Monday, April 30, 2012


 Getting back to Manchester and walking into my local I was confronted with a sad loss. Boddingtons bitter is no more. Now that doesn't mean that the bland nitro keg stuff that is available all over the place has gone and the canned beer, including the Boddingtons Pub Ale that I can buy in Volos, is still ubiquitous. It is the real Boddies that has gone.

When I first moved to Manchester in the mid 70s a good Boddingtons pub was the holy grail. The beer was cheap, straw coloured and very bitter with a honeyed after taste from the malt. It was a local brewery, based at Strangeways. And then came the corporate takeovers.

First, the brewery was acquired by Whitbread. They began the process of marketing the brand and changing the beer to make an imitation of the original available nationwide. They still kept making the old bitter, though diehard Boddies fans were convinced that it had changed into something more bland. Then, in turn, Whitbread were swallowed by Interbrew and their interest in a Manchester beer was limited. The Strangeways brewery was closed, but the cask conditioned draught bitter continued to be made at Hydes' Moss Side brewery. When Hydes decided to move, Boddingtons real ale died.

Boddingtons was founded in 1778 and this is the irony of the story. Beer has played a central role in British social history and whilst we lament the demise of a small independent brewery, Boddingtons were one of the predatory giants of the early industrial revolution. Before then most pubs brewed their own beer. Production was small scale, casks were racked above the bar; the hand pumped beer engine, worshipped by real ale freaks, that draws beer up from a cool cellar had yet to be invented. Larger industrialised breweries began to put an end to this and carved up the market, developing networks of tied houses where only their beer could be sold.

And by putting the home brew pub out of business, this revolution in beer production contributed to something else, the decline in women's status and economic independence. Brewing was a female job. Sheila Rowbotham has argued that this shift from home production was one of the critical factors that intensified gender inequality in industrial Britain.

And now, they in turn have succumbed to larger corporate interests. The major difference being that this also marks a decline in the quality of the product. But as to my splendid local, all is not bad news. Now they serve Thwaites.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Here's something designed to irritate me. A headline that reads "Doctors back denial of treatment for smokers and the obese". Just as I was marshalling all my indignation and arguments I read on. First I came to the statement that:
A majority of doctors support measures to deny treatment to smokers and the obese, according to a survey that has sparked a row over the NHS's growing use of "lifestyle rationing".
But then I came to the details of the survey. The majority was a narrow one (54%) and there was worse. This was not a representative sample., a professional networking site, found that 593 (54%) of the 1,096 doctors who took part in the self-selecting survey answered yes when asked: "Should the NHS be allowed to refuse non-emergency treatments to patients unless they lose weight or stop smoking?"
So a self-selecting group of under 600 doctors, no doubt of the body fascist persuasion, are portrayed as the whole medical profession. This is precisely how the media use dubious surveys uncritically in order to write a sensational story. Mind you, the important argument is political not clinical. It is that universal services are precisely that, universal. And they are certainly not provided on the basis of a selective morality based on conformity to the latest fads.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Back again

Pelion showed itself at its finest as I left on Thursday. The air was clear and as the plane rose I could look down and see the the whole length of the peninsula. The village where my house is was momentarily visible, sitting by the sea where the land starts to twist round in on itself. Then the plane banked and flew north over the snow-capped Pindus mountains, leaving the warm air slowly behind as it began to approach a vast bank of cloud over northern Europe.

And so I came back to mountainous sarcasm as rain lashes down on this officially drought-stricken country and the unsurprising news that once again the economy has slipped into recession.

Before I left, an elderly neighbour spoke to me as I worked in the garden. She did a startlingly good impersonation of one of her local enemies before moving from the small world of the village to, inevitably, The Crisis. "Prices go up, up, up. How can I live? My pension is only €370 a month. In the summer I can grow food, but what will happens in winter?" That is about all the meaning I could salvage from her machine gun Greek.

