Monday, March 30, 2009


Is this all we have to worry about?

Home Secretary Jaqui Smith is not impressed with her husband, Richard Timney.
A close friend of Smith's said Timney would be "sleeping on the sofa for a while. To say she's angry with her husband is an understatement".
He'll need those films then.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Swinton in the Spring

The sun shone brightly today though the air still chilled. Rather than freeze in the stand we took our places on the terraces opposite to be in the sun. Watching from lower down gives a different impression of the game. It seems faster, more immediate, more personal - especially if the touch judge is as good at giving back the abuse hurled at him by disgruntled spectators.

The visitors were Keighley who had impressed by beating Oldham the previous week. Swinton cut them apart. Playing glorious running rugby they swept to a 20-0 lead in only fifteen minutes. Too good to be true? This is Swinton; of course it was.

Keighley started to recover, improved dramatically and kept pressing. With ten minutes to go they had levelled the scores at 28-28. A dramatic comeback was on. But it was to be Swinton who snatched the winning try after picking up a dropped ball and then securing the lead with a penalty in front of the posts to scrape home 36-28.

Great entertainment. It confirmed my sense that, at the moment, it is the Championship that is delivering the most entertaining football, rather than Super League. The quality may not be as high, but it is fun to watch. For Swinton, with a nice blend of youth and experience, there is optimism. Could this be a promotion year at long last? Next season it might just be Toulouse in the Spring.

(Thanks to Peter Green for the photo)

Saturday, March 28, 2009


My newspaper has made for strange reading this morning. Marina Hyde takes on one of the easiest targets, celebrity self-importance with its attraction to charlatan mystics and messianic political missions ("Hi, I'm Richard Gere, ... and I'm speaking for the entire world ..."). The cumulative impact of this catalogue of narcissistic lunacy is deeply tedious.

Then, David Owen, of all people, talks of political leaders' "hubris syndrome", which he sees as an illness manifesting itself through,
  • A narcissistic propensity to see one's world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory
  • A disproportionate concern with image and presentation
  • A messianic manner
  • Excessive confidence in own judgment and contempt for advice
  • Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on omnipotence
  • A belief that one is accountable solely to history or god
  • Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation
  • Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness
To be fair, Owen admits to a tendency to it himself before listing his main British Prime Ministerial candidates - Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The theory is in a paper co-written with Jonathan Davidson of Duke University, North Carolina, who gets little of the glory.

Of course this is saying nothing new. It was a phenomenon known to the Ancients and here is Bakunin writing in 1867:
Is there not something in all that to make a man lose his head and his heart as well, and become mad with pride? It is thus that power and the habit of command become for even the most intelligent and virtuous men, a source of aberration, both intellectual and moral.
Finally, as if to prove the point in the most chilling way possible, up pops the grisly personification of the cloning of Rupert Murdoch with Benito Mussolini, Silvio Berlusconi, with a new unified right wing party, called, with deadly irony, "Freedom People".

So where does this leave us Enlightenment types with our dreams of a rational world? How do we hold to our ideals when faced by such an awesome display of dubious mental health? Do we despair? It is so tempting, but there is much else besides, a popular instinct for justice and morality*, a relapse into reason all the more powerful for its low visibility. There is an egalitarian antidote. Another world is possible; at the moment, I just worry about whether it is probable.

*Via TG

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Inequality and authoritarianism

If you are a strange sort of person, like myself, who spends a fair amount of time reading 19th Century Anarchist texts, you will recognise a recurring theme that sees human progress as a product of liberty and social regression as being the consequence of authority. It is an assertion that cannot be proved, rather it is an article of faith.

However, there now seems to be some hard, empirical evidence in its favour, gathering by John Crace's review of a study of the epidemiology of inequality by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Though the authors concentrate on economic inequality, I was interested in this extract of the review on hierarchy.
When monkeys are kept in a hierarchical environment, those at the bottom self-medicate with more cocaine; a caste gap opens in the performance of Hindu children when they have to announce their caste before exams; the stress hormone, cortisol, rises most when people face the evaluation of others; and so on. The result is always the same: fear of falling foul of the wealth gap gets under everyone's skin by making them anxious about their status.
It seems to me this is more than simply a critique of material inequalities, but also of interrelated power structures. I was thinking about this when Will sent me a reference to this paper by Hugo Radice. Sadly, his scholarly comparison of the management of British universities with Stalinism is hidden behind a subscription screen and my institution does not subscribe to the journal, so I haven't read the original. Times Higher Education has a sketch report here and there is a thoughtful post on the article by Mark Harrison here.

