Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday cat blogging

Yesterday was a day of visitors. These were the welcome ones; the relaxed and the alert.

However, then there was also the return of the rats in the roof. Not so welcome at all, but all is quiet today and I wonder if those electronic devices that emit high frequency sounds actually work. Or was it the poison? Maybe tomorrow the scuttling sound will return and today will only be a false hope of victory against the persistence of nature. One day I may have more time here in which case one of these visitors might solve the problem of the others.

Tomorrow the guests are most welcome indeed. Fine friends for a barbecue. Time to marinate my chops.

AND the rat is back. Drat!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Erudition ...

... words of wisdom and sparkling wit. Nope. Sorry, none of that. The brain is empty. You will just have to look at pictures of the delights of dining out in Greece.

Vlito, tsatsiki and wine, with an ever present and eternally hopeful cat.

And then there is the view. Looking out across the Pagasitic Gulf at dusk. I will never tire of that view.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Paradise blogging

It's nice here.

Political skills

When responding to questions about the impact of the changes in funding that will affect adult education in universities, ministers keep insisting this is not a cut but a reallocation. Though many departments, like the one I work in, may well experience it as a reduction, the money is supposed to stay in the system and support new learners.

One of the main ways they expect to spend the 'saving' is on co-financed provision with employers. I think that everyone recognises that there is a need for better skills training, but there is also widespread scepticism about whether the diversion of funds will be successful and employers' willingness to engage with the scheme. At the heart of it is a typical New Labour elision. Skills training is supposed to be employer, rather than employee, led. You might have noticed that their interests are not always identical, especially if the employee wants to use education to escape the clutches of the employer who is supposed to be paying for it.

Now it appears that there is some empirical foundation to these doubts as the BBC reports that:

About £15m of government funds set aside for work-related training has not been taken up and has been reallocated, Skills Secretary John Denham has said.

It is hardly encouraging that adult education, for which there is a demand, is being sacrificed to divert funds to something currently as unsuccessful. However, this is not the most important story. The Conservatives are making all the right noises, as you can see from the comment by John Hayes, and I can assure you that they have taken a keen and supportive interest in the campaign against the changes. This has led some Labour voting colleagues to suggest that we might be better off with a Tory government and looking forward to a Labour defeat. It is an argument I wholeheartedly reject and view Conservative support as largely opportunistic.

However, this is what is at the crux of the contemporary British political scene. We have a Labour government capable of doing immensely stupid things, but until now they have always been able to rely on an even stupider opposition. Today we have a dumb government and a smart opposition.It is time for Labour to think again if it wants to retain power.

Thanks to Ian

Friday, June 20, 2008


I mentioned in the post below my interest in 19th Century Freethought and its emphasis on secularising religious forms of thought. I have often illustrated this with the theology of dieting - reaching the salvation of thinness through a struggle with sin and temptation. Now George Szirtes has raised a much more important example, the narrative surrounding global warming. Can we escape a theological understanding or does the necessity of action compel us to act out a morality play? I cannot answer, but George makes us think about the links between language, understanding and action.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tag team time

Shuggy has tagged me with the Atheist 13, a meme of 13 questions for atheists consisting of 10 questions (don't ask me).

Q1. How would you define 'atheism'?

Freedom from the tyranny of a non-existent god

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Religion was completely absent at home, though I went to Sunday School for a few years mainly to be with friends. School days also involved much bashing out of Anglican hymns. The Church of England is a marvellous training ground for atheists and one day it struck me that the whole thing was absurd. My mother had me baptised when I was small but never took me to church. She did take me regularly to watch professional wrestling though.

Q3. How would you describe 'Intelligent Design', using only one word?


I mean what sort of psycho could have dreamt up this number deliberately?

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

If I can define science in the broadest sense of the term as the acquisition of knowledge, it is that moment of awe, sitting in an archive, holding an original historical document, an old newspaper, or a book that has sat unread for decades. It is a thrill that never goes away.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the 'atheist community', what would it be and why?

Don't think of yourself as a community for heaven's sake – and stop using phrases like 'for heaven's sake'.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said 'I'm joining the clergy', what would be your first response?

