Monday, December 28, 2009


The weather's changed.

Still lots of warm sun and magnificent views though.

Sorry Mike.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The days of the kingfishers

Not from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor'd middle age, nor victories of politics or war;
But as life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky,
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

From Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

The unseasonably warm weather continues here as Britain freezes. These are halcyon days - a phrase, like so many, whose origins lie in Ancient Greek mythology.

They are named after Alcyone, who was the daughter of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. She fell in love and married Ceyx, King of Trachis and son of the evening star. Greek gods were not benign, all-merciful beings, they were arbitrary and capricious tyrants. Alcyone and Ceyx had angered Zeus by comparing themselves to Hera and Zeus himself and so, in a fit of temper, he drowned Ceyx at sea by throwing a thunderbolt at his ship as he was travelling to consult an oracle. His body was washed ashore and discovered by Alcyone who, overcome by grief, first performed the rites of burial and then threw herself into the sea to join her beloved in death. Deeply moved, the gods relented and turned Alcyone and Ceyx into kingfishers. Every December, around the winter solstice, the winds are supposed to cease and still, calm weather prevails as the kingfishers lay their eggs - Αλκυονίδες ημέρες, kingfisher days.

The soft winter warmth gives a sense of calm and peace, but Whitman got his seasons wrong. Halcyon days are not autumnal. They are not a moment of self-satisfied reflection at the end of life. They are a time of rebirth in the depths of winter, of a new life being forged and a reminder of the glories of summer to come - a cause for celebration. And today, for me, they are also a time of gratitude, for feeling incredibly lucky, as well as insufferably smug, about the fact that I am not shivering in a bitterly cold Manchester, even if I have to return there in around a week's time.

Sunday cat blogging

When you put bread out for the birds you might be setting up prey for the local cats. This one cuts out the middleman and just eats the bread.

He has a friend that visits as well - not one with the same vegetarian tendencies though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

No ... no

Some time ago the Observer gave away the DVD of the 1984 David Lynch sci-fi epic, Dune. They described it as a cult classic. I watched it tonight. The plot is excruciating, the script is terrible, characterisation is negligible, the dialogue is stilted, the acting is awful, and really plumbs the depths when Sting emerges in a homo-erotic pose wearing nothing but a smirk and a pair of tin underpants; it is a messianic, fascistic mess. I feel stunned. I need a drink - I really need a drink.

Scepticism, blogging and science

One of the features of the blogosphere at the moment is the sound and fury being devoted to the topic of climate change. Much of it is uninformed by even a vague smattering of scientific knowledge. A lack of expertise is seldom a barrier to a fervently-held opinion, but this excellent post by Daniel Loxton gives a good guide to what can be reliably tackled by a non-specialist and, specifically, by a sceptic about climate change denial.

Loxton outlines four different scenarios and the contributions a lay person can make in discussing science.
1) Where both scientific domain expertise and expert consensus exist, skeptics are (at best) straight science journalists. We can report the consensus, communicate findings in their proper context — and that’s it ...

2) Where scientific domain expertise exists, but not consensus, we can report that a controversy exists — but we cannot resolve it.

3) Where scientific domain expertise and consensus exist, but also a denier movement or pseudoscientific fringe, skeptics can finally roll up their sleeves and get to work. ... But note that there are two distinct components to critiquing fringe movements: knowledge of pseudoscience (our own area of domain expertise); and knowledge of the contrasting body of actual scientific literature — a literature on which we are not typically expert.

4) Where a paranormal or pseudoscientific topic has enthusiasts but no legitimate experts, skeptics may perform original research, advance new theories, and publish in the skeptical press.
Though the focus is on scepticism, as a general guide to talking sense from a number of perspectives this is admirable and it is worth reading his arguments in full.

Fine art

Two perfect presents yesterday:

First, Sandor Marai's The Rebels.

Second, a Petroula Kostidou calendar.

And I learnt a new proverb;

Ο μουσαφίρις και το ψάρι την τρίτη μέρα βρομάνε

This translates as, 'the visitor and the fish begin to smell on the third day'.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ho, ho, ho

Happy Christmas to all who pass by.

More seasonal naffness in Greek here

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A day of rain

It is quiet, every sound is amplified. The dying log fire is crackling, inevitably a dog barks, roof timbers creak and the wind, which brought first rain and then cooler air after the temperature reached 16C this morning, is whipping up the sea at the front, setting the roar of the waves breaking against the paraleia as the soundtrack to a misty night.

Tonight I cooked a classic Greek dish, simple and bursting with flavour, pork and celeriac stew with egg and lemon sauce, and then started to re-read a very odd and insightful reinterpretation of the history of modern ideas by the late American Historian Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, subtitled Progress and its Critics. I hadn't picked it up for more than ten years. I am a slow reader and this is a long, questioning book with strengths and flaws. It will last me some time. I will post on some themes in due course.

But now it is time to settle, a small glass of wine in hand, and enjoy the soundscape of a rural Greek winter's night.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oranges and lemons

A tiny orange tree that was inherited with the house has grown and this winter it produced its first fruit. I peeled it, smelt the heady aroma, bit into a segment and ... eek! It is a bitter orange not a sweet eating one. Another one to add to my collection of sour citrus, to go with the Bergamot and the lemon, both of which are heavily laden. Marmalade anyone?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Off again

Light posting ahoy as I escape to Greece tomorrow for Christmas. So to tide you over, here is a musical interlude.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Automatic ethics

The Guardian has found something else to worry about. Robots. Robot rights to be precise.
But if the robot was designed to have human-like capacities that might incidentally give rise to consciousness, we would have a good reason to think that it really was conscious. At that point, the movement for robot rights would begin.
Discriminate, discriminate:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In the pink

Terry has alerted me to the latest piece by his formidable comrade, Lauryn Oates. It deals with the position taken by Code Pink, a Canadian feminist peace group, after a visit to Afghanistan to show solidarity with the women there. All was not as they thought.

