Sunday, December 30, 2012

The reason why

Michael Moynihan points out the obvious when discussing the latest round of conspiracist nonsense:
In the mid-1990s, during the infancy of the World Wide Web, a visit to my local university library demonstrated that the Internet would be both a great tool of liberation and a megaphone for the fantastically mad. That small bank of Internet-connected computer terminals was reliably occupied by a few student researchers and an army of honking, snorting, flaky-skinned cranks, furiously posting to Internet bulletin boards.
Then there are others who just like pictures of cats.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seasonal nothings

The village is incredibly quiet at this time of year and Christmas Day broke with the sound of a few birds, dogs barking, cats shouting for food and now the buzzing of insects as a few sunny days have broken into the solid rain we have had and has woken them up. I have been particularly inactive due to a bad back. With so many jobs to do in the garden and the need to lug huge logs around for the fire, how did I do it? Reading.

Settling down on the sofa and engrossed, I failed to notice my bad position until the spasm hit. Ouch. My only excuse for such an unvirile fate is that the book is huge, a hardback edition of Les Miserables in a wonderfully vivid translation by Julie Rose. It is a vast, sprawling melodrama, interspersed with meditations on philosophy and history, all underpinned by a burning anger about injustice. My one surprise is how anyone could pick it up and think to themselves, "that would make a good musical."

Oh well, back to the roaring wood fire before being with friends tonight. Hope you have a peaceful or riotous time, whatever suits.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hypocritically misleading

I suppose it was inevitable that someone in the Guardian would use the horrible Sandy Hook school massacre as a device to attack American foreign policy. Step forward George Monbiot.

The accusation is one of hypocrisy; that Obama reacts with grief and horror at the Connecticut murders, but not at the death of children in drone strikes in Pakistan. The trouble with hypocrisy is that it shows up inconsistency, but doesn't tell us much about the virtues or otherwise of the incidents themselves.

Monbiot admits that there is a difference in that American drones are not deliberately targeting children, although he calls the deaths "Obama's murders" as if they were, but he is right to say that the death of innocents is an almost certain consequence of the attacks. The problem is that he doesn't trouble himself too much with who the Americans are targeting, the various Pakistani Taliban groups. And they too kill children, not as an act of individual derangement, nor, to use that disgusting phrase, as 'collateral damage', but as a deliberate policy.

The attempted murder of MalalaYousafzai for the crime of campaigning for education for girls is the most celebrated example at the moment, but a quick Google search reveals a horrendous list. Here are a few headlines: Taliban kill six children in Dera; Pakistan school bus attack kills teacher and three children; The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility Saturday for a blast that killed seven people, including three children, during a Shiite religious processionA Taliban suicide bomber has struck a Shia Muslim procession near Pakistan's capital, killing 23 people ...; At least 62 people were wounded by the blast, including six police officers. Eight of the dead and wounded were children...; and as if that isn't enough children are trained as suicide bombers in a callous act of child abuse - Pakistani Taliban's indoctrinated child bombers.

This isn't a case of 'yes buttery' but a plea to see the event as a whole. American actions are actually aimed at killing child killers, yet in doing so they can miss their targets and kill children themselves. This is a real conflict with real consequences and real dilemmas. Monbiot's cheap emoting, "The children of north-west Pakistan, it seems, are not like our children. They have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and flowers and teddy bears," gets us nowhere, after all everyone mourns their own more deeply even if they are horror-struck by the deaths of others. No, the real debate is how to protect the children of Pakistan; how to prevent the murder of Shia and of children who demand education. And maybe drones are not the way, maybe the risks are too high. There has been a long strategic debate over the effectiveness of air warfare. But it has also to be admitted that the Taliban are not models of child protection and maybe there are no good options, only ones that aren't as bad as others. The very worst outcome would be a Taliban victory. To dress a conflict in the cloak of the moral certainty of the wickedness of one's own side whilst turning a blind eye to the crimes of our opponents does no good at all - not least for the children of Pakistan.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

To Greece

I'm heading south for winter in a couple of days. A Christmas in Greece beckons. To get in the mood I have been listening to a CD given as a reward for a sumptuous summer barbecue. The recording is the setting of some of the poems of Nikos Kavvadias to music by Thanos Mikroutsikos, both famous in Greece but little known elsewhere (and certainly not by me). The music lets the poetry speak.

So, with many, many thanks to Konstantinos, here is the title track of the album, Ο Σταυρός του Νότου (The Southern Cross) with an English translation of Kavvadias' poem taken from here.


In the nor-wester the waves boiled;
we were both bent over the map.
You turned and told me how in March
you'd be in other latitudes.

A Chinese tatoo drawn on your chest;
however you burn it, it won't come off.
They said that you had loved her once
in a sudden fit of blackest fever.

Keeping watch by a barren cape
and the Southern Cross behind the braces.
You're holding coral worry-beads
and chewing bitter coffee beans.

I took a line on Alpha Centaurus
with the azimuth compass one night at sea.
You told me in a deathly voice:
"Beware of the stars of Southern skies".

Another time from that same sky
you took lessons for three whole months
with the captain's mulatto girl
in how to navigate at night.

In some shop in Nosy Be
you bought the knife - two shillings it cost -
right on the equator, exactly at noon;
it glittered like a lighthouse beam.

Down on the shores of Africa
for some years now you've been asleep.
You don't remember the lighthouse now
or the delicious Sunday sweet.

By request

I don't know why I do this. I should leave Israel/Palestine alone because I am tired. I am not alone. For some reason the conflict seems to have been elevated to the defining issue of our age, generating extraordinary passions. A commenter on a previous post, Dave Zeglen, asked for my opinions as to why. So once more I am going to take a deep breath and plunge into the murky waters. This time, I will be more personal. After all, how can I discuss it without saying what attracted me to the subject.

So how did I get into it? Rather unusually, I came to the conflict without an axe to grind. I knew little of it, but I had an uncle who had served in the British army in Palestine and who was always full of stories about his time there. He had many to tell, including the one about the award of the Dickin medal to his dogs who saved his life from a terrorist attack. When I was at university it seemed like a great idea to write on the end of the Mandate for my undergraduate dissertation. I discovered quite quickly that the Foreign Office archives at Kew were a better source than my uncle, but I was hooked. It was simply so interesting, so unique.

I then jumped at the chance to be a volunteer tutor, teaching English to Palestinians in the West Bank. It was an extraordinary experience, but though I developed a profound sympathy for the Palestinian case I was uneasy about some of the opinions I heard. The unease continued when I got back and went to a few meetings organised mainly by left groups. I was appalled at those who appeared to have adopted the Palestinian cause as their own, with scant regard for Palestinians themselves, and were trying to shoehorn it into an ideological box that made no sense and bore little relation to reality. At the same time I was reading some dreadful historical distortions by apologists for Israel, yet when I turned to accounts that were sympathetic to Palestinians they were equally twisted. The two historical discourses were mirror images, each trying to refute the validity of the experience of the other, sometimes denying things that I had seen with my own eyes. It was even more interesting, if perplexing, so I continued to read.