After getting over the shock of finding out that I actually had a child, my sceptical nature would kick in and I would demand a DNA test.

Q7. What's your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

From Gandhi, that truth is god rather than the other way round. It is a neat way of avoiding claiming absolute authority for a single religion, but also maintaining a faith in an immanent force for good. However, I would just say that truth is truth and has no sacred properties. A search for truth is an intellectual rather than a religious activity and respect for truth is more effective if it is not distorted by faith.

Q8. What's your most 'controversial' (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

What a question. I don't know what other atheists think. There is an aesthetic in religious art, music and literature that I value. However, I think it transcends its religious roots and reaches a very human emotion that touches on the fundamental relationships that we have with each other. Given human history it is unsurprising that it has found religious expression, but it can just as easily be secular and humanist.

Q9. Of the 'Four Horsemen' (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I may not believe in the existence of God, but I do believe in the existence of Will so it has to be Hitchens. I actually read very little about atheism as I am secure in my non-belief. However, what I like about Hitchens is his appreciation of religious texts as being the foundation of our literary heritage. I have always thought of him as a literary figure who got into politics rather than vice-versa. I think that gives him a breadth that the others lack.

Can I also put in a word for historical antecedents in the Freethought movement too? G W Foote and others sought to counter religion as a way of thought rather than purely as a literal belief and he went to prison for his non-belief rather than on lecture tours.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Just one? Well the thought of Osama saying, "Sorry boys I got it wrong, it's all bollocks" is appealing. That is limited in ambition though. I could go for the big ones; Moses – "Covenant? No covenant, read the small carving"; Mohammed – "I have got a great idea for my book"; Jesus – "No, the son of a carpenter actually".

In reality I would settle for changing any one of the anonymous, repressed sadists who are busy ruining a child's life at this very moment.


Now, back to my roots to name my tag team to wrestle with this innumerate questionnaire.

My dream team is: Battling Bob the Brockley Bruiser, 'Mad Frankie' Sedgemore, and the one and only, 'Scrumptious' Scribbles.

Say cheese

It's time for a Victor Meldrew moment - I don't believe it!

Nurses are to be scored on how compassionate they are towards patients as part of a government plan to improve quality in the NHS ...

The health secretary, Alan Johnson, wants the performance of every nursing team in every ward across England to be measured, with the results published on an official website.

He believes putting a smile on the face of nurses and encouraging empathetic care is as important to recovery as the skill of doctors in the operating theatre.

What is more the Royal College of Nursing is colluding in this, "the RCN would work with the government to establish a scientific measure of compassion and quality".

So, health regulators are to compile a compassion index are they? And just how do you scientifically measure compassion? And what about those that fall behind in the compassion tables? Do they urge themselves, like Boxer in Animal Farm, to work harder to become more compassionate by the day or will they become even grumpier out of resentment?

I have a modest proposal for putting a smile on the faces of nurses. Take all the compassion enumerators, remove them from the payroll, preferably with quite a few other management types, especially if accompanied by some form of ritual humiliation like naming on a web site, and then give all the money saved to the nurses as a pay rise or use it to fund better equipment and cleaner wards. Simple - and scientific.

Via Norm

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

No surprises

The government has published its response to the unanimous and highly critical Parliamentary Select Committee report on the ludicrous decision to withdraw institutional funding for students in higher education taking a qualification at an equivalent or lower level than one they hold already, thereby dealing a severe blow to university adult education and restricting opportunities to retrain for a new career.

Whereas the committee took evidence from nearly 500 submissions and researched the topic properly, the government consulted nobody and appeared to be surprised by the stinking mess as their decision hit the fan. Their response to the diligence and thoughtfulness of our elected representatives is, predictably, dismissive and evasive. There is only one minor concession – they are protecting theology as "a mark of the importance the Government places on the benefits that faith-based leadership can bring to communities"! The stench is unabated and the future uncertain. Disgraceful.


