Feb 282013

It’s an old topic but both Norman and Chris feel obliged to revisit it.  Clearly, there must be something which keeps it up in the forefront of our minds.  It does in mine too – most days of my lapsed Catholic existence.  So why might this be?  Norman quotes from John Lloyd, writing in New Statesman (the bold is mine – and I particularly draw your attention to the use of the word “armoury”):

[…] the responsibility to protect remains a powerful moral imperative. It must remain part of the armoury of those states with the power and the will to stop tyranny where it is possible to do so and where intervention is likely to work – as it did in Sierra Leone, in Kosovo and ultimately in Bosnia. It may work in Mali. More thought needs to be given to how it might work in Syria. For the left, the responsibility to protect should be part of aprogressive view of global problems. That the principle has become synonymous with a kind of refurbished imperialism is a sign of decadence.

Meanwhile, Chris suggests the following:

One message of Lincoln is that even decent men must sometimes use unpleasant means to achieve worthy ends. […]

Now there have been plenty of arguments over what the British Coalition government has been doing to its people over the past three years or so.  Most explanations on the left of the political spectrum seem to centre on stories of conspiring neo-conservatives looking to replace sensible British socialism with the corporate capitalist landscapes they already shape in the US to fill their ever-deepening pockets.  In fact, I wrote yesterday about two examples of where this might already be happening – first of all, in Greece; second of all, here in the UK.

On the right, meanwhile, the publicly acknowledged discourses seem to focus on seeing life in terms of the deserving and the undeserving.  We get language such as “scroungers” and “shirkers”, contrasted violently with those who “strive” for what they have.  Hard-working families versus disabled couch potatoes who cause local councils any number of financial problems at the expense of the “economically viable” in society.

Not such a massive gap between such attitudes and New Labour’s aspirational socialism, to be honest.  Something we, perhaps, do not readily recognise enough – nor often enough either, it would seem.

Yet it seems to me that without wishing to demonise any human being a priori – that is to say, solely on the basis of their politics – we need to examine if there isn’t a far more profound and fundamental fault-line causing all this awful disenchantment; all this societal dysfunctionality; ultimately, all this cruel mismatch between what we start out exhibiting, as birth gives way to initial innocence, and how we end up in the hours before death.

Can we honestly say that any human being ends up doing more good than bad?  If progress – real progress fairly conceived – is the measure of how efficient, competent and inclusive our democracies and wider civilisations are supposed to be, how on earth can we define this “doing good by doing bad” as any kind of convincing progress?

And here, exactly here, it seems we finally find our fundamental fault-line: whilst we on the left sincerely believe in a supportive human existence, you on the right sincerely believe in a warlike human existence.  Whilst we construct strange caverns of political duplicity to get past you all kinds of Machiavellian intentions – witness New Labour’s famous socialism by stealth, for example, in the honestly held and understood (even where failed) intention to create a tapestry of humanity – you perceive precisely our best efforts as terrible weaknesses bound to lead us all to damnation.  For you, the world is a violent place of conflict.  To deny this reality is to play manipulative games of self-deception.

On doing good by doing bad?  That is – perhaps – what the right has done since time immemorial.  Not out of a desire to do evil at all.  Simply out of a nonchalant acceptance of the animal within us.

“Transformative reconciliation” was a phrase which came my way via Twitter this early afternoon.

We certainly need more of that right now.

But, perhaps, in the violence the right is inflicting on us now – out of this firmly-held belief that since violence is inevitable whatever one does, better a doing-good style of violence than an entirely doing-bad one – “transformative reconciliation” isn’t even for those of us on the left to perform.

No.  The Tories are not Nazis.  At least, not yet.

But the battle enjoined may have a similar sense and insensibility.  It might be the case that we on the left have to consider John Lloyd’s terminology very carefully.  When he says the responsibility to protect “must remain part of the armoury of those states with the power and the will to stop tyranny”, perhaps – equally – we must apply it to our internal conflicts back home.

A war of a kind then?  Even if only figuratively couched?

Time to do good by doing bad?

I hardly suggest this lightly.  Democracy is a precious figure which, once lost, is truly hard to regain.

I just know that – somewhere along the road we are blindly treading – this Britain of mine, this homeland of mine, this nation of mine, will begin to look just a little like the earthquake-ridden anterooms, which, located all those years ago along all those Balkan fault-lines, destroyed millions of lives, as well as their corresponding tranquillities, that we felt post-war Europe had awarded us.

As a Spanish general recently observed (page in Spanish): “The fatherland is more important than democracy.”

So is that the terrible place we are slowly being driven towards by the righteous Tories?  (Or, indeed, by our stealth-riven selves?)

And if so, how on earth should we properly react?

By doing bad ourselves too?

Is that really the only way?

Feb 272013

Time to be totally honest about this.  I’m officially diagnosed – have been for most of my life – both epileptic and paranoid schizophrenic.  I’m not quite sure about the second diagnosis – my doctor refuses politely to revisit it any more.  But I have been – and still am – dependent on expensive medication in order that I might function.

Without it, I would at the very least be having multiple fits every day of my life.

This, therefore, has profoundly shocked me – not only shocked me but revolted and disgusted me:

[In Greece, hundreds] of drugs are in short supply and the situation is getting worse, according to the Greek drug regulator. The government has drawn up a list of more than 50 pharmaceutical companies it accuses of halting or planning to halt supplies because of low prices in the country.

More than 200 medicinal products are affected, including treatments for arthritis, hepatitis C and hypertension, cholesterol-lowering agents, antipsychotics, antibiotics, anaesthetics and immunomodulators used to treat bowel disease.

The Guardian goes on to report that:

Chemists in Athens describe chaotic scenes with desperate customers going from pharmacy to pharmacy to look for prescription drugs that hospitals could no longer dispense.

The government list includes some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca. Pfizer, Roche and Sanofi all said a few products had been withheld. GSK and AstraZeneca denied the claims.

So why are the drugs being withheld?  It would appear that traders as well as wider corporate greed are both, once more, at the heart of our problems:

“Companies are ceasing these supplies because Greece is not profitable for them and they are worried that their products will be exported by traders to other richer countries through parallel trade as Greece has the lowest medicine prices in Europe,” said Professor Yannis Tountas, the president of the Greek drug regulator, the National Organisation for Medicines.

I’m truly sorry for the language I’m about to use here but I see no other way of expressing my rage.

On second thoughts, nothing in the English language fully expresses the way I feel right now.


Of course, you’ll be thinking, and I bet you are, Greece is one of those reasonably faraway countries we like to nastily describe as PIGS.  Which, in truth, says far more about ourselves than any unfortunate object of our prejudices.