This was the point when I realised that history was being used as a weapon in a struggle, not as an intellectual inquiry. As a corrective, I attempted to pursue research into the British Mandate after World War II and the professor who was supervising it described the era beautifully in the context of the late 1940s as "a crisis of the second rank, but of the first noise." He felt that Bevin's attention was all on the bigger issue of creating NATO, thereby committing the USA to the defence of Western Europe rather than return to isolationism. Palestine was an intractable nuisance. My view was that, contrary to the propaganda lines being spun, the British had done their best to resolve the contradictions that they themselves had created, before a fit of pique and imperial exhaustion led them to refuse to police the UN partition plan that they opposed. The result was another example of the failure of non-intervention as the civil war took hold in the months before the declaration of independence launched the first Arab/Israeli war.

I never completed the research, though I think that I still hold to the view I held then. Instead, I did a taught Masters before changing tack away from international history and into intellectual history. Yet, the interest always remained, as did the "second rank, first noise" label. Clearly the conflict is of the first rank to the protagonists, where it dominates lives and provides far too many premature deaths, but why should it be so to those who are not intimately involved? And why the passion, sound and fury to the exclusion of all else?

I can think of a few reasons, compassion for the victims, the romantic echoes of all those religious studies classes at school, but these are not the main things. There are prosaic reasons such as the simple fact that it is so interesting, but many of the obsessives don't want to see the complexities and ambiguities. Then it is in many ways our crisis, part of the former British Empire, though also haunted by the dark shadows of European history. It is also a great one for the media. The place is so small that you can be reporting from the front line in the morning and be back in a five star hotel for the evening.

None of these really satisfy. Instead, we surely have to see its prominence as part of our troubled relationship with Jewish people. And where do we start with this? Perhaps from an unaccustomed place. There is a deep strand of philo-Semitism within British politics and ideas. Often romantic, influenced by the emphasis placed on the Old Testament by the Protestant Reformation, it attracted a range of prominent figures. Balfour is the obvious example, converted to Zionism through meeting Weizmann in Manchester during his 1906 election campaign. There were others, Lloyd-George certainly and, most notably, Churchill, recently honoured by a monument in Jerusalem. Yet the main philo-Semites were on the political left. Yes, the left. The establishment of a Jewish state was one of the great causes of the left and remained so until the 1960s. In my early years teaching in adult education I taught many of the elderly veterans of that period, people who remembered as children putting a halfpenny in the blue box on the mantlepiece to go towards the Jewish National Fund's purchase of land in Palestine, Labour activists who felt a deep solidarity with their fellow Jewish activists and even one who remembered that 1906 election and the joy in his Liberal household at the defeat of the Tory Balfour, a former Prime Minister. And then there were those whose Eastern European accents were not wholly obscured by Mancunian tones. They were the ones who got out, the survivors. They too were leftists, solid Labour voters every one.

It is hard to imagine now. Everything has changed. Part of this can be explained by an awareness of the displacement of the Palestinians and a growing sympathy with their plight. This was something the philo-Semites either ignored or wished away. Much too is down to the change in emphasis of the far left, turning away from the futility of revolution in the Western democracies and instead seeing the anti-colonial liberation movements as their new vanguard. This move has been beautifully captured by Paul Berman in his best book, Power and the Idealists. In turn, this has led to the expression of a romanticised Arabism, ignoring the deep authoritarianism and regressive politics of the existing Arab states. Perhaps the most astonishing by-product has been the embrace of the Islamist far right by the western far left. But again, this is not the only source of the current passions. Contiguous with philo-Semitism was the persistence of deep, cultural and historic anti-Semitism. It becomes easy to see Jews as an ultimate villain if this is your heritage. And this too penetrated the left.

I have come across anti-Semitic tropes over and over again in my research. The most common is the association of Jews with finance capitalism. This in turn feeds into the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy, of the hook-nosed puppeteer pulling the strings of the hapless politicians, of the cabals of plotters exploiting the workers. And even without considering the descent into the Nazi horrors, we have our own blood-stained history lurking in the background. This is not to say that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, far from it. Instead, the echoes of the past makes a demonisation of the Jewish state intellectually comfortable. There are those who are scrupulous about avoiding stereotypes and racist narratives, but this does not apply to the comments boxes of newspapers' web sites and popular blogs. There Zionism has become a hate word describing an evil that is unmistakably Jewish. Seeing the depth of this hatred is chilling. Would the sheer vehemence of opinions be the same if anti-Semitism had never existed? I doubt it.

And so we have a tendency to look on the conflict as one between heroes and villains of our own making, not between two peoples, each with their own nationalisms, in conflict over land. Nationalism can be an unlovely thing, but it can also be very necessary at times. If there are two people who need the right to national self-determination more than Israelis and Palestinians, I have yet to meet them. And this is what the two-state solution offers, not an end to the histories of these peoples, but a starting point. And who knows what will emerge as the years roll by and settled, democratic nations share cultural links, commercial transactions, environmental protection and trade union solidarities. Perhaps, one day people will look back at today and find the blood letting somehow inconceivable. But most of all, I hope that Jews and Arabs will cease to be heroes and villains in the eyes of the onlookers and simply become human beings, because therein lies the politics of sanity.


Finally, to the people who visit my comments boxes; argue away, but I won't join in. I am tired and am going off to Greece to think profound thoughts about the Eurozone crisis and my neighbour's goats. This has certainly been a discussion of the first noise in a scarcely read blog and I have had enough ... well, until the next time ... perhaps ...

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The tyranny of analogy

Sometimes we are not the prisoners of history, but of the stories we tell about it. We take highly specific situations and try and understand them through historical analogies, many of which are neither appropriate or even good history. This is the theme of a long and stimulating piece on the Eurozone by Antony Beevor, who gives few conclusions but asks some interesting questions.

At the moment there is a cliché doing the rounds about the conditions in Greece comparing them to the Weimar Republic. Leaving aside the curious notion of looking for precedents in German rather than Greek history, it is a completely different situation, both domestically and internationally. The analogy is tempting because of the current political instability, deflationary economics and the rise of the far right, though at this stage in an economic crisis the Nazis were getting 37% of the vote, not Golden Dawn's 7%. This is not being complacent, the situation is indeed dire, it is just that it does not help to try and understand it by reference to the Second World War.

 I certainly do not agree with everything Beevor writes but this is spot on, "reinforcing failure through obstinacy has always tended to turn a crisis into a catastrophe." And continually referring back to World War II is a way of dealing with the wrong crisis, the one we had rather than the one that exists now.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Losing the plot

Why does the Israel/Palestine conflict send everybody gaga? No other conflict generates quite as much sound and fury. The only thing to rival it for the sheer volume of posts is cats. I get lots of those too. The recent violence in Gaza resulted in my social media and news feeds being overwhelmed by more and more guff supporting one side or the other. Much of it was dismal. At the time of the last major action in Gaza, I wrote a post about the general fallacies to be found in commentaries on the crisis. Everything that I said then could have been repeated ten times over for the latest events - especially about misleading analogies.  Please don't put pictures of Hitler or swastikas on everything. It isn't clever and it isn't funny, just wrong.

This time round there was more. The first thing to say is that I wouldn't criticise comments from those who were actually involved in the events. If you are sitting under a projectile stuffed with high explosives, you have every good reason for hysteria and a very particular perspective. It is the cheerleaders standing on the sidelines that bother me. Both sides have them and they are destructive.

These are the three common fallacies that stood out:

1. The discussion of motives.  Never accept the ostensible reason for something when you can dream up another one. There are two types of fabrication, the Machiavellian and the atavistic.