"... the pink T-shirted women were surprised to learn the overwhelming majority of women do not support a withdrawal of foreign troops from their country."

So their decision?

"... Code Pink would stick to its position of calling for troop withdrawal."


At this point it would be easy to lay into them and their branch of feminist pacifism (actually, it would be enjoyable as well as easy), but I am not going to. People who think like this are not bad people. They are idealists, dreaming of a better world, a world free from oppression. It is just that the purity of their dream, their righteous anger and their heroic self-image trumps reality every time. And this is the way that good people can do evil in the world.

I think back to Oskar Schindler. He was a crook. He saved over a thousand people from the Holocaust precisely because his skills were perfectly suited to the organised criminality of the Third Reich. There are times we need crooks with a conscience.

And so in an imperfect world we aren't always helped by dreams of perfection. We need imperfect action for imperfect, though hugely preferable, ends. And as for those people who scrap and cajole, who argue relentlessly to try and win support for those actions, I reckon they are heroes in their own way too.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Apocalypse now

Each time I pass into the zone, I feel that I have entered an unreal world. In the dead zone, the silence of the villages, roads, and woods seem to tell something at me....something that I strain to hear....something that attracts and repels me both at the same time. It is divinely eerie - like stepping into that Salvador Dali painting with the dripping clocks.
This comes from an astonishing photo essay by a Ukrainian woman, Elena ("Good girls go to heaven. Bad ones go to hell. And girls on fast bikes go anywhere they want"), of her motorbike rides around the dead zone of Chernobyl. Make sure that you click all the way through. Stunning.

With many, many thanks to Will the Blogless

Monday, December 07, 2009

Stout and out

I love my body, I love my fat, I love all ... why not?
The first Miss Fat Gay Venezuela contest. Full report and super video here.
"We all have rights, gays and fat people as much as anyone."

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Festive joy

This and many more from Sketchy Santas.

Via Mick Hartley

Popular education

Two of the great instruments of popular education in this country, adult education and public libraries, are at risk. I have written much on adult education, but there is a similar undermining of the library service, both through cuts and the insidious growth of managerial gobbledygook. I mean, how can anyone have faith in a "modernisation review" of the library service that produces such nebulous, glossy jargon as "Empower, Inform, Enrich"? The document, for some reason, includes an essay by the managing director of Starbucks UK asking, "Can libraries learn anything from the coffee shop experience?"* Rachel Cooke in the Observer is scathing. It is worth reading this earlier piece of hers too.

I get the sense that an anxiety about being seen to be modern, leading to obsessions with fashionable notions such as the digital age or the knowledge economy, is obscuring the importance of a commitment to the old-fashioned and intrinsically simple notion of accessible popular education, itself fulfilling a human need and establishing a human right. Then again it does help relegate the importance of an embarrassing, politically inconvenient public commitment in an age of neoliberal political economy.

* My answer would be I bloody well hope not. I refer to the expertise of the man who sells the Big Issue outside Oxford Road Station. Last week he was disappointed that one of his customers had given him Starbucks vouchers for Christmas. "I won't go in the place", he said, "the coffee is overpriced mud. Use the Cornerhouse, you get a lovely latte in there".

Sunday cat blogging

This mighty mog is the latest obstacle to the reunification of Cyprus. A national struggle between Greeks and Turks over cats has broken out.

The cats in question are the "Aphrodite giants", a beautiful, extremely large and gentle-natured creature, and the equally attractive St Helena breed. Unsurprisingly, the Cypriot Feline Society (CFS) is attempting to register the breeds as national cats, but allegations have emerged of a plot to claim the cats for the Turkish north of the country, depriving Greek Cypriots of breeds that have begun to win prizes abroad.

The CFS fears that Turkish Cypriots are keen on cross-breeding the Aphrodite and the St Helena with a Turkish cat and registering the new breeds as Turkish.
I wonder what the cat thinks?

Saturday, December 05, 2009


The right wing assault on climate science continues. The argument has a commonplace structure. Take one small piece of evidence, misconstrue it and then build a whole narrative edifice on the misinterpretation, claiming it as proof positive, whilst leaving the originators baffled, struggling to know how to respond.

This is a pretty standard technique for constructing a false argument, has a resonance in popular culture as it is a mainstay of thriller writing, and it certainly isn't confined to the political right. The troubling aspect for me is the way it is being reported in news broadcasts. Unlike Murdoch's Fox News, which allows opinionated star presenters to rant and rave regardless of fact, British news broadcasts are supposed to be balanced. And what worries me is that this notion of balance seems to divorce reporting from the foundation of good journalism, research.

Rather than investigate and present the findings of that investigation, the style used is to take an accusation from whatever source and present it, often in the style of an advocate, to someone who disagrees and elicit a brief response. Either that or they stage a three minute debate between two people of opposite views, regardless of their credibility, and call the process balanced reporting. Often, it seems that the broadcaster's research team has read little more than competing press releases. In the reporting of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia, I have yet to hear evidence that anyone has bothered to read and analyse them. Climate scientists' lack of expertise in PR has been exposed, throwing them on the defensive, and only now are they belatedly trying to catch up.

So where is the authoritative research? How is balance served by treating fact and fiction as equivalents and truth to be simply a mater of opinion? It isn't as if the truth isn't out there and easily available. The person who put this video together probably had a bit too much fun making it, but it clearly and accessibly deals with the claims in a way that I have never seen on broadcast news.

All of this is not to deny that there is a deeply polarised debate. But it is political, social and economic. Material changes in our environment are forcing us to ask serious questions about how we respond and the nature of the world in which we wish to live, not just about the technology we use. It is a vital debate and by wandering off into the byways of denial, the right is excluding itself. In a perverse way I find that rather gratifying.

Video via here

Friday, December 04, 2009

A heavy cold...

...means light posting. Especially when your brain feels like this:

Friday, November 27, 2009


After the crowds that prayed for a miracle cure from bits of a dead nun comes a new source of hope; the underside of a Polish dog.

There might be a new religion in this. What would Jack say?

