Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Catholic tastes

With the stream of revelations of abuse pouring out of the Catholic Church, this one from Brazil is my favourite so far, a little thought sprung to mind. The reason why Tory politician Ann Widdecombe converted to Catholicism from the Church of England was the Anglican Church's ordination of women priests. Good call Ann ...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mentioning Greece

Why not? I am here. After a brush with a skilled pickpocket at the bus station in Athens and a visit to the cash point in Volos, I arrived back to a warm welcome from an old friend who will do anything for a bowl of condensed milk.

Maybe I will have some profound thoughts on the world sometime, but then again, maybe not.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hull, hell and back again

Channel 4 News, the irritating daily showcase for Jon Snow's hideous socks, came from Hull on Monday night. The report was all about how the recession was being felt most amongst working class communities. I had no problem with the theme, it is something that should be hammered home, together with the destruction of manufacturing as a by-product of the bankers' folly. But why do they always choose Hull? It seems that it is an off-the-peg symbol of deprivation for lazy researchers.

I was there again last night, seeing old friends and drinking too much. A great place; lovely people (and Karen only mentioned her trip to Barcelona last year twice). I hate seeing it depicted as the epitome of misery. Yes it is a bit different, yes it is a working class city, and certainly it is not affluent. But what sums it up was a research project being undertaken by a colleague at the University a few years ago on enhancing social capital on Hull's estates. She gave up. Why? As she said, 'There is loads of social capital there. They help each other the whole time, look after each other's kids, support their extended families. It is built into their way of life. It's the East Riding suburbs where there is none. We need teams of volunteers from the estates to teach the people in the suburbs how to do it."

It was a lovely way of turning the question around. Of course the obvious point is that with money you have less need of self-help, however it does illustrate, even amongst the most well-meaning of people, the attitude of condescension to the poor and to cities like Hull. Still feeling the warmth of the welcome, I am more convinced than ever that Hull need celebrating, not denigrating. We should be investing in the city, not out of pity, but because it is a simple act of justice towards wonderful, resourceful people who do not deserve to be abandoned at times of economic hardship.

As far as I am concerned, I was lucky to have been able to live and work there for nearly fourteen years and particularly so in the friends I made. It is a great place, a smashing place to live and I shall remember with fondness the sound of the fog horns from the ships on the Humber, even as I sit on a sun kissed patio in Greece.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The reality of the surreal

That a people gets the government it deserves is an odious lie. At times of great difficulty simple people, who are not damaged by the «habit of giving orders» don't react in a dog eats dog way, they extend a helping hand. The further a person is away from power, the better he is.
This from an extraordinary piece on the absurdity, abuse of power and endemic corruption of the Russian state and economy, Kafka's Castle is Collapsing, by Andrei Loshak. It is worth reading in full.
The saying «We have been put on earth to make Kafka come true» has been well known since Soviet times. We have been so steeped in absurdity since childhood that we haven't even learnt to distinguish any of the rules that regulate it. We are on the other side of the looking glass but somehow manage to function, work out what moves to make and make careers for ourselves.
He continues ...
Corruption is irrational: its very existence is fatal for a state. This makes it an ideal accompaniment to the realm of the absurd, its operating system. You don't have to understand how it works, but it is has a very convenient function which any idiot can grasp. Press the button and you get a result.
The stories he tells, from Ikea's culture shock to murders in a supermarket, graphically illustrate this world. Yet, he is also certain of change,
I think that society has lost its fear: the people perceive the government's inability to keep control of itself as a sign of weakness. Such a state cannot have enough strength for repression. The animal nips of the enraged system have woken people from their hypnosis. Fear and apathy have been replaced by rage.
And, right on cue ...

Saturday, March 20, 2010


The best way to get free publicity for a book is to say something wildly unlikely about Hitler in it. The latest is Hitler's plans for cricket. Yes, cricket. He wanted a few changes though. He apparently found pads to be “unmanly and un-German”.

The book is called Unreliable Sources. Quite.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Losing one's reason

Norm picks up on this article by Peter Scott, who argues that the real function of Higher Education is the enhancement of democracy. Norm doesn't demur, but he also mounts a defence of learning for its own sake (though without any "farting around"). I am with Norm on this (though I rather approve of farting around, which is why I am writing this blog post instead of getting on with my marking) and I also agree with Scott's general sentiments. However, I have always had my doubts about the education for democracy line.

