Friday, March 30, 2012

Today is ...

... National Cleavage Day. In the true spirit of equal opportunities, I think that us blokes should be allowed to join in too.

Lest we forget

"Bradford Spring"? A sick joke.

Two nice places

The sun shone on Hull as I was there for a couple of days this week, seeing old friends and missing many more whom I would have loved to have seen.

Not all was well. As the Hull Daily Mail reports, a major adult education programme, the one I used to run, is facing closure. One of our students commented,
"I passionately believe the university and the chances it can offer should be for everybody, not just for the few."
She is right and all the staff thought likewise. I shared quite a few drinks last night with some very able, committed and downright frustrated people.

Even with this poignant loss, Hull is still a lovely place. And it is beginning to flaunt itself a bit.  When I first went there it marked its heritage with the fish pavement - a set of plaques in the pavement with engravings of fish on them to lead people on a guided walk around the sites of the old fishing industry. Now there are iconic buildings such as The Deep, innovative ones like ARC, the Museums Quarter and recently the promotion of Philip Larkin, with a fine statue at the station and slate plates with some verses of his poetry set in the station concourse. This last is rather ironic; if Hull now celebrates Larkin, Larkin did anything but celebrate Hull.

The great virtue of the beautification of the city is that it has not been accompanied by gentrification. The place remains resolutely down-to-earth and a joy to visit.

And tomorrow I am on my way to Greece again, where the problems facing Hull are nothing as to the economic crisis there. Yet, in contrast to the apocalyptic reportage with their projection of Mad Max scenarios around the streets of Athens, Jon Henley continues to tell of the consequent growth of social solidarity in the face of adversity, rather than the social breakdown being predicted by the dystopian pessimists.
There is, among many Greeks, still intense anger at what they are living through, as well as almost complete disillusionment with politicians, not to say politics. But in Choupis's words, many are "moving beyond anger": instead of lashing out, coming together.
In Volos, a waiter in the taverna by the ferry terminal, told me that "in the years of cheap money and easy credit, we just lost sight of what matters, you know? It's sad that it's taken a crisis to do it, but we're rediscovering our values."
Watch his video report here.

All of which suggests that Thomas Hobbes is not always the best guide to human behaviour, even if the outcome of the crisis is far from clear. And nice places remain nice places, despite the worst efforts of unimpressive governing elites to try and ruin them.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Three on Greece

First up is a longish piece in the London Review of Books. It has carries the stamp of LRB fashionable pesimism, although there is, of course, much to be pessimistic about. John Marakis looks at the political causes of the Greek crisis, laments the loss of sovereignty and charts the impact of austerity being imposed by the 'troika' of lenders. With elections looming he concludes:
A coalition of the same parties in parliament rubber-stamps the measures the troika demands while proposing to compete for a ‘fresh mandate’ in elections planned for April. Recent opinion polls show that more than 60 per cent of the electorate wish a plague on both their houses. The choice could hardly be less appealing: vote for the same crew, or don’t vote at all – an incitement to violence if ever there was one.
Then here comes the optimists, this in a review in the Financial Times of a new documentary by two young Greek film makers, Krisis. They are absolutely clear about the social impact of the crisis, but then they see some hope.
“There is not a single conversation I had with a person who didn’t see the bright side,” said Katsaounis. “Greece has been through a lot of shit. Compared to the second world war, the civil war, the dictatorship, this is a bump in the road.” 
Finally, the realists.  Simon Johnson and Daron Acemoglu write about the impact of the partial Greek default on the financial system and reckon that it has been minimal. They conclude that the all-pervading apocalyptic prognosis of total financial collapse which would be the result of any policy that didn't impoverish the Greek people to avoid default was not analysis, but special pleading by those who stood to lose as a consequence of their bad investments. And this capture of the policy making elites by the financial ones is deemed to be one of the reasons why the EU leaders have "mismanaged their way into a deep crisis".  They conclude,
The Greek default has turned out to be the proverbial dog that didn’t bark. The lesson for Europe – and for the US – is clear: it is time to stop listening to what banks say, and start focusing on what they do. We must re-evaluate the distorted political economy of the financial sector, before the excessive power of the few imposes even larger costs on everyone else.
All three are worth reading in full.

