Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life and death

Yesterday, another cloudy morning saw me clearing the rest of the bamboo that had spread in to the garden. A nearby builder, working on a house down the lane, asked for some of it to use for his tomatoes and cheered me with Greek sayings like, 'there is only one life and it is short' and 'we grow like flowers and then we wither', that sort of thing.

I sat down in the shade and then heard the squealing of what sounded like a distressed animal. As the noise came closer I went to investigate. At the back of the patio wall was a tiny puppy, clearly part of an abandoned litter. For once I was pleased that I didn't live here full time, I would have adopted it instantly and it would have grown up to be a vast, ferocious hound. Its appeal lay in its vulnerability. Fortunately a neighbour knew of an animal sanctuary and phoned them. It now has the chance of a life that would have been denied it.

All of which brings me obliquely to the end of the long lives of two survivors, First World War veterans Henry Allingham and Harry Patch.

In keeping with the new tradition of celebrity deaths, the Prime Minister had to eulogise:
"I know that the whole nation will unite today to honour the memory, and to take pride in the generation that fought the Great War. The noblest of all the generations has left us, but they will never be forgotten."
Not forgotten, but how will they be remembered? Will they be the "lions led by donkeys", a working class betrayed to mechanised mass slaughter? Will they be seen as the victims of imperialism or heroes of the nation?

In part, the battle is one of poetry. There is Laurence Binyon, whose lines,
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
adorn war memorials and are being trotted out regularly once more; stately, noble and kitsch.

Pitted against the non-combatant Binyon is the realism of Wilfred Owen, killed at the front shortly before the armistice, writing on "the pity of war".
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Harry Patch would have been with Owen, he saw the war as an obscenity, "legalised mass murder" to be remembered with horror and grief.

Owen was by far the greater poet, he overwhelms the stiff upper lip stoicism of Binyon's, "Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow", with bitter experience. Yet the legacy of his view of the War is mixed. It fed pacifism at all costs, including in the face of Fascism, and was part of the intellectual background to appeasement. Yet in the personalisation of the experience of war he, and many of his fellow war poets, made it clear that the life of each ordinary soldier mattered, they were not merely cannon fodder. From this sensibility comes the concept of war crimes and crimes against humanity, of Nurenburg and the Hague. And that is something most certainly not to be forgotten.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A cool reflection

The heatwave is over. It is a cloudy day and the temperature has dropped to a pleasant 28C. A good time to write the first of a couple of posts about recent deaths.

Leszek Kolakowski was a significant figure. There are good links worth reading here, but it was Norm's discussion that raised my interest, taking on the too eager simplifications of many commentators. Kolakowski is celebrated for arguing that Stalinism was not an aberration, but inherent in Marx's thought. Of course, he wasn't the first. The same critique was made contemporaneously with Marx, initially by Proudhon and then by Bakunin.

Norm acknowledges what he sees as the weaknesses in Marx's position:
What precise weight of responsibility the original ideas, as put forward by Karl Marx himself, bear for the political disaster that was Stalinism may be a matter of debate; but only the most blinkered of Marxists will today deny that central deficiencies of classical Marxism played a role in the developments that led ultimately to the Gulag. Two central deficiencies in particular: the lack of an adequate theory of democratic political institutions; and the tendency to mock and diminish the importance of ethical argument (despite the fact that Marxism itself, and in Marx's hands, contained a moral vision and a commitment to principles of justice).
He also puts them into context, especially Marx's insistence of the continuing existence of the state.
Marx projected an end to the state, but that was the state in the meaning instrument of class rule. With no classes there could be no state in this sense; but there would be a 'public power', Marx held, and one subject to democratic control from below.
This was precisely the basis of the objections of the Anarchists. They felt that the state, even if it ceased to be an instrument of the rule of a particular class, would still be an instrument of rule by a new, and often capriciously cruel, elite, the state functionary. Thus they rejected the state per se. All rule, they argued, was in the interests solely of the rulers.

