Thursday, January 29, 2009


The BBC reports:
The number of British part-time students in the UK fell 3% between 2007 and 2008, to 762,340. Wales saw the biggest fall in part-time students from the UK (down 9%). In England, the fall was 3% and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it was 4%.
In the meantime Chris Dillow has cast doubt on the supposed earnings premium that graduates can expect to receive as a result of their degrees.

The government has been asking students to pay higher fees to contribute to the cost of their education, pointing to the earnings premium to bolster their case.

Any connection?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Crunchless clothing

Haute couture - posh, overpriced (£200,000 for a dress) clothes to you and me - is booming.
“The demand for very high-end products continues to be very strong. Very rich people are not suffering from the crisis and workshops have been very busy”
Well, there's a surprise.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Of the many lost communities we must not forget the Jews of Greece. The Romaniotes were one of the oldest Jewish populations in Europe, the Sephardim of Thessaloniki were the direct descendants of those expelled from Spain in 1492. They flourished and spoke Ladino, a dialect descended from Mediaeval Spanish. Nearly all were murdered.

So in remembrance of the appalling loss here is Savina Yannatou singing a Ladino Sephardic folk song, keeping alive a tradition that the Nazis wished to eradicate from history.

Internationalising the peace

The hopes raised by Obama's election continue. Gershon Baskin writes in the Jerusalem Post about past mistakes and future opportunities for Middle East peace that may emerge from the new Presidency.

Bashkin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI - the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a "joint institution of Israelis and Palestinians dedicated to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of 'two-states for two peoples' solution".

False analogies

David Renton, in an awful review of a book I do not want to read, refers to

…the Republican Falange around George Bush

I suppose Italy and Spain make a change from the Nazis. His target is a group of writers, Hitchens, Cohen and Amis, who had the temerity to suggest that bringing down a murderous dictatorship may not exactly be in contradiction with left-wing principles. After some injudicious misquoting he continues:

Hitchens it seems is incapable of making a public speech without running through a roll-call of his heroes – Orwell, Victor Serge, C L R James – writers, it must be said, who had the chance in their own lives and disdained the journey he has taken.

Orwell? Does he know anything of Orwell? Is he talking about the Orwell who was the relentless critic of leftist conventional wisdom whenever it conflicted with his principles, who savaged middle class lifestyle socialists in the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier, the opponent of the then fashionable pacifism who went to Spain in his own words to “kill fascists”, the Orwell whose anti-Stalinism was forged by the betrayal of the Spanish revolution and the murder of his friends, who couldn’t find a publisher for Animal Farm because Stalin was then an ally whom no one dared criticise, the Orwell who caused a posthumous ripple of horror amongst Guardianistas when it was revealed that he had collaborated with the British Government (a Labour Government that he supported) by naming possible Stalinist sympathisers at a time when a new round of purges was taking place in Russia? That Orwell? He could have been a Hitchens et al role model.

And if you want to read some sanity on Iraq go to Harry Barnes’ site and follow the links to Anne Clwyd’s speech in Hansard. Barnes opposed the war, Clwyd supported it. They are now comrades in Labour Friends of Iraq supporting, guess what, democratic socialist principles; those very principles that the anti-war lobby were so eager to toss to the wolves of the insurgency.

Orwell certainly left a legacy, I think Hitchens has the better claim to it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Arguments for a republic

According to the Guardian
The mysterious phenomenon of crop circles has for decades baffled scientists, members of the public, and, it now emerges, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
It hasn't baffled anyone. The craze for making them was started by Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. Since then others have followed suit. The journalist who wrote that opening line should be ashamed for pandering to nonsense.

This revelation of royal credulity is based on correspondence with Colin Andrews who researches into "remote sensing, earth energies, energy awareness, healing, and crop circle resonance". He thinks they are made by UFO's.

The journalist's exhaustive investigation consisted of reading Andrews' web site, where a polite reply from the Queen's private secretary in 1990 is posted as proof that the Queen had been lied to. How on earth did it get in the paper? Come back the age of reason, all is forgiven.