Historical analogies are rarely helpful and Harrison, though broadly sympathetic, points out the real differences, especially this one:
The big difference was this: I had no barbed wire. With a few coils around the campus, I could have blocked off the exits. I'd have had to give guns and spotlights to the security staff. If I could have stopped my professors from leaving, I would have been able to do things to them that would lower their welfare, and they would have had to accept it. They would have grumbled, and then conspired against me, and I would have needed a political police within the department to listen, detect, and report it to me. I'd soon put a stop to that. Forced labour would be next. But I had no barbed wire. If they didn't like the pay or conditions on offer, and could do better elsewhere, my colleagues would leave. Other universities that could use their talents more productively would make them a better offer, and I would have to match it or lose them. Without barbed wire, I could not accumulate personal power by treating others badly; I could get my way only through reliance on positive motivations.
Of course some institutions do treat people badly, though not quite on the scale of Stalin. However, as a study of managerialism and bureaucratisation, the paper reflects on the lack of democratic structures inherent in a managerialist approach to running, in this case, universities. A similar piece could be written on many other public and private sector organisations. All operate their own scaled down "Pyramid of Tyranny".

And what Wilkinson and Pickett's study points to is that the inequality inherent in hierarchy is unhealthy and unsuccessful. You can listen to the authors interviewed about it here. They emphasise that inequality results in a decline of trust, reciprocity and community life, or as Kropotkin would have it, mutual aid. I would take this analysis further and suggest that if we are to have a successful and healthy public sector, we not only need to question the distribution of wealth, but also deal with the distribution of power and how it is exercised, especially in our day-to-day working environments.

New Labour placed great store in a form of Fabian managerialism, enthusiastically setting themselves targets as much as they imposed them on others. The discontents registered by Radice point to the dysfunctions of such an approach. Rather than transparency and efficiency, they certainly led to well-documented failures attributed to target chasing, but perhaps there was something more intangible happening as well, the erosion of the sense of common purpose and ethics on which the public sector depends. Those 19th Century Anarchists may just have been on to something.

Monday, March 23, 2009


There are times when my critical faculties hit a brick wall of incomprehension. I suppose this is pure Guardian - from Joseph Fritzl to Iraq via Hitler, Fred West, Pol Pot and Attila the Hun, combined with a sense that it is somehow all our fault. I really need help understanding this conclusion:
America's picture of itself as inviolable was shredded on 9/11, and for a moment the world's most powerful nation was flayed. Just as its solution to the agony of vulnerability was to attack Afghanistan and Iraq, so the solution to the presence of monsters in our midst is to rid ourselves both of them and any identity with them. They become the receptacle for everything that is bad, and in casting it away we can believe that we are good enough and once again in charge.
What on earth does this mean? The subheading to the piece says that "We cast evildoers such as Fritzl as bogeymen to spare ourselves any moral self-examination". I thought that it was because imprisoning and serially raping your daughter in a specially constructed cellar over a 24 year period might just be described as both abnormal and utterly wicked. How foolishly simplistic of me, I am obviously in need of therapy to uncover my moral complicity.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Whilst I lament the loss of pubs, let's not forget how much of a social institution the evening class is. Doing an adult education course is about more than learning, it is a way of meeting people and making friends. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard it described as 'a lifeline'. Another part of our civic society is in decline.

Now, after the reductions elsewhere, universities are reporting cutbacks to their adult education provision; for example here, here and here.

This week I was talking to a student who is now doing a degree after taking a number of courses, including some of our Trade Union modules. He said he wouldn't have gone to university if he hadn't decided one day, on a whim, to take an evening course in holiday Spanish. The irony - and the ignorance.

Add public libraries to the list

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The road to surfdom

Terry Glavin on surfing for peace in Gaza - and skateboarding in Kabul. Fun instead of fundamentalism; good stuff.