Only, quite interestingly, this acronym has been expanded on two occasions – and can occasionally be now seen even as PIIGGS.  Yes.  Great Britain is joining the band of merry men and women whose sociopolitical and economic environments do unpleasant things to their peoples in the name of financial probity.  Looking for examples?  Try this one, again from the Guardian tonight:

The acrimonious debate over soaring energy bills and mounting fuel poverty reignited when British Gas – the biggest energy supplier in the UK – unveiled an 11% increase in profits and its parent group, Centrica, promised a £1.3bn handout to its shareholders just months after pushing through an increase in household bills.

Campaign groups warned that 160,000 children had been dragged into fuel poverty by the actions of the big six energy suppliers since 2010, while trade union bosses accused energy chiefs of “creaming off” profits. Dividends of more than £3.5bn have now been paid out by Centrica over the last five years. Anger was exacerbated by confirmation that Phil Bentley, British Gas’s managing director, will stand down with a combined pay and pension package worth more than £10m.

Curious, isn’t it?  After the credit-crunch years, and as all those little shareholders of people’s-capitalism fame found their investments slipping like sand through their once expectant and optimistic fingers, so the big corporate blue chip companies – riding out the storm – have begun to handsomely reward not only their managerialist executives but also their cleverly deep-pocketed gargantuan corporate investors.

As people’s capitalism went into reverse gear, so the corporates learnt to bide their time.

As people’s capitalism lost the support of the people, so the brutal corporations remembered how to keep their resources ever closer to their (war) chests.

And all of the above on the backs of 160,000 children.

All of the above on the backs of the most poverty-stricken.

Brute corporate force, exerted brutally – is this really what we deserve?

Transnational pharmaceutical companies which hold cancer patients, schizophrenics, heart-condition sufferers and people with depression to the kind of ransoms only bastard kings would ever consider.

Energy conglomerates which pile the pain on every winter as they force the poor and elderly to choose between food and fuel.

Where the HELL is your HUMANITY, for Christ’s sake?  Where the HELL is your SHAME?  Where the HELL did you leave your CHARITY?

Where the HELL do you THINK this will LEAD you in the end?

Or IS this HELL we already inhabit?

Feb 272013

There’s so much cruelty around, so much unkindness, so much of it delivered by those who have power, that I think it’s time we decided to fight for a new measure: a yardstick aimed at delivering a more humane society.

That is to say, in an electronic world, a society which is more human-e.

Labels are the essence of latterday life: there is nothing more likely to engage a superficial consumer than a competition to put a name on the latest fad.  So here we go – and, perhaps, to some future good objective we can devise this yardstick for the betterment of other civilisations.

For I’m truly beginning to get the feeling that the one we call our own will shortly be as morally and economically bankrupt as any other in our complicitly shared (in)human history.

My label then?  The Kindness Index.  Something to be enshrined in international law, with the political power and widespread recognition to ensure that governments, political parties, civil services, corporations and other significant institutions of current mass organisation pay dutiful homage to the best of our species’ legacy – instead of, as is now the case, to the very worst.

What would it cover?  The treatment of the most defenceless in our societies.  It is only by observing how we treat those with no power whatsoever that we can usefully determine our moral efficacy and properly define the degree to which we love and cherish natural justice.  The following list is by no means complete – but it may serve to help explain what I am looking to achieve:

  • The degree to which we support the (so-called) disabled in their common desire to live full and fulfilling lives
  • The degree to which the approach of old age is feared by those nearing retirement
  • The degree to which those already retired fear winter, the end of the month – maybe the beginning of the month too, maybe every day of the week
  • The degree to which work is seen not only as a way of earning one’s living but also as a positive and engaging way of spending one’s time
  • The degree to which our children love school and education – maybe enjoy learning not only at home and through their very personal gadgets but also in the presence of other children and in more formal circumstances
  • The degree to which our parents love parenting – and are prepared to convey such love to others
  • The degree to which we all wish to follow politics and politicians – maybe not only what they do but also what they say
  • The degree to which we value and are proud of the way we do things for our nations

In 2003, they said I was mad.

Perhaps I still am.

Maybe so.

But I wish, even so, that some of the above could be enshrined in an index which all our leaders and institutions – whether political or business – would not only be obliged to measure up to but would also, actively, choose to subscribe to.

And that such a desire would come out of shared kindly culture.

And that such a desire would come from within.

So what say you?  What label?  Would the Kindness Index do?

Feb 262013

Via Facebook, I’ve just seen a photo of a notable cleric and an infamous DJ.  I don’t know if it’s been retouched (the photo I mean).  I’m not really interested either – at least for the purposes of this post – in whether the story is true or not.

For the moment, all I would like you to focus on is the game that’s being played.

All of a sudden, from politicians to celebrities, from the clergy to singers, from the high-and-mighty to the lowly of caste, skeletons are being violently forced and levered out of closets and coffins.  There seems to exist a particularly Anglo-Saxon delight in pursuing those who have allegedly committed sins of the flesh.  Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that they shouldn’t be pursued.  As I’ve already said on these pages, we should all bear witness to the lives we have chosen to live.  What I am trying to make patent is that there is a certain excess on display – a definite inaccuracy too – with respect to what we’re accusing all these people of having committed.

Above all, when we lick our proverbial journalistic lips and use distancing techniques to protect ourselves from all awful association, or slyly juxtapose old and recent news, the inaccuracies – and perhaps also the bad faith thus contained – become all too apparent.

These matters are being sold as a righteous society cleaning up after sexual perverts.  Two reactions on my part:

  1. The sexual abuse committed (or not) by those currently in the limelight is not principally a matter of sorry individuals abusing others sexually – but, rather, a question of the powerful abusing the powerless.  It is not sex which matters most here but, instead, the abuse by those at the top of our societal trees over those who find themselves almost inevitably at the bottom.
  2. Inasmuch as we are talking not about sex but – in truth – about power, the lesson we should draw is that any abuse of any power by absolutely anyone – and not just tabloidy abuse of a lascivious nature in a sexually couched transaction – is, frankly, as bad as absolutely any other.

What, as a consequence, is our society ignoring – even deliberately and self-interestedly as might be the case?  Well, I would suggest the following: the fact that the Anglo-Saxon Inquisition is now pursuing the “perverts” we perceive with grand vigour – when, at the time, the all-powerful establishment got away with almost everything it cared to, as phone-hacking, the altering of police evidence and the fucking and deceiving of young and impressionable activists in the name of state security all got their shabby green lights – doesn’t half make one wonder whom this sudden inquisitorial bent should suddenly serve to benefit.

For the abuse of power continues apace.  The abuse by the powerful over the essentially powerless is as prevalent now as it is now appearing to have been then.  And whilst sexual abuse still plagues our societies – and still finds itself the object of rightful condemnation – the kind of abuse I would like our police to pursue with equal enthusiasm is the kind of abuse I see exerted by elected representatives over the people they supposedly serve.