Having worked with Scott on the Executive Committee of UALL (The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning), which he chaired, I have a lot of time for him. I also recognise where the argument is coming from. It is one of the long-standing justifications for university adult education. The trouble is that, to me, there always seemed something condescending about it. In the old extra-mural days it was all about non-accredited courses for the working classes (or teaching the lower orders the virtues of voting for nice people like us without giving them the qualifications that would enable them to take our jobs), today it is about citizenship in an agenda that is redolent of social control rather than self-determination. I may be unduly and unjustly cynical, but something baulks when I read a statement like this:
Higher education is no longer about elites but about citizens – because going to college is a quasi-compulsory precondition for full participation in our society, the gateway into Middle England.
Can you not participate without a degree? Are the sixty percent of people who do not go to university somehow unfitted for democracy? Is politics solely about that mythical beast, 'Middle England'? I know what he means and I am fully with his sentiments on the importance of opening up and expanding Higher Education, of seeing it as a right rather than a privilege. And I know, given his commitment, that includes adult education programmes as well as formal full-time degrees. It is just that us educators seem to end up in contortions and contradictions whenever we try to justify the existence of something that is a self-evident good.

There is a lovely little story in Patricia Storage's travelogue about Greece, Dinner with Persephone. She tries to open a bank account in Athens in a branch of an American bank. She gives her references to the bank clerk who takes them away to her supervisor.
When she returns, she says, "We open accounts in dollars under the following conditions: You must deposit at least fifty thousand dollars in the account. Or you must be of Greek descent. I am puzzled ... and ask the reason for these unexpected conditions. She says certainly, she will ask her supervisor, and after a conference with him she returns. "There is no reason", she says.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could give that response to agonising questions as to what higher education is for? It is self-evidently good, a natural human activity and people like to be able to do it. It obviously does serve purposes, but they are many and complex. Let's think about how to do it well, how to open it to as many people as possible, but not have to constantly justify why it is important that it is done. It is many years since Philosophical Radicals roamed the Earth, shouldn't it be time to give the need for utilitarian justifications a rest?

Monday, March 15, 2010


I would like to congratulate the people of considerable talent who have so selflessly and ably led higher education in this country for finally receiving the rewards to which I am sure that they think that they are fully entitled.

On another matter, Larry Elliott writes of the current Eurozone policy - "stabilisation through recession, imposing huge costs on working people" (not just confined to the Eurozone either).

Somewhat of a contrast methinks.

Fighting back

To revolt is a natural tendency of life. Even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it. In general, the vitality and relative dignity of an animal can be measured by the intensity of its instinct to revolt.

Bakunin 1872.
From Manchester to Manolis

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


The future of libraries is still being debated - like this:

"... move with the times to stay part of the times"

"... the citizen-focused services I think should be on offer"

"Libraries can't go on being merely traditional"

"...if she's ever stuck for an idea on how to run libraries, she visits Tesco"

"It's about moving from a service-driven economy to one that is about experiential learning"

"... sleepwalking into the era of the iPhone, the ebook and the Xbox without a strategy"

Books? Reading? Oh dear. How traditional, how contemptibly, merely traditional. It is obvious. We need a strategy. Another bloody strategy.



Light posting here at the moment as I am doing some other work, apologies. However, this piece from Eurozine by Timothy Snyder caught my eye. His argument is that by concentrating on those symbolic centres of mass murder, Auschwitz and the Gulag, we distort our historical understanding of the central horrors of the Twentieth Century.
The emphasis on Auschwitz and the Gulag understates the numbers of Europeans killed, and shifts the geographical focus of the killing to the German Reich and the Russian East. Like Auschwitz, which draws our attention to the western European victims of the Nazi empire, the Gulag, with its notorious Siberian camps, also distracts us from the geographical centre of Soviet killing policies. If we concentrate on Auschwitz and the Gulag, we fail to notice that over a period of twelve years, between 1933 and 1944, some 12 million victims of Nazi and Soviet mass killing policies perished in a particular region of Europe, one defined more or less by today's Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia ...

The geographic, moral, and political centre of the Europe of mass killing is the Europe of the East, above all Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, lands that were subject to sustained policies of atrocity by both regimes. The peoples of Ukraine and Belarus, Jews above all but not only, suffered the most, since these lands were both part of the Soviet Union during the terrible 1930s and subject to the worst of the German repressions in the 1940s.
Given the politicisation of history, this matters (see also this earlier post of mine). Snyder comments:
Exaggerated Russian claims about numbers of deaths treat Belarus and Ukraine as Russia, and Jews, Belarusians and Ukrainians as Russians: this amounts to an imperialism of martyrdom, implicitly claiming territory by explicitly claiming victims.
But what strikes me most of all is the numbers, the sheer scale of the savagery. "Some 1.5 million Jews were killed at (Treblinka, Bełzec, and Sobibor), about 780,863 at Treblinka alone". "In the guise of anti-partisan actions, the Germans killed perhaps three quarters of a million people, about 350,000 in Belarus alone". "It is established beyond reasonable doubt that Stalin intentionally starved to death Soviet Ukrainians in the winter of 1932-1933 ... By the end, more than three million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine had died". "In an operation aimed at ethnic Poles who were Soviet citizens, for example, 111,091 people were shot. Of the 681,692 executions carried out for alleged political crimes in 1937 and 1938, the kulak operation and the national operations accounted for 633,955."

