Whenever they’s a cop beating a guy….look for a Tory desperate for votes

orgreaveStriking miners attacked by police at Orgreave, South Yorkshire. June, 1984.

Don’t fret. I haven’t made some careless proof-reading error in the title of this piece. It’s a direct lift from the inspiring, heart-breaking speech Tom Joad makes to his mother near the end of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. As he sets off on the run (if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it), Tom, fired up by the injustices he has seen at the hands of bankers, landowners, strike-breakers and the police, vows that ‘whenever they’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there’. I’ve found it one of the most useful lines in literature.

I’ll explain. If I happen to turn on the TV and see riot police charging at a crowd anywhere in the world, I immediately know whose side I’m on. I might not fully understand the demands of the protestors or the background to the dispute, but I am as certain as I can be that when the state uses its police force – the body ostensibly established to protect its citizens – against its own people, I don’t agonise about where my affiliations lie. I think I may be able to feel some of your discomfort snaking its way to me through cyberspace.

So, just to be clear, I believe in law, order and justice. I have had occasion to meet individual police officers and have often found them courteous and diligent. There have been times in my personal and professional life when I have found the presence of police officers helpful and reassuring. I broadly subscribe to the notion of policing by consent and fully understand the need to protect society from individuals and organisations who are threatening and violent. If that was what policing was about, then I’d be unable to make any sense of Tom’s words.

To explain my antipathy, I turn to the relatively recent social history of the miners’ strike of 1984-85. As depicted both sympathetically and accurately in the film Pride, the strike brought together very different sets of people. The support groups set up in towns and cities produced meetings – and lifelong friendships – between the most twee of metropolitan socialists and miners and their families from small, quiet pit villages where traditional, even conservative, social attitudes prevailed. It was my privilege to meet hundreds of such people. At the start of the strike, conversations about the police, particularly in their dealings with young black people, could be lively.

The attitude of most miners was clear. First, the kid must have done something to arouse a copper’s interest and, second, if that resulted in a knock round the head in the back of the van, that kid probably had it coming to him. Within weeks of the start of the strike, by when they had been stopped from travelling outside their own area; when they had been woken by the thrumming of riot shields outside their local corner shop; when coppers shipped in from the cities waved tenners at them as they departed on coaches; when mounted police charged, batons raised, down the street where their kids went to school, no-one needed any lectures about the role and nature of the police.

When organised dissent and opposition raises its head, it is to the police that the state turns to protect its interests. We are protecting the citizenry, the Leader intones. We will be tough, tough, tough on wrongdoers – no, not those wrongdoers whose clever accountants stop them coughing up tax or paying starvation wages. Those wrongdoers – you know, those whose life-chances we limited from the get-go and whose services and support we have systematically and rapidly destroyed while using their taxes to prop up our kind of people.

The Tories quiver at this kind of stuff. Even after his predecessor had made alive the back-bencher wet-dream of robocops on the streets of Britain, Prime Minister John Major talked of condemning a little more and understanding a little less. The present incumbent couldn’t wait to play with some rusty water cannons and we now have a Home Secretary who notwithstanding ocular proof of her stumbling attempts to advocate the death penalty says that she was ‘taken out of context’. Oh, please.

So it is that the new Prime Minister, prodded along by his snarky mastermind, Dominic Cummings – yes, that’s the one…..unelected, currently in contempt of parliament – has taken the temperature of the nation and, unsurprisingly, found it fractious, nervous and uncertain. What better way to calm this restless child than by giving reassurances about more police, more prisons, tougher sentences? Never mind that all reliable statistics show a decrease in crime. Never mind that the evidence and research out there demonstrate that such measures are almost entirely ineffective in addressing the root causes of crime. As the object of his on-off bromance, Michael Gove, enjoyed telling us, we think the country has had quite enough of expert opinion, thank you. We’ll stick with lowest common denominator of gut instinct; so much better as a way of addressing multi-faceted, far-reaching social and economic problems.

We seem to be hurtling toward a general election, although anyone who predicts anything that may happen politically in this country needs to have a word with her/himself. But if it is the case, Johnson and his sort are clearly attempting to lay the ground on which it will be fought. Law and order has traditionally been a Tory strength and, of course, under that lily-livered, vegetarian, bike-rider, Labour will have nothing to say on the matter.