In his dispute with Bakunin, Marx ridiculed this position, yet I think that there is merit in it. However, the total rejection of the state does not mean the end of organisation for the achievement of collective ends. Anarcho-communists, like Kropotkin, thought this could be achieved without public power through revolutionary spontaneity and the instinct for mutual aid. His critical friend, Errico Malatesta, was more cautious seeing a need for preparation for freedom through the educative process of building working class solidarity. Individualists relied on models of robust autonomy within collaborative networks.

However, even outside the state, authority permeates many aspects of our lives and seems certain not to disappear. Autonomous organisations can be positively totalitarian, whilst many of us still spend the bulk of our lives in autocracies, more commonly known as the workplace, subject to the whims of the latest managerial fad. And if you want to see the effect of such little tyrannies, look at the management style at Royal Bank of Scotland. Thus the emphasis Norm puts on the need to think more deeply about democratic political institutions is one that applies to all human institutions and relations and is important for all left perspectives, whether statist or not.

To think about institutions that are subject to "democratic control from below", means more than self-congratulatory peans to western liberal democracies, for all their manifest advantages. It means a rejection of the cruelties, inequities and dysfunctions of everyday life, wherever they occur. It requires a consistent moral stance against exploitation and barbarity. It is about control and ownership, not just consumer choice. If we are setting out on a democratic journey, we have a long way yet to go.

But now, with the clouds still overhead, it is time for me to abandon idle speculation and cut back the bamboo that invades from the neighbours' windbreak.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


The Greeks do heatwaves so much better than us. Shortly before dawn, the temperature at the bus station in Athens was 31 degrees C. It is cooler up here in Pelion, but it still reached 36 in the shade yesterday. Today there is a refreshing breeze. It is gorgeous.

At the airport, the authorities were searching for temperatures too. We had to pass heat-seeking cameras to see if we had the plague swine flu. No one did, though I would have been amused if they had picked out the hypochondriacs in front of me who wore face masks all through the flight on an overheated Olympic Airways plane, facing an acute dilemma when their airline meals arrived.

A sparrow has just swooped from the lemon tree to catch a small green grasshopper on the patio. I will join it. It is time for me to sit with a book in the shade under the vine. Bliss.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Greece ...

... is the word. I'm off there again tonight. Posting may be light, unless I want to taunt the sun-starved British. I'm a bit mean like that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Parlour games

Has anyone ever played dirty word alphabet? It is great for a pub, or you can even play by text. You go through the alphabet thinking of sexual terms for each letter of the alphabet. But here is the catch; the words have to be suggestive not rude. So A is for ardent, not for arse. M is is for moist, you get the idea. It whiles away a few beers in a curry house, though I worry about Karen. Some of those words ...

"Unleashing Aspiration"

They would have to call it that, wouldn't they? Hyperbolic meritocratic language is quintessentially New Labour. Alan Milburn's report into social mobility touches on an area I actually know something about, widening access to universities. I have only read the press coverage rather than the report itself, and once I saw that it advocated vouchers for "children from poor backgrounds in areas of under-performing schools so they can go to more popular schools", without so much as a sideways glance at what this would do to the the children and schools left behind, I think I might give it a miss.

This argument is permeated by an old and lazy theme, that widening participation is a means of rescuing a few people from their class rather than a systematic attempt to address the social inequities embedded in our education systems.

Addressing social inequalities is a nice glib phrase, it trips off the tongue easily. Doing it is a little more troublesome. Even in a limited way, it demands an imaginative radicalism that seems in short supply at the moment. And that means making lifelong learning central. There are four broad issues that I think that policy makers need to consider.

1. Any attempt to select out "bright pupils" would instantly label the majority of those left out as incapable and unworthy - 'dim pupils'. It can be destructive.

2. That concentrating on schools and young people means ignoring the profound intergenerational effects of learning cultures. Not only do older people have a right to their own education, but they become powerful role models and advocates for learning throughout their families and communities.

3. There needs to be a recognition that people come to education at different ages and for different reasons. For example, some of the best work I have seen this year has come from prisoners who would never have dreamt of learning if it had not been for their incarceration.

4. And finally we come to that word 'aspiration'. Debate has been plagued by the lazy idea that people are deficient and need reforming by raising their aspiration. Credit where it is due, Milburn rejects this old turkey and is dead right when he says, "it is not that many young people do not have aspirations. It is that they are blocked".

