Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Phew, what a scorcher

The sun has come out. The temperature was 28 degrees Centigrade in Hull today. It even crept over 30 down South. It is wonderful and pleasantly warm. But there is nothing like the weather to panic the British. An official heatwave is likely to be announced. I didn't know there was such a thing. Apparently it triggers a government heatwave plan with lots of useful advice:

It says homeowners can stay cool by painting their houses white and planting shrubs for shade ... Other tips include identifying the coolest room in the house.

It is forecast to rain on Thursday.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Norm has linked to this collection of photographs of gorgeous libraries, oozing with grandeur. I am going to add a more humble one from the corner of Greece where my house is.

The village of Milies in Pelion has a library with a long history linking it to the Greek Enlightenment (Διαφωτισμός), the movement that provided the intellectual foundations of the revolution against Ottoman rule. It even holds 15th Century editions of Aristotle and Aristophanes.

You can explore their web site, but I posted this as an example of the importance of smaller collections, often acting as instruments of popular education, as well as the large, prestigious buildings emanating power.

Two that I have used regularly developed out of private collections that sprung from a determination to record movements for social change. The Working Class Movement Library in Salford is a spectacular collection of material from the late 18th Century onwards. The best source for the history of anarchism in 19th Century Britain is the Max Nettlau papers held amongst other amazing archives at The International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.

Neither are in spectacular buildings, an old fire station and a converted warehouse, yet they are two of the most exciting places I have visited. The full glory of the library lies in its contents, and sometimes, as with these examples, their own history.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A sense of proportion

Germaine Greer on a dead pop singer. First Dionysos, then Orpheus and, finally, "the royal ballets of Europe":
Nijinsky may have been the greatest Spectre de la Rose, Nureyev the greatest Corsair, but these two candles pale in the light of Jackson's blazing star. The surprise is not that we have lost him, but that we ever had him at all.
Please tell me that column was a figment of my imagination ... please, please...

New beginnings ...

...and a few farewells. I will soon cease to be a fat bloke in Hull - no I'm not on a diet, I am taking early retirement. Regular readers will have an inkling about some of the reasons why. So I will be a fat bloke in Manchester, and, as much as possible, in Greece from the beginning of October. Scary, but fun.

(All offers of part-time work will be gratefully received).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Troika night

Wine and curry are the perfect combination for stirring the entrepreneurial spirit. Deciding that L Ron Hubbard got it right - "If you want to get rich, you start a religion" - last night the three of us invented one based on magnesium. Oh well, back to the day job. Less wine next time, methinks.

Specially for Karen, she's been to Australia three times you know.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Clarity and confusion

Norm has dealt with the content of Peter Beaumont’s article in Sunday’s Observer perfectly adequately. Instead of going over the same ground, I want to comment on the structure of Beaumont's argument, as it is a classic example of a technique used in making a dubious argument. The trick that he is playing is simple. He is asserting that the truth lies between two extremes. It sounds eminently reasonable and studiously moderate. It portrays the opposition as being simplistically polarised; allowing wordy, meandering equivocations to appear to be an intelligent expression of complexity. The problem is that this may not be where the truth lies. Let’s see how he sets about it.

Firstly, under the banner headline, “The urge to split the world into two warring camps is childish”, he splits the debate on foreign policy into two warring camps; the anti-imperialist “remnants of the old left”, opposed to interventions, and a coalition of liberals and neo-conservatives who promote them. It is an over-simplification that makes it conveniently easier to claim a reasonable sounding middle ground.

The reality is somewhat different. Anti-imperialists are joined by traditional conservatives, opposed to the intervention in the internal affairs of other countries in principle, sympathisers with Jihadi Islamism, the BNP, Greens and a multitude of deranged conspiracy theorists. The interventionist camp actually includes many other old leftists (mind you some used to call themselves the New Left. Have the new become old after all those years? Perhaps they should be the middle-aged left). For these, the support for democracy, human rights, equality, etc., are indivisible. Thus they tend to favour some interventions, though certainly not all.

And it is this indivisibility that is the key. I despair at the number of times I have heard it said that ‘the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle’. If you are opposed to stoning women to death for adultery, there is no middle position. A more nuanced stoning does not exist.

Beaumont proceeds to describe the position of the interventionist camp thus,
The unifying conviction that has glued this group together has been an almost religious belief in the transformative power that western democratic habits possess when transplanted into societies and cultures that have experienced largely restricted freedoms
Another rhetorical trick; it is far easier to attack a fictitious position than a real one, so best to invent one.

