Saturday, July 30, 2011

Success story

"Thank god for crime; it saved me from a life of boxing". One of my favourite quips though I can't remember the source. It turns round a standard story of a life rescued by sporting excellence. That redemption is precisely what happened to Cec Thompson, the Rugby League international who died recently.

Thompson overcame a difficult upbringing, illiteracy and racism to become only the second black player to play international Rugby League for Great Britain in 1951. (In comparison, it took until 1978 for Viv Anderson to become the first black player to represent England at football, but then Rugby League has a better record in dealing with discrimination than some sports, perhaps because it too was the target of bigotry from the Rugby Union for around a century.)

This would have been a stirring enough story if it had not been for a second redemption, this time it was because of adult education. This from Andy Wilson's obituary:
He had launched a window-cleaning business in and around Workington, and also felt sufficiently confident with reading and writing – developed on coach trips to away games with Hunslet, when he would learn new words from the Reader's Digest – to make a tentative move into journalism. He joined music and operatic societies, and an art club, passed his English O-level after taking night classes in Workington while coaching Barrow, then enrolled at Huddersfield Technical College in 1962.He was then encouraged to apply for a place at Leeds University, and started a course in economics in 1965, at the age of 39.
He ended up as a teacher.

This is another reminder of the power of adult education and its continuing need, even though successive governments seem keen to abandon it.  And for those who think that adult learning should be purely vocational, please note his starting point; music, opera and art. I haven't read it, but I see that his autobiography, Born on the Wrong Side, is still in print. I might just order it now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sporting drama

On a dramatic day, the issue of promotion and relegation between Rugby League’s top division, Super League, and its second tier, the Championship, has been decided with only around five games and the play-offs left to go.

The team currently lying third in the Championship will be promoted, though we knew that months ago. The teams lying first and second won’t be eligible for promotion for another three years.

The big shock is that the team lying bottom of Super League will be relegated. The favourites to go down were the team immediately above them. This is because the bottom side were promoted originally for three years so that Super League could have a team in South Wales. They play in North Wales. They did play a season in South Wales, but finished bottom, got small crowds, ran into financial difficulties and had six of their Australian players (yes they were supposed to be old South Wales) deported as they were here illegally. So, the next season they moved to North Wales, did well, got small crowds, ran into financial difficulties and went into administration. This year they have been at the bottom, have small crowds, but the Rugby League wants a team in Wales so they were favourites to stay up.

However, yesterday, they decided to relegate themselves, withdrew their application and declared that they couldn’t run a financially viable Super League club. They didn’t tell the players. Or the fans. Never mind, it means the team above them stay up.

This also means that the club who are currently seventh in the Championship are furious. They think that the next to bottom team in Super League should have been relegated anyway and they should be promoted in their place as they have a nicer ground.

No matches were played today.

I have an idea. Why don’t they relegate the team that finishes bottom of Super League and promote the side that wins the Championship? A bit complicated I know, but it might just catch on.

Brevity on Breivik

I suppose that it was inevitable if that if a mass murderer posts an interminable manifesto on the internet before carrying out his crime it will be mined, equally interminably, by bloggers and columnists to prove that what they have been saying all along was right and that if we had heeded them all would have been fine. They should pause and consider that a melange of commonplace and contradictory ideas prove very little and that those who are attracted to them usually, interminably once more, fill the comments boxes on web sites with tedious scrawl, not Norwegian islands with dead children.

Nobody puts it better than George,
Breivik is one of those semi-intelligent people who are actually more stupid than any genuinely stupid person. Vastly overestimating semi-intelligence is not only stupid but worse. It is blind, arrogant, and always malevolent in effect. There is deadly danger in being obsessed by one's own importance or the importance of one's ideas: the two are almost the same thing. 
Pathological ideas are dangerous, infecting the minds of pathological people they can be murderous, embedded in pathological regimes they can be genocidal. We are kept as safe as we can be by the humility of democracy with its agonised uncertainties. Of that, and that alone, we should be overwhelmingly certain.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The first tomato

It may not be big, but it was pretty tasty and was the first one from the first tomato plants in our first vegetable patch.  Cue the song:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A matter of life and death

It has been a beautiful summer's night. The front was busy with people enjoying simple pleasures and with others working flat out to earn their livings. Yet there has been a cloud of death shrouding today. The horror of events in Norway show that fascism, in whatever manifestation it takes, is still with us, infecting diseased minds. A singer died too, a talent lost, destroyed by the insanity of a celebrity lifestyle offered to the wealthy, often mistaken for hedonism. In the real life outside the bubble, the pain of the parents must be incomprehensible. And how many other talented and delightful people died of their addiction in the gutter, unheralded and unmourned? How many migrants suffocated or drowned in the desperate search for a better life? How many have the Syrian police incarcerated and tortured today? Death is all around us.