Choosing to learn

What annoys me about the new system for funding higher education in England is not so much the proposals themselves, regressive though they are, it is the hysterical misconceptions of some of the opposition. The latest is in the line is this piece, which says that:
"Student choice is a myth, and a dangerous one at that."
His tortuous argument concludes with this decidedly strange statement:
... the emphasis on student choice is actually immoral. It loads upon immature participants (note the assumption of immaturity - all students are not young and not all young students are immature) all the responsibility and risks of making the wrong choice, a choice that is hard to unravel once made. Surely it is the academic community that should take the responsibility for ensuring that whatever and wherever a student wishes to study (er, isn't this a choice?), they will receive a worthwhile higher education.
What world is he living in? The best people to tell you if a course is crap or not are the students. They are quite capable of judgement. Should it really be this mythical 'academic community' that directs the poor innocents and tells them that what they think is piss poor is actually the best that can possibly be dreamt up by these fine minds? And hasn't he noticed that universities have always been in a market, which might explain why they spend so much on big marketing departments? Every time an applicant fills in a UCAS form, they are making a choice. Every course with options invites students to make a choice. Student choice is, and has always been, integral to higher education.

Of course total customer sovereignty would be crazy - after all, customers are frequently wrong - but so is an authoritarian diktat. The best education has always been a mutualist exchange. Yet he hits the nail on the head when he writes about the risk of making a wrong choice, before moving on to continue bludgeoning his thumb.

Because this is where the real damage is being done, second chance learning. You cannot prevent people making a choice that is wrong for them at the time, or one that may turn out to have been wrong later in life. But by removing teaching grant and putting the full burden of funding on fees alone, the cost threshold for returning to do something different has been raised for those who find themselves ineligible for government loan funding, whilst institutions have no incentive to offer anything other than the orthodox.

The result is that second chance learning has collapsed other than through employer sponsorship, as have broader university missions like the engagement of local communities through adult education and subsidised short courses. Any free market allows for experimentation and learning through mistakes - 'those cornflakes were disgusting', 'that builder is a cowboy', 'I am never using that garage again' - choosing the wrong subject at the wrong time is common. The ability to rectify that mistake is now much more costly and, for many, prohibitively so.

The new funding system is a mess. At the heart of its incoherence is a narrow concept of what a university is for. Locked into an orthodox view of the student as a school leaver taking a full-time degree, the possibilities of a more imaginative and flexible vision of universities as centres of lifelong learning has been lost. And, amongst the self-serving wringing of academic hands, that argument is seldom heard.

Friday, March 16, 2012


But where Anarchist practice really triumphs is in the course of everyday life among common people who would not be able to endure their dreadful struggle for existence if they did not engage in spontaneous mutual aid, putting aside differences and conflicts of interest. When one of them falls ill, other poor people take in his children, feeding them, sharing the meagre sustenance of the week, seeking to make ends meet by doubling their hours of work. A sort of communism is instituted among neighbors through lending, in which there is a constant coming and going of household implements and provisions. Poverty unites the unfortunate in a fraternal league. Together they are hungry; together they are satisfied …

A miniscule society that is anarchistic and truly humane is thus created, even though everything in the larger world seems to be in league to prevent its being born – laws, regulations, bad examples, and public immorality.
Elisée Reclus (1894)
Papadopoulos, who spent 17 years abroad with MSF and returned to her native Greece three years ago, sees hope among the rubble. "What keeps me going is an increasingly strong sense of solidarity among the Greek people," she said. "Donations to MSF, for example, have of course gone down with the crisis, but donors keep giving, they remain active."

She sees a refreshing new phenomenon of self-organisation and social action. "In the past year of this crisis I have seen really encouraging, really exciting things happening – people are seeing the power of organising themselves. We have to support them."
 Jon Henley, this from the latest in a series of illuminating reports on the social impact of the crisis in Greece.

