are abandoning it is beyond me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Aussie war dance

Yep, they used to do one. The Australian Rugby League side from 1963.

The photo was taken from the main stand at the late lamented Swinton ground, Station Road, now, scandalously, a housing estate. Swinton have been playing in exile since 1990 and are currently at Sedgely Park RUFC. Plans to return to Swinton are in place though. For those of us who can remember the old ground, there is more nostalgia here.

Adult education

The annual Government letter on the funding settlement to the Higher Education Funding Council for England was released yesterday. It contains an extraordinary statement in paragraph six.

It is a condition of grant that the Council implements the government's policy on such students who are taking "equivalent of lower qualifications".

In other words, you must implement "the most widely-condemned government education policy of the last 10 years" (Sally Hunt) or we won't fund Higher Education at all. I don't know whether this is aggressive, peevish or childish. It is certainly an odd reaction and a pre-emption of the Select Committee report.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Mikeovswinton in comments recommends Jackie Wilson's amazing soul version of Danny Boy.

Then there is this one as well


I think that the burst of insane optimism that made me dismiss Eric G Wilson's celebration of sorrow may have been precipitate.

The Guardian's news summary service, The Wrap, brought this gem from the Daily Mail by a certain Cliff Arnall:

This year, he has some advice for gloomy readers. "If you are a regular whinger or moaner about the weather or minor ailments, stop. It is boring and you are boring. Focus on the good things you do have in your life. If one of your limbs does not work, focus on the three that do."

Yikes! Rain is tippling from a dark grey sky, just the right weather to help me generate an appropriate mood to counter such trite bollocks. Now to find some Irish folk music, a nice lament will go down well.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Thought for the day

If I had all the money I'd spent on drink, I'd spend it on drink.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

Singin' the blues

Terry Glavin, with a little help from his friends here and in comments, indulges in a touch of melancholia and posts some ravishing Irish music. The spur is an essay by Eric G Wilson.

I am not quite as taken with the article as Terry. I suppose it makes a change from Buntingesque laments about the misery of life to have someone decrying happiness, but the structure of the argument is the same. Wilson's intellectual melancholy is somehow authentic and constructive, whilst the happiness of the proles having fun is trivial, shallow and dangerous.

His comment that, "Only with the help of constant sorrow can this dying world be changed, enlivened, pushed to the new" is simply Catholicism transposed. It is also empirically untrue. Suffering does not automatically ennoble; many of those who have grown up with violence or abuse become violent or abusers themselves. Sorrow can breed justice, but it can also beget arbitrary hatred and revenge, allied to a complete indifference to the suffering of others.

When Wilson writes on aesthetics, he is on more solid ground as it is undeniable that some of the most ravishing art is painfully tragic. I love the novels of Hardy, but they are almost unbearable in the inevitability of tragedy, which runs through the plot of every book.

How then do we cope with sorrow in art, politics and the everyday, inevitable moments of grief in our own life? Sadness brings sympathy and tenderness, solidarity and friendship, but unrelieved sorrow is crippling. Francis got it right in comments when he mentioned the importance of hope. Hardy's novels are angry, but they point the way to a better world. They are not optimistic, expressing a blind faith that things will turn out for the best, but they are hopeful. The late American historian Christopher Lasch put this beautifully,

Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right … Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it.

Sorrow at the condition of the world may be a starting point, but the moment that hope bursts through the clouds of despair is the moment of revelation and transcendence. It is this that changes the world. But so too is the moment we have a good laugh. So come on lads, let's liven up a bit, raise a glass or two, and get back to the serious business of enjoying life. Here's something to help on the way.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Curiouser and curiouser

The Innovation, Universities and Skills Parliamentary Select Committee met yesterday to consider the funding changes that will affect part-time learning. Sally Hunt of the University and College Union got it spot on:

Contradictory government policy in education is by no means a new phenomenon, but these changes fly in the face of government rhetoric about lifelong learning and its importance to the economy and the future prosperity of the country. We have yet to find any support for the changes and believe this is the most widely-condemned government education policy of the last 10 years.