Hat tipped to Kev

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Yet more cuts

More grim news about adult education has just dropped into my inbox from the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning (CALL). There will be £240 million of "efficiency savings" (what a disgusting euphemism that is) taken from the FE adult education budget in 2010/2011.

And how about this gem:
Funding has been shifted away from education provided in response to adult learner demands towards employer responsive training.
In plain English this means that you will not be allowed to learn what you want, only what employers want you to learn (in reality, what the government thinks that employers want you to learn). This is an unequivocal restatement of the abandonment of the historic mission of adult education, its roots in the labour movement and the working class autodidact tradition, and the idea of a continuing, liberal, life-enhancing education. Instead, learning is only permitted to be about work, and not even about what you need to improve your working life (like knowledge of legal employment rights) or change your career. No, it is only supposed to provide what employers want you to know so that you are more useful to them.

I get a combined sense of weary resignation and intense anger when I read this stuff. However, it was this article by Robert Skidelsky that put the whole dismal affair into perspective. The article deals with the failure of Keynes' prediction that there would come a time that we would have sufficient to live a good life, aspire to possess no more and the working week would drop to around 15 hours. Of course, Skidelsky doesn't mention that the reason why we continue to work longer is less to do with the social aspects of work or the continuing desire for more goodies, but because we bloody have to unless you hit it lucky with the chance of early retirement (phew!). However, Keynes also had a pessimism about a leisure society, one not shared by all his contemporaries.
He writes: "It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional economy."
This horribly snobbish sentiment does have a grain of truth lurking in it that a leisure society needs leisure activities, and not just the mind numbing ones that I am about to open and switch on. Skidelsky, with a similar scant regard for popular pleasures, wrings his hands in Buntingesque misery at our collective failure:
Finding the means to nourish the fading "associations or duties or ties" that are so essential for individuals to flourish is the unsolved problem of the developed world...
Well one of the solutions was the joy of learning - skills, crafts, art, literature, history, philosophy, language, music, dance, drama, the list goes on and on. It was called adult education, and, you know what is happening now, we are killing it.

Revolutionary criminality

It is good to know that the forces of the state who actively protected us from, er, "leftwing bookshops" have such a firm grip on reality.

Taking a leak

One of the topics I used to teach in my last job was a short course on clear thinking. It was about how political arguments are constructed and how we fall prey to rhetorical tricks and false logic. I used a variety of examples, mainly drawn from contemporary campaigns, the media and, especially, from conspiracy theories. One of the most common of these is a process that concentrates all attention on a single small item and thereby exaggerates its significance. The item can be real, misinterpreted and/or taken out of context, or even downright fictitious. However, the use of this single, small point is then extended to question a conceptual whole. By fixating on a piece of minutiae, it is possible to distract someone from the mass of evidence pointing the other way.

This way of thinking is central to a whole range of conspiracy theories, and admirably suited to the mindset of obsessives, but one of the most common places you can run across it is if you study miscarriages of justice. One piece of evidence, such as a dodgy forensic test or, more frequently, a confession under duress (and note how one confession outweighs hundreds of denials even after it has been withdrawn) is used to obscure overwhelming evidence of innocence.

As a result of this interest of mine, my news feeds in recent days have been flooded with items about the hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The story even became a dismal item on Channel 4 News, whose news values seem to plummet daily, and was given the usual irritating John Humphries treatment on Radio 4's Today Programme. If you want to follow some of the debate there are two horrendously long threads at Real Climate.

I was going to write something as a non-scientist about the construction of the argument when I saw the perfect post and knew I couldn't do better. So go over to Carbon Fixated where all is revealed, Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment ‘thinking’. The next blockbuster for Dan Brown perhaps?


Saturday, November 21, 2009


I like history. I teach history. Like Shuggy, who knows far more about schools than I do, I think that changes to the primary curriculum, in History as elsewhere, are constructed from a particular strand of modern lunacy. I should be cheering Andrew Martin to the rafters. But then he starts his article with this:
Presumably Balls, who is highly educated, knows that the importation of a value word like "understanding" is a tactic associated with totalitarian regimes.
Hmm ... prison camps, yes; genocide, certainly; sworn obedience to a single leader, indeed. Understanding? Not too sure about that one myself.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Swinton were the first and last club to play Oldham at the Watersheddings ground. I was at the last match. I wasn't here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Good souls

Back in May Nick Cohen wrote a piece about seeing a performance of David Harrower's new translation of Bertold Brecht's play, The Good Soul of Szechuan, at the Young Vic. His line was that Brecht was "a communist writer, not a writer who happened to support communism", a political propagandist, and the play was there simply to say, "individual morality will only be possible when the collective morality of communism comes".

This week I saw the same translation beautifully performed in rep in the more humble surroundings of Manchester's Library Theatre. And did I see the play differently! I suppose you could read it the way Nick Cohen did, but I found that, rather than being didactic, the play was discursive, layered and complex. It is set amongst the underclass of an unjust society and the destructive effects of poverty were played out to the full and condemned. Yet this was a very un-heroic proletariat. The play, like so much Brecht, was about survival, this time amongst a 'low life' that clearly fascinated him.

The drama centres around the question of whether a bad society creates bad people or bad people create a bad society. It is about the possibility or impossibility of altruism. I found no conclusion. There is much more besides, with a range of existential dilemmas presenting themselves to the characters. Certainly the propagandist element was present, though only briefly and unconvincingly. At times virtue was punished and vice rewarded, at others it was reversed. And who were the three Gods who could find good only in the poor, never in the rich, but could still find only one virtuous person on earth? Whoever they were, they couldn't solve the conundrum so they made their excuses and left, abandoning humanity. There was no resolution. We were offered ambiguity rather than certainty.

That Brecht had been an apologist for Stalinism is well known, that he was a brute who insisted on being buried in a steel coffin with a stiletto through his heart is equally known. Neither are appealing. But his art stands, and did for me on Tuesday, because he asked questions, rather than provided answers, and used drama as a vehicle for depicting and discussing human imperfection. My answers were probably not the ones that he would have given.