Cat blogging ...

... the safe alternative to politics.

Shamelessly nicked from DSTPFW

Sunday, January 25, 2009


For the last twenty years or so the highlight of my week has been a game of cards and a few pints of Boddington's bitter in the Queen's Arms on a Saturday night (yes, I am that sad). Legend has it that it the name of the pub stems from the time Queen Victoria dropped in for a pee when changing trains at Patricroft Station during a royal visit to the North. Anyone travelling through Britain will find plenty of twee hotels boasting that some King or Queen once slept there, however, I think that this claim to fame is unique. What may or may not have been the porcelain bowl that supported the illustrious buttocks is now outside, filled with plants. There isn't a blue plaque in sight.

I have some doubts as to the provenance of the tale about the royal wee, but let's not let facts spoil a good story. It is a lovely pub too, a real family local run by a smashing couple. Last night was the same as ever except for a cloud on the horizon. The pub is to be sold and its licensees can't afford to buy it at the current asking price. Though there is a long way to go before its future is decided, it may be under threat.

The decline of the British pub is one of the sad stories of our times and it has even attracted ministerial concern. Small, traditional pubs are the ones most at risk and the blame is usually laid at the door of cheap supermarket booze and the smoking ban. They haven't helped, but you shouldn't ignore the role of the pub companies and the squeeze they put on their tenants and managers.

It all goes back to the Office of Fair Trading referring the tied house system, where breweries owned the pubs and only allowed them to sell their own beer, to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1986 to investigate "the matter of the existence or the possible existence of a monopoly situation in relation to the supply of beer within the United Kingdom for retail sale on licensed premises". The fantasy was that reform would transform publicans into independent and genial hosts dispensing delicious pints of foaming ale to a grateful public. Not in contemporary corporate capitalism. The subsequent Commission report and its implementation in 1989 meant that breweries transferred ownership of their pubs, not to independent licensees, but to monopolistic pub companies.

The new chains were not using them to shift their products so they began to wring as much profit as they could out of the places and perfectly decent pubs suddenly became 'fun' pubs or identikit outlets for crummy food, with precise portion control, called something like Brewer's Fayre. The death warrant for the old fashioned boozer was signed.

Any study of social history reveals the public house as one of the great institutions of British society. Pubs were once the hub of working class radical movements and the social centre of adult communities. They held out against the demands of the moral puritans and maintained their role as meeting places in subsequent years. Many of my best friends have been people that I met through going to pubs as a regular customer. In their own way, they are fine places and an integral part of British life. Nowadays as you pass through a town you will still see plenty of open pubs, with their smokers huddled in a doorway to escape the chill, but they will be interspersed with ones that are closed and boarded up, a tangible sign of decline. It is a sad state of affairs, so it is no wonder we are all becoming so miserable.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Language lessons

This is really narcissistic, but I am going to post on one of my own posts. The response to my piece on the quality of debate over Gaza at the Drink-soaked ones was really heartening (and special thanks are due to my pals on the Trots for their kind comments and links). I want to use this post to explain that it wasn't that difficult a task to write it. All I was doing was using a set of analytical tools I use in teaching students about clear thinking.

Language matters and the debate over the use of it is an old one in radical circles. Though Orwell's fine essay, Politics and the English Language, is probably the best known on the topic, he was, in fact, repeating old arguments. Much came from the 19th Century Freethought and rationalist movements, whose importance is often under emphasised as a source of radical ideas. I particularly like a deeply obscure pamphlet from the 1850's produced by the London Confederation of Rational Reformers that I unearthed in the Nettlau archive. Its theme was that "the bulk of mankind are, and have ever been, the egregious dupes of language."

Most of the tricks I described in the post and many others can be found in a splendid little book, first published in 1935, Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert Thouless. It is out of print, and the examples are out of date, but there are loads of second hand copies around and it is still very useful. More recently Jamie Whyte produced Bad Thoughts, a Guide to Clear Thinking (evidently not that clear as he comes across as a bit of a Tory), which is a good, accessible read. There is a lot more out there too. So I wasn't being particularly original, it is just that we pay too little attention to the logical structure of argument in constructing and repeating our views (especially over a pint or several).

