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.