This hullabaloo over sexual abuse is right and appropriate – but only if we inscribe it in a wider campaign to eliminate the cruelty of the rich and connected over the poor and disadvantaged.

Time, then, for us to fight for an Atos for political professionals?

Time to seriously wonder if our politicians are fit for work?

Time to decide if MPs, and other political movers and shakers, are suitable for the jobs they carry out?

Time, in essence, to propose an Inquisition to investigate and interrogate the workings not of Anglo-Saxon sex but – rather – of Anglo-Saxon power?

Feb 252013

I received an email this afternoon on a new report by the Fabians.  I am a member of this grouping, though a rather passive one.  I suppose it would be fair to throw the accusation of armchair socialist at me.  I like my armchair, it is true.  But what I really like is words.  Their order, their relationship with other words, their choice and their juxtaposition.

All of that stuff, for someone who writes a lot, is significant and key – even when it might not necessarily be for you.

Not that I’m suggesting it should be.  We all have our different ways of looking at the world.

Anyhow, the email I mention leads me to this web page – and then onto the report itself, where we start out with these words:

Labour needs to answer five questions about the future of the state, so that it comes to power with a radical programme of government, but one that survives contact with the reality of office. […]

The five questions line up as follows – in order to make the exercise I’m about to carry out work better, I’ll put them in an ordered list for you:

  1. Is there a middle way on fiscal policy?
  2. What are the next ‘pledge card’ policies?
  3. What does Labour do with the legacy it inherits?
  4. How does government change the economy and society?
  5. And how does Labour create a better state?

This was then sent my way in a slightly different and more concentrated form on Twitter (sometimes Twitter serves quite usefully to reveal what a greater space and time often obscure):

5 tests for the next Lab gov: fiscal trust, pledge-card ideas, coalition legacy, culture and markets, a better state […]

 So let’s rewrite the above list with the language as per the tweet:
  1. Fiscal trust
  2. Pledge-card ideas
  3. Coalition legacy
  4. Culture and markets
  5. A better state

I responded to this tweet in the following way:

@andrew_harrop Good ideas – bit surprised by order. IMHO shd be: coalition legacy; culture & mrkts; fiscal trst; better state; pledge card.

Which is to say:

  1. Coalition legacy
  2. Culture and markets
  3. Fiscal trust
  4. A better state
  5. Pledge-card ideas

What really am I up to here then?  Well.  As horsemeat’s all the rage, it did seem to me that a few “cart before the horse” games were being played in what at first glance might appear to be a casually ordered list.  The question I ask of myself – and, through this post, of you – is whether the order the list was served up in was quite as casual as it first appeared.  In particular what stuck out as that proverbial sore thumb was “pledge-card ideas” at position number 2.

How so?  Using a pledge-card strategy as your second big idea or test for adequacy in government two years down the line is hardly the most convincing, nor politically solvent, move to make, now is it?

So what about the list I went and suggested?  By 2015, when the next general election hits us, for sure it’s going to be hitting us hard.  The coalition legacy will be clear for all to see; uppermost in people’s minds; a massive constraint on what Labour’ll be able to promise and deliver; and, more importantly, a starting-point for everything.  On the back of that legacy, we have a far older one – political and fiscal culture and markets.  One which this government will have done absolutely nothing to convert.  One which will be living on its highs of inviolable dominance.  And only if Labour knows how to deal with these two items first will the third on my list become at all possible to engineer and acquire.

A better state is my fourth, of course – something I think all of us on the left are aiming to create.  But it comes as a result of dealing with the first three – the first three being either the obstacles or opportunities to bring back some sense and sensibility to a “one nation” perception of the British body politic.

Whatever “one nation” might eventually mean for a group of islands where so many peoples live.

The pledge-card idea surely has to come last of all, mind.  You can’t know what you’re going to be able to deliver until you’ve been through the difficult process of deciding what’s available.  You can’t argue: “Shopping-list first!” – and then scrabble around for the pennies when you get to the checkout.  That this seems so self-evident to me and not to whoever drew up the intro makes me wonder if there isn’t some hidden agenda in all of this.  A bit too much input from marketing perhaps – and not quite enough from sensible political and financial observers?

In truth, of course, they’re just words – and words are only this important to silly wordsmiths like myself.  I may indeed be making a massive mountain out of stupidly trivial molehill.  But if that’s the case, do let me know.

It doesn’t harm to inform.

I don’t bite.

Feb 252013

I could start this post by saying:

Ever since I stumbled across some feminist writings on how history was male …

but in reality the spark which brought me to my senses was Michael Jackson’s double album HIStory”.  Bought whilst I still lived in Spain, much treasured too, it was the first time I understood the inconvenient truth behind the word itself.  History – literally – belonged to men.  And women were, more often than not, being written out of the picture.

Today I am minded by this tweet which came my way this morning to write about another possible example of unspoken oppression:

analytical or intuitive mind – one is not better than the other, they each have a different role to play #cipdlrn

To which I responded in this way:

@RapidBI Isn’t an intuitive mind simply an analytical one whose processes we don’t fully perceive?

And, later, in this:

@RapidBI Perhaps we call s’thing analytical when we’re able to share it with others. If not possible to share, the intuition label kicks in.

Traditionally, of course, the analytical mind has been considered male.  Or, perhaps, we should say that’s a certain kind of analytical mind.  It seems to me – intuitively, of course! – that when people talk of “feminine intuition”, they are conflating their understanding of what they easily understand with an idea of how people should (be obliged to) think.

If oppression of the HIStorical kind I mention above is repeating itself with respect to the intuitive mind, I would suspect it has far more to do with fearing the power of an unknown process than any objective assessment of its true nature.  That is to say, much safer to argue the process is unknowable than face the consequences of knowing it all too well.

For, in such circumstances, it’s easier to discard your female brain’s thought processes as non-analytical, simply and entirely because you don’t share its basic assumptions.  It’s rather more difficult to take onboard the idea that perhaps intuition – as we (continue to refuse to) comprehend and define it – is a powerful set of analytical tools which require far greater powers of observation to properly perceive and exert.

It may even be that the kind of men who have described and handed down the history of human intellect have been unable to acquire or manage the skillset which intuition encompasses.  And so, in this way, this inability to acquire something of undoubted importance has led to their desire, instead, to vigorously dismiss it – to undervalue its inherent power and capability and to present it as some mysterious and almost empty-headed process.

A potential HIStory of oppression, indeed.