What I was trying to do with the Gaza post was to open out the debate by looking at the way it had been constructed rather than rehearsing tired and circular arguments and, with one possible exception, it seems to have worked. I am not that virtuous though. In this other post I was doing something else.

In attacking a spectacularly stupid assertion by the Labour MP Graham Stringer that dyslexia could not exist because Nicaragua had achieved 100% literacy in its schools, I quoted the UN World Development Report, which gave Nicaragua an adult literacy rate of under 77%. Naughty. Why? An adult literacy rate includes the whole population, not just the recently educated, and many of those would have been schooled before the literacy drives associated with the Sandinistas. I should have used the UNICEF figures for young people, which gives a rate of 84% for males and 89% for females. Still short of the claimed 100%, but not quite as spectacular.

So why did I do it? For impact? To exaggerate my case? No. It was because Stringer was Chair of the council that closed my beloved College of Adult Education in 1990 and I do bear a grudge. I wanted to make him look even more ridiculous. So the moral is, read with care and without total trust. And keep thinking, thinking clearly.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Early day motion

I have always thought that this sounded vaguely scatological, however it is a Parliamentary procedure.

An early day motion has been laid down by the Labour MP for Blackpool South, Gordon Marsden, welcoming the launch of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning. CALL is encouraging people to write to their MP urging them to sign.

You can read the motion here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The joys of jargon

It isn't often that a Parliamentary Select Committee report has me laughing out loud. Prompted by this item from the BBC, I turned to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee's review of the DIUS's Departmental Report 2008. It is savage.

They must have loved describing it as being filled with "jargon-riddled phrases, assumptions backed-up with no clear evidence but which appeared to be designed to provide a positive tone to the Report, and euphemisms deflecting likely failure".

Could the committee have suppressed their smiles as they dryly noted the following?

During the evidence session with officials in DIUS we selected at random and read the following extract from the Departmental Report to Mr Watmore:

"An overarching national improvement strategy will drive up quality and performance underpinned by specific plans for strategically significant areas of activity, such as workforce and technology. The capital investment strategy will continue to renew and modernise further education establishments to create state of the art facilities".

Mr Watmore was unable to explain the meaning of the passage. He conceded that “documents written by people in senior positions can often be very inaccessible to the public”

Inaccessible? Meaningless more like. Managerial bollocks shown up for what it really is. And I have to labour under the policies that these officials dream up. Bravo to those MPs who can spot a distinctly naked emperor.

Hat tip Ian

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Whatever the future of this presidency has in store, today has not been a day of historic change, it has been a day that indicated that change had already occurred - and for the better.

Serial learning

There can't be much to do in Kalamazoo.
You might say Michael Nicholson has a passion for learning. The 67-year-old Kalamazoo retiree has amassed 27 college degrees since 1963, and he's not done yet.
Just the sort of thing we are trying to stamp out in England.
"I enjoy learning as a means of independence," Nicholson said. "I have academic freedom; I can study or do whatever I want to do."

...Michael Nicholson said he'll keep pursuing higher education as long as he can.

"I find that the intellectual stimulation and the acquaintances that I have at the intellectual level make it really worthwhile," he said.

He and his wife, who has seven degrees, both got fee discounts as they worked for Western Michigan University. Learning for the joy of learning, it's something that we need to start to value again in this country. Lovely.

Ta Will.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Reading Gaza

For once, the word ’swamp’ is appropriate. Wading through some of the partisan and ignorant apologias that have flooded comment boxes, appeared in the mainstream media and infected on-line ‘citizen journalism’ was like battling through a stagnant, weed-choked morass, gagging against the foul air, unable to breathe. We need air, light and clarity. That can only come from thought.

I do not want to discuss the rights and wrongs of Gaza, instead I want to write about what I see to be the main rhetorical tricks, self-deceptions and lazy arguments that were used to try and reconcile current events with previously held commitments. It is about how to read Gaza.