So what will happen? There comes a point when the most stubborn-minded ideologue, insulated from everyday life finds that reality has a nasty kick. My neighbour was only one manifestation of a pan-European sense of discontent. Across Europe anti-austerity movements are growing. The problem is that they are as much vehicles for populist, xenophobic and far-right sentiment as they are for democratic leftism. The conservative government of the Netherlands may have fallen, but it was Wilders' Freedom Party that brought it down

The possible election of Hollande in France may be the first crack, if only a small one, in the deadly certainty of the  European elite. If so, then it will be welcome as there has been little sign of any alternative political economy emerging elsewhere. Mark Weisbrot argues from the left that counter-cyclical economic policies are more than possible:
It is only the political will that is lacking. In the meantime, the opposition of ordinary Europeans throughout the eurozone will be all that stands between the European authorities and a worsening economic mess.
What should be concerning us all is that such opposition could end up imposing an even darker fantasy on reality than that of the austerity fetishists. After all, the opposition is not solely composed of elderly women in Greek villages, but of ambitious men and women anxious to promote a politics of hate.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Something for a change. This is an extraordinary piece of trick cinema, an early comic scene from one hundred and eleven years ago. The youthful energy of the performer, the imaginative ingenuity and near faultless continuity are astonishing given its age.

But this is also dark comedy; it is like an anxiety dream where nothing that you are trying to do can ever be achieved, whatever you are looking for can't be found, you become trapped in endlessly replicating frustration. Very odd.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


I have sometimes alluded to modern Greek history when I have posted on the Euro crisis. This superb Radio 4 documentary by Maria Margaronis discusses the complexities and legacy of the recent past without romanticisation. Well worth an hour of anyone's time.

Thanks to Kev

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Economic crisis grips Europe; the rich party on as if nothing is happening; the policies of Brüning and Laval are all the rage; now the Daily Mail comes out in support of fascists.

Are you sure we aren't living in a Thirties theme park?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The sun is warm, the air cool. Bird song mingles with the sound of chainsaws on the breeze. And the quince trees are in bloom.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

Monday, April 09, 2012

Obedience and its discontents

Having spent nearly thirty years in what is often known as 'second-chance adult education', though sometimes I wondered about whether the nominal first chance ever really existed, Suzanne Moore's column rang a bell. She wrote,
I just hated school. Education policy is made by those who loved it, and this is a fundamental mistake. People who never regarded school as a moronic prison full of inane rules should not be in charge of them. This is why, instead of looking to the future, the current fashion in education is to look only backwards. 
Of course Moore was an adult returner herself. I wonder if she had a tutor who dished out the same big speech that I used to give to those often brilliant school failures that turned up to my classes. All of them had fragile self-confidence when it came to education; so I used to point out to them that failure was an intelligent response to schools, that they reward conformism rather than talent and that only the unimaginative do well. Maybe someone did, it may also have been a convenient excuse, or perhaps it is just screamingly obvious as you begin to succeed despite all those institutions having done their best to tell you that you were worthless, but she certainly thinks the same, writing here that,
Intelligence, the ability to connect and create ideas, the so-called thinking outside the box – these things are hardly likely when the box itself is idolised.
Though it was a good device for dealing with insecurities, it is a bit of a truism. All organisations require a degree of conformism to function. I know some great teachers who worked in tough areas and all would emphasise the importance of a functioning, structured institution to enabling kids to achieve. What then matters is less the matter of conformism, but the quality and nature of the institution to which people are asked to conform. Football fans will have had the perfect example this weekend. Scholes or Balotelli?

But this still leaves us with a problem, just where are those institutions that harness talent and foster creativity? And even more so, how are they to survive the bureaucratic stranglehold and funding regimes that constrict modern education as tightly as an Edwardian corset? Because now we are looking at the forward march of managerialism, the triumph of jargon-laden orthodoxy and self-perpetuating power structures. Everywhere there is a demand for subservience and the idea of management as a process of command and obedience is ubiquitous. Not only that, in a class society that is becoming more rigid, limited economic mobility is only realistically possible through a narrow conformism.