There is plenty of aspiration out there, and not only in "young people", but it is coupled with a sense that higher education is 'not for the likes of us'. There is a reason for that. The cultures of some universities positively scream at people that it is not for the likes of them. It is universities that need to reform, to become more open, to involve themselves in the lives of everyone in their cities and regions. They have to meet the aspirations of people. They have to make dreams happen.

Simply opening the cracks into the elite so a few more of the hoi polloi can squeeze through achieves wonders for some individuals, but what of the others? A genuine commitment to lifelong learning, the engagement of universities with all their communities, the creation of open institutions that are easy to access in many different ways, creates possibilities for the many. And, as regular readers of this blog will now be tired of reading, it is this civic mission that is being strangled by stupid and destructive policies.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

History lessons

Thanks to Kellie of Airforce Amazons for drawing my attention to this post from Ghosts of Alexander on the "wretched" standard of history in media reporting on Afghanistan. I am not well read on the history of the region, but I can spot a cliché when I see one and they are being regularly trotted out, as he notes here:
First, there’s the Euro-centric perspective that always bring up defeats of European forces. This includes the Soviet-Afghan war, the Anglo-Afghan Wars and, for the historically challenged, Alexander the Great (there is a little history in between these events worth reading). And then there is the perspective that claims Afghanistan is, and has throughout history, been “backwards.” And then there are people from all other parts of the political spectrum who have read a couple of books (probably “popular” histories) and then decided they should expound on Afghan history to bolster their arguments. To emphasize, one is missing massive chunks of history if confined to the narrow perspectives above.
These stereotypes, many bordering on racism, form the bedrock of much of what passes as commentary. I don't intend to turn myself into an expert on Afghan history, but surely it isn't asking too much for those who get paid to turn out opinion pieces on issues on which lives depend to engage in a little basic scholarship? Then again ...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Just back from the Ruritarian invented tradition of graduation in the City Hall; a procession straight out of Lord of the Rings, with everyone telling me that I either look like Henry the Eighth or a Beefeater in my garish robes, followed by wine and food with students and colleagues. It was my last one, a poignant moment. Our degrees were presented together with the Business School's. Large numbers of proud families of overseas students were taking films and pictures and I realised that I would now figure in the photograph collection and home movies of several African families.

As I processed off the stage to solemn organ music I spotted that one of the tribulations of being a man of a certain shape was happening. My trousers were slowly slipping down. How to hold them up in fancy dress is a big problem. Nothing for it, but to thrust the robes to one side and yank the buggers up. Now that's one for the family album.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What a mess

Even set against the low benchmark of Guardian commentary, this piece of hand-wringing by Peter Preston on Afghanistan is breath-taking. The argument goes like this:

There is no reason for being in Afghanistan.
Winning the war will not affect Al-Qaida.
Afghanistan is full of difficult foreigners "who haven't made it past 1400" (years that is, not two o'clock in the afternoon).
The Taliban cannot be defeated by military means.
Pakistan will defeat the Taliban by military means (mind you they invented them in the first place to get at India).
The solution is containment.

Yep, containment. Let the Taliban take over and then ...
They can rule, to be sure: but only until the foe that has destroyed countless regimes before them – Afghanistan itself, intractable, restless, chaotic, ungovernable – destroys them, too. If Taliban land is cordoned off, isolated, consigned to its own devices, then it won't survive for long.
Presumably it will take until around 1450 - or ten to three - whatever.

And what about the people? The Afghan people who appear nowhere in the list? These "chaotic", "ungovernable" people with their universities, schools and gleaming new adult education projects? They won't survive long either. As I understand it, the general idea is to throw them to a bunch of ultra-violent, tyrannical theocrats and sit back and wait for everything to turn out nice in a fifteenth century sort of way. Is this really the face of modern liberal opinion?

I didn't say that ...