Here is just one example of why Greece is still a great place and why you should go there and spend your money, despite all the negativity in the press. But it is also a reminder that, whilst the financial markets are settling into the warm glow of complacency with the conclusion of the latest deal, the crisis is far from over and that none of the major economic contradictions have been addressed. Even though EU leaders think that they have successfully quarantined Greece (a policy that is the antithesis of solidarity), Portugal, Italy, Spain and Ireland are waiting in the shadows and even the Netherlands can't meet the terms of the extraordinarily restrictive fiscal rules that they so assiduously helped to impose. There is no resolution, events are merely pausing for breath.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cat blogging

If in doubt, fall back on cats.

Visit the web site here.  There is an interview here as well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Full fat blogging

Here is a post from Norm that I thought I couldn't fault, until ... the link.

Hummus is indeed divine, but Waitrose 'reduced fat houmous' (sic)?  For a man of a certain shape with a profile to maintain, an inbuilt distrust of the words 'reduced fat' is to be expected. But when that fat is provided solely by olive oil and crushed sesame seeds, even the virtuous must side with the stout.

If you want really addictive, totally scrumptious hummus, make your own. It is incredibly easy and all the quantities can be varied according to taste. This is how I do it.

Use dried chick peas, rinse and soak overnight. Half a packet will make a huge bowl of the glorious stuff, enough for a family of addicts. Drain and rinse the chick peas and then you can either simmer them for a couple of hours in salted water, or do what I do and use a pressure cooker so that they only take twenty minutes to be nice and soft, but not mushy. I suppose you can cut corners with tinned chick peas, but they aren't as nice and I would sulk.

This is the important bit. Don't throw away the cooking liquid. You are going to use some for blending.

Use a blender (you can be authentic if you like and spend god knows how long beating them up in a pestle and mortar, but only if you are mad, precious or a columnist for a posh paper).

First, put two or three large peeled cloves of garlic in the blender (vary to taste but NEVER omit), add the juice of a lemon (again this can be half a lemon for a milder flavour or even two if you like that sharp lemony tang), pour in a good quantity of quality olive oil. Blend until the garlic has disintegrated. Spoon in some tahini - again vary according to taste - a dessert spoon or a tablespoon full, though don't overdo it. A good tip is to stir the tahini first so that any of the oil that has separated out is mixed back in with the sesame pulp. I then give it another whizz in the blender.

Now for the crucial bit. Add some of the chick peas with a little of the cooking water and blend with the oil, garlic and lemon, preferably on a low setting (I like mine coarse not smooth). This is the trick. If it is too sloppy add more chick peas to thicken it, if it is too solid add more cooking water. Continue until you have blended the lot, then you can throw the rest of the cooking water away. Beware, you can thin down hummus easily, but you can't thicken it up again if you have run out of chick peas. It doesn't take a lot of water to turn it into a thin, liquid mess. That is why you do it in stages.

Spoon it into a bowl and give it a good stir with a fork so that everything is evenly mixed, cover and set aside for a bit for the flavours to merge.

To serve, pour over more olive oil so that there is a layer of it on the surface, sprinkle on a little paprika and decorate with lemon wedges. Get yourself some pitta bread, plain flat bread or a nice, fresh baked white loaf and dig in (OK spoon some on your plate if you insist on being refined).

Continue until sated, in this case it means when you have had too much, lie back, close your eyes and think of Nigella Lawson. Bliss.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sheffield spring

Not just a beautiful day, but another step on the revival of Sheffield Eagles, now playing out of both the Don Valley Stadium and Bramall Lane. Sadly, the latest step was taken at the expense of Swinton. This promotion lark is not going to be easy.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

A tribute

I meant to post this a few weeks ago but forgot, though I don't know how. So in a slow blogging week, I thought I would put up this heart-rending tribute. Here is Star Turn on 45 Pints performing as the inimitable Whitley Houston.