Which is not true. Labour has to be there for decent people juggling two or three jobs and a Kafkaesque benefit system to put food on the table. It has to come clean and shout out loud that it will build council houses, not hide behind the weasel ‘affordable’ word. It has to champion fully-funded, subsidised, green public transport and the jobs that this will create. And when it comes to crime, law and order, there is only one story to tell. In a just and fair society, crime falls.

When Johnson and his blustering bullies come flummering along with their promises of sharp justice, it’ll be the job of all of us to point out that victim-blaming is the last resort of the desperate and the poorly-informed. We’ll need to tell them that building more prisons – staffed by whom, exactly? paid for with what? – means building more universities of crime where drug-running (currently decreasing in cities but flourishing in deprived provinces) goes unchallenged. And those 20,000 ‘new’ coppers? That’d be to replace the 20,000 you’ve lost over the last six years, then?

Like Tom Joad, I remain suspicious of the role of the police. But not half as suspicious as of the charlatans who are trying to blindside us by trying to make it the issue of the day.

 

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Maybe it’s best not to whip the messenger.

It’s a mark of the times, of course, but a quick glimpse at the recent entries on this blog reveals a pretty gloomy landscape. So I came to this week’s enterprise with the firm resolve to be a little jollier. I’m not playing with much of a hand.

Two mass shootings followed by Trump’s usual bone-headed response; global warming (can we please stop calling it ‘climate change’?) hovering over the homes of people in a Derbyshire village; an infant pushed from a tenth floor window in an act of random violence; Farage hailing Trump’s racism as ‘genius’ and, as I write, England’s batsmen flapping around to dismal capitulation. And all the time, having to do a double-take to realise that when we hear the words ‘the Prime Minister’, to re-register that this office is held by a narcissistic, entitled, self-publicist. Not many laughs to be had out of that lot.

Much better to sit on the bus with the rest of the pass-wielding pensioners up to the town centre.  The playwright Alan Bennett used to claim that when lost for inspiration, he would merely eavesdrop conversations on buses and in cafes. In a particularly odd episode, he tells of hearing one woman on a bus say to another, ‘Well, they’ll be no use to her anymore. Not as feet, anyway’.  I don’t know if that particular line ever found its way into his collected stage oeuvres, but it’s kept me smiling and pondering for over thirty years.

I board the 602, swipe my pass and sit down – carefully ensuring that I use neither the seats for the elderly and infirm (who? me?) nor those for wheelchairs or buggy users. Three women pensioners are deep in animated conversation. The object of their great high dudgeon is the BBC: I’m very interested.

Like many people I know, my attitude to the BBC is ambivalent. There’s great drama, some tolerable comedy and David Attenborough whispering earnestly in the company of orangutans. Then you’ve got news and current affairs. Relax. I’m not going to reopen debate about the flimsy amateurism of Panorama’s ‘investigations’  but BBC news can never win: it offends left and right in equal measure. In the fervid squabbling about Brexit, millions are convinced that it is the mouthpiece of the liberal elite – whoever they are. For many of us on the left, it has always been the mouthpiece of the establishment – whoever they are. Overall, however, it does seem to play to a middle-class, middle England consensus.

And yet – to find yourself exposed to news programmes throughout the world is to crave the urbanity and balance of an institution that can, at other times, firmly convince you that it’s the broadcasting arm of the British Stasi. Which brings us back to the pensioners on the 602.

They’re discussing Brexit. Yes, really. A minute or so into the conversation and they reach the same conclusion as Laura Kuenssberg and Michel Barnier which is….that no-one knows what’s going to happen and we’re making it up as we go along. I’m trying to look blankly ahead while hanging on every syllable. The trouble, one of them asserts to universal agreement, is that we’re being fed a pack of lies. By the BBC. You know; the villains who are taking our free licence away. And the BBC, as everyone knows, is told what to do by the government. And the government is now run by that bighead, that Boris.

Because I’m subconsciously waiting for an Alan Bennett moment I become aware, as the bus approaches the town centre, that I’m looking for something comedic in a set of exchanges that is heartfelt, sincere and is possibly being replicated on buses up and down the country at that very moment. This isn’t a source for comic invention; it’s three ordinary, pretty well-informed pensioners who think the country’s in a mess, that they’re being fed misinformation and that the government is run by a daft posh-boy. It might not be nuanced, but there’s not much I don’t agree with.