Read Francis Sedgemore here

(Sorry Doc D - had to be done)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Electronic voting

It is important to have a perspective on this. We are not in Zimbabwe, we also do not live in the terror state of the foetid imagination of the conspiracy theorists or the authoritarian hell described by some of the weirder right libertarians. This is not to say that we do not have flaws in a democracy distorted by money, media and the banality of public debate. Nevertheless, whatever the arguments about electoral systems, the votes are counted and the result respected. This is why a gradual encroaching on the basic principle of the count is worrying.

With the presidential elections due, Jeff Weintraub has once more raised the problems of electronic voting in the United States, a system open to fraud. It is a theme covered by the documentary Hacking Democracy which Jeff mentions in a second post. He does not agree that the New Hampshire primary was one such scandal (follow the links on his site), but his concern is both urgent and appropriate.

As technology, rather than the quality of representation and the articulation of real political alternatives, is often raised as a solution to the issue of low voter turnout in this country, we need to be fully aware of the risks and the limitations of going down this route.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Without fog and rain

The village faces West. To sit sipping an iced coffee, watching the light fade, is a moment of perfection stolen from the demands of life.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

I am ...

... here

So light posting ahead and sorry Francis, I can't agree. It is teeming with life, everything is a vibrant green. The lemon tree that I planted is showing its first fruit. The vine is abundant. The air is warm and alive with birdsong. The mountains are vividly clear now a Northerly breeze has cleared the heat haze. The sea has only a gentle rippling swell. The cold and damp of a bleak day in North Yorkshire? I suppose it has its charm, but no way does it beat this.

Here? Παράδεισος.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Curious company

What links Ian Paisley, Anne Widdecombe and Fidel Castro?

The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything of course.

It gets more bizarre daily.

And now even more so

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Sometimes a snatch of a tune will infiltrate the muzak of everyday life and bring you to a halt, listening intently. It isn't the quality of the song that matters, it is the memory. It used to be an occasional, fleeting moment, but now there is You Tube. You can find the song and scrub the patina off your nostalgia, making it new again.

However, there is a drawback. Many videos capture the moment you first heard a song, but old stagers keep on playing and there are contemporary performances as well. At that moment you remember that you have grown old, a fact that never ceases to surprise.

So here is Janis Ian as I recognise her in 1976.

And here is an older woman, singing the same song about the awkwardness of youth in the same way, with a touch less angst. I believe that this too is Janis Ian. Can it be true?

Youth feels so permanent. Now when I venture into town on a weekend I see the troupes of invincibles, the North Sea wind assaulting their micro skirts and thin silk shirts, not knowing that they are creating their own past. And one day, years from now, a snatch of a tune will infiltrate the muzak of their everyday lives.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Save Adult Education

Save Adult Education is a campaigning web site that has been set up in the wake of the consultation document on informal learning. It has spotted that the sub-text of the consultation is not to boost informal learning but to use it to replace funded adult education.

The consultation period ends this week. If you are quick you can add your signature to the protest letter. The last date for signing is June 11th.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Maddy makes sense

I am reeling from a disconcerting experience, that of reading an excellent column by Madeleine Bunting. Regular readers of this blog would know that Maddy of all the Sorrows, as Norm so memorably christened her, doesn't always go down a storm. This time she has raised important themes connected to a topic close to my heart. She had been to see Lee Hall's play, The Pitmen Painters, a performance also witnessed by Gordon Brown.

The play is about the extraordinary artistic talent exhibited by a group of miners attending a Workers' Educational Association class in the North East. Bunting draws out a number of themes; respect for the working class autodidact tradition, so memorably celebrated by Jonathan Rose, workers' solidarity, the difficult relationship between organisation, autonomy and bureaucracy, community empowerment and the political disenfranchisement of a class through the abandonment of a tradition of Labourism. Her conclusion is powerful and angry without the characteristic hand-wringing.

At another level, the play is much more straightforward: it unashamedly celebrates one of the most powerful traditions of the 20th century, shabbily smashed in the 80s. The organised working class not only fought a war, it reshaped Britain and its achievements still organise our lives - the NHS, universal education and the welfare state. For the best part of three decades, this historical record has been an embarrassment to Labour, and an object of ridicule to the Conservatives. Hall admitted he was worried that his material was "old-fashioned" but rapturous London audiences reassured him. Are we finally ready for a reassessment in which we begin to recognise that a ruthless disenfranchisement, culturally and politically, facilitated Middle England's stranglehold on power?