Feb 242013

My sister just sent me a link to a TED talk.  TED talks are fascinating.  This one describes itself thus:

Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

I think it’s a beautiful idea, one I am inclined to value highly.  I have been a teacher most of my working life – and soon learned to value highly the contribution of students.  Not only in terms of what I asked them to do but – also, and more importantly – in terms of what they learned to ask me to do.

Genius is not the preserve of a man or woman our society determines as being so.  And even if it is, it is only because our society is incapable of perceiving the genius that all of us contain.  Even as we like to focus from a distance on the visibly astonishing, we miss out on the beauty that we exhibit every single day of our lives.  We are clever souls, we human beings.  The virtual democratisation of content we are witnessing this last decade is not primarily a cause of information ills but, rather, a massive release of pent-up generations of humanity unable for so long to visibly express their genius.

And now I have a confession to make.  I haven’t watched the TED talk my sister has sent me as yet.  And I probably won’t.  I really do hope, however, that she doesn’t stop sending them to me.  Today’s post would not have got written if it hadn’t been for her thoughtful including of me in a footnote to a Facebook post.  Although I very rarely watch videos at all, their synopses rapidly read do often spark unfinished and engaging business.

To be honest, I think there’s a reason.  I think I’m a natural reader, not a watcher.  What’s more, I think those who watch are – more often than not (though clearly an exception in the case of my book-loving sister) – natural watchers, not readers.  Which leads me to draw the following conclusion: the old-age battle (or, at least, the sixty-year-old battle) waged between literature and television has subtly restarted since the arrival of the web.  Following on from the middle of the 20th century, our early 21st century online humanity has reasserted a division which should please us enormously.  For between the geniuses of industrialised art and the geniuses of individualised art, we stumble across everything we should admire.  That some of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of tablets and scrolls of yore and that others of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of more oral and theatrical tradition simply underlines the power and strength of them both.

All those centuries ago, we got it right first time.

The instincts to register through writing and speech the thoughts, occurrences and imaginations of a wonderful species were just as accurate and apposite then as they still are these days – continuing as they do to strive and fight their way above the flood waters of passing and irrelevant technologies and discourses.

A reader then, are you?  Or a watcher?  Or a marvellous – highly literate – combination of the two?

Lucky you!

Feb 242013

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, whom I mentioned in yesterday’s post on “Sex, horsemeat and plebeian sausage rolls (again)”, has just been accused of some of the very sins it would appear he has been criticising in the recent past:

O’Brien, who is due to retire next month, has been an outspoken opponent of gay rights, condemning homosexuality as immoral, opposing gay adoption, and most recently arguing that same-sex marriages would be “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved”. Last year he was named “bigot of the year” by the gay rights charity Stonewall.

The latest accusations are reported by the BBC in the following way:

The Observer reported that the three priests and one former priest – from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh – complained to the Pope’s representative to Britain, nuncio Antonio Mennini, of what they claimed was the cardinal’s inappropriate behaviour towards them in the 1980s.

I suggest you read both articles before we continue.


A few issues I’d like to comment on here.  As described above, Cardinal O’Brien has been given the Stonewall “bigot of the year” award for his comments on and attitudes to gay rights.  I’m not sure that hypocrisy is quite the driver here though – at least for O’Brien himself.  In the little I know as a lapsed practitioner of Catholicism and its mores, I’m inclined to believe that the very private – and individually harmful – acts the cardinal in question is now accused of having committed can quite easily fit into his public reactions to their perceived cause.  That we see it as bigotry – even hypocrisy – is of course our right.  This doesn’t mean that O’Brien’s faith can’t lead him to regret the effect that human sexuality might have over some spiritual leader bound by his church’s law not to get involved in its activities.  In fact, if the accusations – which apparently the cardinal strongly denies – were eventually found to be true, it could only clarify his recent call for priests to be allowed to marry, procreate and make family.  Having barely survived a life of repressed sexuality, his final pre-end-of-professional-life request to make more flexible the hard edges of his church could only be admired.  Even if it still left out a substantial part of human experience.

Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t wish he could go further.

There is also another matter that comes to mind.  Again, I’m really not privy to the powerplays of the Roman Catholic Church.  I can only look from the very outside in and try and understand it as I might any other highly hierarchical and corporately organised institution.  But as one of the priests in the Observer report says of the Church’s wider behaviours:

“It tends to cover up and protect the system at all costs,” said one of the complainants. “The church is beautiful, but it has a dark side and that has to do with accountability. If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit.”

And in this I begin to wonder.  That these accusations should come to light just before the election of the next pope, instead of twenty years ago – or even as recently as 2005 when Pope Benedict XVI himself became pope – doesn’t seem an entirely innocent act.  And that comment – “If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit” – is really rather telling, at least for me.  As the Observer also concludes (the bold is mine):

All four have been reluctant to raise their concerns. They are, though, concerned that the church will ignore their complaints, and want the conclave electing the new pope to be “clean”. According to canon law, no cardinal who is eligible to vote can be prevented from doing so.

Does that mean, therefore, that Pope Benedict’s conclave wasn’t “clean”?  And if so, what else is about to tumble out of the papal closets?  And, exactly, why now?

It doesn’t half seem – again, for an outsider attempting to look in – that the Church has outgrown its ability to behave in a reliably correct manner.  Hierarchy has its place, of course – but extreme hierarchy, in the secular world at least, leads to all kinds of abuse.  From the big old-fashioned state to the big new-fashioned corporation, the massive lack of true accountability – and the widespread tendencies to hide and obfuscate abuse in amongst long chains of command – are prevalent in almost every structure out there.  Whether private or public, the same instincts prevail.  Why should the temporal representatives of God be any different?

So is it right to describe Catholics who abuse as bigots and hypocrites?  Not necessarily.  They may simply be human – with all the frailties such a condition implies.  Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t require them to bear witness – as, indeed, we all should do in these lives of ours – to those things of an incompatible nature they have said and done throughout their time on this curiously complex planet.

Inappropriate acts which are clearly incompatible with the all-too-human teachings of a man who was allegedly anything but.

Feb 232013

I know it shouldn’t any more – but what people say, the words they use and the underlying assumptions such words reveal still has the power to shock me.

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, for example, has this to say of the future nature of the priesthood:

“It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.”

I notice two things here – both of which serve to shock me.  Firstly, the reassuring reminder that it’s women these free spirits are looking for as companions.  Secondly, that it’s a free world Cardinal O’Brien is observing.

Amazing, isn’t it?  And there was I, thinking the real problem has been a not insignificant number of priests who – through the decades – have demonstrated how they’ve wanted anything but the onerous obligations of marriage and family, when engaging in the perverse delights of illicit flesh.

These words are almost as revealing as the following comments on the poor.  Again, we get a representative of the powers-that-be uncovering their most primitive prejudices:

Germany’s development minister has suggested food tainted with horsemeat should be distributed to the poor.