So let's celebrate life. That is all around us too. It is in the solidarity being offered the people of Norway, a deeply moral emotional spasm. It is in the support for the oppressed in some, if not all the parts of the world that we would like to see it.

Here in Greece, the nation is breathing a nervous, unconfident sigh of relief after a deal had been reached on its debt, recognising the problem as pan-European and not the result of the sins of the improvident.  I would have been tempted by scepticism if it had not been for this deeply sane post by Aristos Doxiadis. At its heart is a recognition of the primacy and value of the practice of politics:
“Aha”, I hear the other side saying, “but these are extraordinary times, that call for extraordinary leadership. By that standard, they have done a miserable job.”  Well, it depends how much faith one has in benevolent dictators: is the power to commit great resources without negotiations a good thing? How confident can we be that a grand strategic plan decided in early 2010 would have worked well? For every proposal that was mooted, there were counter-arguments of substance, not just of process. Take for example, the idea of a big Marshall plan for Greece: what kind of governance would ensure that the funds would be well used to support sustainable growth, rather than being squandered to rent-seekers? Ditto for a massive recapitalization of all European banks – how would the terms of that distribute costs fairly and ensure competent management from then on (not, presumably by getting corrupt or clueless civil servants to be CEOs).

Further, extraordinary leadership is compatible with democracy only if the majority of the people are affected by extraordinary circumstances; and will therefore consent to extraordinary solutions. This is not the case in the Eurozone. 
Indeed. And if there are failures, then, as he puts it, in a functioning polity "there can always be a new round". Here he resists the siren song of demagogy in favour of the political process, something that seems to be forgotten in the USA. The EU have recognised the need to rescue the insolvent, unlike in America where a profoundly unserious opposition seems to be on the point of propelling the solvent into default. And for what? The very limited liberalism and dark skin of its properly elected president?

Europe has resisted such lunacy and embraced politics, however uncertain its achievements, just as today we mourn the slaughtered victims of anti-politics.

And this raises the problem of our political language, the way we discuss life and death issues, many far more serious than the Eurozone. Take the Middle East for example.  Here is the most marvellous expression of optimism by Gershon Baskin in the Jerusalem Post.
So one thing that gives me hope is the deep belief that this conflict is resolvable; every single issue, to the minutest detail, has solutions based on research, dialogue, precedents and “home-grown” Israeli-Palestinian ingenuity.

What is lacking, and is absolutely essential, is any semblance of trust.

Israelis and Palestinians have definitely earned their mutual distrust.

The most crucial aspects of each of the five Israeli-Palestinian agreements have been breached systemically by both sides. There is no clear “good guy” and “bad guy” when it comes to implementation of signed agreements. And no artificial “confidence- building measures” can replace such earned lack of trust.
Once again, the conclusions of the optimist can only be an expression of a faith in life.
I am not so naïve as to believe I have no mortal enemies, but I don’t allow myself to be constrained by fear, or allow fear to sour into blind hatred.

I believe in the power of people to be good. I believe in the power of compassion, which is much stronger than hatred. And I will always be true to myself and to the belief that making peace is first and foremost a decision – one that we have apparently yet to make.
After the experience of seething, deranged hatred in Norway, the glorification of murder, the pitiless slaughter of ordinary people, here we have again a celebration of life against death.

Yet what of international solidarity?  One thing that strikes me is how the left in the West has embraced the language of the far right in both Israel and Palestine. Both pro-Palestinians and defenders of Israel have seized on this lack of trust with rhetorical gusto. For one side the language is full of a far too ready eagerness, especially given the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, to paint the Jew as the ultimate villain, complete with absurd analogies, conspiracy theory and the romanticisation of the Palestinian far right as a noble resistance. Sadly, Israel's defenders also use language dripping with negation, seeing Palestinians solely as the ultimate anti-Semites, unable to recognise the bitter experience of occupation, exile and dispossession, desperate to de-legitimise any protest, to deny that there is any partner for peace. Each take up the banner of irridentalist nationalism, which will only bring death in its wake, and feel most righteous in doing so.