I’m not arguing that the BBC is the puppet of the state. It gives voice to oppositionists, contrarians and minority viewpoints – albeit often late at night and in tucked-away corners of the radio scheduling. It makes an effort to be diverse and it must be doing a reasonably good job because the Daily Mail absolutely hates it as an organisation. It is clearly respected on the global stage as a reliable news organisation and often gives succour to those in imperilled situations around the world who seek something like objective information – hence it is often the target of a range of of dictatorial regimes. I might well be wrong, but the irritated pensioners might have conceded some of that.

Regular readers will know that I like Shakespeare and I like Marx (both Karl and Groucho) so I’ll turn to them both to help me out. First, Karl, who tells us that the dominant ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class. The BBC, for all of its fine attempts at egalitarianism, promotes a consensual view that echoes such ideas: we often call it ‘common sense’ – but whose common sense, exactly?

And because it is a far-reaching institution, people like me and the 602 pensioners, glean a good deal of our information about current affairs from it and we shoot the messenger when that news is baffling and unsettling. In Anthony and Cleopatra a poor old go-between is sent to bring the news to Cleopatra that Anthony has married someone else. When she threatens to have him ‘whipped with wire and stewed in brine’ the unhappy post-boy complains that ‘I that bring the news, made not the match’.  As staid, middle-class and credulous as the BBC may be, and as slanted as its editorial decisions clearly are, they are, like me, trying to be jolly with no picture cards in my hand. Its opportunities for fun are limited. If it’s entertaining news we’re after, then maybe a few moments each with either Fox or the despicable Sun newspaper might convince us that looking at the BBC with a wary eye might serve us reasonably well after all.

Forget the blather about Cicero. It’s Trump who rings Johnson’s chimes.

Cicero

Sunday. We wake to the news that ‘we’ are now officially preparing for a no-deal Brexit. Michael Gove has told us this so it must be true. Commentators tell us that it’s probably a negotiating ploy so that it will be a case of ‘who blinks first’ – ‘us’ or that faceless, joyless Brussels lot. So that’s OK then. People’s jobs, livelihoods and future prospects are now down to a game of posh-boy chicken – except that in their cushioned existence, another tenner on the weekly shop doesn’t even register.

To repeat a point made previously in this blog, I do not regard the EU, its institutions and its ideology with anything other than suspicion. Its purpose is to protect the interests of big business and, as we’ve seen very clearly, when any of its members elect governments that challenge the neoliberal consensus, it acts quickly to make life impossible for them. If the UK somehow remains and anything like a left-leaning, socially progressive party takes office, the EU would work vigorously to block measures designed to tax the corporations and use public spending for the greater good.  There are complex, far-reaching arguments about whether we should be in their club – it’s just that we haven’t had them yet. We’re closing our eyes, swinging and hoping for the best.

If there is one narrative that unites both critics and supporters of the new Prime Minister, it is that he is a man who has a frail grasp of detail. This has become all too clear all too quickly. The fairy-tale was that, at last, we have someone who is going to go over there and let them have it with straight-talk and charm. This has now bumped up against the reality that as he bounds off on his Euro charm offensive, he’ll be meeting people who want to know only about any such detail. That old Etonian smarm and the odd Latin ditty will get him nowhere. He’s not a complete fool, he knows he won’t get a better deal so now we’ll use something called ‘financial headroom’ – or the Tory equivalent of the derided money tree – to prepare for a no deal.

Except that the concept of ‘no-deal’ is preposterous. Unless the plan on November 1st is to deal solely with Trump, Xi Jinping, an assortment of vile Emirate prince-boys and anyone else who will be lining up to pick at the flesh of our floundering merchants (yes, I know, that’s exactly the plan) the UK will have to do a deal with the EU.  So all the posturing and faux toughness will count for nothing: but ‘tough’ talk is the staff of life for this wretched cabal of political clowns and cadavers.

Be in no doubt, Thatcher wanted to sell off everything we owned and destroy those institutions that protected communities and working people; this lot want to go one step further. The article of faith closest to their dark hearts is complete the total deregulation and the opening up of everything, but everything, to the vagaries of the market. That’d be the market that benefits the profiteers and plays fast and loose with the lives of ordinary people trying to get by. Think I’m exaggerating? If anything, I’m underplaying it.