The sheer mediocrity of the managerial elites demands the same of us all. It certainly infects politics. Moore again:
Our political class is indeed the pinnacle of smug regurgitation. Many are the products of the very best education, and what do they desire? Only to replicate what they know, not to transform the world. As our access to information widens, our education system could open up. Instead, it narrows itself to certainties that anyone with half a brain would have questioned a long time ago. Go to school, get a good job, don't ask what it's for. Freedom does not come from thinking by rote. Whatever they tell you.
So now I look back on a teaching career slowly coming towards its end, a career record unblemished by a single promotion, and comfort myself that it is is only dull conformists who climb the ladder. That is my excuse. And I'm sticking to it.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Back to Greece

I flew in to Volos last Sunday before promptly falling victim to a stomach bug and I am only just regaining normality. And the scene in Volos city centre when I arrived was certainly normal. Warm spring sunshine, the Argonafton bustling, the restaurants full.

The crisis? People still enjoy themselves and, though austerity is casting its net widely, we are not all in it together. Funny how this is the one net where the bigger the fish, the easier it is to wriggle free.

A retired pharmacist brought economics back to the headlines in Athens by blowing his brains out near the national parliament building. And Jon Henley's reflections on the suicide highlight the impact of austerity on living standards.

Certainly, many Greeks are in desperate straits. In its fifth straight year of recession, Greece has seen its GDP shrink by a crushing 17%. Unemployment currently stands at 21%. Wages have fallen by a third since 2009 and are set to slide a further 15% in the next three years. Pensions, as Christoulas dramatically demonstrated, have been slashed.
The austerity measures imposed by the IMF and EU as a condition of Greece's successive bailouts have seen one in 11 people in greater Athens reduced to using soup kitchens daily, stocks of half the country's most prescribed medicines running out.
On my trip I met a secondary school teacher whose pay, which stood at €1,200 a month in 2010 and was cut to €850 last year, is set to fall to €600 from next month (his rent and bills remain €400), and a child psychologist who has not been paid at all since December; she and her two small sons have had to move in with her mother.
Whilst policy makers seem to ignore the architecture of monetary union, others are certainly raising the question of the future of the Euro. This year's Wolfson Prize for economics is being awarded on the basis of the best plan to break up the Eurozone. In a profile by Zoe Williams, the BBC economics editor, Stephanie Flanders, put the significance of the Euro crisis succinctly:
It's more than a disaster, I think it's a tragedy. It was quite an ambitious project, which had pros and cons, but it was basically mis-sold to everybody. So the Germans were sold it as a way of spreading a German approach to economics, and German stability, across the eurozone; but they were told that it would come without any obligations on them, there would be no bailouts. At the same time, the others were told this was a quick ticket to German stability, and they would get low interest rates and low inflation, and they weren't told: there's one catch – you have to be as competitive as Germany for ever. And if you do have any problems, all the usual tools you'd use to get out of them won't be available to you. For many of these countries, the implication is years more austerity, which has a big sign on it saying, 'Brought to you by the euro.'
I suppose the clearest message against economic orthodoxy, even more poignant given Christoulas' suicide, came from South Korea. I have often argued that individual human liberty cannot be extended to its fullest in anything other than conditions of the maximum possible security.  Ha-Joon Chang makes the same point, but implicitly asks what the point of an economy is in the first place. If it is to make people happy, then we are on the wrong road.
The sad tale of my country should serve as a salutary warning to Britain and other European countries that are embarking on major cuts to welfare. They believe that such cuts will reduce budget deficits and make their economies more productive by making people compete more vigorously. However, the Korean story shows that insecurity actually makes people less, not more, productive, and also desperately unhappy. Surely, that is not what they want.

And finally ...

The bit that took me most by surprise was reading that Stephanie Flanders is the daughter of Michael Flanders, one half of the comic song partnership, Flanders and Swann. You will have to be of a certain age to remember them, but they were part of the background music of my childhood. So to continue with the Greek theme, what better to finish on than with their version of To Kokoraki.