But peace demands something else - a deal, politics, life. And the place to find it is in the left, the Palestinian and Israeli left. They are not that far apart, though they certainly have their disagreements.  They do not share these discourses, they abhor them.  Both are seeking the same thing, the building of the trust necessary to do a deal that will allow the national-self determination of both peoples. Yet our leftists seem ignorant of their efforts and scornful of the prospects, preferring the certainties of partisanship.

And to me, this is what being on the left is about. It is about a respect for life. This doesn't mean quiescence, nor the absence of struggle. What it does mean is clear sightedness, to recognise that the defence of people about to be slaughtered by a vile regime is not imperialism, to see that trying to accommodate murderous despots as an 'exit strategy' is an act of cowardice rather than of courage and, at the same time, to realise that the struggle to reach an agreement that transcends conflict is not necessarily a sell-out.

Intoxicatedby the beauty of the Greek star-lit night and by not a little of the cheap draught wine, it is easy to feel the privilege of life. Yet that is what an emancipatory politics is about, life over death. Even though we will all succumb one day, the time that we are granted should be a heaven on earth and not a living hell.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It's back!

Courtesy of Ian Bone, get your revived on-line copy of the News of the World here.


Just as the Murdoch press gets so delightfully skewered by the Guardian's superb investigative journalism, we forget it has its own middle-class sewer - yes, the comments pages where the readership can get their rocks off on, ever so understandable, mass murder.  The latest piece masturbates to the memory of Mao with a breathtaking piece of 'yes buttery'.
It is tempting to denounce Mao as a monster, and to dismiss the Maoists of today as no less criminally deluded than Peru's Shining Path guerillas, or the Khmer Rouge. Certainly, the scale of the violence Mao inflicted on China dwarfs all other crimes and disasters committed during the course of nation-building in the last two centuries. But political and economic modernisers elsewhere also exacted a terrible human cost from their allegedly backward peoples.
This is even more irritating as the theme he hangs this on, the crisis of rural communities, is incredibly important. But there are much better guides to it, as there are to Mao.

Summit latest

The secrecy surrounding the latest EU talks has been breached with this exclusive footage of the meeting:

It is too hot to do anything other than shamelessly plagiarise Steve

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Straining credulity

The BBC reports that in Austria a pastafarian member of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has won the right to wear a sieve on his head in the photo on his driving licence for religious reasons.

Pastafarians are all atheists.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


The News of the Word scandal explained to Americans.

Hat tip to loads of people

Nationalism or internationalism

I liked this discussion in the Financial Times for two reasons. Firstly, it points out that the current financial crisis is not solely a Greek one, nor is it wholly of Greek making. Secondly, it stresses the need for action and reform at European level, rather than loading austerity packages onto the Greek people in the vain hope that the failed policies of the past will prove to be the successful ones of the present. It argues for internationalism to prevail over narrower national interests within the EU.

This point was made a while ago by Mark Mazower, who also placed the crisis in its historical setting.
The members of today's political class in Europe are Margaret Thatcher's heirs, not George Marshall's. They find it hard to understand that the markets need to be saved from themselves if Europe is to survive in anything resembling its present form. They forget that Germany itself was allowed to cancel its prewar debts in 1953, one of the preconditions for its subsequent boom, and that when others, such as Poland in 1991, were allowed to write down their debts in their turn, they too prospered.

Right now what is needed is long-term political vision and a new willingness to argue for the benefits of continent-wide redistribution. 
Anyone familiar with Mazower's general history of Europe, Dark Continent, will be aware of his contention that fascism was not an aberration in Europe. Authoritarian nationalism is always there to challenge democratic internationalism and the internationalist pulse is weakening. Mazower concludes:
The clock is ticking: in September the next package of aid for Greece will have to be announced. It will be a decisive moment and the outcome will be critical for Greece, and for the union too.
Heading for the inevitable?

A rose by any other name

Harigate is getting much more interesting indeed, in a grimly voyeuristic sort of way.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

And another ...