Let’s take Liz Truss. She’s in charge of international trade, so that’s a pretty key position. She also has faith in young people and that’s a good thing. What does she like and admire about them? Well, she thinks they’re ‘freedom fighters’. You know, the way they’ve taken up the cudgels to fight for climate change so that we don’t continue to degrade the planet on a daily basis?  Sadly, that’s not the focus of her approval.

What Liz loves about these freedom fighters is that they ride around in Ubers, let out their property for AirBnB and order their food from Deliveroo. Everyone’s a consumer and everyone’s their own entrepreneur. Yay, we’re saved. Let’s work together for a better society by getting in an unregulated cab, driven by someone on subsistence wages and gorging on pre-packaged food, reheated in a shipping container on an industrial estate and brought to us by an A level student on a bike. We’ve all got money – we can all afford it.

Still, if we get sick from this pre-packaged feast, there’s one thing on which we can rely – that most highly and properly revered of all our institutions, the National Health Service. They’ll never be able to sell that off or deregulate it. There are some congenital naysayers who are stupid enough to think that all this stuff about Trump wanting to sell us chlorinated chicken is something of a smokescreen designed to get us to take our eye off the ball while the prize, the biggest and most lucrative prize, the public service that distinguishes us and in which we take communal pride, is hived off to the money makers in return for trading agreements. Really. As if.

We have been deliverood into the hands of bigots, self-servers and charlatans by 139,000 white people from the shires. The chief of their number has immediately appointed a modern, amoral Machiavelli to flood Facebook and begin another election campaign and has surrounded himself with the same set of people who treated us with mendacious contempt three years ago. He has peered over the Atlantic and seen how lies, denial, racism and vile aggression towards opponents has done Trump little, if any lasting damage. He might give us a load of old guff by quoting Cicero and Plato, but it’s Donald who really rings his chimes.

So, without apology, I return to my old mantra: sitting on the sofa won’t cut it.

On Thursday evening I joined one of the many protests that have taken place this week in Parliament Square. The crowd, mainly young and noticeably diverse, were there to let the Prime Minister know that they did not believe he had a popular mandate. They generally expressed it in a much more profane and pithy way: nine letters, three syllables. As I made my way toward the protest, I overheard a young man, late twenties perhaps, proclaim to his girlfriend that these people – that’d be me – were so fucking boring and that politics was shit. I decided not to hold my tongue and told him courteously, I hope, that he really needed to pay attention because this all affected him.

He said nothing in response but did shake his head in a mixture of disdain and pity for the poor, white-haired pensioner who clearly had nothing better to do with his time. And that’s the challenge for all of us. Not to speak to each other and to echo ourselves on social media, but to try to convince such young men and women that it all matters.

It means not taking the ‘don’t mention the B word’ route when it crops up at work. It means talking to people about the genuine existential threat (a much devalued term of late) to the NHS and public service. It means, for the moment, side-lining the lies, the clownishness, the fallout from Johnson’s colourful private life, his contemptible commentary on race and women. We need to talk about grovelling deals with Trump and dictators and what this will mean for us all.

He’s no figure of fun. We didn’t vote for him. We need to act however we can to be rid of him. Cicero would’ve approved.

I’ll stick to surnames, thanks.This clown’s no mate of mine.

bullingdon club

So that’s the plan then? Just close your eyes, grin daftly, hope for the best and tell anyone who asks for even a modicum of detail that they’re lacking in ambition and optimism?

Theresa May (she was once Prime Minister, you know) bungled a whole election by thinking that if she just placidly kept repeating ‘strong and stable’ like some daft tantric chant, then we’d all fall for it and slouch, zombie- like, to the polling booths. On this morning’s Radio 4 Today programme, Johnson supporter – please stop calling him Boris, he’s not our mate – Michael Fallon (Craigflower prep school, Epsom College, University of St Andrews) berated his interviewer because on the sunniest day of the year he was being so gloomy and pessimistic. Ambition and optimism. We’ll be fine. Enough with detail: obsessing over that stuff just got us where we are now.

Along with this breezy optimism, it’ll be Johnson’s strength of character that will bring clean fresh air when it comes to talking to Johnny Foreigner. Those dullards over there in Brussels will experience the political equivalent of being laughed into bed by this confident, charismatic embodiment of British upper-class charm. He’ll have them eating out if his hand. Just look at how he handled that Zaghari-Ratcliffe business with such assurance and aplomb. Stop wringing your hands and fretting.