The Machiavellis have a stock way of arguing. You know the sort of thing: "what this is really about is ..."  Now fill in the blanks to suit your particular outlook: elections, hegemony, revenge, land grabs, internal politics, etc, etc, and that is before we get to all the conspiracy stuff. Most of it is guesswork informed by prejudice. Unless you are knowledgeable, please stop it.

Atavistic commentators tend to attribute motives to the inherent and decidedly unpleasant characteristics of the side that they oppose. I got tired of seeing all Palestinians being conflated with Hamas, as if every Arab was a thuggish, far-right theocrat. But that was as nothing to the anti-Semitism. Sometimes it was chillingly overt, but much of the time it was unconscious. Yet unconscious anti-Semitism is not innocuous, far from it. By absorbing common anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes people can produce a casual, unaware racism that can be pervasive and more dangerous than the ravings of a drooling bigot. So before you are tempted to comment anywhere, please read this excellent guide as to how to avoid it. Steve Bell could certainly have done with it.

Atavism is another way of expressing that reprehensible slogan, much beloved by terrorists through the ages, that "there are no innocents."

2. Moral agency. Most of the cheerleaders spent their time arguing for the innocence of their particular side, denying any responsibilities for their actions. "What choice did we have?" "We have a right to resist/respond." This is a way of dodging the real argument, which is not about whether, but how. The whole discussion should have been about the choice of options facing each protagonist. Once they have chosen a particular route then they know that there are consequences to that choice. That isn't to say that any specific choice may be wrong, merely that the responsibility for that choice and its consequences rests with the people who chose to follow that path.

3. Paranoia. I hate to think of the number of times I saw posts about incidents saying things like, "the mainstream media are not reporting any of this" at the same time as it was plastered all over the headlines and being shown as the main item on TV news. Another popular formula, usually accompanied by a YouTube clip, goes something like, "what they don't teach you in school." Sometimes they are right. They don't teach you that in schools because it is complete and absolute bollocks. I am rather in favour of that as a general educational policy. Sometimes though, they do teach it in schools, but they also include the awkward bits the clip missed out that gives the whole thing a different meaning.

The main way this pathology was expressed was through the constant accusations of media bias, particularly against the BBC - from both sides. There are two points to make here. Some reports were slanted and some downright poor. However, the problem lay with those individual reports, not necessarily with the output as a whole. People were inclined to cherry-pick the items that annoyed them and then use them to say that this 'proves' that the media are institutionally biased against one side or the other. They didn't tend to realise that to show bias of that nature, you have to establish a clear pattern or a consistent preponderance of one type of argument over another. That might be easy enough where the Guardian is concerned, but trickier for the BBC. Given the frequency with which both sides complained of some BBC reports, it seems that the main feature of their output was inconsistency. There is a really lazy argument that says that if you annoy both sides then you must have got it about right. It shows nothing of the sort. It can show that you have got everything incredibly wrong. However, in this case I thought this inconsistency tended to reflect two things. The first was the particular leanings or failings of the reporter, the second was the situation the report was compiled in. The perspective in Sderot will be very different from that in Gaza. What none of them showed was that they were out to get you.

The ceasefire resulted in a pause in the death and destruction. It also seemed to drain the energy of the cheerleaders and the internet subsided into a background hum of communication rather than the crescendo of commentary the violence provoked. And in the relative quiet, voices of sanity and expertise made themselves heard. Here are two, one from each side, not solely talking about the crimes of the other, but reflecting on the faults and dilemmas of their own sides. These exercises in mental honesty are the still, small voice of the solution, heard only in moments of calm. First is Michael Waltzer on Israel's paradox and, secondly from the Arab side, Nasser Weddady calls for "a new resistance movement – to resist being co-opted by Islamists and nationalists whose price for belonging requires betraying core human values." These should be read by everyone, especially the cheerleaders.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Absence makes ...

...the reader desperate for more pearls of wisdom from a fat man? Or perhaps go away, never to return. Anyway, the big gap in posting was due to the fact that I had to complete the manuscript for my book, Making Another World Possible: Anarchism, Anti-capitalism and Ecology in Late 19th and Early Twentieth Century Britain, which Bloomsbury are due to bring out in the Summer.

Of course, that was:

After completing it, I needed pleasure and to catch up on real life.  Finally, I can now turn my idle fancy towards a little light blogging.

I suppose the big news while I was away is that Greece has been saved!  The EU have finally agreed to release the funds for the bailout.  As far as I can see there are only two minor flaws to the package:
1. It won't work
2. It will make the situation worse

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Local pride

The website Pylon of the Month has given its award for September to a pylon between Milina and Argalasti in south west Pelion.  It is indeed a pylon of beauty.

Thanks to Kev

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Convincing proof of the existence of God - the Reverend Peter Mullen has seen the hand of the creator in an eclipse.
The sun is huge and ninety-three million miles away and the small moon is in our backyard, a mere quarter of a million miles away. Yet in an eclipse their discs precisely cover each other. Don’t therefore imagine that anyone designed it that way. It’s just a cosmic coincidence, isn’t it, Professor Dawkins?
He's an Anglican. I think he needs to take a lesson from a Catholic:

Friday, November 09, 2012


Driving back from teaching this afternoon with the car radio tuned automatically to Radio 4, the background speech became the foreground as this afternoon's play slowly drew me in. It was an end of life play. Sometimes, I find this genre buys its emotion cheaply. After all, however happy a life's story is, there is always a sad ending. We do not live for obliteration. But this one, about the last days of a composer, was well crafted and small snatches of exquisite music were used in the transitions between scenes. Was this fiction or based on the life of a real composer whose name I did not recognise?

And here is the joy of the modern, the great gift of technology. I went straight to the internet to discover that this was a real and neglected English composer, though of Irish descent and profoundly influenced by Ireland, E J Moeran. I had never heard of him. Within minutes I was listening to some of his music. Gorgeous. It is unfashionably lyrical for its time, but it doesn't have the sweetness of Finzi. There is complexity, darkness and tension, even as it ravishes. Serendipity sometimes brings gifts - and this is one that will last.

The play is available on iPlayer for the next seven days and here is his short piece, Lonely Waters, from 1931.

And for more, try his Violin Concerto here.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Droning on

Imran Kahn was a fine cricketer. Don't always expect the confidence needed to become a great sportsman to produce political wisdom. His pro-Taliban apologism makes me shudder, but his march against drone attacks has given him a positive hearing among Western leftists and brief problems with US immigration officials. So what about drones and the attacks aimed at the militants in Pakistan? This thoughtful piece from Pervez Hoodbhoy, representative of quite a few that are coming out of Pakistan at the moment, is worth reading in full. He writes:
A drone – of the kind discussed here – is a programmed killing machine. By definition it is self-propelled, semi-autonomous, and capable of negotiating difficult local environments. Remote handlers guide it towards an assigned target. A drone does not need to know why it must kill, only who and how. They have drenched Pakistan in blood, both of fighters and non-combatants. 
We know of the American drones, but he also talks of the Pakistani version:
Pakistan has many more drones than America. These are mullah-trained and mass-produced in madrassas and militant training camps. Their handlers are in Waziristan, not in Nevada. Like their aerial counterparts, they do not ask why they must kill. However, their targets lie among their own people, not in some distant country. Collateral damage does not matter.
And this is the problem with the moral outrage of moral people who recoil at the killing. If their anger is devoid of context and forgetful of consequence, if it focuses on one side to a conflict without looking at the other, it uses only half the world to describe the whole. Hoodbhoy asks the crucial question.
... who shall protect Pakistan’s population from religious militants, stop the daily dynamiting of girl’s schools and colleges, prevent human bombers from exploding themselves in mosques and markets, and end the slaughter of Shiites?
Who indeed? He tries to answer the question and concludes that, as part of a coordinated effort, "The use of aerial drones, terrible though it is, is a necessary evil."