I really can't make up my mind as to whether Brecht was too good a playwright to be a good Stalinist or too bad a Stalinist to be a bad playwright. And just as I was thinking that his picture of humanity was too bleak, I came back from the interval to find that someone had stolen my programme. Last word to Brecht I suggest.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Dark Ages

Richard Williams writes:
Is modern rugby union really such a terrible game, or is that just the way England make it look? ... Everybody knows that something is wrong, but nobody seems to know how to put it right.
There is a solution. It is called Rugby League.

That's it!

I've had it with Chavez now.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Understanding inequality

I have the sort of mind that likes organisation and categorisation, something that can bring clarity to arguments. This is the strength of a striking, though not original, essay on inequality by Göran Therborn, whose title certainly doesn't undersell its significance, The Killing Fields of Inequality.

His argument is that inequality is not an engine of growth, nor a natural feature of human societies, but a construct that is utterly dysfunctional, "destructive of human lives and of human societies" - "it is something that violates a moral norm of equality among human beings". Yes, ultimately his argument rests on a moral stance and, to my mind, this is welcome. Utility without ethics is the politics of, using Nye Bevan's cruel description of Hugh Gaitskell, the "desiccated calculating machine". Therborn uses a raft of utilitarian arguments, but there is no mistaking that he is writing about the real lives of real people and is angry.

The usefulness of his approach is that he differentiates between a number of arguments that are often conflated and confused. So, for example he deals with the distinction to be made between difference and inequality. The most important is that inequality can be abolished and, of course, the whole thrust of the essay is that it should be.

He divides inequality into three different types - vital inequality of life and health; existential inequality based on discrimination and status; and material inequality of wealth and resources, both in access to opportunities and in rewards. All are the product of clearly defined processes:
Inequality can be produced in four basic ways. First there is distantiation – some people are running ahead and/or others falling behind. Secondly there is the mechanism of exclusion – through which a barrier is erected making it impossible, or at least more difficult, for certain categories of people to access a good life. Thirdly, the institutions of hierarchy mean that societies and organisations are constituted as ladders, with some people perched on top and others below. Finally, there is exploitation, in which the riches of the rich derive from the toil and the subjection of the poor and the disadvantaged.
You can read the full article if you want to see how he elaborates on these themes and on the strategies involved in countering the effects of these processes. I would just like to make a few observations.

Firstly, he is attempting to show that the different types of inequality, such as inequality of opportunity and outcome, are not mutually exclusive phenomena that conflict, but are contingent upon each other and the products of the same processes. Secondly, I would extend that approach to argue that the often assumed choice between equality and liberty is a false one. The liberty of all is predicated on equality, something that was clearer to 19th Century libertarians than it appears to be to some of their 21st Century descendants. And finally, countering the insane rhetoric of the American right about Obama as "a socialist at the head of a gangster regime", he makes a telling point about social democracy:
...the recurrent success of the Nordic welfare states on a world capitalist list (with Finland on rung 6 and oil-rich Norway on 16 among 131 countries) certainly means that generous, relatively egalitarian welfare states should not be seen as utopias or protected enclaves, but as highly competitive participants in the world market. In other words, even within the parameters of global capitalism there are many degrees of freedom for radical social alternatives. And the literally lethal effects of inequality make searching for them imperative.
I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A responsibility to protect

Andrew Anthony, in a long and, at times, horrifying piece, recounts the experiences of Somaly Lun, a Cambodian survivor of the Khmer Rouge. It is worth reading in full. In particular I was struck by this,
In the midst of this revolutionary dystopia, one of the most difficult ideas for the teenager to accept was the thought that the world had abandoned Cambodia. "I kept thinking all the time, 'Why does no one come and rescue us?' We'd look up in the sky for the sign of a plane. Any little sound of gunfire got us excited – Somebody must have come! But it was just them killing somebody who had escaped, otherwise they wouldn't waste their bullets."
In the end it was the Vietnamese invasion and occupation that stopped the genocide. Tied up in Cold War politics, it was an action supported by many on the left who were to oppose subsequent Western interventions, whilst the Khmer Rouge continued to hold Cambodia's seat in the United Nations. Liberations are messy and imperfect, but after reading Somaly Lun's recollections of seeing her ten-year-old brother burned alive for taking a sweet potato who can doubt their necessity?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Greece leads the world

At least that is what Anthony Barnett and Mary Kaldor think in their gushing panegyric for the latest Papandreou to head the government of Greece. I thought their praise a little overdone until I read this,
We have direct experience of one small part of the learning process that lies behind Papandreou’s strategy. We have worked with many others in the ‘Symi Symposium’ that Papandreou initiated 12 years ago. Named after the Aegean island on which the first seminar was held, these informal workshops began as a joint initiative of the Andreas Papandreou and Olaf Palme institutes, as a way of exchanging views on the future of the left. Every year since then Papandreou has hosted these gatherings on a different Mediterranean island, bringing together leading global academics, activists and policy makers to debate how to achieve a better world.
Ah. I would be falling over myself to please anyone who would whisk me away to a Greek island every year to talk about what I like to talk about.

Cynicism aside, you have to wish success for a country that deserves better than what has been served up by successive governments. Welcome too is any attempt to lift European social democracy out of Third Way capitulation to the powerful, especially in the context of the twin assault of financial and ecological crises. I just wonder about how much we should place our hopes in an enlightened technocratic elite rather than the long hard work of building up social movements.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I have only been to two poetry readings in my life and both were by the same poet. Does this make me a groupie or a stalker even? More hopefully, a comrade and a friend.

The reading at Manchester University was so much grander than the one in Hull. Hull does cosy and bars, Manchester has theatres and plush, quality restaurants. Even without pre-lubrication in historic pubs, George read beautifully the complex beauty of his work. This time he was not alone. I was really taken by the Irish poet Vona Groake who shared the billing. Her latest collection aptly takes its name from the spray thrown up from the prow of a boat. As she read, each phrase was like time-lapse photography, a shimmering droplet rose and was let fall, a pause before the next glistened in view, crystallising thoughts, and then you glance down to the deck and, to your surprise and delight, there is a small pool of water, reflecting all around you.