Synergize intuitive functionalities

And complete other vital tasks in the workplace. Impress your managers, write important reports and win promotion with this wonderful web tool. Grow out-of-the-box eyeballs. Indeed.

Ta Will

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hate speech

Could you name any other group of people that could be the acceptable target of language like this in the mainstream press?
You have to hit people where it hurts most, which in the case of fat people is in their wallets, because literally hitting them (fun though it is) doesn't hurt them at all, what with their being so fat.

What we have to do is tax fat people directly. I admit that this is a form of head tax (or rather, in this case, an arse tax) of the kind that has led to all sorts of social unrest in the past, but don't worry: fat people are far too lazy to riot.
It is an old game, but try replacing 'fat people' with the words like 'Jews', 'blacks' or 'gays' and then you can see how vile and hateful this language is. I have nothing but contempt for this type of ignorant playground prejudice masquerading as journalism.

Via the Trots

Monday, March 16, 2009

In praise of pubs

Tristram Hunt brings an historical perspective to bear on the latest suggestion to end binge drinking, a minimum price for booze as suggested by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson. This is not the first time he has raised the idea of higher alcohol prices and it was he who first mooted the smoking ban and has talked up the issue of obesity. His is the most prominent voice of moral puritanism to speak in the name of public health.

What Hunt does is to point out that proscribing popular pleasures has historically been a bitterly resented failure. And so he turns to Hogarth and his famous engravings of Gin Lane and Beer Street. Beer and the alehouse was the way that people were saved from the ravages of gin. The solution lies in pubs. He writes:

For some 500 years now, alehouses have played a pivotal role within British public life. But now pubs are closing at the rate of 40 a week and we are haplessly bearing witness to an extraordinary process of cultural self-immolation...

So what we really want from the Chief Medical Officer is not a one-size-fits-all tax on alcohol (which the Government is already suggesting it will not support) but specific policies to encourage more people to drink more beer in more pubs. That is called working with the grain, or yeast, of history.

Now that is a health policy I could live with. And it is worth looking at that Hogarth image again. People quaffing ale, the pawn shop closed, everyone prosperous, happy, healthy and, Liam Donaldson please note, fat.

The Zythophile is not impressed by Donaldson either - via

Revenge is sweet

Interesting news; Merseyside and North Yorkshire local authority pension funds are to sue RBS and the now infamous pensioner Fred Goodwin. The Times reports:
Cherie Blair has been hired by two local authority funds to seek compensation for the “massive losses” incurred when RBS was bailed out and the share price collapsed.

They claim that on multiple occasions RBS and Sir Fred, its former chief executive, “falsely reassured” investors that the bank was in good health when it was “effectively insolvent” because of bad loans.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A dispatch from the front

The news from the world of adult education is unremittingly bleak. Amongst the tales of cutbacks and closures, a request to sign a petition to protest about the ending of Manchester University's adult education courses for the public has reached me, whilst Baroque in Hackney has posted eloquently on the loss of City University's poetry workshops.

In the meantime, Times Higher Education has an account of the CALL lobby of Parliament. It doesn't make particularly good reading, not least because the MP who had put down an early day motion supporting the campaign has disassociated himself from the THE report. The booing and apparent discomfort of the minister, John Denham gave me some malicious pleasure, especially after his throwaway derogatory remark about "holiday Spanish". However, this was embarrassing:
Mr Denham attempted to answer whether the Government could truly claim its spending priority was education, or whether the Iraq War and the multibillion-pound bailout of the UK banking sector took precedence.
I am sorry, this is a crass piece of linkage. Even the most ardent supporter of adult education couldn't argue for giving priority to poetry classes over rebuilding Iraq and dealing with the global economic meltdown. Anyway, this crushingly disappointing policy is less about total funding than its distribution, emanating from a particular educational philosophy, the concentration on a narrow vocational agenda.