Once again there is news of an impending sad loss. Another University lifelong learning (adult education in plain English) department is scheduled to go. This one is close to my heart too. How careless we have been with the legacy of more than a century of activism to create a more open and inclusive higher education system. In the past few years it has been thrown away, sometimes with a note of regret, but mainly with puzzlement that something so seemingly peripheral to the life of a university actually exists and how such an adornment adds little to the productivity of the diploma factories of modern higher education.

Yet to me these are gems that should be treasured and not deposited in waste bins for disposal. They are places where the dream of equality, the joy of learning, and the escape from the deadening hand of narrow instrumentalism flourished. Many are now no more. It is a loss that some can't comprehend, let alone bother to mourn, a modern tragedy scarcely understood by managements but felt deeply by tutors, students and the communities that loved them. We will miss them when they are gone.

By default

Like Greece, Buenos Aires had swallowed the textbook analysis – backed by the IMF and the consensus of academic economists and domestic politicians – which said its problem was not an overvalued currency and unsustainable debts, but too much public spending.

As the economists Roberto Frenkel and Martin Rapetti put it in a study of the Argentine crisis for the CEPR, the theory was that "fiscal discipline would entail stronger confidence, and consequently the risk premium would fall and bring interest rates down. Therefore, domestic expenditure would recover and push the economy out of the recession. Lower interest rates and an increased GDP would, in turn, re-establish a balanced budget, and thus close a virtuous circle."

It didn't work. In fact, drastic public spending cuts made the downturn worse, while the dollar peg prevented the devaluation that eventually helped Argentina to get back its competitiveness.

Similarly, Athens – locked into the euro – is unable to devalue, or control its own interest rates, and the solution being pressed on Greece by its eurozone neighbours involves privatisation, liberalisation and drastic public spending cuts.
Heather Stewart draws out the comparisons between Argentina and Greece and argues for the default option.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Consumer affairs

Some heartening news for bargain hunters. Reported research shows a tendency to understate the amount of alcohol on the label of a bottle of wine. That is unless you make the mistake of buying low strength wines, then you will be diddled (and not piddled).
"We observe systematic patterns in the errors: a tendency to overstate the alcohol content for wine that has relatively low actual alcohol content and a tendency to understate the alcohol content for wine that has relatively high alcohol content."
I don't have that problem with the batch of wine I bought yesterday, Château Yeorganopolou 2011. It's a cheeky little number, delicate with a hint of peach and a tendency to make one misjudge distances, whose delicate bouquet is prone to inducing big speeches. There is no problem with labelling, there isn't any. There is a bottle though - a glass one too, with a cork - posh you see. Well you would expect that for €3. Very drinkable. Cheers.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Ee bah Greece

I went into Volos yesterday and the streets are lined with posters advertising a performance of Hamlet at the Municipal Theatre. Hamlet is rendered in Greek as Άμλετ, which transliterates as Amlet.

Suddenly I realised that by 'eck they speak Yorkshire round these parts! It would go down a treat in 'Uddersfield, 'Alifax and 'Ull. Perfect for your 'olidays.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Things ain't what they used to be

It's only another one of those laments about how the Internet might be useful, but is cheapening human experience. This time it is about the fantastically useful digitisation of historical source material. I am eternally grateful for the web sites maintained by institutions and enthusiastic individuals which make obscure 19th century pamphlets and newspapers available on my screen. However, for Tristram Hunt, this smacks of inauthenticity.
But it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the case... There is nothing more thrilling than untying the frayed string, opening the envelope and leafing through a first edition in the expectation of unexpected discoveries. None of that is possible on an iPad.
He is right about that thrill. I remember a sense of disappointment turning up at a library to discover that the original copies of the Herald of Anarchy that I had been reading only a few weeks previously had been replaced with a microfilm due to the fragility of the paper. But, funnily enough, none of the words had changed and they seemed to mean exactly the same as they did before.

Lucy Inglis nails it,
Original documents are a pleasure, a privilege and treasure. They are also a fecking nuisance when you've traipsed all the way to Countytown and the very thing you wanted, had called up about and were told would be there is now being withheld because it is too fragile.
Absolutely, and when you are trying to write something in rural Greece, being able to call up these wonderful sources at a click of a mouse is an even bigger pleasure, privilege and treasure.