It is an awful choice to have to make. However accurate the weapons, there is the certainty that innocent people will die. This is an inevitable consequence of a conscious decision. However, a drone attack may stop the deaths of unknown others elsewhere. Life and death becomes a random fate visited on people over which they have no control. It is easier to avoid the choice, to condemn the one and not the other, to hope the evil will pass. It is particularly easy if avoiding reality can be cloaked in moral righteousness. But there is no escape. If an undoubted evil is to be resisted, a choice has to be made. It is indeed awful; though utterly necessary.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The greatest game

First a reason for pride, once again Rugby League shows the way a sport can fight against prejudice:
Rugby League’s work in embracing inclusivity and tackling homophobia has been recognised by the RFL receiving the prestigious Stonewall Sports Award of the Year.
And secondly, they are now playing it in Greece. Check out the web site.


A week without the internet due to technical problems was a serious deprivation, extraordinarily so since I have lived most of my life without it. OK, I admit it. I am hooked.  So now, having switched the new router on a few minutes ago, I can return to action with the strangest news item of my missing week:
Jimmy Savile ... is said to have acted as a kind of marriage counsellor between Prince Charles and Diana.
 A single paedophile would seem to fit the bill for this sort of role perfectly. It was obviously a meeting of mutual dysfunctionality.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


It gets more bizarre by the minute. The latest is the strange and very public decision of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to write to apologise for his behaviour in class to his old school teacher. Private contrition may be touching, but it does little for the profile of an ambitious man.

Now, a teacher replies.

And here is my effort:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Douglas Adams
He was lucky. As my book deadline looms, I stare paralysed at the on-rushing date, growing ever larger, more terrifying, and making an ominous rumble rather than a pleasing whooshing sound. What do do? Get on with writing the bloody thing? Of course not. You find something on the Internet to while away many an hour in amusing prevarication. This one is today's joy: the Daily Mail-o-matic.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Part-time blues

Here is the most unsurprising bit of news about student enrolment in UK universities:
... part-time enrolments are down big time compared with last year, by as much as 30% at some universities. And the overall fall in part-time enrolments is likely to be larger than the fall for full-time students in England.
No shit Sherlock. If you close most of the departments of lifelong learning in the country, ones that specialised in part-time courses for adults and taught thousands of students, you might find the numbers dropping a tad.

Of course the reason lies in the impact of the new funding regime and its failure to see universities as anything other than recipients of young people preparing for work. This blindness was matched by institutions, with some honourable exceptions, undervaluing the contribution that part-time adult education made to their universities and to the cities and regions they operate in. The result is an increasingly orthodox sector when the economic crisis demands greater flexibility, just as smaller family budgets are going to squeeze the money available to fund learning. So the combination of reduced capacity with higher fees is a killer.

Ah, I hear the mantra being repeated:
For the first time, some new part-time university entrants can get student loans for their fees, and so will no longer have to pay up-front ... These reforms aim to encourage more people to study part-time and to stem the general decline in part-time higher education study. 
Well, as this report makes clear, only 30% of students will be eligible for loans and besides you have to look at what the loans are replacing. First, fees were often kept low and so the rise in fees is disproportionate, simply pricing many people out of the market even if they can get a loan. The second impact is on low income students who previously had their fees fully remitted and were eligible for small £500 loans to cover the expenses of part-time study. They now have to take a loan to repay full fees unless there is a good bursary scheme that might cover them. They don't pay anything up front, but they didn't have to previously and didn't acquire a debt.

When funding changed it did so without any questioning of the purpose of higher education or of the role a university should play. It is a mechanism without a philosophy. The sheer lack of imagination is staggering, but the loss to thousands of adult education students is incalculable.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Desperately seeking Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm's death has produced a flurry of commentary, not because the quality of his books but because of his belated celebrity status as an historian who was ... shock, horror ... a Marxist.

He might have got away with it if he had not also been a member of the Communist Party and remained a member when colleagues of his resigned in the wake of the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. People are right to have reservations. I have posted before on his equivocal stance on the history of the nineteen thirties that borders on apologism, as well as his more recent descent into fashionable relativism.  Then again, his work on the nineteenth century is impressive, though I have no doubt that his political allegiance did shape some of his later work for the worse.

None of this is an excuse for some of the shoddy journalism that didn't try and engage with his academic merit, but instead flaunted a smug superiority masquerading as analysis. Some of his old friends have come out with flattery, others have given far more rounded appreciations, especially this one from Donald Sassoon, who balances the merits with the errors nicely. The tendency to lurch into simplistic bluster has also irritated Shuggy who put up a couple of good posts in response. Alex Massie also puts Hobsbawm's much misquoted interview with Michael Ignatieff in context in a well-judged piece.

What I want to argue is that the 'Hobsbawm was a Marxist and therefore a mass murderer' line of writing makes two cardinal mistakes. The first one is a misunderstanding of the term totalitarianism. Here is a typical, unoriginal and self-satisfied example. The old trick of substituting the word 'fascist' for 'communist' for effect is hackneyed and tiresome, yet still people fall for it. Of course what it is really doing is using the notion of totalitarianism to say that because fascism and communism were totalitarian they were both the same. I find totalitarian theory really interesting and useful, however the utility of any theory depends on the appropriateness and the precision of its use. Apply it too loosely or widely and it becomes meaningless. Totalitarianism describes a particular form of ideologically driven, illiberal, authoritarian state or movement that demands the complete subjugation of the individual to some form of common purpose imposed by a particular, unquestionable ideology. It doesn't say what that ideology is. Thus you can get very different totalitarianisms that appeal to different people for different reasons. What is more, it is clear that some totalitarianisms are preferable to others. Just ask a Cambodian whether there was a real difference between the post-Stalinist Vietnamese communism imposed on the country and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge it replaced.

Fascism and communism were both totalitarian, but they were very different variants. And if we want to combat totalitarianism we are beholden to analyse its appeal beyond the notion that all we need to know is that anyone who attaches themselves to any type is, of necessity, a partisan of evil. Whatever you think of Hobsbawm, the one thing that cannot be denied is that he was as determinedly anti-fascist, just as he was stubborn in his, not uncritical, attachment to the Communist Party.

The second mistake is another over-simplification; seeing Marxism solely as a form of political allegiance and not as a tool of analysis. Here is one example of its impact on his work. Just as enemies have emphasised his membership of the Communist Party, his admirers have tended to pick out his seemingly contrary role in the 'modernisation' of the Labour Party. In fact both share the same intellectual roots, a class analysis.  Hobsbawm's hugely influential expanded essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, does not argue, as many have said, that the Labour Party was losing its base support because of the disappearance of the working class. Instead, he was writing that Labour was still the party of the working class, but that the working class was changing and becoming fragmented. In becoming so, it developed a range of sectional interests that were sometimes in conflict with each other. One approach to the problem was to try and aggregate as many of those sectional interests as possible. Hobsbawm thought that this would merely encourage division and instead urged a policy that would speak for the core interests that united a fragmented working class - education, health, welfare, housing - at the expense of the pet projects of many party activists.  Though portrayed as moving right, it was an analysis that was rooted in his Marxism. He saw Labour's need to speak for the whole working class, not to move beyond it.