Peter Kingston makes the case far better in his Guardian report of the lobby, highlighting David Blunkett's powerful advocacy of adult learning and summing up government policy perfectly.
Labour's proposition is that courses - daytime or evening - that are more about addressing people's curiosity or desire for self-fulfilment than making them employable should get less assistance from the exchequer.
Of course this representation of adult education provision as being divided between deserving and undeserving learners is a crude pastiche of reality where no such neat division exists. The perfect example of the power of intellectual curiosity as an engine for social mobility is to be found in Geoff Bratley-Kendall's life story, brought to my attention by the former Labour MP and adult educator, Harry Barnes. Geoff's journey from the pit to FE teaching is worth reading about in full and this struck me as absolutely right.
He learnt that education does not have to happen at a particular time in one's life. He had seen the regular tapping of unknown talents. He saw the strength of educational provision which started out on a voluntary basis, where those studying did not have to be present if they weren't interested.
He also traced the decline of adult education to 1992, but the crisis has much longer roots back to the early years of the Thatcher administration. I started working in it in 1982 and since then there has scarcely been a year when I have not been dealing with cuts and insecurity. My old College of Adult Education in Manchester closed in 1990 and since then the gloom has been only occasionally illuminated by hopes that proved to be groundless. The situation now, though, is the worst I have known.

As a career choice, this wouldn't have been the best if it hadn't been for the people I have met and taught along the way, with their humbling and inspiring life stories. They were always the ones who kept me going and I would not have missed the wonderful privilege of working with them for anything. But now, at a time like this, the sense of disappointment is palpable. And for the new generation thinking of taking that nerve-wracking first step back into education later in life the opportunities of genuine lifelong learning are slowly being removed.

And as the government stubbornly refuses to listen, the patient's condition is becoming critical. I fear that we are on the brink of completely losing something special, something that should be a source of pride and something that is a mark of a civilised society. These are bleak times indeed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Thanks to Will for directing me to this rather nice piece in praise of the Internet, drawn from an interview with Stephen Fry for BBC Radio 4, which will be broadcast this Thursday. You will be able to download a podcast here.

There is nothing exceptional in it, just some general sense directed against the doom mongers and hysterics who feel that the Internet marks the end of civilisation as we know it. I really liked this analogy:
But the internet is a city and, like any great city, it has monumental libraries and theatres and museums and places in which you can learn and pick up information and there are facilities for you that are astounding - specialised museums, not just general ones.

But there are also slums and there are red light districts and there are really sleazy areas where you wouldn't want your children wandering alone...

And I think people must understand that about the internet - it is a new city, it's a virtual city and there will be parts of it of course that they dislike, but you don't pull down London because it's got a red light district.
And as someone who has gone on record here about my preference for email, I also appreciated this:
It's a literary form in the most basic sense that you're writing and it's rather wonderful. The phone will be seen, I think, as a terrible aberration.
Last night I was with a part-time student giving some guidance on an essay he was writing. We searched the library catalogue, printed off a reading list, found a couple of good articles and then emailed an essay structure to his computer at home without leaving my office. I thought, "isn't the Internet wonderful", and for a part-time student with a family and busy working life it is a godsend. It is like all technologies, it is popular and growing for one reason and one reason alone. It is damn useful.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Women's lib

Fish in a barrel I know, but the Catholic Church's attempt to embrace gender equality is hardly impressive even by their standards.
As International Women’s Day is celebrated, the Vatican had a novel message for the women of the world: give thanks for the washing machine. This humble domestic appliance had done more for the women’s liberation movement than the contraceptive pill or working outside the home, said the the official Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano.
Yes, it was divinely ordained that women have to wash all men's undies in perpetuity. Careers, independence, freedom from violence, social and economic equality? Nah, washing machines.

The article is entitled, “The washing machine and the emancipation of women: put in the powder, close the lid and relax - then shag the postman, open a can of Special Brew and smoke a few fags”. I made the last bit up.

It is a piece of lousy research anyway; they forgot to mention the vacuum cleaner.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thoughts on Orwell

Terry Glavin has linked to an interesting, though rather oblique, review of Orwell's essays by Julian Barnes in the New York Review of Books. Barnes focuses his review around a critique of Orwell's status as a 'national treasure'. It couldn't be a more appropriate time to do this when his last novel, 1984, has just been identified as the book that most people lie about having read in order to impress their friends.