No, what the coalition he depicts as interventionist argue is that when the people of a country resist tyranny, we should support them, when they call for equal rights for women, we should stand in solidarity with them, when they call for an end to regimes built on arbitrary murder and torture, we should do what we can to aid them. This isn’t an ‘almost religious belief’ in the power of democracy. It is a moral and political choice to stand with the oppressed against oppressors and support the democratic aspirations of others. Where then is the balanced middle ground?

None of this belittles the immense difficulties of transformation and change and the real dilemmas about how best to support and assist, but it certainly does not suggest that a commitment to a better world needs diluting with relativist mush.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The funeral

It was a Manchester June day, not cold, but a brisk breeze drove dark clouds across a grey sky. When patches of blue appeared, they lacked any confidence in their ability to be blue, preferring a shy, pale bashfulness. There is a tight schedule, one group spills out, tearful, blinking at the light, whilst another hearse queues patiently.

As we wait, the previous service ends, black clad families emerge from the chapel, the young men with shaven heads, one sporting a neo-nazi arm band, the menace subdued by the democracy of death. And then it is our turn. Old familiar faces, friends who you are pleased to see after many years, an Irish priest delivers an inappropriate service for an atheist. Finally, the curtains close and grief is inescapable. Now to the pub, memories, laughter and stories. So many stories. So much laughter.

And of all the memories of Denis, laughter predominates. I am hugely grateful to have known and worked with him. A multitude of infuriating faults and dubious personal hygiene were overwhelmed by anarchic humour, profound kindness and an abundant array of catch phrases. He was a marvellous, entertaining tutor, but I have to wonder whether he would have survived had he been starting a career in education today, with its mechanistic, prosaic instrumentalism and grinding bureaucracy. Denis was not typical, yet he worked in a system where he was possible. That is the big difference. A world without spontaneity, idiosyncrasy and creativity is an impoverished one. Just as his friends have lost Denis, so education is in danger of losing its soul.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


The THE reports growing unease about the wonderful merger of education with business through the creation of Peter Mandelson's new fiefdom, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

It certainly has produced some odd-looking ministerial portfolios. This one has some logic to it, though with chilling undertones: "Lord Drayson keeps his post as Science Minister but adds responsibility for research and procurement in the Ministry of Defence." Kevin Brennan will combine Further Education, skills and apprenticeships with consumer affairs. But the most surprising is Lord Young, who adds to his previous job as Minister for Students, responsibility for the Post Office and Royal Mail.

Who said men can't multi-task?

(Thanks to Ian)

A passion for learning

David Blunkett, who promoted the Green Paper on Lifelong Learning, The Learning Age in 1998, and who himself was a beneficiary of adult education, has joined the fray with a cautious, though explicit, criticism of government policy.
Education can transform lives. It fosters dignity, confidence and capability - and investing in it makes sense for individuals and for the health (economic and physical) of the nation.
He even thinks it is more likely to help you stop smoking.

Then there is this interesting line, "But the bigger challenge facing the new department is to trust people to make their own decisions about what they need to learn".

At any level? Because the government has effectively barred people from studying for an equivalent or lower qualification than one they hold already, a crazy policy that has wreaked havoc with university lifelong learning departments. Is Blunkett coming out against it?

I would like to think so, but one little fact nags away at me. When the proposal was debated in the Commons, he voted with the government. Ah... Party loyalty trumps principle and sense every time.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Give them back

It looks stunning and opens on Saturday. It is the new Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Those of us who know and love Greece will recognise this from Stephen Moss' preview.
"Forgive me, it is crazy," says Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, president of the Organisation for the Construction ... "We told the construction company about this a year ago," he says, as we pass a group of workmen who are adjusting cables, "and they leave it until the week before the opening."
It will be ready.

What will be missing though are the sections of the Parthenon sculptures sitting in the British Museum. They will be replaced by plaster casts of the originals. Removed by Lord Elgin in the early 19th Century in controversial circumstances and acquired by the museum in 1816, surely it is now time that they were returned.

See here as well


Thanks to this blog, news has just reached me of the death of my old friend and colleague Denis Keating. We had lost touch, but a mutual friend searched and found me on the internet. Denis was the person who christened me "Plump" and we shared an office together at the old College of Adult Education until it closed. He was a brilliant, supportive and totally bizarre friend. And as one of the people who was a central part of a formative and happy period of my life, he has never been forgotten; a big character, with deep reserves of kindness and decency, and even deeper ones of bullshit.