Dirk Niebel said he supported the proposal by a member of the governing CDU party, and concluded: “We can’t just throw away good food.”

A German church concurs:

[…] Prelate Bernhard Felmberg, the senior representative of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), has backed the proposal.

“We as a Church find the throw-away mentality in our society concerning. How and whether to distribute the products in question would have to be examined,” the priest said.

“But to throw away food that could be consumed without risk is equally bad as false labelling and cannot be a solution.”

Quite.  No solution at all.

So how about, instead, we serve it up for as long as it lasts to all those politicians, church representatives and other moneyed members of society who believe, in their innermost sanctums, that the poor are truly deserving – but only of the crumbs from the high tables that clearly plague us?

This is verily beyond the palest of pales.  If the poor are deserving right now of receiving “tainted” beef, if – as the German development minister argues – “unfortunately there are people [in Germany] for whom it is financially tight, even for food […]”, then these very same disadvantaged were also just as deserving before recent events took their sorry course.

That the powerful now argue the poor have suddenly become deserving of our charity, and at exactly the same time that metric tonnes of mislabelled horsemeat need to be summarily shifted, is a rank duplicity of the very worst sort.  One hardly needs to be an expert in stratospheric spin to understand that heavy business interests will be pulling in all sorts of favours from their meek and puppet-mastered politicians, as someone tries to salvage as much resource as possible from the disaster.  And what better way than make the poor pay for their poverty?

What better way than via taxpayer-funded graft?

We’re back, I fear, to those prejudiced Tories of yore – for they’re all the same, whatever political allegiances they pointedly profess – who are always trying to slap taxes on plebeian caravans, Cornish pasties and grannies.

We’re back, in fact, to those very plebeian sausage rolls.

Money buys everything.

It just doesn’t buy it for everyone.

Now does it?

Feb 222013

After meekly exiting Labour’s intranet, Members Net, having blogged for quite a while in its partisan embrace, I stumbled across an outside world of blogging at the hand of Andrew Regan’s now defunct political aggregator, Bloggers4Labour.  I thought this a wonderful device, maintaining as it healthily did the visual and locational idiosyncrasies of individual blogsites, even as it brought together in one sensible place the feeds of each and every one.  It allowed for a wonderful overview of what was bubbling under in the Labour-blogging community; it helped new bloggers get exposure and support from existing practioners; and it served to sustain a worthy sense of common cause in what has often historically been a fractured political grouping.

Andrew really did know how to integrate the needs of readerships by using technology.  He would even supply his own often gently proffered and constructive comments on other people’s posts.  This helped create a point of focus on the wider input which – in a very simple and neat way – helped generate an air of shared purpose.

My memory of Bloggers4Labour was almost entirely positive.  Both Andrew and I, sometimes together, sometimes separately, tried to build on this original achievement with other projects which I was either rather tangentially involved in (for example, Andrew’s Poblish – a super-aggregator designed to outdo Google’s own search in the global field of political blogging) or more directly engaged with (for example, my idea for a Last.fm of political thought).  In all cases, I think what drove him – and certainly myself – was a desire to return, in some way or other, to that golden age of political blogging which Bloggers4Labour – at its most didactic and pedagogical best – seemed at the time to represent.

Instead of cramming everyone together in a single platform – a kind of awful melting-pot as per a United States of Blogging – Bloggers4Labour and the ideas that came afterwards looked to allow individuality to shine through even as the aim was to bring voices together.

A European Union of Sovereign Blogging, if you like.

So if it was such a good idea, why didn’t it quite work out?  Who knows?  Maybe because we didn’t have the resource; maybe because we didn’t quite hone the ideas; maybe, in reality, because it wasn’t such a golden age.  Or maybe because blogging, in a different way, has kind of had its time and has transmuted into other ways of exchanging the information we value.

Blogging always was a bit of a traditional hierarchy of communication: author-led top-down authorities who were often challenged, but never entirely toppled, by those who would hang from their coattails.  Which is not to underestimate the importance of commenters to the good functioning of a blogsite.  Sometimes, the broader reputations acquired belonged more to those who commented than to the original posters themselves.

Symbiotic relationships of thought were ever thus.

Of course, we all know what happened to blogging: Facebook and Twitter.  It was probably going to happen, whatever the company name, whatever the online constitution, whatever the business model.  But Facebook and Twitter both hastened traditional blogging’s demise.

People much better resourced than us English blogging fans were able to re-engineer the instincts behind standard blogging for an instant-fix generation.  And so the beautiful exchanges between considered author-led hierarchies began to lose their dominance on the web.


So now we come to February, 2013.  And whilst the domain’s been running for a while, with a fairly traditional blogging platform behind it, SpeakersChair.com – a cross-party political blogging website on which I have had some of my recent posts published – has suddenly had the audacity to suggest, through a massive makeover of functionality, that political blogging might not be as defunct as we thought.

Before this change, SpeakersChair.com was essentially a traditional melting-pot-type blogging platform.  Writers of different political colours submitted their posts for site editors to repost on the site.  We see this model operating successfully in many places: from Liberal Conspiracy to – I guess – even the Guardian‘s Comment is Free.  I think, however, that the new SpeakersChair.com moves away from this model in several significant ways:

  1. From a melting-pot blogging platform like Liberal Conspiracy, where visuals and technologies become common to all authors even as posting rights remain with site editors, it transmutes itself more into a souped-up kind of TweetDeck, where its prime function is to sit as a front-end to both Facebook and Twitter – as well as SpeakersChair.com itself.
  2. The ability – and challenge – of each contributor is to act as an authorial hub around which comment is designed to flow.  I guess this could be the case for contributors who write original posts just as much as it might be for contributors who add their opinions as comments to original posts.  In fact, at very first glance it seems that the deliberate intention is to blur as much as possible the hierarchy between original posters and commenters.
  3. I cannot but help considering this latter innovation healthy: it clearly shows that the designers of this online constitution understand that their version of political blogging needs to “get” social, if it’s to have any decent chance of catching on.  And social is much more than tacking on commenting tools at the tail-end of the professionalising commentariat: social, above all, is a matter of sharing hierarchy and power.

Seen, then, as a communication front-end more than a traditional website, seen in fact primarily as a posting tool to various channels, there is no reason why SpeakersChair.com shouldn’t compete effectively with Facebook, web Twitter and even third-party communication tools out there.

I just wonder if there’s also an app in the pipeline.  That imperious world of mobile Internet doesn’t half make or break communication these days.  It surely would serve to complete a beautifully political blogging circle which, for me, started out with Labour’s Members Net, stumbled for a few years after Bloggers4Labour’s major steps forwards – and which could now quite easily find its natural home in a cross-party communication project that, at least in my humble opinion, has everything it needs to deservedly succeed.