The Government made some concessions but they were minimal and, in one case, bizarre. A number of subjects are exempt from the policy as they are of strategic importance. They promised that the list would be reviewed annually and a new subject could be added but only if another one was knocked off. Fighting over lifeboats is now official policy. That is going to make planning fun.

There is a good report here and the UCU have a detailed account with links here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Ian Bone, of Class War fame, pleads for intelligence and reason from Anarchists in a nice little post.

He argues that Anarchists have "lost the battle for common sense" and cannot see that it is their own fault.

...crap ideas are widely accepted as self-evident truths and we campaign against things as anarchists which will bring benefits to our fellow working class humans……..holidays in the sun being one of them but many members of the working class also find a cure for cancer a surprisingly attractive proposition.

He concludes,

It’s worth taking the goggles off sometimes……………..see what everyone else sees.

Commenters are doing their best to prove him right

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


There is nothing as deliciously entertaining as a thoroughly well-deserved bad review and this (via Norm) is a classic of the genre, directed at John Gray.

"Smugism" doesn't turn up as a separate entry in dictionaries of ideas, probably because it permeates so many other -isms. Yet it can be isolated and delineated. Consider it the jaunty declaration of large philosophical beliefs with a smack of magisterial certainty, and absence of argument, that's breathtaking.

I once read Straw Dogs, Gray's peculiar book written in a portentous faux-Nietzsche style and vaguely regretted it, though morbid curiosity compelled me to read on to the end. The book makes loopy grand generalisations - like atheism isn't possible in a pantheistic society, without ever mentioning why. It draws evidence from literature, which it uses as scientific fact. It quotes from highly selective and dodgy sources, rehashes cod behavioural psychology, etc., etc. His view of humanity as merely "an abstract term signifying a shifting current of genes" beautifully illustrates his neo-Malthusian misanthropy.

Whilst the book must have appealed to a type of millennial pessimism, I found a sinister undertone. Catastrophe is treated with a certain relish in Gray's writing and his distaste for humanity implies an authoritarian elitism (at one point he quotes John Aspinall). Carlin Romano gets Gray dead right when he says that "he's no friend of any progressive group that believes in action to achieve a better future".

Cynical misanthropy of the type that Gray peddles is the antithesis of hope and paralyses action. Good men need to read this review in case they are ever, in the face of evil, tempted by such arguments to do nothing.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Norm reminisces about his early career choices and how he changed from studying law as a result of a chance encounter in the first week of his time at Oxford. My epiphany was more prosaic. When the firm I worked for moved its offices away from the pubs and clubs of central Manchester to the suburban hell of Wilmslow they offered redundancy packages for those who didn't want to go. Fortunately, my boss, who was also part of the job's awesome drinking culture, had been a mature student himself and said to me, "you are too good for this place, go to University". I took the money and ended up at Salford University and nothing has been the same since.

Norm's thoughts were prompted by this piece by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times. Belkin worries about the space that young people have today and the pressure they are under. She celebrates the importance of making mistakes and changing life patterns. This brought to mind my current obsession with the impact of changes in funding on University Adult Education. One opportunity to do just that is being cut off if it involves getting an additional qualification at the same or lower level.

The other thing that struck me is that this feels like a very safe middle class concern. Part of the conventional wisdom of the day is that we are now plugged into "portfolio careers". The working classes have had all that for ages, it is called casualisation. Risk-taking for one person is insecurity for another. Without the security of middle class advantage, especially in terms of education, career change is often enforced and accompanied by poverty.

This is part of the rationale behind the government's position on funding, that they are transferring funding from those who have already had to those who have never had. It would hard to argue with them if that was the real effect. In fact, the changes will damage the unorthodox and accessible, the part-time and the outreach, in favour of the orthodox and, inevitably, the elitist. In order to fund 20,000 new full-time learners we are ending the opportunities for 200,000 part-time learners. And at the Russell Group universities don't you just know who these new learners will be.

Contracting funding will make it very difficult to support groups with low numbers in difficult areas. And as the provision in the community centres and on the estates of Hull diminishes, then, for people who never dreamt that they could attend a University, the serendipity of stumbling across a short course that sparks new dreams and possibilities becomes less likely.