Hobsbawm's Marxism meant more than allegiance to the Communist Party. It was the starting point for his academic interests, including the study of history from below and his work in economic history. These will continue to be read and appreciated - and by non-Marxists as well. His political position was more problematic, mainly due to the tenacity to which he clung to the old faith, hoping for reform from within the party rather than accepting its demise. In this he was hardly alone, even if he was increasingly isolated. He paid for that isolation in hostile obituaries.

Friday, October 12, 2012

And the winner is ...

As austerity programmes dictated by the EU continue to bite, the news is relentlessly bad. Hunger stalks the poorest in the centres of Europe, fascist movements are on the march capitalising on the discontent, riots and protests shake the cities of the periphery and the search for scapegoats is feeding separatism, extreme nationalism, violent racism and growing intolerance. Countries that thought they had escaped the fascism of the past glance nervously over their shoulder at the growing social disintegration. In the face of all this, European leaders stand firm, expressing regret but insisting that there is no alternative to the politics of austerity as they congratulate themselves on their courage in making hard choices.

Just the right time to give them the Nobel Peace Prize then. Brilliant.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Appearance and reality

Decca Aitkenhead has written a rather enjoyable hatchet job on Michael Gove, the Tory Secretary of State for Education. The article depicts him as intelligent, articulate, conscientious and charming. Then it turned on him by examining his writings and opinions, pointing out that, unlike his image as a congenial centrist, he is very much a figure from the centralising Conservative right.

The piece's strength was that it looked at substance, not image. But, as it argued, this is not Gove's own way of operating.
Why, then, do so many colleagues and political opponents see Gove in this rosier, more moderate light? It has to be because of his debater's gift for according courteous respect to opposing views, creating the impression that he's taken them on board, when he hasn't actually revised his position at all. Everyone tells me how carefully Gove listens, but when asked to recall a single occasion when he has been persuaded to change his mind, to their surprise no one can come up with one. It is a case of manners maketh the impression of a moderniser, for Gove's Tories don't need to be "inclusive", or "tolerant". The important thing is to look as if they are.
There is nothing new about this, Graham Wallas wrote about the importance of image before the First World War. However, here we are looking at a chasm between image and reality. Rather than cultivating an emotional response to ideological and policy preferences, what is in effect being created is an act of deception. What is damaging about this is not just its cynicism, thinking that people can only see image and not notice the reality of their everyday experience, but that it also feeds into a cycle of cynicism - the popular view that "they are all the same" or that "they say one thing and then always do the opposite." This has always concerned me; I see it as destructive and alienating. Turning away from the political process with a sneer and knowing smile is a conservative impulse, denying the possibility of change.

Of course it can never last. Reality always wins out in the end, as the coalition is beginning to discover. It is just that it is depressing to see politicians doing their best to prove the cynics right.

Monday, October 08, 2012


A demonstration of the mystic powers of those with special gifts.

Thanks to John A

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

One nation

From New Labour to Benjamin Disraeli. The future of the Labour Party is the Conservative Party of the 1870s. We live in curious times.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Breaking stereotypes

When the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was murdered by a jihadi militia in Benghazi, the event prompted an outburst of apologia on one side and rage on the other. The rage was best demonstrated by the popular uprising against the militias, kicking them out of their headquarters and expressing sympathy with the USA. This is not what the apologists and pessimists were expecting.

That may have been the public response, but the private one has been less widely reported. Media intrusion into the grief of his family would not be welcome, but what of the reaction of his tribe. Tribe? Yes, tribe. Stevens was a native American. I wouldn't have known if it hadn't been for this piece from Terry Glavin.
If there were ever such a thing as a blue-blooded American, it would be Chris Stevens. He was a direct descendant of the great tribal leader Concomly, the senior chief of the far-flung Chinook Confederacy who welcomed the American explorers Lewis and Clark to the Columbia River in 1805.
What is the significance of this neglect? I honestly don't know. Except that just as the people of Benghazi did not conform to the stereotype imposed on them, so too Steven's life showed that consigning native Americans to the margins of the modern USA is wasteful as well as unjust. Perhaps the media, fine tuned to a dominant narrative, would have difficulty in recognising a different reality. And was it ignorance or embarrassment that has led to the neglect to celebrate the fact that as prominent a figure as Stevens had more right to be called an American than most?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Playing with fire

Two disturbing reports:

From Greece.

From Spain.

What are they doing? With no sign that they are learning, conflagration becomes more possible.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Other voices

One of the problems with the left's monomania about Israel and the grim determination of 'anti-imperialists' to see everything through the prism of a malign US foreign policy is that it gives us a distorted picture of the aspirations and opinions of ordinary people in the Middle East and beyond. This is mirrored by some apologists for the Israeli right and especially those other rightists who indulge in clash of civilisation fantasies that picture all Muslims as an undifferentiated, savage horde, even if it is a stereotype that islamists and some of the worst regimes in the region seem keen to live up to. Yet in the midst of all this are real people who are utterly disenchanted with the totalitarian fantasies of their oppressors and the cowardice of their apologists in the west.

This book review highlights a collection of essays that allows them to speak. I particularly liked this comment:
Indeed, while Iran, being mainly Persian, is not part of the Arab world, some of the book's most vivid writing comes from there, courtesy of a young Iranian who, after reading George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, realises he is living in his very own religious dystopia. It is, he says, a "perennially self-righteous society", allowing its rulers to justify extraordinary acts of brutality. "While you (in the West) are fighting for the rights of pandas over there, people are still being stoned to death in my country."  He writes that many Iranians are now so fed up of religious rule that if the regime ever falls, “Iran will form the biggest community of atheists on the planet."
We shouldn't be surprised at the existence of these views, after all they have made a whole series of revolutions, even if the consequences remain unknown.

This is symptomatic of the way blinkered and averted eyes fail to spot the obvious. Here Lauryn Oates discusses the latest bout of murderous, manufactured rage and once again tries to make it plain that it is a result of "an obsession over the desecration of symbols, rather than the desecration of people." As she also points out, "no one commits more violence against Muslims than other Muslims, crimes met with a deafening silence. Often this violence is blatantly defamatory of Islam, as when the Taliban sent suicide bombers into crowded Muslim religious ceremonies."