Feb 222013

I fleetingly looked over a tweet this morning which came my way via Sunny Hundal.  In it, a photo informed us:


Needless to say, Sunny felt everyone on Twitter could benefit from these two pieces of advice.

Now the first is, of course, applicable mainly to the context of emails and Twitter itself, but the second could perhaps be extended to a wider and non-tweeting public.  And who could find it in themselves to disagree?  After all, boredom – and all that which leads to one feeling and becoming bored – cannot in a century like ours have any redeeming qualities, can it?  With so many gadget inventors, games designers, news presenters, social media gurus, social network distributors, content creators and imagineers various out there, how on earth can the absence of fussiness and activity – which the whole concept of boredom inscribes – find its place in such a seething and heaving environment?

Impossible to contemplate, surely.

Or is it?

Yesterday, whilst talking over the results of my yearly medical check-up with the surgery nurse, we agreed on how the carrying out of routine tasks often led one to think in a quite distracted way.  In fact, my own sister has observed, on a number of separate occasions, how slowly I tend to walk.  And it’s not out of a physical incapacity or anything like that: it’s just that when doing something routine like walking or ironing or washing-up, my mind begins to weave curious tangential thoughts.  Whilst I’m thinking them, quick walking is quite beyond me.  Quick walking, for me, requires me to focus on the activity in question.  So quick walking and thinking, for me, is simply impossible.

But it leads me to come to the following conclusion.  As a trigger for the imagination we all contain inside ourselves, there is nothing better nor more appropriate – nothing more adequate nor effective – than those moments of outright tranquillity and calm that a real and deadening boredom brings to one.

Which, at the same time, leads me to another conclusion: if the 21st century is as packed to the gills with activity as I have already suggested might be the case, where and when will imagination’s triggers be able to take effect?

Will it only be those self-aware souls – those thinker-doers who learn to ignore a wider communication society’s exhortations to keep moving all the time – who manage to acquire and sustain the peace of mind true creativity needs?

Could this lead to a greater concentration of creative decision-making in an ever-decreasing number of thinker-doers?

Might this then have a negative effect on the potential for democratising our future as we had once hoped?

And is the very fact that we do not now value boredom as we might once have done something we should worry about?

After all, if anything is to save human beings from themselves and their crimes, it will be their very own sparky creativity.

That creativity which, if shared and experienced at large, will allow them to snatch recovery from the busyness they are currently assailing the planet with.


Yes.  I think we can safely conclude we need more boredom, not less.  So do we need to go so far as to invent a boredom device – a sort of inactivity equivalent of a white noise generator?  Perhaps we do.

Time to bring boredom up-to-date.

Time to bring boredom into the 21st century.

Time to devise the next big invention: how to dampen down the useless fission of this debilitating decade’s information explosions.

Feb 212013

I was reading an article from the Guardian on the subject of post-journalism, and whether amongst other things the skillset was becoming irrelevant, when I stumbled across this comment (the bold is mine):

Journalism is, in other words, failing miserably in its role as the Fourth Estate, having been stripped of most of its resources, year on year, ever since the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Talk of new “business models” for journalism are fatally flawed, when it is exactly that – business models – that have bashed journalism to its knees.

This then set off a tangential train of thoughts.  Earlier in the day I had struggled – finally managed – to replace a toilet seat.  We’d bought it from Aldi and it was sold under their own brand, having been manufactured in China.  It was sturdy enough, very cheap at the price.  About half, in fact, what the previous one had cost us – also cheaply – from IKEA.

And so I began to wonder about business and its place in our lives.  I can’t imagine the Aldi purchasing department acted out of the kindness of its heart when it negotiated its order with its Chinese suppliers.  I can’t imagine a very hard bargain wasn’t driven on both sides – indeed, for ordinary people to enjoy cut-price toilet seats, I think we can assume some pretty nasty characters would have to nastily thump hard tabletops, cajole workforces and impose their overarching and undemocratic wills on organisations.

So there we have it: from toilet seats to journalism, business models rule this mass we call humanity.  Yet, as we can see, business models are anything but humane.  It seems to me that this difference between basic assumptions is what is lying at the very nub of the massive disagreements currently dividing our society and politics here in England.  Whilst our ministers and leading political lights on both sides of the political fence cannot reject the brutality of business, other more ordinary people – who depend on the Aldis and IKEAs of this world to deliver the deals they can generally afford – are looking to live quite dissimilar lives.  Yes.  As long as we cannot see – or even just lightly perceive – the cruelty that goes on behind the scenes, we go along with the game.

The problem lately, of course, is that business-positive and commerce-friendly individuals, who – in the past – were happy to run their inhumanities below our radars, are now only too keen to apply such techniques and strategies to other areas we used to believe would be reserved for the softies amongst us.  From disability support to expanding young minds and souls, it seems that the niceties of humanness are no longer our destiny.

I learnt today that the word “weird”, as noun, is archaic Scottish for “a person’s destiny”.  It seems entirely appropriate to me that the intellectual baggage which surrounds the terms “destiny” and “weird” should – in this, as yet, curiously undefining 21st century – coincide violently in such a way.

And this is what leads me to address my own political party in the following terms: it’s time that Labour choose between business and humanity.  Too often its Marxist heritage has drawn it to tinker at the margins with the sourer implications of business and its methods.  There is, it is true, no people so blind as those who would prefer not to see.  But, even so, I would like to think it’s still not too late to understand.  Just as journalism’s business models have been the main and precise reason for its decline, instead of a potential and invigorating solution, so Labour’s – where not labour’s – attachment to the industrialisation of human relationships, and to the impossibility of reversing the direction in which such influences take place, has probably meant – in part at least – that its ability to fashion anything notably distinct from received opinion has been severely subdued.

Where not entirely eliminated.

Humanity and business are no longer compatible.

Of course, it’s also true to say that they never were.  It’s only now, however, in the full glare of citizen-driven communications, that sufficient evidence is becoming so fashionably and profusely written in enough virtual tablets of shareable stone for ordinary people to understand the truth.  Where drip-fed journalism – run by allegedly successful publishing magnates and their correspondingly correct business models – used to control the direction of our societies through careful and strategic positioning of scandal, so drip-fed social networking now operates equally efficiently.

Just not so clearly in favour of the business-positives.

Yes.  It does actually sound kind of like a medical condition, doesn’t it?  To be business-positive.

An illness that requires us to shun or embrace its sufferers?

I wonder.

Though my instincts would and should always be the latter, I fear – if you love what’s best about humanity – that, pretty soon, only the outright rejection of business-positive mindsets will serve to guarantee a kindly future of any viable sort.