A preliminary point: some of the claims that I refer to could be contested as fact. Without access to proper authoritative information it is impossible to challenge them with certainty. Therefore I am taking all claims at face value. My aim is merely to illustrate what I see as the false arguments that surround them.

Historical analogies

If you see an article or post that contains the words Apartheid, Warsaw Ghetto, Hitler, Nazis, Sarajevo, Holocaust, and, especially, any mention of the Second World War, do not pollute your mind by reading it. Delete it, throw it away, stamp on it. Do not read it.

Analogies can be useful to illustrate a general principle, but historical analogies are usually misleading. Historical events are rarely analogous, and the Arab/Israeli conflict has a pretty strong claim to singularity. When they are used, there is always a tendency to talk about the supposedly analogous situation rather than the real one under discussion. They take us further from the truth rather than closer to it.

However, the way they are predominantly being used at the moment is worse than that. Analogies are not being used to provide meaningful comparison; instead they are words that have been ripped from their historical context, from the reality of the situation in which they occurred, and have become symbols of evil. This is not the use of the analogy; it is a game of guilt by association. It is dishonest.

The people who use them are just like Joseph Goebbels – you see how easy it is, and how wrong.


This has been an interesting one. I have often heard the argument that the difference between Israel and Hamas is that Hamas intend to kill civilians, unlike the Israeli military who try and avoid it. This one has been all over the place and has led to endless irresolvable debates about whether Israel was deliberately targeting schools, hospitals and civilians. It sounds reasonable, but isn’t quite what it seems.

A consequentialist would say that all that matters is the consequence of the action, not its intent. I do not agree. Intent matters, it matters a great deal. For instance, in the British legal system we distinguish between murder, manslaughter, causing death by dangerous driving, etc. on the basis of intent. It is also true that our reaction to the early death of someone we loved and the process of mourning and recovery is affected by the nature of the death. An accident is a tragedy, but a murder is traumatic.

However, intent is not quite as simple as that. A drunk driver uses a car because of the expectation that they will not be caught and will not cause an accident. It is a risk, but the odds are on their side. If a child is killed, we vilify and punish the driver, though not for murder. Now imagine that if a drunk driver got in a car knowing that it was certain that they would kill a child and that the child’s death was the inevitable consequence of driving home from the pub. They wouldn’t drive; the intent not to kill would overwhelm the desire to get home without paying for a taxi.

And this is the problem when we come to Gaza. To launch an aerial assault attack on a densely populated urban area does not risk civilian casualties; it guarantees them. Intent and consequence blurs. Therefore the correct argument is that the difference between the two is regret not intent. Rather than celebrating and enjoying killing, one side regrets the necessity of killing civilians. It is a distinction, but a more morally ambiguous one. And perhaps a more meaningful debate would be on whether that killing was necessary or not.

The blame game

It should be easy. Drop a bomb and kill a child and it is your fault. Not necessarily, if the child is used as a ‘human shield’ then blame neatly passes from the bomber to the bombed.

Only it shouldn’t. If a target is protected by a human shield, you can either decide to attack it, killing the people in the process, or you can decide not to attack it, or you can try and get the target a different way. There is always a choice.

The use of human shields is absolutely abhorrent. It can be based on two calculations. One is that it will stop the attack, the other that, if it doesn’t, the deaths will be a propaganda coup. In the former, the ruthless are calculating to gain advantage from the humanity of the other side. In the latter, the ruthlessness of the one relies on the ruthlessness of the other. It is a dance of death in which both sides share a proportion of the blame.

Yes but …

This is a simple way of shifting the debate away from something that discomforts you to something that bolsters your case. There have been two main ways in which this has been done. First when critics point out the damage being done in Gaza they are reminded of the rockets on Sderot and exactly the same happens in reverse. At best, all that happens is that we get drawn into a pointless argument about proportionality. Then one side reminds us that Israel has two homicidal militias on their Northern and Southern borders whilst the other counters with the bitter experience of the Palestinians of dispossession and military occupation.