All those muddled accusations of western-centric orientalism are betrayals of the voices of ordinary people in despair at being the victims of the political ambitions of ideologues and kleptocratic elites alike. This myopia is itself the ultimate in western-centrism, seeing America and Israel as the source of all evil, and in orientalism, asserting that the peoples of the Middle East acquiesce in their own oppression because it is somehow authentic. Instead of judging the acts themselves, they define them on the basis of who carried them out. And in doing so they knit together a blanket of verbiage that muffles the cries of those who want a better life; one that is freer, not subject to arbitrary cruelty, and one that is as ordinary and commonplace as those lived by the apologists who condemn them to a live as the perpetual exotic victim, whilst elevating their worst oppressors to the iconic status of heroic liberators.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Integrate or disintegrate

Mark Mazower perfectly summarises the dilemmas facing the EU in the wake of the Euro crisis:
In short, unless there is a plan for integration that prioritises recovery and growth, what we may end up with is not a Europe that is a "democratic federation of nation states" at all but a gradual unwinding of the entire integration process. A prospect to make some Eurosceptics rejoice, no doubt, but replete with dangers of its own. 
Europeans thus have a tough choice to make: the historic preservation of their national institutions, or greater co-operation and derogation of powers. If, as the Dutch elections suggested last month, they would still mostly opt for the latter then the real argument becomes about the nature of the new institutions, their powers and the philosophy behind them.
"The philosophy behind them"... at last someone is pointing out that it is not so much the institutional arrangements that matters, but the model of political economy that underpins them. A completely coherent fiscal union dedicated to doing precisely the wrong thing is not going to help.

But then he finishes on a most peculiar note
What a sad commentary on the state of British diplomacy that what David Cameron's government thinks about this remains entirely irrelevant.
No, surely what he should have written is, 'thank god that the state of British diplomacy means that what David Cameron's government thinks about this remains entirely irrelevant'. Letting Austerity Osborne and the Etonians loose on Greece? Spare them that, please.

Beyond a joke

This is getting ridiculous.
A 27-year-old man has been arrested by Greek police for what the authorities called "malicious blasphemy," according to a HuffPost translation of a press release.
Police allege that the man managed a Facebook page that lampooned the deceased Eastern Orthodox monk Elder Paisios, a widely popular religious figure, using the name "Gerontas (Elder) Pastitsios."
Pastitsios is a Greek pasta dish, and the page parodied the monk and his work in the vein of Pastafarianism, a lighthearted, satirical movement that promotes irreligion. In a screen shot of the group's Facebook page, which now appears to have been removed from the social network, Elder Paisios is shown with a plate of pastitsios.
Yet another example of the current craze for privileging religion above any other belief system, placing it above criticism - and note too the possible link with the far right. And as there are calls for a UN sponsored world wide blasphemy law, this is a reminder that such a law is only a way of allowing governments to punish the incredibly innocent.

Sign the petition here.

And remember to treat the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with proper respect.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Finger wagging

There is nothing like a bit of violence to send people scuttling for the cover of some semi-apologetics. Whilst the violence has been dutifully deplored all round, it has been accompanied by much hand-wringing about the importance of not denigrating religious beliefs (a bit difficult if you are an atheist like me). This isn't just a failure to stand up for free speech, it concedes that the cause of the troubles was religious offence. By now it should be evidently clear that the YouTube riots were less the result of the rage caused by a naff video clip and more about the continuing attempt at grabbing power by the far right in Islamic countries. And in one place anyway they seem to have won. The minds of much of the commentariat and several foreign offices have fallen into their hands with little resistance.

For example this is a really strange outbreak of isolationism, its contradictions splendidly taken apart by Norm here. But it was the conclusion that got to me:
Islamists need to stop attacking the west, and issuing fatwas against those outside the Islamic belief system. Likewise, the west needs to solve its own problems, rather than insisting on interfering in the affairs of Muslims, while failing to admit that previous interference might have provoked much of the "Muslim rage" that westerners find so "medieval". In fact, the finger-wagging criticism from Islamaphobic zealots is just more of the "We know what's best; you do what you're told" attitude that has already caused such mayhem. It is time for both parties to get a grip.
The assumptions underlying it are the same old stuff. The west is primarily to blame, we have no right to criticise and that if we do it is another example of colonial arrogance. This is, of course, the narrative of the Islamic far right, with the exception of the exhortation to leave us alone and just kill your own people. They would rather like to kill some of us as well.

Of course this 'neutrality' is nothing of the sort. It is a way of accommodating, rather than confronting some spectacularly nasty politics. It is at one with the 'talk with the Taliban' conventional wisdom. Eager to hear the voices of those who would use a suicide bomb to kill skateboarding children, they are deaf to the cries of the Muslim majority being assailed by these political movements. Believe it or not, a fair number of ordinary Muslims rather like the idea of not being oppressed by savage tyrants and appreciate the chance of living in a country that respects civil liberties and human rights. And on occasions they can make their views known:
As fires blazed and protesters danced in the ruined compound of a vanquished jihadist militia, I watched as the citizens of the Libyan city of Benghazi staged a dramatic display of raw people power. Numbed by the murder of an American ambassador in their city, furious with jihadist militias lording it over them and frustrated by a government too chaotic and intimidated to react, ordinary Benghazians took matters into their own hands.
These are the people we should be standing with, the majority. But then solidarity with them would be Islamophobic finger wagging, wouldn't it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


You should be careful what you say on Twitter.  Gary Schofield the former Hull, Leeds and Great Britain centre/stand off, was so dismissive about Wakefield Trinity's chances that he tweeted before the Rugby League season began that he would run naked around Belle Vue (Wakefield's ground) if they made the play-offs.

They did and so did he.


This video is not a pretty sight.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Simon Tisdall has identified those responsible for the awful murders in Benghazi. No surprises for guessing where the blame lies;
... responsibility may also be traced back, directly or indirectly, to those in London, Paris, Brussels and Washington who launched last year's Nato intervention in Libya with insouciant disregard for the consequences.
(The same way as those who criticised the support for the revolution had "insouciant disregard" for the consequences of not intervening? Just saying ...)

The whole article can be boiled down to two points:

1. Don't be fooled by any of the things that have gone right, only look at the remaining problems because I feel relieved and happy that we are doomed after all.

2. If we had let Gaddafi slaughter them all (and a few tens of thousands of others) and reestablish his kleptocratic reign of terror, they wouldn't have been around to kill US embassy staff. Wouldn't that have been nice?

Oh well, it's the Guardian after all ...

In the meantime, here are some others who chorus 'not in our name.'


A much more interesting piece of analysis from Hisham Matar here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


How long does it take to recognise failure? What amount of reality is necessary to overwhelm our defensiveness and conquer our cognitive dissonance? What does it take for us to look at something and say, 'sorry, I made a complete bollocks of that'? Judging by Eurozone policies, it needs something of Himalayan proportions.

By the terms it set itself, austerity has failed. Greece should have been growing modestly by now; instead it is contracting at an accelerating rate. There isn't even a sign of growth, there is no remission from the bad economic news, previously viable private enterprises are closing, fascist thugs not only beat up immigrants on the street, they also get elected to parliament, and there are signs of growing hunger - yes hunger - in what should be an affluent, European nation.

Of course the crisis is being felt differentially and an outsider would see little other than the same lovely country and people. Amongst the tales of the despair of the poor and of capital flight by the rich are others of initiative and enterprise, but underneath there are reports of a deepening pessimism.

This excellent post shows where the bailout money goes - straight back to the donors. This is not a rescue of profligate Greeks, but of imprudent financial institutions, in order to shore up a flawed monetary union.

And despite the failure, they still can't lose the habit. The ECB may now be offering to buy bonds to keep down borrowing costs, but as a condition of doing that they are insisting on ... yes, you guessed, it more austerity. At times like this they should turn to the wisdom of Homer - Homer Simpson that is. "If at first you don't succeed, give up."