He’ll bring the same ambition and optimism to our relationship with our bestest of besties, President Donald Trump, who is definitely not a racist, by the way. For those of you not aware of it, we have a ‘special relationship’ with the United States. It’s true that this could involve us, from time to time, in dumbly and slavishly sending some of our own working class boys and girls to get killed for oil somewhere on the map that we can’t locate, but it’s a very special relationship. Those of you who are thinking that one of the world’s most unscrupulous, amoral and narcissistic leaders is just waiting for the UK to be so desperate for any sort of trade deal that he can fob us with any old garbage that we’ll be forced to buy are just lacking ambition. You need to be more optimistic.

Picture this; it’s sure to cheer you up. Johnson, already courted by Trump, addressing some fawning Washington gathering flanked by the President himself, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, all nodding sagely in agreement – with Ambassador Farage gurning on the sidelines. Don’t kid yourself it couldn’t happen; we’re way beyond that kind of hope these days.

So let’s console ourselves with the fact that a Johnson government may not last long. No-one can confidently predict what is going to happen one way or another – that much we do know. Where do we look for alternatives? On the day of Johnson’s anointment, there were stories from two other political parties. Let’s start with the Lib Dems.

They’re very optimistic and ambitious this morning too. They’ve got a new leader. They’re breaking the mould of going for ageing white men and have gone for a relatively young woman who……..voted with the Tory whip in 2010 to 2015 more often that Michael Gove. Who voted for the bedroom tax, reneged on the promise to scrap student fees, voted against raising disability benefits and wants a statue of Thatcher in Parliament Square. I’ll leave that there, eh?

What about Labour? Also on the Today programme was Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth. For those of you familiar with her work, you will be unsurprised to know that on the day that some 150,000 Tories of advancing years from the shires were about to foist a bumbling clown on the nation, she chose to reprise her constant plaint that the Labour Party is riven with anti-Semitic behaviour and that no one was doing anything about it. She cited as proof a recent Panorama programme so forensically discredited by academics, film-makers and others in the media that it is rapidly becoming a major embarrassment to the BBC. She did so two days after the Labour Party leader wrote to all its members along with an excellent leaflet spelling out complete and unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitic behaviour.

Just in case, like many people, you’re scratching your head and wondering just what is possessing her and many others in the Labour Party to behave in this way – especially with the Tories in such disarray and confusion – allow me to spell it out to you, as outlandish as it may seem. There is a significant section of the parliamentary Labour Party (and some of their friends in the Lords) that would tolerate defeat to the Tories rather than have a Corbyn government and they’ll do anything, anything they can to prevent one from happening.

None of which sounds ambitious or optimistic. So let’s have some reasons to be cheerful.

One of the founding principles of this blog is that it supports action. Shouting at the telly may be temporarily cathartic but it is ultimately self-destructive. The next few days and weeks will see more activity from Extinction Rebellion and any number of ‘Not My PM’ protests. Get out there. Join them. Talk to other people who feel the same as you. Do something. Make a poster, write a letter, start a petition…..anything, but don’t sit on the sofa and make sure you limit your news consumption.

Be ambitious. Be optimistic. It might just work.

Mo and Megan: this is what we look like

Calais UH students

A few weeks ago I took a short break from writing this blog. When I did so, I posed the question as to what piece of outlandishness we might have become accustomed to by the time I took to the keyboard again. Well, we’ve got one with knobs on. The leader of the free world – I think we may well have to stop using that moniker for the US President now, don’t you? – has adopted, hook, line and sinker, the language of the dullard racist: ‘why don’t you go back to where you came from?’ Really? We’ve sunk that low?

What’s even worse is that the flatulent guff of the bar room bore blows ever more poisonously. We’re all familiar with it. First, there’s the dead give-away: ‘I’m not racist, but….’ When you hear that, be very afraid.   Then there’s the wounded plaint of ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body’. In which case, er, why have you made someone’s race an issue? And finally, the relatively modern whine that ‘you can’t criticise anyone these days without being called a racist.’ The noxious vomit of the vile and the flabby-minded spews on unabated.