Then the exquisite led on to the powerful, her translation and interpretation of the 18th Century Irish keen of a woman for her murdered husband, Lament for Art O'Leary. To my shame I had never heard of this before, though it is regarded as a great classic of Irish literature. As a document, it is a voice of an 18th Century woman, heard too seldom, and illustrative of the suppression of the Catholics of Ireland under English rule and the power of petty officials. As a work of art it is a wail of anguish, of anger and of desire - of thwarted passion and revenge. Rhythmically declaimed, it brought tears.

I am getting a taste for this, maybe I will go to more. Though the invitation to the free meal where I can brush against the skirts of fame will not be there and I will have to pay to get in. Now back to reading the lament.


I am just back from a weekend away where there was no Internet and no signal for a mobile phone, cut off with only with a few friends from the Over the Hill Club (don't ask). The ten mile hikes are now replaced by gentle strolls and the alcohol consumption is down as age creeps up.

This time we were in Staithes, a North Yorkshire coastal village where the Arctic wind from the North Sea seems unrelenting. In November it is bleak with steep hills to climb and beautiful enough in a bleak and hilly way. The village itself is different, claustrophobic, wedged between two cliffs and divided by a ravine. In contrast to the wide sweep of the North York Moors it has the feel of the close fishing communities that lived there. And, since the end of the 19th Century it had played a role in the visual arts, hosting the Staithes Group or Northern Impressionists, the most notable of whom was Laura Knight. Now, inevitably, the village is dominated by holiday lets, though some life remains. It is the story of coastal communities as tourism develops and we rush to the sea for relaxation, which is exactly what I was doing this weekend.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


The world gone mad one
Fat people are more likely to become criminals, and their very fatness may help shape their criminality. That's the conclusion reached by Professor Gregory N Price in a study called Obesity and Crime: Is There a Relationship? published in the journal Economics Letters.
The world gone mad two
This Friday Sky1 HD and world-renowned psychic medium Derek Acorah will attempt to make contact with Michael Jackson in two special shows, Michael Jackson: The Live Seance and Michael Jackson: The Search For His Spirit.

Prisons and the vote

Norm discusses the disenfranchisement of prisoners and wonders why those who advocate giving inmates the vote seem to rarely put forward a clear case. Leaving aside the notions that prisoners are still human beings and citizens and that there is often an arbitrary division between custodial and non-custodial sentences, I would make two observations in support of the enfranchisement of offenders drawn from my experience working in a lifelong learning department that provided higher education in prisons.

The first is that prisoners are directly and intimately affected by decisions of the state and thus should have a say in their own representation. This is not just as a result of penal policy either.

For example, in 1997 the new Labour government introduced a very welcome funded fee remission scheme for low income students in part-time higher education. The money was managed by the universities' hardship funds and allowed the allocation of fee support to offender learning in prisons. Then, for some unknown reason, the government switched the allocation of funding from universities to local authorities. This created the usual short-term muddle out of a perfectly good system, but it also had another consequence. Prisoners do not have a local authority to apply to for support. Thus a, possibly unintended, effect of the change was the ending of inmates' access to some educational programmes. Prisoners are not a fashionable cause and, crucially, they are not voters. It makes it easy to overlook their needs.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is the issue of prison as something other than a system of retribution. Giving rights to prisoners may have wider social benefits.

Our experience in Hull was that those who were involved in our courses had a far lower rate of re-offending than the national average. Academically, many were amongst our highest achievers, but I think there is more to it than that. One thing that engagement in education did was aid in a process of social re-integration. Social exclusion and political exclusion walk hand-in-hand. The exercise of political rights is one small part of citizenship, of inclusion. It is that very social inclusion that is a key element in preventing recidivism.

These utilitarian points aside, I also liked the impassioned speech given at last year's presentation night by the person who accepted the awards on behalf of our students who were otherwise detained. He said that, "whether we liked it or not, prisoners were part of our community". They are and I see no reason why they should be excluded from the rights and duties of citizenship whilst deprived of their liberty.


At least the row on the unutterably stupid government decision not to fund institutions for teaching students who are studying for a qualification at an equivalent or lower level (ELQ) to one they hold already is not going away judging by this report (see here, here, here, here, and here for just some of my previous posts on this).

The article is about the absurdity of being unable to retrain if life takes a different path, but the focus is still on taking 'second degrees'. Anyone concerned with lifelong learning would know that the worst damage was done to the university adult education sector as a whole and short courses in particular.

Perversely, the people losing out often had no qualifications at all. The reason is simple. If around 20%-30% of students become unfundable as they have previous qualifications, then programmes and departments are seen as non-viable without them, so they close or downsize, leaving the remaining 70%-80% of students with little or nothing. As Ian Ground wrote, it marks the loss of the great civic mission (pdf) of universities.

Friday, October 30, 2009


A calendar depicting pastoral scenes of Alpine life published to promote the beauties of Switzerland is causing a furore. Upright Swiss citizens have objected to the image conveyed by this typical mountain scene - a charming shepherdess with goats, dressed in suspenders (the shepherdess, not the goats - now that is a thought). You can understand why. The woman is German!


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lard for brains

I now have to admit that obesity does have an adverse effect on my blood pressure. This is nothing to do with my waistline, rather it is the result of reading articles like this by India Knight - a journalist with form.