And this is as nothing compared to the intentions,
Had things gone the way that Hitler, Himmler, and Göring expected, German forces would have implemented a Hunger Plan in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1941-1942. As Ukrainian and south Russian agricultural products were diverted to Germany, some 30 million people in Belarus, northern Russia, and Soviet cities were to be starved to death. The Hunger Plan was only a prelude to Generalplan Ost, the colonization plan for the western Soviet Union, which foresaw the elimination of some 50 million people.
These figures are seemingly incredible, beyond comprehension, yet Snyder also argues that there was a twisted rationality behind all these deaths, a perceived and sufficiently plausible economic motive for mass murder to enable such plans to be carried out. And so the article is also a warning:
If there is a general political lesson of the history of mass killing, it is the need to be wary of what might be called privileged development: attempts by states to realize a form of economic expansion that designates victims, that motivates prosperity by mortality. The possibility cannot be excluded that the murder of one group can benefit another, or at least can be seen to do so. That is a version of politics that Europe has in fact witnessed and may witness again. The only sufficient answer is an ethical commitment to the individual, such that the individual counts in life rather than in death, and schemes of this sort become unthinkable.
An ethical commitment. It seems almost an impossibility against this backdrop. Yet even in the bleakest times, people cling to hope and resist in whatever way they can. The efforts of ordinary people to work, both together and as individuals, to preserve such an ethic in the face of organised mass murder and violent suppression is the other side of the historical coin. So this example - Unsung Heroes - from Afghanistan (via Terry Glavin) made especially heartening reading, a clear example of the type of independent, popular action celebrated by the late Colin Ward, without which we could never even dream of saying, 'never again'.

Friday, March 05, 2010

It was all about oil

Altrincham. I hadn't been there in thirty years, other than a couple of times when the ill-fated Trafford Borough Rugby League club played at the football ground. It is border country, where Manchester's suburbs meets posh Cheshire, not quite one or the other.

Many years ago, I used to live not far from there. I drove past old haunts; the dole office where I used to sign on is now a large wine store; the shopping streets surrounded by new supermarkets seemed a little more down at heel; the pub where the banjo band played every Friday night is, miraculously these days, still open. And all the memories of choices made, of chances taken and missed, of the events that led my young self to be who I am now, accompanied my steps to my holy grail. The market where I would find oil - olive oil - Greek olive oil. It always has to be Greek.

I had found the seller on the internet. I wasn't disappointed. The oil is beautiful stuff imported direct from a small grower in the Pelopponese, sold by an Englishman who has spent a long time in Greece and has fitted in far too well.

I love cooking Greek food, much of the flavour is down to the quality of the ingredients and the oil is essential. So what shall I make ...

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Intimations of mortality

The death of Michael Foot has been announced. Yet another iconic figure from my youth has gone. There will be the usual guff about it also marking the death of the old left and a reprise of all the clichés about the 1983 Labour Manifesto and his dress sense. He wasn't a good leader of the Labour Party, though his job was absolutely impossible. He was from the Bevanite left, and was caught between Bennites and the determined political adventurism of some on the right, who split the party by forming the SDP. However, I always felt that he was a substantial and interesting figure and here are just three reasons why I think that he should be appreciated.

First, there is his peace activism. It is not quite as it would seem. Founder member of CND he may have been, but Foot was no pacifist. He started as an anti-appeaser, co author of The Guilty Men, and would support the Falklands War. His peace politics was rooted in anti-fascism.

Secondly, unlike many, I never found him a compelling speaker, but what a beautiful writer he was. He was a literate and literary politician. When you look at the tortured, banal and jargon-ridden vacuity of contemporary political discourse there is much to regret about his passing.

Finally, and this is personal, without Michael Foot's consistent advocacy, I may never have read his literary hero, William Hazlitt. Everyone should read Hazlitt.


The BBC News web site posts new, true colour images of the Earth from NASA.

In the interests of balance, here is another view.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Pets on Earth

Who says that without religion there is no compassion nor any morality? Here atheists selflessly offer their service to the religious for only a modest fee, given the burden of responsibility involved.
You've committed your life to Jesus. You know you're saved. But when the Rapture comes what's to become of your loving pets who are left behind? Eternal Earth-Bound Pets takes that burden off your mind.

We are a group of dedicated animal lovers, and atheists. Each Eternal Earth-Bound Pet representative is a confirmed atheist, and as such will still be here on Earth after you've received your reward. Our network of animal activists are committed to step in when you step up to Jesus.
Only $110 per rescue - a snip.

Ta Will