So where do you start with Denis? There are too many stories. To give you a flavour of the man, this is something I wrote a few years back for the newsletter of the Galatea Trust, an organisation that promotes therapeutic environments.
The College could not have been a better building in which to work. It was modern, well equipped and purpose built for adult education. However, within this smart, comfortable environment there remained a small corner of squalor. Denis's office. When Denis and I finally shared a room it was a partnership made in hell. I have never been the tidiest of people and Denis was certainly not the most domesticated. He never used a handkerchief. Instead he blew his nose on a large shabby towel which lay in a crumpled heap on a corner of his desk. I never saw it changed in the eight years I worked there. When the place closed we found one of his past meals under a pile of handouts, dried, shrivelled and welded to the plate. This was in keeping with the mould encrusted coffee cups balanced precariously on the radiator and the all pervading smell of his pipe. The cleaners had long since abandoned any hope of anything but the most perfunctory vacuuming. Not only that but we covered the walls with photographs with satirical captions and then Denis indulged his passion for American Studies by plastering the wall with memorabilia. Unfortunately this consisted mainly of chocolate bar wrappers and other forms of packaging. Thus we sat in splendour. Tatty, dirty and with a collection of American litter bluetacked onto the surroundings. The office did not fit the definition of a therapeutic environment. The students loved it. It was always full.

Denis is one of the finest adult educators with whom I have worked. But it was not just this that brought in the people, nor was it a craving for passive smoking. They liked the office. Why on earth should this be so? At first the answer seemed simple. We justified our appalling habits by claiming they were a device whereby we removed the barriers of pomposity and showed that education could indeed be for all. As one student memorably wrote in my leaving card from my subsequent job: "Thank you for showing us that a bad example can still make a living". It may have been squalid but it was fun.
Of course there is more to it than that, something much more subversive, the office wasn't boring (though we did have a cardboard boreometer on the wall - don't ask) and boredom is a tool of oppression. What is odd is that I am really quite fastidious. The office was funny and Denis made laugh - every day - so I went along with it.

I can't resist another story. Denis had the most noxious, poisonous farts of any man on earth. They seemed to roll down his trouser legs, seep out and hang heavy, close to the ground, like a carpet of mustard gas. They were foul. He could always see me coming into work from the office window, so, on occasions, he would wait until I started climbing the stairs then he would let rip, walk out and shut the door. I would open up to be greeted with an appalling stench. But he had more imagination than to leave it at that. He would walk down to the coffee bar, find the most attractive young female student he could see and say to her, "Peter would like a word in the office". As I stood there cursing the unique strain of bacteria that could produce something so gut-wrenchingly awful, the student would walk in, slowly turn green and try not to mention the obvious.

"Those were the days when we used to work nights", that was one of his catchphrases. But they were the days, the ones before bureaucracy, normality and suffocating respectability set in to tame the anarchic and the creative forces that make education fun. An old and, in many ways, better world is dying. And underneath the boisterousness, there was a seriousness, a commitment to adult education and, as a former mature student himself, a contempt for the demeaning pomposity that wrote off working class people. At heart, he was an idealist with an instinctive socialism bred from experience. It is just that it was expressed in rather odd ways.

As an adult educator Denis touched many lives (in more ways than one!), as a colleague he certainly affected mine. I hate the fact that I hadn't seen him for years and I loved the man. Tonight I feel bereft.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


"We kill nothing, we live on the land, we never rob nature. Yet governments always want more. We are warning the world that our people will die."
John Vidal writes here about the economic and environmental war being waged against indigenous peoples, a war scarcely visible in the catalogue of contemporary global conflicts. He quotes Victor Menotti, director of the California-based International Forum on Globalisation, as saying,
"This is a paradigm war taking place from the arctic to tropical forests. Wherever you find indigenous peoples you will find resource conflicts. It is a battle between the industrial and indigenous world views."
This description is tinged with the ecological romanticism of the Green activist, though the plight of indigenous people is only too real. In fact, there is nothing unique about their position. It is the same as that of the many others who have faced dispossession throughout history, whether Native Americans or Scottish Highlanders. Their problem is that they happen to own what others, far more powerful than them, want and intend to acquire, regardless of the devastation caused.