And it’s really time, I’m beginning to think, that politicians considered the value of making the same choice.

Particularly those who like to claim they work on behalf of the workers.

Particularly those who believe in that humanity I so hanker after.

Feb 212013

We’re told we must love our enemies.  Precious few people seem to practise this art, though.

More common is the process whereby we make of those who are different from us our enemies.  In fact, it seems so prevalent these days we really need a new verb: to enemise.

My nuclear family – the family I have brought up – is full of different viewpoints.  Some I approve of, some I disapprove of.  But neither leads me to value the individuals in question more or less in comparison.  With people I am bound to love, I find it easy to love those who are different from me.  And I feel, I think, much richer for the circumstance.

Why, then, is difference such a trigger for hate?  If in our own personal environments we can appreciate its wisdoms, why is it so easy – in, for example, political activity – for us to forget them?

I could’ve titled this post “On loving Tories”, but I would’ve been wrong.  I can find some of the opinions of some Tory voters in people I value and have around me.  I pull them up on their opinions, of course, whenever I see fit – but they are unlikely to change theirs even as I am unlikely to change mine.  This doesn’t stop me wanting to be around them.  Yet in politics, it seems it should.  And anyone who doesn’t feel a burning desire to enemise difference is immediately either considered a suspicious soul or, simply, unworthy of acknowledgement.

To be honest, this enemising difference is far more unpleasant than just devising reasons not to communicate.  Of course, the higher up the greasy pole you go, the more unpleasant – and perhaps the more unresolvable – the differences might be.  At such levels, it may be true that war is the only acceptable posture.  But lower down the scale, towards those levels of humble voters and maybe local and community representatives, where personal relationships count, where neighbourhood relationships mingle, where what you say in public has an impact on very private interactions … well, here a different kind of communication is surely possible.

Here, surely, we do not need to unnecessarily enemise the opposition.

Here, surely, we can see that the power of difference and its remarkable dissonance can be a matter of pleasurable exchange and productive growth.

Here, surely, instead of a signpost to societal disintegration, difference can allow me to love and work with you more.

There are many kinds of differences, of course – just as there many kinds of freedoms.  I wonder if anyone has defined the former as competently as they have the latter.  It may be the case that some differences are incompatible with others: a difference of economic opinion, for example, can lead to an oppression of disabled difference.  We might wish to support the general principle of respecting all difference, even as the latter difference of the disabled loses out to the widespread – and taken-for-granted – concentration on violently imposing one or other of the former economic.

Respect is, clearly, a terribly important concept to this issue.  And it comes into play when we occupy ourselves with differences.

I think we need more of it for the sake of loving difference.  I’m just not sure how to engender it – either consistently where it already exists or newly where it does not.

Anyone any ideas?

Feb 182013

About eleven years ago I was studying in Spain for a Publishing Master.  There were many great and good craftspeople who taught us the ins and outs of a very particular trade – a very special trade.  At the time, I was looking to set up an online publisher.  I was aiming to cut costs in the industry by using technology to combine the roles of various skillsets in one individual.  This wasn’t the paused, many-handed and time-honoured way of publishing – but in time it has come to pass, and ten years later we live in a quite different world.

What really was focussing minds ten years ago, however, at least in Spain and at least in this course, was what was seen as the evermore pervasive and encroaching danger of an American search-engine upstart called Google (the bold is mine):

Google began in March 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey BrinPh.D. students at Stanford[1] working on the Stanford Digital Library Project (SDLP). The SDLP’s goal was “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library” […].

Google’s aims were clear – as least to the Spanish tradition of editors.  Whether you liked the idea or not, whether you were prepared to collaborate or not, whether you accepted the terms as laid down by the powerful or quixotically attempted to resist their impositions, Google’s ultimate aim was to turn your thoughts, your lives, your very own selves and – finally – even your carefully guarded intellectual property into nothing more nor less than the virtual equivalent of the water that since time immemorial succeeds in seeping everywhere.

In the name of transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS), Google would one day be ripping out the very heart and soul of your entity.

And so that, as well, has come to pass.  Online caches of all kinds mean that however careful a maintainer of your content you are, anything and everything you post is likely to come to someone’s preserving notice and instincts.

But, what’s more, instead of being used to promote the transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS) I mention, it’s become a sorry old tool of a most traditional bent: a tool which, in hindsight, my dear Spanish opponents were right to fear – and perhaps even right to resist.  Google’s asserted desire to make knowledge available to all comes at a massive cost.

The cost is the Googlefying of you, me and the cat’s mother.


The Americans have consistently trashed WikiLeaks for opening the door to all kinds of communications they firmly argue are better kept secret.  And yet, from their very own apple-pied backyards, we have Google invading every corner and content we could possibly conceive.  The instinct to bare souls is shared too: you and I, our friends and family … all of us spill our bleeding-edge thoughts into the ether that now embraces everyone.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Googlefying instincts which a decade of brutal exposure has engendered should have now reached the chambers of our democracies.  This story, for example, from 2011:

AN internet blogger has been arrested after she tried to film a Carmarthenshire Council meeting from the public gallery.

Now it would appear that no crime had been committed, nor local law infringed.  The council in question simply took exception to its proceedings being recorded in such a way.  I’m sure that the immediate reaction of most people in the Twitter- and blogosphere would be one of anger and surprise.  And I suppose I’d feel pretty obliged to go along with such reactions – if only it wasn’t for the history of Google I’ve just gone and recounted.

Images and video are such cruelly permanent matters.  Can we honestly argue that our democracy is entirely better for encouraging the kind of politicians who thrive on television appearances and firmly taped and registered political events?  Many would argue, of course, that the transparency they bring is only ever going to improve the transparency of our political processes.  But I’m really not sure this is the case any more.  Images and video seem – of late, anyhow – to promote the worst kind of manipulation our body politic has seen for a very long time.

And if the arguments people have used against WikiLeaks – a dumping mechanism of all kinds of unwary data which makes private truth-telling and negotiation impossible to promote – are to be considered at all sustainable in any way, then equally the Googlefying of our wider world – of which random and unannounced filming of council and other democratic process is simply one of many examples on the horizon – needs to come under a far closer scrutiny.

From a very personal perspective, I would like to see far more politicians who can speak to the public without falling into the temptation of speaking to the gallery.

So ask yourself this, then: which, in the end, will the Googlefying of the world really encourage?

Feb 182013

Wiktionary defines “foreign” thus:

foreign (comparative more foreignsuperlative most foreign)

  1. From a different country.
    There are many more foreign students in Europe since the Erasmus scheme started.
  2. belonging to a different culture.
    Eating with chopsticks was a foreign concept to him.
  3. Of an object, etc, in a place where it does not belong.
    foreign body
  4. (US, state law) From a different one of the states of the United States, as of a state of residence or incorporation.
  5. Belonging to a different organizationcompany etc.
    My bank charges me $2.50 every time I use a foreign ATM.