Both are true. One does not excuse the other, but the trick in debate is to concentrate on one at the expense of the other, distorting the argument. A coherent position does not mean minimising the fact that diminishes your case whilst maximising the one that suits you best, it considers both as an intrinsic part of a single problem.

The misuse of history

Poor history, battered, bruised and abused, she staggers from the debate barely able to stand. There has been so much bad history used that it would take far too much space to detail all the examples.

Anyone attempting to bolster their case through the use of history who cannot distinguish research from propaganda, who is not be able to see whether a source they are using is credible or not, who doesn’t know the ‘historians’ who see their roles as standard bearers for a cause and thereby distort, misinterpret, and select material dishonestly, please stop now. Don’t clutter discussion boxes with bollocks and counter bollocks, argued with a passion out of all proportion to any pretence at knowledge. History is contentious, but not that contentious.

(An aside: I think the most significant historical fact is that the establishment of Israel necessarily meant the displacement of Palestinians, not merely physically, but also in terms of their own national self-determination and political status. This was obvious to all Zionists at the time, and, though there were pacifist alternatives to statehood put forward, talk turned to transfer on the model of the Greek/Turkish population exchanges agreed under the Treaty of Lausanne – which, please note, did not mean ‘ethnic cleansing’ and other anachronistic distortions. Of course, a managed settlement never happened and the war resulted in a transfer through flight and expulsion. There is so much mythology about that as well. Pro-Palestinians talk of a coherent plan to drive out all Arabs (apart from the ones that remained??); Israeli ultras have devised a range of scenarios that are all variations on a theme of ‘they expelled themselves’! Though I haven’t found one that says that they prevented themselves from returning – yet.

Thus the establishment of a Palestinian state within just borders, with a settlement of the question of Jerusalem, and at peace with Israel, is not an act of ‘generosity’ or a ‘concession’, it is an act of restitution, of justice. It ensures that justice for one people does not flow from injustice for another.]

Choosing sides

It was very easy for most, they had already chosen. The ‘we are all Hezbollah now’ crowd had embraced Hamas long before the fighting in Gaza. Theocratic totalitarianism is, after all, the latest fashion accessory for the ‘left’. Their language was redolent with scarcely concealed anti-Semitism and demonstrations against the war were filled with an iconography of hate and menace. Those who favoured the Israeli action in Gaza were only too ready to minimise and justify civilian casualties, attempt to discredit inconvenient witnesses for their supposed bias, and, at the margins, flirt with anti-Arab racism.

So whose side do we choose? How about ours? This is a left blog, written from different perspectives though sharing some common values; social justice, anti-racism, equality, respect for human life, a hatred of oppression. That’s the side to be on. Hold hard to our principles and use them as a guide, rather than rely on a blind partisanship. Some of the best commentary chose this path and called for long-term action for a settlement. Too often it was drowned out by the clamour of the committed.

A personal conclusion

In the last years of her life my mother was inclined, as many elderly people are, to wander back into the past. In her case this usually meant the war. She had lived in London throughout the blitz. I remember once when her face crumpled at the memory and the tears flowed. It was the same expression I saw from the historian E P Thompson in a TV documentary as he recalled sending a fellow officer into action and certain death. She looked up and said, “War is hell. It should only be used when absolutely necessary”. She had no doubt that the defeat of Hitler was just such a necessity, despite the pain of her lost friends and dead brothers. Now I look at Gaza and wonder if the hell inflicted on the people was “absolutely necessary”.

Was it?

Thoughts on Gaza

I got involved in a discussion in comments on this post on Terry Glavin's site about the need for a real peace movement. Will asked me to turn my thoughts into a post for the Drink-soaked Trots. It turned into something completely different about the poor quality of much of the debate and the abuse of language. It is long and you can read it here.


As the DSTPFW site is no more, I have reposted Reading Gaza above for the record as it was one of the few posts not cross posted here.