The way in which indigenous people view the natural resources under threat is indeed different to the governments and corporations desperately seeking to exploit new resources. However, the difference in perceptions is down to more than a different way of seeing the world, rather it is a product of the utility of the environment to their survival. It is about the ownership and control of their own resources. In this sense we are not witnessing a "paradigm war". This is a war for the collective and cultural survival of those deemed expendable.

And it is for a model of progress that does not include genocide.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

Doomed I tell ye

I know that the results are distorted by abstentionism and by the peripheral nature of European elections in the public consciousness, but whichever way you look at it, it's a disaster. There will be reams of guff all over the place, so I will just add a gentle reminder about my own special interest. Giving one million four hundred thousand voters a very good reason not to vote Labour by ending their adult education classes won't go down as a master stroke of tactical genius.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Sweet and sour

After Sugar comes this.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has been merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Together they will form a new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, whose key role will be to build Britain’s capabilities to compete in the global economy. The new department will be headed by Business Secretary Lord Mandelson.

So that's what they think universities are for is it? To be the servants of business. And, what is more, to be administered by a government department that has neither the word 'university' nor 'education' in its title, headed by an unelected politician whose presence hardly reflects a renewal of ethical standards in a disgraced Parliament.

And where have all the dreamers gone? Where are those who love learning, who value it for what it is, regardless of its economic purpose? Where are the believers in education as a force for nurturing imagination and artistic expression, from The Pitmen Painters to El Sistema (now also being piloted in Scotland)? And where are those, deeply rooted in the labour movement, who saw education as not only a tool of individual enlightenment, but also as a force for collective liberation? Not in today's Labour government, that's for sure.

A Labour government. Really? From where I sit now, it seems that any resemblance to a Labour government, living or dead, is purely coincidental. I am revising my opinions, Norm could be right. It might be time.

Sugaring the pill

"Enterprise tsar"?
If there was a market in mass-produced portable nuclear weapons, we'd market them, too

Words fail me.

Well informed readers will have spotted the deliberate mistake. The C5 was the classic failure of Clive Sinclair, not Alan Sugar. Oh well... It's a pretty picture, it can stay there.

Gaining ground

In this post, I referred to a great article by Ian Ground in Adults Learning about the demise of University Lifelong Learning. It is now available on line. You can read it here, and you should.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

On the eve of the polls

We live in strange times. A brooding discontent has morphed into disillusion and melodrama all because of fiddled expenses. The result is that political debate has moved from the realm of the banal into that of the surreal.

Norm might be mystified, but I am downright confused. Even he had me scratching my head at one point. He took Shuggy to task for not favouring an early general election, yet the proposal would bring out the Sergeant Wilson in me, asking, "D'you think that's wise sir?". Norm wants a Labour government and hopes for a better one, as, despite everything, do I. I respect his principles and the coherence of his argument, but the tactics? Suicide has never been high on my list of reliable methods of retaining power.

I am totally bewildered by Polly "this is the best government Britain has ever had" Toynbee - calling for both Alan Johnson (my local MP with whom I have had the odd interesting exchange on adult education) as leader and a vote for the Liberal Democrats.

As for getting rid of Brown, it would seem obvious that someone who manifestly cannot do the job should be removed. However, this is the paradox of any organisation. We invest leaders, managers, etc. with vast decision making powers, regardless of whether they prove themselves to be complete idiots or not. Then, however reluctantly, we obediently go along with decisions that we think are totally wrong, purely because they have been made by someone inept for whom we have no respect, but who holds an office that we would like to remove them from. Then try getting rid of them and you find it is nigh on impossible. I fail to see the rationality in this.

And, obviously, the question of replacements arises. Who would be elected? Who will be the new leader? What sort of democratic renewal would an election bring? Ah... The eager and ambitious bunch waiting in the wings don't look that impressive to me. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. We are talking of political laxatives here, that is all.

The discussion around reforming institutions and practice in the wake of the collapse of our complacency about British democracy is important. Yet it is ultimately vacuous as something is missing - political economy. And it is missing at the time of an economic crisis that is of far greater significance than the cost of moat cleaning. Democratic renewal is not about choices of parties but of ideas. Institutions and practice are a vehicle for their advancement. We have had thirty years of elite consensus around neo-liberal assumptions. The mainstream challenge should come from social democracy, its agent should be the Labour Party. Come back ideology, all is forgiven.


Norm replies here. The main difference between us seems to boil down to the fact that I prefer the probability of defeat later over the certainty of it now.