Sunday, July 03, 2011

International rescue

In a stimulating piece Iannis Carras writes about the environmental costs of the Greek bailout. He doesn't pull his punches about the self-interested funding pushed by the EU for inappropriate, destructive, large-scale and hugely expensive projects and their contribution to Greek indebtedness.
Much of the debate around the economic, political and societal crisis gripping Greece has overlooked the role of the European Union in fuelling the crisis. Quite apart from the distortionary effects on the competitiveness of peripheral states precipitated by the introduction of the Euro and the subsequent lack of adequate oversight, it was misplaced EU subsidies that resulted in a lack of competitiveness in many sectors of the Greek economy, and misplaced EU subsidies that allowed the dramatic growth of the Greek public sector following the election of Andreas Papandreou as Prime Minister in 1981.
He concludes:
The irony is that the Prime Minister, George Papandreou, whatever his other faults, has thus far stood out for his commitment to the environment... He is now being forced by the EU and the IMF to take responsibility for the worst man-made environmental destruction in the history of the Aegean.
How reassuring then that those self same officials are coming over to take control on behalf of those simple Greeks who just aren't up to running an economy. Reuters reports Eurogroup chairman Jean-Claude Juncker discussing how "the Greek crisis had been largely caused by itself" through paying too high wages (!) and saying,
"One cannot be allowed to insult the Greeks. But one has to help them. They have said they are ready to accept expertise from the euro zone"
Wow! Insulting? Patronising? Or both?  The failure of EU officials to acknowledge even the slightest responsibility for the crisis, all the while developing a new doctrine of bureaucratic infallibility, is profoundly depressing and gives little hope for the future. However, this is Greece we are dealing with and these people should remember that in these parts hubris is inevitably followed by nemesis.


Everyone seems to be getting very excited by Johann Hari's alleged plagiarism. Here is my considered opinion.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Media training

Has Ed Miliband been coached like this?

After watching this strange interview I half expected him to come out with, "That would be an ecumenical matter".


Hat tip Anthony

The interviewer, Damon Green, has also expressed his despair

Friday, July 01, 2011


Coming out of a taverna on Wednesday night, the owners rushed out to talk to us. "Today has been a terrible day for Greece. This is no longer a democracy. We are worried for our friends in Athens. The only difference between now and the junta is that today we can talk and we are telling all the foreign people about what has happened." They were agitated and distressed by the shocking level of indiscriminate police violence against peaceful demonstrators (and even diners in nearby restuarants) that also drew protests from Amnesty International. Greece is not Syria, it isn't a dictatorship, they may have been melodramatic, but there are long memories here of the poverty and repression of the years of dictatorship and their anguish was real enough. They were not alone in their distress. What was more shocking was the claim by the responsible minister that the gas had been thrown by the protesters. Such a brazen lie shows a government utterly negligent in its duties towards its citizens. It took the police union leadership to show that civic society and democratic values are well and truly alive. He apologised for the violence and called for reform of the police service.

And it is reform that should now be dominating the headlines. Reform of the Greek state has long been seen as necessary and few will demur. Though what strikes me is that though there is much talk about the dangers of a disorderly default, I seem to be hearing little from the mouths of the elite about the dangers of disorderly austerity. No, the Greek people have to accept whatever is thrown at them, suddenly and abruptly. 'Shock therapy' is fine for ordinary people but not for the Eurozone banking system. Even if austerity is necessary (something I would dispute - though that is another argument) surely it can be managed in order to best protect the lives and businesses of the people, phased in with alternate investment and employment schemes to help growth, all the while tackling the real problems of lack of competitiveness and the inefficiency of the Greek state.

Even then, something would still be missing. Where is the EU dimension? Where are the reforms needed to monetary union to deal with the problems that have manifested themselves throughout this prolonged financial crisis? Then there is the democratic deficit implicit in technocratic elitism. Where is the discussion of this? Has the EU seen only external threat or the faults of its constituent nations rather than questioning whether its own structures have contributed to the crisis?

These are indeed the questions being raised by the people of the EU. And whilst the 'indignant ones' of Syntagma re-establish their presence, they now know that they are facing their own mirror image, an elite seething with indignation that anyone could possibly question their wisdom, prepared to defend the status quo - with tear gas if necessary.