According to Will Hutton,
The prime minister is incandescent ... When Britain needs all its big banks to act together to stop a credit crunch-induced slump, Barclays, putting its own interests - and bonuses - first instead triggers a second phase of the crisis.
Now footage has emerged of boardroom discussions.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


The instant 'experts' who 'bravely speak out' against the prevailing consensus are with us again. Now it is the turn of dyslexia to be the target. Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley, thinks it is a "cruel fiction".
"The education establishment, rather than admit that their eclectic and incomplete methods for instruction are at fault, have invented a brain disorder called dyslexia," said the MP.
Note the language; it is the little man against the powerful establishment, a hint of conspiracy and, of course, there is the invocation of the "dyslexia industry", a very useful technique if you want to ignore vast piles of evidence and research.

The 'industry' itself is unamused. Dyslexia Action have responded with a sense of weary resignation,
Once again dyslexia seems to be making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. It is frustrating that the focus should be on whether dyslexia exists or not, when there is so much evidence to support that it does.
It is a mistake to mix up dyslexia, a wide spectrum of disorders, with literacy. It makes aspects of literacy harder to acquire, but dyslexics can overcome it with support. I have worked with dyslexic students and colleagues, all highly qualified, but with varied individual needs depending on the specific nature of their disability. I have also seen the damage that is done to people when dyslexia has remained unidentified before we managed to pick it up in adult education and begin remedial action. In my everyday working experience it is very real indeed and its denial risks unnecessary damage to dyslexic individuals.

Stringer's clinching argument is that,
If dyslexia really existed then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.
The United Nations Human Development Report for 2007/8 gives Nicaragua an adult literacy rate of 76.7%.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


It is the full moon and George Szirtes' Transylvanian heritage is stirring. He is angry. I am not surprised - he has been to a meeting. A meeting about funding.

He wanted to say:
Poetry has been with us since the dawn of time, and it will carry on being with us until we die out. I don't care about your money and your surveys and your evaluations, this is not flower arranging or Disneyland (though flower arranging is an art too) it is a core human instinct and no one should apologise for it or go begging and, furthermore, it's a proud high craft and one of the greet deep pleasures, and I myself am proud, and you neglect poetry at your soul's peril.
But didn't.

Lets do some word substitution:
Adult education has been with us since the dawn of time, and it will carry on being with us until we die out. I don't care about your money and your surveys and your evaluations, this is not flower arranging or Disneyland (though flower arranging is an art and a really popular course too) it is a core human instinct and no one should apologise for it or go begging and, furthermore, it's a proud high craft and one of the greet deep pleasures, and I myself am proud, and you neglect adult education at your soul's peril.
It is the universal plaintive cry of those who care to those who fund.

I had an email the other day from a semi-retired adult educator who is busier than ever, working outside the system with voluntary groups. Adult education survives because it has to, we have to. Learning is what we do and what we are. Yet he also despaired that a national system that opened the door to everyone and anyone is shrinking.

Though they try and kill us off, we survive. We are the undead and should wreak revenge, roaming the night tearing out the uncaring hearts of bureaucrats, chilling the blood of strangers with our howls of revenge. But we don't. Instead, we go to meetings.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Action on adult education

CALL, the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning, have announced a mass lobby of Parliament for Wednesday February 25th. I would urge anyone who can attend to go. Only limited details are available at the moment, but you can follow the planning for the event on CALL's website.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sometimes on a Monday

The poet Ruth Padel was on Desert Island Discs this week (repeated on Friday). I didn't know about her connections with Greece. Her last choice of record was Melina Mercouri singing Manos Hadjidakis' song The Boys of Piraeus from the movie Never on a Sunday. This is one view of the film:
In the deployment of the voyeuristic visual economy of the show or backstage musical, modern Greekness is feminized in accordance with the gender stereotypes that determine the articulation of the Hollywood musical's style and structure. As a result, the film depicts Greek ethnocultural specificity as naive carnality and unreflexive pathos.
Padel thought it was evocative and sexy.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Vote Olly

And vote often. The only choice. You know it makes sense.

The result. 1.6%. A triumph.


Norm turns to the most vexed political question of all. Rubbish collection.

Doorstep rubbish collections are being scrapped with families being required instead to use huge communal bins in a scheme that might be introduced across the country.