All the tired old arguments are there, including this spectacular mixture of Madeleine Bunting style emoting with gratuitous abuse.
...overeating isn’t simply a question of being so greedy that you’re compelled to stuff your face all day. It’s to do with emotional states, unhappiness, anxiety and thinking about food as a friend and comforter rather than merely as useful fuel. So I can see, perhaps better than people who’ve only ever been thin, that this issue is about more than just incontinent lard-bucketry (although there’s that, too).
Then we have to endure usual guff about the cost of obesity to the NHS and, rather than face the fact that the greatest avoidable cause of poor health is poverty and thereby argue that it is necessary to end it, it is safer for a well-heeled columnist with a diet book to sell (please don't buy it) to attack fat people for their sins and moan about paying tax to pick up the burden of our gluttony. Oddly, the same sentiment isn't applied to booze.

Yet that was not what really got to me. Instead it was this breathtaking assertion that left me spitting feathers.
Abusing people is wrong, whether they are gay, straight, black, white, young, old or fat. But there’s only one group in that list that can physically do anything about the way they are. If they don’t feel like it, that’s fine — but enough of the whingeing. You gets your trolley and you makes your choice and then, because you’re a grown-up, you live with the consequences.
In other words, just like the women who asked for it because of the way they dress, abuse, prejudice and discrimination against us fatties is perfectly acceptable because it is really all our fault. What did you expect you slothful glutton? Mend your ways if you want to avoid the righteous wrath of the slim.

Anti-fat prejudice is not the worst thing in the world, but school bullies can still make fat kids' lives a misery, teachers and employers can fail to see your qualities and label you, body image can erode self confidence and it would be great not seeing a headline like this in the popular press. It is still the permissible prejudice of our times, increasingly remote from serious studies of physiology and epidemiology, locked into mediaeval concepts of sin and punishment and revelling in the joys of self-righteousness. And it is seriously bad for my health!

Thanks Will - I think

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Objet d'art

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats

It's amazing what you find when you move. This stunning object, beautifully crafted out of plastic with my name misspelt by the engraver on the small metal plaque, was awarded for the great achievement of running the line in the Central Manchester Sunday Football League Cup Final in season 1977/1978. It was presented by a very bored looking Mike Doyle.

The trophy has been languishing for many years in a dusty box in the attic. How could I have lived without it?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Six out of ten

I have just spotted that I am listed here. I may not be a barrel of laughs but I do get 'the "blog most likely to feature random John Cage performances" award'.

Who am I to disappoint my fans?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Managing the mail

One of my more frequent big speeches is about the dire quality of some management and its remoteness from, and ignorance of, the real work that we all have to do. This has been reinforced by a doctrine of managerialism that has de-democratised work, thereby empowering (and enriching) managers and elevating the curious notion that generic management skills are more important than any expertise in the industry or service to be managed. It would seem that appointing the chief executive of the Football Association to run the British postal service was an example of just such folly. I am not surprised that there is now a major industrial dispute and I know where my sympathies lie.

Then I get a short email from Will ordering me to read this from the London Review of Books. It is brilliant. You should all read it too. Here is the voice of reality, a picture of the world that ordinary workers inhabit, it is about day-to-day life experience, something that mangers can seldom even imagine. Though the article highlights something else as well - not ignorance but mendacity.
According to Royal Mail figures published in May, mail volume declined by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by a further 10 per cent this year ‘due to the recession and the continuing growth of electronic communications such as email’. Every postman knows these figures are false. If the figures are down, how come I can’t get my round done in under four hours any more? How come I can work up to five hours at a stretch without time for a sit-down or a tea break? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight I have to carry? How come something snapped in my back as I was climbing out of the shower, so that I fell to the floor and had to take a week off work?
He provides a simple answer:
Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. The mail is sorted from these boxes, put into pigeon-holes representing the separate walks, and from there carried over to the frames. This is what is called ‘internal sorting’ and it is the job of the full-timers, who come into work early to do it. In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains, decided on by national agreement between the management and the union. That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.

Doubting the accuracy of these numbers, the union ordered a random manual count to be undertaken over a two-week period in a number of offices across the region. Our office was one of them. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain only 150 letters, actually carry 267 items of mail. This, then, explains how the Royal Mail can say that the figures are down, although every postman knows that volume is up. The figures are down all right, but only because they have been manipulated.

Who can honestly say that they have never experienced lousy decisions justified by dodgy data? And this can easily be made to happen if the real knowledge of the people who actually do the job, and who are often closer to the customer, is discounted, dismissed and labelled with words such as 'dinosaur' and 'luddite' or with derogatory clichés such as, 'people just don't like change'.

I once worked for a very good manager (there really are some you know). Whenever anything had gone wrong he had a simple maxim; "don't worry, I have friends in low places". It would soon be fixed. He worked on the basis of respect for those who did the job and saw his role as co-ordination not command. It is very simple. Most of the people who work on the front line are not obstacles, they are experts. Their knowledge is far more valuable than the snake oil of management theory. The denigration of the workforce and the elevation of the great talents who brought us the credit crunch into superheroes is one of the more unlikely episodes in a class war, one being waged, increasingly successfully, against workers, rather than by them.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bad language

According to Peter Mandelson students are now "consumers of the higher education experience".

I despair.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hate crimes

News from London:
Overweight people in London have launched a campaign to make the capital more fat-friendly.
It comes after one woman was beaten up on a train for being fat.
Now read some of the comments ranging from the abusive, "Why don't fat people simply stop stuffing their pie-holes?"; the unthinking, "I wish the obese would accept that they have a problem and start doing something about it"; to the oh so caring and understanding liberals, who call for "compassion" (I think they're the worst).

It's a classic moral panic. As people become sensitised to the definition of fat people as a 'problem', then us fatties become the target of abuse, resentment, pseudo-psychological diagnoses, ludicrous newspaper columns and, worst of all, condescension.

I am a person of the rotund persuasion. It isn't a problem. People come in various shapes and sizes and it has been the same throughout history. We are different, all of us. We can be healthy, sickly, active, lazy; fat or thin, tall or short, dark or fair. And one day we will all die. It is life, simply that.