Barnes names three necessary qualities for 'treasuredom' and it is the second that raises the most questions;
An element of malleability and interpretability. The malleability allows the writer to be given a more appealing, if not entirely untruthful, image; the interpretability means that we can find in him or her more or less whatever we require.
Can his writing really be described as malleable? One of the things that surprises me is the number of unlikely people who claim Orwell as an intellectual hero. He has, of course, become an icon of Eustonians because of his anti-totalitarianism, though some of them might be uncomfortable with the fact that the reason he went to fight in Spain was not to uphold the right to free speech but to "kill fascists". The most curious admirers though are libertarian conservatives.

I think that Orwell's appeal to them rests on two features drawn from his later novels. Just as anti-Americans borrow his description in 1984 of Britain as Airstrip One, libertarians see the novel as a working out of Hayek's view of the evolution of totalitarianism from war-time planning. Neither interpretation would have appealed to Orwell who was a firm supporter of the post-war Labour Government and certainly knew whose side he was on in the Cold War. However, it is probably his anti-Communism that appeals most to the right. I am not sure that they should be quite so admiring.

I have always thought that Animal Farm was his finest novel. It is a bitter satire on Stalinism certainly, but what is less frequently noted is that the book is also implicitly anti-capitalist. The only time the animals are happy is during the immediate period of the liberation when they have seized the farm from Mr Jones. The one threat that could bring the animals back into line is "you don't want Jones back". The novel is pro-revolution and its pathos and bitterness comes from its betrayal. The ultimate is the end of the book when the animals cannot distinguish the pigs from the humans. They had become the same - not worse - the same.

Even Orwell's evocation of a patriotic Englishness is not a wholly sympathetic one. If there is one thing that permeates his writing it is a sense of disgust. And here Englishness is a failing that disgusts as much as it is a quality that charms. It blinds us to crisis, hides us from truth and smothers us with complacency.
And then England--southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth's surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen--all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
Orwell is a savage writer; angry, discontented and bitter. His plainness of style is not a folksy anti-intellectualism, it is a method of critical thinking. He is not a comfortable English nationalist, nor is he a liberal anti-Communist. To understand him properly is to take him at his word, and not about whether or not he shot an elephant.
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.
"As I understand it", this is the key. His understanding was underpinned by a tetchy discontent and a discomfort with orthodoxy. He is disconcerting and that is why he is still worth reading and why he should never be romanticised. He was a serious and, at times, uncomfortable writer, not a prophet, even less a guru.

Economics exam

Question 1.

In December 2005 I took out a loan of £4,000 to buy a car. Base rates were 4.5% and the APR for the loan was 6.93%. If I was to take out a £4,000 loan today from the same bank now that base rates have dropped to 0.5% I would pay an APR of 17.9%.

Explain without resorting to foul language and incitement to violence (very hard I know).

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Stink bomb - sex bomb

Here is the headline of the day:
How the smell of rotten eggs makes men randy
Scientists take eight transsexuals and a whiff of hydrogen sulphide to begin making an alternative to Viagra
Whatever turns you on I suppose. Can't say it does much for me.

Monday, March 02, 2009

This sporting life

Sundays are not serious days. Once they had been wrested from the moral disapproval of the religious they became days of pleasure, or at least days for watching Swinton.

So this Sunday marked my first visit to the splendidly set and poorly signposted new Doncaster ground for a lunchtime kick off in the Northern Rail Cup. Arriving late after getting lost and walking a fair distance to the stadium, the turnstiles would not let us in as they could not take cash. I had to dash round to the ticket office on the other side of the ground to buy tickets and then return to the entrance - all for a crowd of less than 700. We missed the first try and it was actually scored by Swinton as they rushed into an early lead before going down to another encouraging defeat to a higher division team. It was a smashing match with some sparkling rugby and some less than sparkling errors that cost Swinton dear.

Then it was back to watch a recording of the Carling Cup final only to find the recording had finished just before the end of extra time. This left me avoiding contact with the outside world so that I did not know the result of the penalties before the highlights were shown late at night. (Any of you old enough to remember that classic Likely Lads episode?)

At least the World Club Championship between the British and Australian Rugby League champions recorded properly. Previous games have been marred as contests because the Australians have not tried. This time it was spoilt because they did. The gulf between Australia and Britain was manifest and the game was over just after half-time, only late consolation Leeds tries gave the score an aura of respectability.

A good day none the less and one when the first signs of spring were in the air. No, Sundays are not meant for sombre self-denial.