Brighton & Hove City Council will begin installing 3,200-litre communal bins in 500 streets next week – one for every 40 homes. For some residents the bins will be 150 yards away.
In Greece, communal collection is the norm (sorry). I am used to trotting down the lane with my σκουπίδια. It all works pretty well and the bins are cleared on a regular basis. Contrast this to the situation in Salford where a one-person household in a terraced house, with only a small back yard, has to cram three large wheelie bins for recycling into a tiny space, sometimes meaning that it is a struggle to get out of the back door. And if you don't and leave the bins out - a £100 fine or more awaits you under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Whilst Norm ponders the practicalities, he should also think of the principles. I am certain Madeleine Bunting will. You can just imagine it, can't you. 'This is an example of the triumph of community over the atomised lifestyles of the individual suffering in the hell of a modern consumer society. The merging of our rubbish is a way in which we can come together in mutual respect and understanding. By collectively disposing of our waste we symbolically cleanse our troubles and unite with all humanity in harmony with nature as we recycle together as one'. Henry Porter, too, will see it as a way fending off the surveillance that will inevitably lead us into a police state. 'Collective solidarity against the tentacles of the state and the defence of our ancient liberties begin with the bins'.

Just as ancient Greece invented democracy, so modern Greece shows us the way again. As long as we can still flush our loo roll down the bog that is.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Please and thank you

We English are so polite, aren't we? Courtesy is seen as a quintessential part of the anodyne national characteristic of Englishness. However it wasn't always so. I spent part of my holiday reading a flawed but hugely entertaining social history, Ben Wilson's Decency and Disorder. These titbits give a flavour of what we used to be like:
'Speaking English' was a French slang term in the eighteenth century for being frank to the point of offensiveness.
And then there is this, derived from an English/French phrase book of the same era,
How could a Briton survive without the French for 'shitten girl', 'short-arse' or 'he is the crackfart of the nation' when he was abroad?
So what happened? Ben Wilson makes the case that we were tamed.

The book paints a picture of a hugely drunken and disorderly working class slowly succumbing to what became known as Victorian Values. It is an over-generalisation. It relies too heavily on some of its sources, notably the reminiscences of Francis Place and the 'Tom and Jerry" fiction of Pierce Egan. It concentrates too much on London, whilst Wilson's brief foray into political economy leaves a lot to be desired. He doesn't make the links between working class life and working class movements and politics, nor does he mention the radical press. At a time when he talks about growing civility, Bristol was in flames as a result of rioting during the reform crisis of the 1830's.

The greatest weakness is the lack of reference to working class intellectual life, Jonathan Rose is not included in the bibliography, leading to a blurring of what was imposed with what was authentic. Yet Wilson is superb on the attitudes of a growing, and recognisably suburban, middle class. He resurrects the activities of the gruesome Society for the Suppression of Vice, points out the sheer awfulness of some Utilitarian thought, looks at the ideology of the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity (James Purnell would be perfectly comfortable in its ranks) and its role in generating ungenerous attitudes towards the poor, together with a range of other grim instruments for the imposition of respectability. These include the cruel press campaigns that destroyed Byron and the actor Edmund Kean and the misuse of the Vagrant Act to suppress popular entertainments and pleasure in general. Then there was the insidious requirement for the appearance, and only the appearance, of decorum for any form of employment or social acceptability - it was the "age of cant". On every page there is another gem.

As a football fan who no longer attends, I was really impressed with Wilson's account of the O.P. campaign. After a fire burnt down the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in 1808, the rebuilt theatre opened in the following year. It gave an inferior view to those in the cheapest seats and was financed by raised prices and extensive private boxes for the wealthy, thereby hiding them from view. It could be a description of any Premiership football ground in England. In 1809 the audience wouldn't take it. They packed the place night after night, but when the play started it was first greeted by boos and catcalls, then later with rhythmic chanting calling for O.P. - old prices. The management hired prizefighters to break up the demonstrations but the violence failed to deter the protesters. The play became inaudible and irrelevant, the audience was the main entertainment. The protests lasted every night until 1810 when the old prices were restored and most of the private boxes removed.