Monday, March 05, 2012

For good or ill?

Norm has put up a link to a review of a new book on William Wilberforce and has commented on Wilberforce's evangelical Christianity, pointing out that:
He doesn't sound like providing much evidence for the proposition that the effects of religion are thoroughly bad. I wonder if there might be something wrong with that proposition.
I have written before that I agree with Norm that there is sufficient empirical evidence to question any notion that religion is necessarily a force for evil, however, Wilberforce is a great example of the double-edged-sword of high minded religiosity.  On the one hand we have his leadership of the campaign against the slave trade, for which he is rightly famous, even if he was no enemy of wage slavery at home. On the other, we have his role in founding, in 1802, one of the nastiest organisations of the early nineteenth century, one that was a direct emanation of his evangelical beliefs, The Society for the Suppression of Vice (SSV).

Wilberforce had previously spoken in favour of legislation against adultery, which he saw as being "of much more importance than any question about peace and war" and was the prime mover behind George III issuing a proclamation against vice in 1787, becoming vice-president of the resulting, and wholly ineffective, Proclamation Society. The SSV was more active and was known mainly for its network of spies reporting people for trading on Sundays (as well as a corruption scandal), leading to a string of prosecutions of shopkeepers and publicans. The Society's activists also targeted the book trade, looking for salacious popular literature. The aim was to remove the temptations open to the working class to use their one free day for pleasure instead of religious observance.

I think that the most pernicious activity of the Society was its determination to suppress free speech and freedom of thought in religion. As a result of its actions, the radical secularist, Richard Carlile, ended up spending a total of nine years in prison. In 1819, after being attacked by the SSV, Carlile was convicted of the crime of blasphemy for re-publishing Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. He was sentenced to three years, extended to six, as he could not pay the additional fine of £1,500. He was not alone, others were prosecuted, including eight of his shop-workers.

So we are left with a far more complex picture of the legacy of Wilberforce's Christianity. His religious beliefs led him both to oppose slavery and to directly champion deeply illiberal and oppressive causes. It was as if Martin Luther King and Rick Santorum were the same person. And this is the problem for any historian not willing to embrace ambiguity. Whilst religion has been a cause of discord, violence and mass murder, it has inspired acts of courage and virtue. I suppose much depends on whether the religious pick out from the morass of conflicting doctrines the morals that compel acts of justice and compassion, or whether they cleave to identity politics and self-righteousness, seeing religion to be a dogma to be imposed on others. The problem with Wilberforce is that he did both.


See the comments section below. The author of Wilberforce: Family and Friends, Anne Stott, has pointed out that Wilberforce was not the founder of the SSV. She has suggested the following as the most authoritative source on the founding of the Society:
M. D. J. Roberts, 'The Society for the Suppression of Vice and its Early Critics, 1802-1812', Historical Journal, 26 (1983), 159-76.

Saturday, March 03, 2012


More on Greece. One long-running scandal is coming to an end. A settlement is in sight after the exposure of bribery to gain contracts by a company based in a nation whose head of state has just been forced to resign due to corruption. Yes, we are talking about Germany.

The company is Siemens and its actions in Greece are said the have cost the country some €2 billion. For a brief summary see here and here. A proposed settlement has been reported though not finalised.
Kathimerini daily said the accord would include cash, a pledge to invest in crisis-hit Greece, a settlement of unpaid Greek bills worth 80 million euros and the provision of technology know-how.
As the current Greek crisis unfolds, there is a dominant narrative that is based on a morality play of sin and virtue. The Greeks play the role of the profligate Mediterranean sinners whilst the Germans are thrifty, industrious models of virtue. Human relations are not like this, neither are economic systems. Moralistic, and frankly racist, discourses do nothing to help the people of any beleaguered nation. The Siemens crisis opens a small crack in the edifice and gives us a glimpse of a less simplistic world. It may not be that significant in the context of the crisis, but, after the battering the reputation of Greece has taken, Greeks can be forgiven for wallowing in a sentiment with a fine German name - schadenfreude.