Many of us, albeit those not subject to daily prejudice and bigotry, had almost convinced ourselves that this dark behaviour had been eradicated. Then along came a successful Brexit campaign, so infected by dog-whistle racism that the incidence of hate crime started to accelerate – and has continued to do so – on the very day the result was announced. Closely followed by a US President who told us, again almost from day one, that we don’t want none of them Muslims round here, boy. And a Tory/DUP government that made criminals of its own Windrush citizens. And a prospective Prime Minister (don’t, just don’t) who said, ‘Look. Look at those funny foreign ladies. Those silly veils make them look like robbers. Don’t they? Look.’ We might just as well make it governmental policy to just give a bit of leeway when it comes to racism.

Pretty darned miserable. So, unsurprisingly, even the most committed of us avoid the news. We look for something to divert us from this terrifying march of the barbarians. We switch the channel and …..at last, human endeavour at its best and most uplifting: live sport.

Step forward hero – heroine – number one: Megan Anna Rapinoe. Unless you’ve been on holiday on another planet, Megan is the captain of the USA women’s football (I won’t, won’t call it soccer) team which recently won the world cup. It was a competition with a lot to like and there is a strong possibility that live, mainstream coverage will have influenced many girls and women to take up the sport. Megan herself is an exceptional player and has the star quality of being able to perform at key moments in big games. And that’s great…..but it’s not what makes her my heroine.

She was one of the first white athletes to ‘take the knee’ – which is refusing to stand during the national anthem prior to a game – in solidarity with those black athletes who had done so in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. That was prior to the world cup where she told a reporter with calm insouciance that should her team win, she wouldn’t be going to ‘the fucking White House’ to celebrate with Donald Trump.

When she did return, she took the opportunity to reassert her view that she and her team would not be ‘co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and fight for the same things we fight for’. She spoke of her pride at being part of a team that was gay, straight, black, white and all shades between. She had the best, proudest goal celebration and has started a haircut trend that has been appropriated by contrarians of all sorts. A delight.

And then the cricketers – and I own up to this being close to my heart – won a breath-taking game to win the men’s world cup final on Sunday. On another channel, millions of people were watching an epic tennis match and some even chose to watch cars whizzing round very fast somewhere. It was all, genuinely, very exciting and massively diverting.

So just the time, of course, for Jacob Rees-Mogg – who, in case you’ve not worked it out for yourself, is far from some parodic, jolly figure of fun – to make a point about the cricketers being victorious without the help of Europe. Uncharacteristically, I tend not to use profanity in this blog, but – what…..a……twat!

Fortunately, it didn’t take people long to buzz into the twittersphere to point to the Irish captain, the two sons of Pakistani immigrants, the Barbadian, the native New Zealanders and South Africans  who had made victory possible. So my nomination for hero number two is Moeen Munir Ali.

Moeen didn’t play in the final but had played in qualifying games and is a regular in the England team.  I’m hopelessly biased because he’s a Birmingham boy who’s from just down the road from where I was born and raised. During the world cup he wrote a regular column in The Guardian which was illuminating and interesting. On the day after the victory, he decided that the focus of his contribution would be to laud the way in which the team’s diversity had been central to its success. ‘We are an incredibly diverse team from different backgrounds and cultures but, crucially, we respect this and embrace it. We never shy away from it.’

I’m not dewy-eyed about sport, particularly in its professional, global manifestations, but it comes to something when we’ve got to look to athletes to reaffirm and celebrate what we should applaud and take pride about ourselves. This is what we look like and we’re genuinely proud of it. Give me Megan and Moeen over Donald and Boris any day of the week.

A word about the photograph at the head of this piece. I’ll labour the point unapologetically: this is what we look like. It’s a group of students from my place of work who have just returned from a day’s hard work with displaced people in Calais. They swept, cleaned, made tea, distributed clothes and did so with unremitting cheerfulness. They’re not snowflakes and with a couple of exceptions, they’re British born and bred and if we’re not proud of that, and of proclaiming that we are so from the rooftops, then let’s keep voting Trump and Johnson and get what we deserve.

These wannabe emperors are cloaked only by their massive self-regard

cartoon-depiction-emperors-new-clothes-450w-1258858204

If you’re a regular reader – thanks. And apologies for my absence from cyber-space for a while. Work, life and other writing projects have crowded the available space and so this piece will be the last for a further few weeks. When I return in August, who knows what the world will look like? What egregious public actions or utterances will have become so normalised that we don’t even break stride to accommodate them?