Hat tip Marcus Walker

Monday, September 10, 2012

In need

What a world of mixed-up values and reprehensible morals. Where our Members of Parliament kick 12 bells out of vulnerable people but allow the extraordinarily wealthy to leap through tax loopholes designed to protect their already huge stash...  
This issue is not about so-called 'scroungers', who - aside from it being a vile, dehumanising term that should be beneath us - are few and far between. Let us not forget that the fraud disability rate is less than one per cent. No, the issue is the basic human needs that this Government is failing to take care of.

From an angry report on disability benefit in the Daily Mail. Yes, the Daily Mail. Indeed, that Daily Mail.

More too in these reports about poverty in the UK, from food banks, through child poverty, to blatantly exploitative loan sharks.

From my comfortable semi-retirement in my second home in Greece I look at both the countries that I have a stake in and wonder what sort of world is being created and whether the political elites have a clue about the consequences of their policies. Are they deluded? Or perhaps they just don't care.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

American football

This footballer knows how to write to a politician about gay marriage.

I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland's state government. Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.

It gets better.  How I wish that when I had written to my MP in the past about adult education I had thought to use the phrase, "Holy fucking shitballs".


What is the connection between female orgasms and climate change denial? This sounds like the start of a very dubious joke, but actually it isn't. The two were linked in my mind by a couple of very different articles that I read recently.

First up is a wonderfully savage review by Suzanne Moore of Naomi Wolf's new book about, what else, the vagina. There is a lot of malicious pleasure to be had in a stinking review of a book that probably deserves it. Moore set about putting the boot in in a way that would have been far more satisfying than any orgasm. She is particularly rude about Wolf's dipping into neuroscience, "more clueless than someone who has failed her chemistry GCSE but has two TED talks on her iPhone" (ouch!).  And continues,
Yet again we see neuroscience in the hands of the layperson being fused to very determinist ends. Thus neural pathways are formed, chemicals just do one thing, hormones rule. Actual scientists don't think so simplistically, however many rats they have tickled to orgasm.
So we are back in the morass caused by the misuse of misunderstood science; inexpertise leading to a simplistic, 'scientific' conclusion. It is a bad habit, trying to pick out bits of half-digested information to suit a predetermined theory and thereby claim some sort of scientific validity for it. The second article takes on the more serious issue of climate change denial and of a media tendency to abandon any requirement for a modicum of knowledge to help promote the mistrust of expertise by the inexpert. It is a very similar process.

Jay Griffiths writes
Society understands the architecture of academia and knows there are relevant qualifications in different fields, and the media accepts the idea of specialisations and accords greater respect to those with greater expertise. With one exception: climate science. 
When it comes to this academic discipline, it seems that if you are a specialist in public sector food-poisoning surveillance or possess a zoology doctorate on sexual selection in pheasants, editors will seek your contrarian views more avidly than if you have qualifications in climate science and a lifetime's professional expertise. The press is further littered with climate "heretics" almost all of whom have academic backgrounds in history, literature, and the classics with a diploma in media studies. (All these examples are true.) One botanist trying to argue that glaciers were advancing took his data (described as simply false by the World Glacier Monitoring Service) from a former architect.
What these 'sceptics' have in common is the self-image of being enlightened heretics, a Galileo complex. The problem is that their heresy is only lightly adorned by learning. In fact, they are repeating well-worn clichés that have been long disposed of and, though they see themselves as rugged individualists, they are really conservative conformists promoting a vested interest.

So let's think a bit more about expertise. We have a popular image floating around of the lone maverick genius. It doesn't really work that way. A flash of individual insight often can start the process off, but the accumulation of evidence prior to that has already pointed the way. The development of knowledge is as much collective as it is individual. This is why peer review is important. It doesn't guarantee that you are right, but it does point out when you are talking bollocks. This isn't an example of the wisdom of crowds, but of collective expertise harnessed to a common purpose. And this is why scientific consensus is important.

Of course expertise does not confer infallibility. Experts get things wrong, often badly. But that doesn't mean that they are invariably wrong, or that non-experts are more likely to be right. I have always felt that there is no necessary correlation between a position in an organisational hierarchy and expertise, but again that isn't to say that we should give equal respect to those with a smattering of knowledge leavened with a vivid imagination, because they are somehow more 'authentic' or demotic.

I like the way Griffiths ends up
The author has fallen victim to the Galileo fallacy. Just because Galileo was a heretic doesn't make every heretic a Galileo.
And what is more, Galileo was seeking to overturn dogma with data, research and observation. Climate change sceptics are trying to overturn data, research and observation with dogma.

In the meantime, here is an exasperated expert.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Against hysteria

This book looks interesting, one for my post-writing reading list. I have been troubled by the way in which a legitimate concern over jihadi movements has morphed into a general intellectual incoherence. Parts of the left have embraced an apologism for some unspeakable theocratic monsters for fear of being 'Islamophobic', whilst the far right has mobilised into 'football hooligans against Muslims'.  As for the rest, either an embarrassed and faintly patronising silence reigns or the attention rightly paid to Islamist organisations crowds out a broader anti-racism. This book seems to take the sensible line of looking at Muslim immigration in the context of the usual patterns of migration and assimilation, using good empirical evidence and discussing the external political pressures that they are facing.

I suppose it particularly struck home as I am currently re-reading the anarchist Rudolph Rocker's memoir, The London Years, about the organisation of Jewish immigrant labour, which also took place at a time of terrorism, or 'outrage' as it was then known. This was again associated in the popular imagination with foreign immigrants and agitators. History never provides exact parallells, but there are echoes of today's moral panics and political confusions to be found in the sweatshops of19th century London.

Here is a short video of the author discussing it.

And a review from Terry Glavin here.

Friday, August 31, 2012


A new world record entry for the Guinness Book of Records.  The largest number of people dancing in a single syrtaki in Volos tonight.


An amazing arial view (together with the arrival of the Argo) here.

Blue moon

The second full moon in any month is conventionally known as a blue moon and there will one tonight.

It's bad news for lovers of sardines and anchovies, they can't be caught on bright nights. Although the association with Manchester City may be unfortunate, Rogers and Hart's Blue Moon is still a classic. There are so many versions to choose from ...

Here's an early one - Belle Baker recorded in 1935:

This is another 1935 version by Greta Keller. Then there is the incomparable Billie Holiday. And here are some outstanding Jazz instrumental versions by Art Blakey and Stephane Grappelli.