Part of that disenfranchisement has been implemented through a culture of loathing: the working class is characterised as - and despised for - being fat, smoking, smacking their children, eating junk food, getting into debt and having chaotic family lives. Hall says he wanted above all to remind people of what the working class is capable of: that given the right circumstances ordinary people achieve extraordinary things. They can be much more than passive consumers of a culture they are rarely allowed to create.

There is one thing missing though. She has failed to spot the threat to the very instrument of the recognition and development of the miners' talent; a national, independent adult education service. This service was delivered by a number of diverse bodies, the WEA, University responsible bodies, local authorities, the residential colleges etc. It was able to exist without restrictions on who could participate, whether they had to study for a qualification or not, and gave tutors and students a degree of autonomy that would be unthinkable today. This is not to say that the system was perfect and that there was no room for reform, but changes over the last twenty years have led to the disappearance of much of its work and a severe restriction on its autonomy. One wonders whether an equivalent group to those miners could be supported today.

Adult education still exists, but the last two years have seen the shedding of no less than one million four hundred thousand funded places. The heavily criticised proposals on restricting funding for students who wish to take qualifications at an equivalent or lower level to one they hold already is having a devastating impact on an already diminished university adult education sector. Though successive governments have shied away from delivering the final coup de grace, death by a thousand cuts is in no way preferable.

Universal adult education was never simply a middle class indulgence, as some stereotyped it. It was, and remains, a source of community cohesion and individual achievement, a lifeline for vulnerable people and a route for social mobility. Something special is dying. It is an unnecessary act of cultural vandalism. The Pitmen Painters is a reminder of the value of what is being wilfully destroyed. I hope it can be saved, otherwise the idealism and energy of a new generation will be required to rebuild it from scratch.

Hat tip: A blogger with profound respect for the working class autodidact tradition

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Public discontent

Labour is in trouble with public sector workers. What should be one of its power bases is seriously alienated. This was the theme of Nick Cohen’s Observer column last Sunday. Using crime fiction as a device, notably the character of Superintendent Mullett, a bureaucrat and careerist, together with the Bristol University study of public sector altruism, Cohen painted a bleak picture of bureaucratic demands overwhelming staff trying to deliver a service. It is pretty accurate. Yet why should this be so? Cohen writes,

Chris Dillow, author of New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism, describes Brown’s Mullettry as a marriage between Old Labour’s Fabian belief in the centralised state and Thatcherites’ worship of management consultants. Between them, they have spawned a bureaucracy which despises democratic accountability and, worse, does not and cannot work.

There is quite a bit of truth in this and I have never been an opponent of freeing the Labour Party from the dead hands of the Webbs, even if I have more of a problem with their technocratic elitism than with their statism per se. However, I do not think that this is the whole story. As I see it, part of the cause of this alenation is also rooted in the best traditions of Labour, not just its worst.

When Labour came to power there was a clear sense that not only was the public sector under-funded but that it was also failing to deliver to the poor. Who got the worst education, had the poorest health, and was most likely to be a victim of crime? The working class. This is what Labour set out to remedy – and then proceeded to get the way they did it wrong.

Rather than see this as a matter of class inequality, they saw it as a consumer issue. This matched their self-image of New Labour as a citizens’ party, rather than of any single sectional interest, champions of the consumer against the producer. In doing so they embraced a narrative that told of a system with under-performing staff and management that did not care about anything other than self-interest. Inevitably, they became antagonistic to the public sector workers who voted for them in droves and who had also welcomed the new government with a sense of hope. Their stance left idealists, like myself, bewildered.

Instead of building alliances within the public sector by supporting those of us who shared their concerns about social exclusion and inequality, New Labour had their own ideas. Firstly, they embraced the ideology of leadership and thus we saw our managers’ salaries increase – well, if leaders are so vital you need big salaries to attract the 'best' people, don't you. Secondly, those, increasingly remote, managers were given more power against their workforce but were also constrained by having to implement the chosen methods of ‘reform’.