I’ll start with Trump – and not just because he’s a fee hit. While he preened and primped his way through last week’s ceremonies, gluing on his faux-sombre expression of dignity and respect, there were, thank goodness – and even on a school day – thousands of indignant, outraged and witty life-affirmers cordoned off a few streets away. The leader of the free world wrote them off as an invented fiction in the same way that he had denied making comments about a nasty Duchess (forgive me if I can’t even be bothered to look up her real title) when they were recorded for all the world to hear. So far, so Trump, so what?

The problem resides in the fact that we’ve become dully anaesthetised to such outlandish denials. For example, after his bizarre claims about the numbers at his inauguration, we rocked with delighted laughter…. but also felt the first twinge of discomfort that anyone could countenance placing such obvious nonsense into public discourse, apparently fearless of the fact that it could damage  his fitness for office. Two years on and we just shrug: we just tell ourselves it’s what he does. He thunders on, impervious in his armour of bluster.

As if one dangerous, self-regarding buffoon was insufficient, we seem intent on cultivating our own. Boris Johnson, Trump’s mini-me (copyright Owen Jones), looks like being the next Prime Minister. Now lest we forget, this man of bus-laden promises and lies, the man who is going to go over to foreigner land and shout at them until they get it, wouldn’t know a political truth or principle if it bit him on his plump behind (and, yes, I know – he’s slimming down and tidying himself up to show what a grown-up up he is). He’s a man of many paid ‘jobs’, is Boris. Sometimes he even coughs up tax on his earnings.

One of his pastimes is writing for the Daily Telegraph. He does so once a week and they pay him £275,000 a year. Just before the Brexit vote, he wrote his column and advocated staying in Europe. And then he wrote another encouraging readers to leave. After a good deal of soul-searching about which track would better serve his lifelong ambition of being Prime Minister the British people, he opted for the latter view along with his mate, ‘snorter Govey’. This isn’t the place to pick over the bones of the days that followed the referendum – Gove and Johnson looking like the victims in a hostage video when Leave unexpectedly won and then Mikey stabbing Bozza in the front as they vied for the top job that neither of them got and which ended up going to a GIRL – but it certainly set the tone for the implosion of public trust in the political system that ensued.

The notion that we are in a post-truth era merits balanced and nuanced consideration, but on most news days, it’s hard to ignore. Marry it up with a public mood of anger and exasperation and we’re on fertile ground for bombast and demagoguery. The idea that the likes of Trump, Johnson and their potential chum, Farage, will navigate us through this is risible and terrifying. So, as I temporarily depart for my other ventures, I leave you with two thoughts.

The first relates to the weary notion that whoever takes over from May will be going over there to jolly well sort them out. Although it’s slightly nerdy viewing, have a look at BBC 4’s Brexit Behind Closed Doors. There’s a lot to dislike about some of the personnel involved, but the Brussels’ Brexit team come over as well-briefed, much more ready for a fight than any of their British counterparts, quick-witted, multi-lingual, appropriately vulgar and, as time progresses, utterly and completely baffled by the ineptitude and unpreparedness of the Brits whom they had imagined to be doughty opponents. Their glee is only marginally tempered by their disappointment at the one-sidedness of the struggle. Quite how a bustling Johnson, armed only with his very own inflated, grotesque view of his raffish charm, thinks he’s going to knock such people off balance is plain embarrassing.

The second thought couldn’t be more different. It’s one of the marks of the Little Englander Brexiteers that they speak as though they won the war when, of course, military action is unknown to any of them. Not so the survivors of the D-Day landings whose efforts we honoured last week. Boys who crammed onto great hulks of boats, rocked and slopped through the Channel, waded out into seawater under constant gunfire and somehow survived and drove back the Nazi army. To think that this unthinkable bravery is invoked by pink-palmed time servers as the same sort of bulldog spirit that we now need to assert our strength and independence is scandalous.

So all power to those still prepared to call out the impostors, to those who laugh at the emperor’s nakedness and who fail to allow the egregious to become the acceptable. It’s going to be a long and difficult fight, but if we really are to honour true heroes, we’ve got no option but to carry it on.

just get on with your work – and stop that!

factory fodder

Here’s a joke I’ve always liked.