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”
Christina Odone provides a curious defence of patriarchal religion in her review of Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom's new book, Does God Hate Women?.
But in explaining how God is dragged into this systemic abuse, the authors are guilty of the flawed logic they abhor in macho regimes. An attractive woman in a miniskirt who walks down the street is not responsible for the men who, distorting her attitude, read it as an invitation to rape; so God, in his many guises, cannot be held responsible for the men who distort his message into an invitation to abuse others.
Benson and Stangroom are atheists, as am I, and so they are talking about the development of religion as a misogynistic ideology, not the views of a non-existent God. However, the defective communication skills of an omnipotent God is an odd argument for a theist to deploy. It must be really frustrating, all that effort at revelation and still the buggers get it wrong.

Friday, July 10, 2009


This week I have been blogging in the spirit of John Cage.

Hope you enjoyed not reading anything.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Rebellion and renewal

Terry Glavin has some posts up on the significance of the Iranian revolt. He sees two great hopes emerging from the protests. The first is that they have begun to break the bizarre and destructive alliance between leftists and a far right theocratic Islamism that had somehow managed to get itself accepted as a form of liberation theology. More importantly, from the perspective of Terry's particular commitment to Afghanistan, the street demonstrations have undermined the baleful influence of Iran in Afghanistan itself. Though the die-hards will still plug away with their apologias and elisions, illusions about Iran are dying.

Does this mean that we can relax, that the left has regained its senses? Not yet, by any means. Whilst anti-fascism went head-to-head with a crude anti-imperialism, a quieter betrayal of principle was taking place; the abandonment of the poor.

I have just started reading an interesting book of reportage on the white working class in the USA by Joe Bageant. In his introduction, he asks, "If the left is not about class equity, what is it about?" Not a question for John Denham. Fresh from his triumph in wrecking university adult education, he couldn't have put it more starkly. The Guardian reported,
A senior cabinet minister will warn tomorrow that "the egalitarian ideal" that has dominated left liberal thinking since the 1960s is redundant, saying Labour's traditional emphasis solely on the poor leaves the vast bulk of the population alienated and left out.
So the ideal of equality has dominated the left since the 1960's, has it? Denham might have been more convincing if he had talked about the 1360's. Here is one version of John Ball's sermon from 1381.
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman. From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
Equality is a long standing dream, central to any who would claim to be left-wing, not a self-indulgent sixties fashion.

Denham's sentiment is redolent with a cynical view of the electorate and locked into a model of voting behaviour as being based solely on a narrow calculation of self-interest, rather than one informed by an ethical world view. And certainly Labour are acting on just these assumptions. Take a look at the new welfare reforms. As well as producing some dubious practices, they are full of gems like this,
Three hundred thousand of the poorest households in Britain are expected to lose up to £60 a month from their housing benefit under government plans to curb the welfare budget. The cut, which would hit Labour's core voters a month before the next general election, could spark a revolt reminiscent of the 10p tax rate debacle.
And what about paying for the credit crunch? Oh yes, public sector workers will have to bear the brunt (and do read Will Hutton's strong dissent from the prevailing conventional wisdom here). Of course the election of two BNP MEPs has scared them into throwing a bit of potentially illegal raw meat to appease far right voters, but the bulk of the working class is left out in the cold.

The fight to establish social liberties is only one part of the historic role of the left, the other is the struggle for economic security and equality. That is why Terry is right to emphasise the role of the international solidarity of labour unions in confronting oppressive regimes. Others, though, have lapsed either into a Panglossian complacency about western societies, or a crude and self-serving electoral cynicism. If we are lucky, the left may be about to regain part of its soul, but there is still a world to win.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Chronicles of wasted time

Via the drink-soaked ones comes news of the valiant attempt to translate the Bible into LOLCat speak.
Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem

My favourite is still the Polari Bible, translated by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (Manchester House).
1. In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.
3. And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle.
4. And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria medzered the sparkle from the munge.
And they have done the lot - Old and New Testaments - good grief.

Blinked and missed it

The heatwave has ended. Emma Goldman once wrote
One is certain to be disappointed in American reporters, yet never in the London weather ...

If the damp makes one miserable, it produces good complexions, rich foliage, and the strength of the British Empire. Delicate skins, the luscious green lawns and meadows, are due to the weather, and the need to escape from his own climate has made the Englishman foremost among globe-trotters and colonizers.
That's the latest panic over. It's back to swine flu now. Can't wait to get to Greece.