Adult education can be a difficult, challenging and rewarding activity. It involves that very process of risk and change. Abandon it and all that will be left for those without privilege is the casualisation and the insecurity of life on the margins of an affluent society.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


I was in London yesterday for another meeting of the UALL campaign against the changes to funding that threaten University adult education. The one thing that has surprised us is how successful the campaign has been. Something that both the Government and those of us who work in the system thought would go through unnoticed has become a very uncomfortable issue, with a Select Committee inquiry taking place this coming Thursday.

Dave Osler joins the protests here, and for comprehensive links I suggest you look at the web sites run by Open University students opposed to the policy here and here. Sign the petition as well, if you haven't already done so. Of course we are not alone. George Szirtes writes of the Arts Council cuts here. These are curious times.

And now George Szirtes has signed the petition. He writes:

Once you begin to wonder what mature students are doing for the economy you may as well shut any course that does not lead directly into business or industry.

But then you may as well shut down your tap root into humanity.

Thanks George.


One of the books I use in teaching is a nice little one about clear thinking by Jamie Whyte. I don't agree with all his arguments but it has great tools for crap detecting. One of his best lines is that you know that a political statement is meaningless when it would be impossible for a sane person to disagree with it: "this country needs hope" - "no it doesn't, it needs despair"; "we want a better health service" - "rubbish! I want a worse one." You get the idea.

Amongst the mountains of verbiage produced by the American Presidential candidates, unless I have dozed off and missed something, I haven't caught a single statement of substance. It all seems to follow Whyte's formula for saying nothing. Is this all there is or am I not listening hard enough?

Now that's cool

FT: If you met Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (the possibly-mythical leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who offered a $150,000 reward for your head), what would you say to him?

LV: You are a sculpture, a part of my art installation. And you have played your part very well.

Lars Vilks interviewed in The Freethinker.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Back to reality

And the struggle continues. Will Woodward reports,

The Conservatives hope to create friction today between ministers and backbench Labour MPs by calling on the Commons to condemn plans to cut funds for adult learners with degrees.

I couldn't help reading this with a sinking feeling, and not just about the misreporting of the proposals. In power, the Tories had an appalling record on Adult Education. I cannot see them as allies. This is overwhelmingly a Labour issue and to try and make party capital out of it will certainly make the Government dig its heels in. In my meeting with Rammell there was the expected blanket defence of a terrible policy, but there were also moments of dialogue, partially as a result of a shared anti-elitism.

The BBC puts a more hopeful spin on it.

By adopting the same language as an early day motion that received support from dozens of Labour MPs, the Conservatives will seek to create cross-party support for a bid to overturn the government's funding changes.

There certainly is an overwhelming consensus in opposition to the proposals, stretching from trade unions to the CBI, and I am hopeful of some further concessions.
However, there is little sign that the Government has any intention of backing down on the policy itself, which is thoroughly misguided and strikes at a central pillar of a social democratic polity, that access to public services is on the basis of need and not limited by personal circumstance.

My friend, Daniel Vulliamy, writes in the coming edition of the Times Higher Education Supplement that, "Making mistakes is human; good leaders admit errors and rethink". Sadly we live in a political culture that sees the "U turn" as a sign of weakness and an admission of failure, rather than an act of wisdom. This is doubly so when issues of principle become instruments of party conflict.

You can read the transcript of the debate here. Looks like my fears were confirmed. I don't want to be on the same side as Boris Johnson.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

At last

The sun shone yesterday after the grey, wet weather and today is bright and cold. It gave me a chance to do a few jobs and play with a new Christmas present; a tarpaulin. It shows what having a house like this does to you when a good, strong tarpaulin gets you excited.

Friends bought this from the gypsies outside Volos who had folded it carefully to hide the fact that it was originally designed as a street banner to advertise the showing of "24". It is really good quality though and we now have the most colourful wood pile in the village.


When one of the nicest and most capable people I have worked with was having a baby she asked for suggestions for names. I came up with my three favourite Greek girl's names. Zoë - meaning life; Sophia - meaning wisdom; and Eleftheria - meaning freedom. After all, what more could we hope for a child than life, wisdom and freedom? She had a boy.

Thinking back, I couldn't think of a better motif for the new year. So here is to a world that is wiser, freer and one that celebrates life over death. I'll drink to that.