Now the attitudes of the playground bully are infecting the panic-struck media and reaching politicians in search of a cause. Let us be. Anti-fat sentiment is pretty trivial. It is a far cry from the murderous brutality of racism, there is no Action T4 seeking out the obese, these permissible prejudices are normally just an irritation and inconvenience. But this rare act of public violence, highlights the damage that can be done when we lose a sense of proportion and relapse from reality into panic. And the result elsewhere is many more victims, treated far worse than us plumps.

Hat tip Kev

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Common practice

The only other Nobel award to garner any kind of attention after Obama's Peace Prize was the shared prize in economics to Elinor Ostrom. What got the media excited was the fact that she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize in economics, rather than the work that was being rewarded. I was amused to hear her respond to a bizarre and faintly patronising interviewer on BBC Radio 4 with a polite, steely charm.

Her work is an answer to the conclusions drawn by Garrett Hardin in his influential 1968 article The Tragedy of the Commons (reproduced in pdf form here) that,
...the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.
Instead, Ostrom found that the very rational self interest that Hardin felt would lead to the ecological devastation of common property could, and did, result in communal and collective self-regulation and ecological conservation.

Her work is an interesting critique of a spectrum of thought from the Right Libertarian's advocacy of enclosed private property organised through market exchanges to the statist advocacy of wholly collective ownership. Instead, it is perfectly possible, under certain conditions and in conjunction with other models, for ecologically sustainable production to be maintained through communally owned common property.

There are many reasons why I find this attractive, but one is the relationship it has to my own field of adult education. The history of adult education is a fascinating one, it has always been a social movement and a cause, rather than merely a service. It's origins lie in radical movements, working class self-help, Victorian philanthropy and idealists in the universities. Government funding enabled it to grow and flourish in the post-war period. And then it became an expendable luxury. Funding was withdrawn and what remained was directed towards employment skills. The provision that generations had build up was lost. And so, once again, it is reinventing itself through self-organisation and collective action. What this has meant is the loss of a comprehensive and easily accessible system, the gain is in ownership and control. And, perhaps, permanence, as adult education becomes the common property of those who use it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Hull to Manchester

I'm here. When I started unpacking I found that I had a football programme from the 1970's autographed by Jimmy Hill. Well I never.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nearly there

My move from Hull finally takes place on Wednesday. I hate moving. I hoard. I have lived in the same house for more than thirteen years. I haven't thrown anything away for most of that time. I have now; mountains and mountains of stuff. When it is all over I will feel like this.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Banning pleasure

There was a really nice piece on Comment is Free (I don't type that often) about adult education by Sue Blackmore. Her attempt to do a sculpture evening course foundered on the funding regime that required accreditation with a formal syllabus expressed in learning outcomes. Hers is a classic restatement of what many of us have argued, that learning for the sake of it is both fun and useful. She concluded,
The best kind of learning is learning for its own sake – for the intrinsic reward of studying or learning a new skill. And that's all we oldies wanted to do – enjoy learning sculpture for a few weeks.
I like her sentiments, though regular readers of this blog might be surprised by the fact that I don't fully agree with her argument. There is no better or worse kind of learning. People can have mixed motives, instrumental and liberal, and either of them are fine. It depends what the student wants.

The first thing that struck me about her experience is that she was unlucky, her tutor was young. Us old lags know how to work the system to make the course fit the needs of the student, rather than the other way round. However, the mere fact that we need to do so, demonstrates that there is clearly something wrong with what is on offer.

Blackmore picks out a couple of things that irritated her. The first is the use of a syllabus with learning outcomes. Actually, it is important to have a syllabus, it shows that the tutor has thought about what is intended to be taught and has structured it well. A good scheme allows for flexibility and negotiation, the problem is if a syllabus is over-prescriptive. On the other hand, I have always been ambiguous about learning outcomes. In one sense they are positive in that they focus on what the student actually does, not just on what is taught. However, they can also be mechanistic, restrictive, and sometimes stupid and banal. It does depend how they are written. What I do know is that they can form the basis of endless and tedious debates about minutiae when you are trying to get your bloody courses approved. Written well and generically, they can be OK, but they provide ample opportunity for misuse.

The second thing she highlighted is the requirement of accreditation for funding. On this she misses the real issue. I have no problem with accreditation. A non-accredited course would have suited her, but not someone who wished to use their learning in another setting. She wanted to do some sculpture, someone else might have wanted to get into art college. An accredited class could easily allow both. However, this is the big problem. If doing the assessment for the accreditation is mandatory rather than voluntary, if the funding is dependent on the student completing the assessed work, then you start to exclude those who simply want to study for fun. And that process of driving out the non-vocational learner is a by-product of the instrumental neuroses of a government obsessed by dubious notions of the linkages between education and economics.

If a course is non-accredited it excludes people who need and want a qualification, if assessment is compulsory then it excludes those who want to study for the intrinsic pleasure of learning. The conclusion is obvious. The person who best knows what they want from a course is the student. Let them choose rather than force them down a path they do not want to go down and you will have a healthy, mixed group of people who are both having fun and studying seriously. And you know what, they both gain.

Tipping the topper to Will

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Hard times

Sometimes it is the way articles are juxtaposed that brings home the injustices of this world. Yesterday, there was this - Emin threatens to quit Britain over tax - another piece of celebrity whining. There you are, famous, successful and wildly rich and what do you do? Count your blessings? Be thankful that you live in a country that gave you the opportunity? No. You moan, grumble, wallow in self pity and feel hard done to.
"This Labour government has had no understanding for the arts," she told the Sunday Times. "At least in France their politicians have always understood the importance of culture and they have traditionally helped out artists with subsidy and some tax advantages."
Bloody hell, she is hardly starving in a garret is she? A few million tucked away and she wants a subsidy and a tax break?

There has been loads of comment on her in the press, little of it sympathetic to her plight, and I wouldn't have posted on the article if this piece had not been sitting next to it.
Benefit support for asylum seekers is to be cut from tomorrow to £5 a day – just over half of what the government says a person needs to live on, according to refugee welfare agencies.