A visiting minister of industry from a developing country is being shown round a factory. He is interested in modern methods of production and distribution. As the factory owner proudly displays features of his firm’s work, a buzzer sounds and all the workers stop for a cup of tea or go to the toilet. Ten minutes later the buzzer sounds and they all resume their work. The grandees continue their tour and a couple of hours later, the buzzer sounds and the workers stop for lunch. Buzzer, resume. Five o’clock – buzzer, and everyone sets off home.

As owner and visitor settle down with a good Scotch, the former asks what his guest has made of the way his enterprise operates. Unhesitatingly, the visitor responds: ‘There is one thing I have seen above all else that I require for my country’s industrial development. That buzzer’.

Most of us are enculturated into a world of work controlled by timings, managerial scrutiny and regulation. Our physical needs, appetites and bodily functions are trained to work around the requirements of production and output. One of the most grotesque manifestations of this is in that most modern of production lines, the call-centre, where the monitoring of workers has been honed to a microscopically refined art.

Where better to start this acceptance of regimentation than at school?  Just to pre-empt any misunderstanding here, as someone who spent nearly thirty years teaching in comprehensive schools, I am definitely not calling for an end to structure, order and punctuality. On the other hand, no-one wants to see our children treated as the robotic factory fodder of the future. Do they?

All of which makes last weeks’ report from University College London an alarming read. Over the last twenty years, schools have systematically truncated children’s break and lunch times so that their opportunity to meet each other, eat together in a relaxed way or just turn off and do stupid things (which is, lest we forget, what kids are supposed to do) is now worryingly restricted.

There’s a slew of reasons why schools do this. Midday supervision costs money and play areas have been steadily sliced away from school premises. And then we have the most pernicious, vile reason of the lot: break and lunch are lost ‘learning time’. I’ll try not to shout the next bit for those who come out with such guff and who are so clearly hard of understanding: kids need to run around, let off steam, be unsupervised by adults and learn to deal with the unexpected. That way…..listen carefully now….they’ll have a better chance of doing their precious learning when they get back in the classroom.  Over a hundred years of serious pedagogic study, along with what your grandma knows, tells you that this is so.

All of this learning time is there so that we can get more kids to pass more tests, thereby proving that standards are improving. There’s not enough space in a blogpost to take apart this most specious of arguments, but by all means bring it up in the ‘comments’ section and I’ll elaborate. What is regrettably incontrovertible is that we’re producing unhappy, pressurised young people to send out into the great wide buzzer-controlled world.

A world where, in a saddening coda to this early restriction of social interaction, we’ve become too busy and frazzled to have sex on a regular basis. Again, to allay potential confusion, the line of argument here is not that we need to provide more behind-the-bike-shed bunk-up time in order to practise for adult life. But in what is, admittedly, a speculative comment, the report’s lead researcher suggests that one of the causes may have been the ‘sheer pace of modern life’. This was eagerly seized upon by mainstream media who chose illustrations and stills showing couples in bed either looking at their phones or with one partner asleep and the other grumpily and stubbornly awake. Yep – that’d be it. Obsessed by our phones, living a virtual life when there’s a real one to be enjoyed. It’s a credible enough suggestion.

However, in all the coverage of this fruity and welcome respite from grizzly politics, one sentence in the report was ignored. It’s worth quoting in full: People in better physical and mental health and those who were fully employed with higher incomes reported having sex more often. Well, there’s a thing. If you’re well off and have done reasonably well for yourself, you’ll continue to enjoy the good things in life more frequently and for longer (no….stop it….in terms of age, not what the stop-watch says).

In all seriousness – and with deference and respect to those in my former profession who do almost nothing but good – I am not suggesting that schools are deliberately curtailing social association as part of some elaborate, conspiratorial exercise in control and subjugation. Neither do I think that helping young people to develop a sound work ethic is anything other than beneficial. But to send the message that time spent not working is time wasted is to send the most miserable of messages to our young people.

During my own time as a teacher a favourite exercise was to get young people to speculate on what the future would bring. We’d have phones where we could see each other and TV sets on our wrists! We’d never have to cook again as all our food would all be in concentrated pellets. Weather would make no difference because we could protect ourselves against anything that nature would throw at us. But, above all, and as a constant strain through the decades, our principal problem would be what to do with all our leisure time when the robots had taken over and we had no work to do.

And then the buzzer would go off.