This is where managerialism came into play. Labour felt that an efficiently managed and reformed system could iron out inequities and create their beloved meritocracy. They adopted two main tools, quantitative analysis with performance indicators and targets, and marketisation, complete with private sector involvement. It was a limited form of market competition as they have always seen it in terms of competition between providers rather than provision, which has become increasingly shaped by central funding. For example, in adult education, we have seen funding withdrawn from things people actually want to do and directed into things the government thinks people should do, whilst colleges compete against a range of private training providers who have access to state funding.

I view the idea that consumer choice is the antidote to class inequality as, at best, hopelessly naïve. This is why I am less fulsome about the Blairite Ultras championing of the early liberal opponents of Fabianism. Their critique of state centralism is highly pertinent, but without a commitment to a different model of political economy it too will not address those stubborn issues of class and inequality.

There is another factor in all this - an exaggerated belief in modernity. It was faith in the notion of a new era of scientific understanding that bred a belief in technocracy in the early Twentieth Century. It was this too that led to a flirtation with eugenics. The conventional wisdom of our time, which New Labour bought into heavily, was that the fall of Communism, allied to the forces of new technology, had led us too into a new world. There was a lot of futuristic guff floating around about ‘weightless economies’, ‘portfolio careers’, and ‘the end of history’. The world certainly changed for Eastern Europe, however, apart from international affairs, it was business as usual in the West.

We have not escaped our history and still wrestle with some of the old dilemmas raised by the consequences and contradictions of industrialisation and democracy. Where I fully agree with Nick Cohen is when he writes that there are other Labour traditions to explore. However, there is far more than “the Co-op and guild socialist movements” and “radical liberalism”. There was an extensive individualist and collectivist anti-statist left, there were decentralists and democrats, and a range of critiques of conventional economic theory. They are well worth exploring for their insights and alternatives. The continuities with the past that still haunt us suggest that knowing our history, rather than denigrating it, is a surer way to shape a better future.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Trust me, I'm a professional

Francis Sedgemore has alerted me to his post on a letter in the Independent from a bunch of professors who are involved in lifelong learning. The line is a familiar one, with which I mainly agree. Francis also makes a highly pertinent comparison with Denmark, whose system of 'folk high schools' is something I have long envied.

I would like to sound just two minor dissenting notes. The first is that though we are indeed sinking under ever-increasing bureaucracy, some of it is self-inflicted by ingrained formal practices and overly complex systems. We can't blame the government for everything (though I do try).

Secondly, the letter says,

We have the same objectives as this Government in wanting to offer a first-class education and training to all and, in particular, to narrow the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged. We have, however, become increasingly dismayed by ministers who are intent on permanent revolution of every aspect of the education system: in so acting, they demonstrate a deep lack of trust in the professional education community.

There is one problem with the call to trusting professionals per se. There are quite a few of them whom I wouldn't trust an inch. What the government needs to do is to trust the right professionals, the ones who are committed to equity and who want to make change happen. And I can assure you that they are the most alienated and despairing of the lot. Much of this is tied in with the collapse of adult education.

In 1997 all of us in lielong learning were excited and energised that, at last, we were going to move from the margins to the centre of our institutions. We dreamt of new, flexible, community based universities that would begin to break away from the old, stuffy elitism and start to become open institutions. We thought that Labour was on our side, but each new initiative narrowed the vision. Now, it seems, we are simply being offered one-chance diploma factories aiming to give people the qualification for a better job. All right, they declare that they want those opportunities shared more equitably, though there is precious little evidence that it is happening and many of their policies also seem to work against it. Overall, the institutional conservatives have won.

And so, it is not just that we need "a more consultative, democratic and inclusive way of developing and enacting policy for all the public services", we also need a vision, one which will inform that policy and support those who share it. The narrow, instrumental vision of the government is not mine and Francis is right when he says that, "the Tories have neither the ideas nor the competence required to put things right". It is no wonder that we are fed up.