The change means the weekly rate for a single asylum seeker over 25 who is destitute and asks for support will be reduced from £42.16 to £35.13 a week.
Do I need to say more?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A champion day

The Indian summer gave way to an Autumn chill, but it was one of the nicest days out in the Rugby League calendar, what is now called the Co-operative Championship Finals Day, the grand finals for the lower leagues. Three matches for the price of one is a good deal, though beyond the interest or attention span of many fans who just come to see their own club and use the other games to get pissed. Despite the vast amount of drink, it is an amiable, celebratory event and this time they produced dramatic games.

The crowd was up this year, but it wasn't the sell-out event that it was when promotion to Super League was on offer for the winners of the Championship. Mind you, though I still don't like it, there might be something to be said for a lack of automatic promotion this time round. The final between Halifax and Barrow was a compelling, close match. It marked the revival of two grand old clubs. Barrow's victory was impressive, coming the season after they were promoted from league one, and the club are ambitious. Are they ready for Super League though? I have my doubts, not that unreadiness deterred the RFL giving Celtic Crusaders a place last season.

My highlights of the day were: observing the vast capacity for alcohol of the average Halifax fan; seeing two victorious Bramley players, still in their kit, standing outside the stadium entrance having a fag after their victory as smoking is banned inside; and, finally, the barnstorming late try by the magnificently named Oldham forward, Wayne Kerr (what were his parents thinking?).

Friday, October 02, 2009

Sunny days

This seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do to The Sun.

The Labour Party has come over all peevish because Rupert Murdoch's tabloid has decided it isn't going to support Labour any more.

Perhaps a better question to ask is why an ideologically committed right-wing newspaper that worshipped Margaret Thatcher, and which comes from the same stable that gave Fox News to the USA, should find it so comfortable to support the Labour Party in the first place? Shouldn't Labour people should be more troubled by the Sun's backing than its opposition?

Meanwhile, Tories gather round the piano:

Thursday, October 01, 2009


I was expecting to be sad, I wasn't expecting to be so distressed. Retiring from Hull was always going to be difficult, it was such a big part of my life. I would never have looked for a deal at my age without the changes that are affecting adult education everywhere. And I have to admit that I wept, not just for me or because I was leaving my friends, but for that marvellous, life-enhancing, vitally necessary and shamefully betrayed world of adult education.

Its time will come again and even now it is resurrecting itself through all sorts of self-help and voluntary groups. Something so integral to being human, a human need as well as a human right, will always be a cause to be fought for, politically by egalitarians and radicals, and in ordinary ways by people who simply see it as something that they enjoy and that, in its own way, brings a form of liberation.

I will be grieving for some time, though today I started a new part-time job, ironically in a building that used to be an adult education college, which was also where I started my teaching career some twenty-seven years ago. Full circle.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ships and rats 2

Tomorrow is the last day before I take early retirement and desert the University of Hull. One more day in full employment, one more day in the company of my many friends in the Centre, one more day in my office - a former bedroom in a converted terrace house, looking out on some parking spaces and the trees that surround us, now filled with bare shelves and empty box files - just one more day.

It will be emotional; adult education is an emotional business, the stuff of dreams and fears, of changing lives. And tomorrow the emotions will be very mixed. I am distraught at leaving, upset that it is necessary, relieved to be starting out again and happily excited by the future.

I tried to find a suitably slick YouTube to mark the occasion, but instead settled on the this, Leaving Teaching, by the late Canadian poet George Johnston. It is beautiful, perceptive, and lyrical. He sees his retirement as a little death, a recognition of the sufficiency of life.

Sod that! Despite the temptation, I shall not "deteriorate amid bucolic dreams". Retiring is not about teaching my heart to die, but to live. Domestic happiness will be the basis for the revival of my restless energy. Life remains to be grabbed and so I will continue teaching part-time, start writing seriously and ignore the inevitable disintegration of age, holding to the conviction that I remain as gorgeous as any gilded youth. And for long spells I will go to Greece, sit under the vine or by the olive wood fire and be gloriously, sensuously alive. I may even continue to blog.

Nothing can break the friendships I made or my huge repect for the people of the City of Hull, some of whom drop by here. Leaving will be hard, arriving will be fun.

(Thanks to Aphroula for the link to the poem)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rats, ships etc

As the iceberg looms, this says much about the New Labour project:
Lord Mandelson has disclosed that he is ready to accept a job under a future Conservative government.
Oh yes, the 'big tent' with its ideological vacuum is great vehicle for personal ambition. Besides anyone who use a phrase like, "asset base" to describe his work experience should be barred from office on the basis of failing the fit and proper jargon test. Depressing.


One thing about moving is the way that you revisit your past as part of the process. And as I shift hundreds of books from Hull to Manchester, I see the people and places that are intertwined with them. I remember the houses where I first read them, the people who gave them to me or told me that I must read them. I think back to the times when I was a student and of the groups I have taught. Then there are those I have known who have written some of them, all remembered as I turn the pages and look at the spines before placing them in a cardboard box to be relocated to another set of shelves.

So, together with Norm, I despair of the endless 'death of the book' guff that infects the media. And when he points out that the reason for the persistence of bookshelves is not exhibitionism but utility, I would add that they are also a map of your life. Books are objects of emotional attachment; of love, friendship, interest and irritation - and sometimes guilt - 'I will get around to reading it one day' will probably be my dying words.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sometimes ...

...there are moments. I was with friends from work and Dennis. We pretended we were having a meal out for my birthday, but we all knew it was because I am going away. And he had painted me a picture - semi abstract and swirling, snake like. He had named it, "a bookworm". I know what it meant and I know that wherever I am, for the rest of my days, that painting will be there, surrounded by books. A reminder, not just of Dennis, but of the power of adult education; a life saved and a life well lived.

An icy chill

With my retirement and move coming up horrifyingly quickly, I have little time to do anything but to re-post any good things I see. And this is good; a top photographer engages with global warming through dramatic photography of the retreat of glaciers.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

An ageing plump

Another year older today so before going out for a birthday meal I though I would post something touching and sentimental. I know Karen will like it.