But I am in Greece, so I have to finish with Haris Alexiou singing Panselinos.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Crisis time is here again

Not that it ever went away. Samaras has been begging for time to get some sort of growth in the Greek economy, but the need to maintain the Franco/German alliance now seems to be standing in the way of French support for a less insane economic policy. Both countries are now putting pressure on Greece.  Much of this pressure is played out as a piece of theatre that consists of the stern authorities demanding obedience from the recalcitrant Greek child.  This article is well worth reading as it unpicks the moral drama without denying the need for reform. The point it makes is that,
To suggest that Greece is in a constant struggle to meet the troika’s fiscal goals because of indifference rather than due to the deteriorating state of the economy or because of the political difficulty of passing unprecedented -- by eurozone standards -- austerity measures is pure subterfuge. 
Pointing out that austerity has most certainly been implemented by Greece, and at immense economic cost, the article continues by saying,
The structure of the Greek bailout ensured that nobody in the official sector has lost money and the creation of an escrow account earlier this year guarantees that everyone who has lent to Greece will be repaid. In fact, when one factors in the interest and lower borrowing costs countries like Germany have benefited from as a result of weakness in other areas of the eurozone, the bailouts have turned a tidy profit. If Greece is a bottomless pit, it is the first in the world to return the money thrown into it with interest.
And then we come to yet another conclusion that says that the Troika have got everything wrong,
A crisis that is eminently solvable is instead being tackled in such a perverse manner that it threatens to erode Europe’s very foundations ...Greece is essentially being asked to pull even more of the rug from under the feet of its teetering economy, and risk the fragile political balance in the country, to receive further loans, which will be used to pay back existing debt. As Nomura Research Institute’s chief economist Richard Koo, who argues that the eurozone is experiencing a balance sheet recession, put it in a recent note, “it is as though a team of doctors insisted on administering the standard treatment for one disease to a patient suffering from an entirely different disease about which they knew nothing.”
And still they are not listening.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Back to school

Especially for Glenn Greenwald and Simon Jenkins, here is a simple lesson in logic.

Hypocrisy: particularly foaming at the mouth accusations of.

Just because it is the pot that calls the kettle black, it doesn't mean that the kettle is not black. If indeed the kettle is black, it means that the pot is absolutely correct. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sundry thoughts

Eleni is very frail now. I visited our old neighbour on her trip to stay with her son. At 102 she is no longer mobile and can barely sit upright. But mentally she is a sharp as can be, refuses to take any medicines and can still roar with laughter, especially when I make up for my deficient Greek with mime. My donkey impersonation was especially impressive, if ineffective. This game of charades started with a guess at a rabbit and I gave up when we got to horse, much closer in size. It had to do. I have blogged about her before obliquely here, as well as here and here.

As I left, I pointed out to Eleni's daughter-in-law how her husband must have inherited the same genes for longevity. She looked to the skies and crossed herself in horror – 'Ach! Panagia mou!'


One of the problems with novels can sometimes be the awkward contrivance of the plot as it bends and twists to create a convenient and conclusive ending. There are ways to avoid this, but there are also genres that celebrate contrivance and make it integral to the art form. One such genre is farce and Michael Frayn has written a gem of one set in Greece, though not about it. Skios is a delight and has been long listed for the Booker prize. It is lovely to see something light hearted get some recognition. There is a profile of Frayn and the book here.


How about this for the plot of a farce?

An extradition request from Sweden for a man accused of sexual offences, including one count of rape, is finally granted after an exhaustive process of appeals. The wanted man then skips bail and claims political asylum to protect his right to free speech in the embassy of a country with a lousy reputation on free speech, because of the danger that he could be extradited to the USA from Sweden to face the death penalty, despite there being no extradition request and the fact that Swedish law will not permit the extradition of anyone who may be subject to the death penalty. In the meantime he gathers a range of celebrity supporters who either ignore the charges or excuse them ('bad sexual etiquette') and repeat all sorts of strange claims (including it being illegal not to wear a condom in Sweden, which makes me wonder how long it will be before the Swedish population dies out). Transformed into a celebrity victim of the new world order, he gives a balcony speech. Let's call it a drama of self-righteousness, self-pity and self-preservation.

No. Too far fetched.

There are some positives to come out of the affair. It has given an opportunity for an unpleasant individual to be ridiculed, confirms suspicions that there is not an excess of sanity out there and has given the Guardian the opportunity to once again provide a platform for more lunacy.

Meanwhile – here are some facts.


And all the while I get a visit from a stray cat that looks like Hitler.

More here

Monday, August 20, 2012

The aesthetics of oppression

I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, the world sees Russia differently from the way Putin tries to present it at his daily international meetings. Clearly, none of the steps Putin promised to take toward instituting the rule of law have been taken. And his statement that this court will be objective and hand down a fair verdict is yet another deception of the entire country and the international community. 
Yekaterina Samutsevich

Read it all together with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina.

Free Pussy Riot.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


I sometimes have conversations about Israel/Palestine, both online and face-to face, with younger people and they disturb me. Their support for Palestinian statehood, something I have long shared, can often be scarcely differentiated from an anti-Israel sentiment that simply assumes the inherent wickedness of the state. It isn't hatred; it is disdain. Above all, what worries me is their certainty. Doubt does not trouble them, nor do they think of Israelis as anything other than oppressors. Does it ever cross their mind that they are Jews, or that the history of the conflict is inseparable from Jewish history and experience? I don't think so. As a result, they carelessly leave an intellectual door ajar and sometimes I wonder what it is that seeps in through the crack from the room beyond.

And so I come to a remarkable series of thirteen posts by the poet George Szirtes about his sense of his own cultural inheritance. It will be well worth your time to read them all. Whenever I read his poetry, I get a feeling that each word is casting a shadow, dappled layers of meaning, which lays bare a moment in time. In the darkest corners of those shadows lurk the ghosts of the worst of the twentieth century. They are not his own experiences; they are a room that he has necessarily passed through. He wrote these posts to try and explain, "…my feelings about Israel, a country I have never visited, based on a religion I have never practised, and a culture I have never shared". And he shows precisely where those young people go wrong.

The metaphor George chooses is a yellow room, taken from a Chagall painting. It is atmospheric and enigmatic; an intimate, welcoming, refuge. Outside it there is an inescapable sense of unease. The only moment that jars is in his eighth post.
Roughly similar number of Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs left or were expelled from their previous dwelling places in the 1948 period (c 800,000 Palestinians, c 700,000 Jews from Arab homelands). 
The problem here is not that it isn't true, there was a mass displacement of both peoples with all the pain that involved. But unlike the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, the experience was not symmetrical. Jews had a refuge to move to, one that they were now determined to defend. The Palestinians had nothing, only the camps, only exile. And so they had to invent their own refuge, a room of their own. For the older generation it was constructed from memories of their old homes, something real that they had known and for which they kept the keys and deeds as sacred icons. The younger generation moved in and decorated it with unreality. Palestine became an Eden; one that could be recovered because they had not fallen, they were pushed. It was not made of the mundane; it was a dreamland, a golden room. People kill and die readily for glorious fictions.

And this is the essence of the conflict. Two peoples have become deeply entwined in tragic histories. They have more in common than is often admitted and that is why I repeat the slogan whenever I can that to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli at the same time is not a contradiction. It is a necessity if we are to untangle these enmeshed tragedies. To practical minds, the two-state solution stands as the starting point for coexistence.

All of which brings me back to these perfectly decent young people and the ideologues who fill them with righteous ardour. It's odd, they never seem to mention the word Jew. Instead they use hopelessly inappropriate analogies – 'colonial settler state', 'apartheid state' and the like. Anything to avoid even thinking that they are talking about Jews and that this noble cause could have anything to do with Jewish people. There is a reason for that of course. We gentiles have a room too. It is part of our history and we don't want to think about it. If we do, it might dilute certainty with ambiguity. The room isn't yellow. Sometimes it is made out of rough planks, sometimes of cement and occasionally it is constructed from neatly dressed stone placed on a picturesque mound in a beautiful northern city. This room is part of our cultural inheritance and it is intrinsically tied up with Jews. It is the room in which we kill them. And so I think I know what bothers me. It is the smell seeping through that half closed door. I can recognise what it is now.

It's gas.

Follow these links to read all the posts in order: 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12; 13