“Foreign” is, therefore, clearly a question of point of view.  I remember, for example, very precisely one occasion when a very Spanish student of mine vigorously insisted that the Basques were different from him.  When I pointed out that you could just as easily say he was different from the Basques, he got most upset and was only able to repeat his original self-centred mantra – flailing as he was in the pain of a logical vice.


Rowenna Davis, meanwhile, reminds us that:

There is a myth in Labour circles that has become engrained. It’s called the “Southern voter”. This caricature is selfish, anti public sector and has a chip on their shoulder. They drive flashy cars and slam doors in your face. They are materialistic and hate all tax. They think benefit claimants are scroungers, and they won’t vote Labour.

She goes on to argue, with some data it must be said, that:

[…] When you knock on their doors, southerners tell you again and again about the cost of living, the shock of energy bills, about their fear of a future where their children are burdened with debt and housing insecurity.

And also:

If anything, worries about the cost of living are stronger in the south because living costs are on average 20% higher than the rest of the country, whilst wages remain low outside of London. This is one reason why food banks have been spreading faster in the south than the north.

And yet I’m not sure that Davis is right about everything she’s arguing in her piece.  I went to Reading and Oxford this weekend – have been to London to exciting events in the past eighteen months too – and my overriding, though clearly anecdotal, impressions have been that there exist far more resilient patches of business hustle and bustle in the so-called South than anywhere in our beloved North.  What’s more, Southerners and adopted Southerners I have spoken with over these past two years or so consistently have no desire to move (back) up North at some (or indeed any) time in the future.

They talk, for example, with a certain though polite distaste about the prospect of taking a wrong lifestyle turn.

To many of us then, and more particularly to many of them, whilst the South may not be a foreign country, the North most certainly does feel as if it’s located on the wrong side of some sadly despicable no-man’s-land.

Which is why it would seem not that the South is a foreign country exactly – but, rather, that many of its better-placed inhabitants do distinguish between go-getting achievers who live before Birmingham and loss-making losers who live quite beyond.  And whether they like it or not, they cannot stop such opinions from contaminating their wider political and social appreciations and discourses.

It is not we Northerners who make the South a different land but Southerners themselves who assign to us the role of internal immigrants.  And only when we accept the metamorphosis required by them – only when we choose to adopt the South as our firmly borrowed home – do we have any right to better our lot.

Only then do we have any chance of being allowed to aspire to more.

That there is poverty and fear in the South, I don’t doubt.  But that people like you and me – people who want a better life (is there, in fact, anyone who doesn’t?) – find it difficult to believe we will get it in the North is precisely the litmus test the whole nation is failing.

So whilst Labour may like to believe it can create One Nation mindsets on an industrial scale, I think, quite personally, it won’t be able to.  Northerners may be partly to blame for the resistance and prejudices we hold.  But Southerners, in their absolute – and perhaps evidenced – certainties that trickle-down government will always support the richer regions it inevitably occupies, have history on their side.

Quite unhappily.

Feb 172013

I went to Reading this weekend to do anything but the reading I normally clock up.  I’m also walking around with the dumbest loanphone you could possibly imagine – so accessing my emails or favourite social networks wasn’t really possible either.  I did take along my PlayBook with me and succeeded in having a quick shufti at digital stuff various on Saturday night before supper – but apart from all of that, it really was ironic that the reading I normally engage in was the very last thing I did whilst staying in Reading.

My wife, who came with me, reminded me of shared old memories.  Whilst at uni in Spain, she and her classmates were taught using an ancient English course which starred two characters called Arthur and Mary.  That it should occur to someone to locate these figures in a town whose name duplicated one of the commonest English gerunds in spelling but not pronunciation makes me wonder what really must have been going on in their heads when they devised their delicate linguistic tortures.

We spent the weekend in the company of my newly married sister and hubby.  It was a lovely weekend – familial, discursive, relaxed and observant.  We caught up on recent times past and reminded ourselves of our good and ill fortune.  Thankfully, in all our cases the ill is satisfyingly outweighed by the good.


One of the many conversations which arose this weekend circled around our progressive connectedness – and, if you like, our progressively monetised lives too.  As I wandered around Reading today, munching and drinking and unaccompanied as I was by a direct handle on the virtual, I began again to see the world in its more natural state, unmediated by paid-for Internet-distributed visors.  The filters that our attachment to these handheld computers provides us with, as we search via GPS-connected apps for local facilities we would – in other times – have found through an interaction with a local, are – really – not a satisfactory way of getting closer to a world which gets evermore distant as the generations cede their batons (where not, in fact, baguettes!).

We know so very much about those we do not know – and know so little about our immediate environments, don’t we?

Oxford, my hometown, was yesterday’s delight.  We had a lovely meal in a place I think was called Patisserie Valerie, which – half remembered – was finally found by one of the aforementioned apps on one of our party’s smartphones.  We then moved on to the Museum of Modern Science, climbed several creaking staircases, saw magnificent inventions and iconic devices – my favourite being a 1967 Kodak Instamatic camera, of which a hugely satisfying seventy million or more examples were apparently sold in an epoch when flower power reigned – and were told by a curiously communicative curator how dissection used to be the preserve of flamboyant showmen who entertained paying customers to gruesome edutainment.

The curator in question even had a political point to score: according to a recent (that is to say, not evilly medieval) surgeon acquaintance of his, our English NHS – he puzzlingly decided to inform us – is not even fit for Third World purpose.

I was, I have to say, too taken aback by the sudden and totally unpredicted overstepping of so many boundaries to know how to properly react.  Instead, I assumed he was a little bored of his flat-footed role (perhaps even saddeningly lonely) – and needed, above all, to take every and any opportunity to communicate his self to his clients.

Whatever that self might be.

However the consequences stacked up.


Reading.  Not the the town.  The activity.  One of the glories of human endeavour.  And so it was that for me it was delightful to see all the exhibits, to read their carefully annotated cards, to begin to perceive the care and gentleness of a profession of the hugely wise – the profession of those who simply want to register a fact, in the massive optimistic expectation that someone, somewhere, will one day find this of sufficient use in itself.

I’ve always found the registration of labels a difficult thing to admire.  Partly, it is because I have a shocking memory and cannot do such data the justice it deserves.  Partly, it’s because I haven’t ever really appreciated the essential beauty of the process.

I do now.

Reading, the place.  Reading, the activity.  And reading, the deductive process that allows one to come to useful conclusion.

That was my weekend.

I hope yours was just as productive.