The most important point that Wilson makes is that respectability was a set of values belonging to the middle class and that its growing influence was a reflection of a new bourgeois ascendancy. Moral reform was not neutral, it was a weapon against both working class and upper class debauchery, though in reality it aped the hypocritical mores of the aristocracy. Wielded against the working class it was a tool for suppression, social control and a system of punishment. It set out to crush the disorderly liberties of "Merry England" in favour of the obedient, sober industriousness desired by employers and evangelical enthusiasts.

What excited me was the realisation that this should provide the context in which we need to read much 18th and 19th Century political economy. Mainstream figures, like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, seen against this background, emerge from the shadows as the radicals they were. Smith's advocacy of the economic utility of vice and Mill's arguments on liberty place them firmly in the corner of the working classes against their middle class oppressors, and also, in Mill's case, against his old boyhood tutor, Jeremy Bentham. Then there were the vast array of counter movements, anti-temperance, free love, freethought etc., all fighting against this stifling morality.

Of course this was not the whole story for working class politics. Much of it succumbed to the moral agenda. I have ploughed through a number of Victorian left-wing utopias and they are uniformly depressing. The future world is inevitably inhabited by crosses between the Waltons and the Stepford Wives - blissfully happy, thoroughly moral, all reformed into niceness by the wonders of socialism. Surely the ideal life can't be that boring? Any utopia that doesn't contain a bit of drunken misbehaviour, the odd fractious argument and a good dollop of sin isn't my vision of the 'New Jerusalem'.

The interesting part of this is that there is a clash between one set of working class interests - the movements for self-improvement, popular education, women's rights, etc. - all seeking reform, and others that relished liberty and pleasure and wished to resist control. And that conflict is with us today. In New Labour, itself heavily influenced by the Christian Socialist movement, the moral crusaders can be seen represented in health campaigns against the horrors of binge drinking and obesity, in the 'respect agenda', in criminal justice legislation, and, above all, in welfare reform. There is also the recurring desire to find a way to regulate the Internet. Anyone out there remember that suggestion for a blogger code of conduct? Yep, it came straight from the same stable. Yet there are also the counter influences from the libertarians, relaxed licensing and gambling laws, anti-discrimination, acceptability of different lifestyles and more. The tension has not been resolved.

Wilson tries not to romanticise 18th Century disorderly conduct, after all exploitation of women, arbitrary violence, animal cruelty, venereal disease and alcoholism aren't to be celebrated. However, you know where his real sympathies lie. They are with a working class that is strong enough to be able to fight back against the petty hypocrisies of respectability and the deadly seriousness of the evangelical reformers, to be able to preserve their liberties and pleasures, and to have lots of fun whilst they do so. It is a generous vision and one I am intrinsically attracted to. 'Champagne socialism' was often used as a derogatory term, for me it is an aspiration.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Ah bless. Those sensitive souls at the Rugby Football Union are big soft (and rich) romantics at heart, they have teamed up with Mills and Boon to produce the RFU International Billionaires series of books.

"They've got all the elements of a quintessential Mills & Boon romance: jet-set locations, hunky alpha male heroes and hot sex, but in a rugby context."

Us league types prefer our sporting literature to be a bit grittier - and a lot better.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


I am back to a barrage of foul-mouthed abuse from a white van driver for taking too long to pay for my petrol, this was because the bank had put a stop on my card as it had been used, suspiciously, to take money out in Greece.

It is the Darwin bicentenary.

Here is another take on it.

More here

Friday, January 02, 2009

Winter scenes

Time to pack up the computer after a slight wobble in the plastic chair indicated a tiny earth tremor, so a final reminder of what I am leaving behind.

Technology ...

... and the multiplication of needs. Using an unreliable dial-up connection from here makes you realise that the Internet is rapidly becoming unusable without broadband. My reading and writing habits have been in abeyance. Tomorrow I return and the speed of my connection will be back to normal. Scant consolation for the return of reality. As for today, it's raining again.