Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Statues from Charlottesville to Westminster often represent a violent and racist political terrain

The recent violent events at Charlottesville,Virginia have ignited a worldwide debate about the role of statues in marking a nation’s history.

The violence at Charlottesville erupted, due to a mob of white supremacists and Nazis coming together to as they saw it to defend a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee.

The statue was being taken down by the Virginia authorities due to its seeming to provide a remembrance to slavery in America.

There have been moves to remove such statues across America, since the shootings at a church in Charleston in 2015, when nine people were killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Roof confessed to committing the killings in the hope of igniting a race war. He was found guilty or murder earlier this year, being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

At Charlottesville, those supporting the removal of the statue came out to oppose the white supremacists. There were violent clashes, culminating in the death of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer. James Alex Fields Jr has been charged with second degree murder.

President Donald Trump then fanned the flames of racism by failing to condemn the white supremacists. He chose instead to blame all sides. Universal condemnation followed, resulting in the President issuing another statement condemning the white supremacists more directly, only for him to go back to the original statement a few days later.

The situation of racial divide across America has become thus inflamed, not least by the actions of the President.

The President did though make a further point suggesting that if the issue were slavery then statues to the likes of past presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson could also come down, as they were slave owners. Others have suggested statues of President Harry Truman could come down, given his role in giving  the order to drop the nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The valid point being made is that statues are not simply silent apolitical symbols of the past but marks of a highly politicised landscape – evidence of a form of organised remembering and forgetting of past figures and events.  

Few outside of America will have been aware of the way in which the erection of these statues reflect racial division across the land.

In my ignorance, I had thought the statues had been standing since the 19th century days of the civil war. However, it turns out they are all far more recent manifestations of malice, being erected in the early years of the 20th century, at the time of Jim Crow’s racist segregation laws, and during the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 60s. So there is a direct link between a racist agenda and the statues.

Given the nature of the Trump presidency and the constituency he has come to represent, maybe it should come as no surprise that the present violence should erupt during his presidency.

Events in America though have ignited debates elsewhere about the role of statues in marking history.

In this country, for many decades, the squares and roads around Parliament have been adorned by generals and others viewed as establishment heroes of the empire years. It always struck me as strange to see the likes of General Douglas Haig astride his horse, Clive of India and others dotted around the place.

The pre-eminence of these characters could be said to reflect the identity crisis at the heart of British society. A country that still believes itself to be a world power, hangs on feverishly to its own nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the belief that it in some way reflects greatness. A country, with one foot defiantly stuck in the past.

More recently, things have changed, with statues of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela joining assorted British Prime Ministers in Parliament Square. In 2005, a monument was erected, near the Cenotaph, to the women of  World War II.

So there is change afoot. However, overall, the breadth of statues – especially in the capital – do tend to still reflect the interests of the British establishment and a version of history that it wants to promote.

The lack of Labour and especially trade union leaders with any mark of remembrance is remarkable. This contrast was brought home most adroitly recently, with the controversy over the grave of the Sarah Chapman, a champion of the Matchwomen’s strike of 1888. Chapman’s paupers grave had been discovered, forgotten in an east London graveyard.    

Instead of celebrating the life of Chapman as a great trade union leader, with a statue in Westminster, the remembrance is a paupers grave. What is more the area is to be flattened or “mounded over” to quote the official phrase in order that building can take place.

A campaign has been established to save the grave.

What this all goes to prove is that the erection of statues is an overt political act that says much about the country concerned. The eruption of violence and controversy around the Confederacy statues in the US is a reflection of the racial divisions that grow ever deeper in America today. In Britain, whilst there maybe a growing diversity of those we choose to erect statues to remember, at the centres of power the figures that remain are predominantly those that mark an imperial past, rather than the exploits of working people and those who represent them. Given recent developments, hopefully things might soon change.     

Friday, 18 August 2017

Take action at Wanstead Park

The ongoing decline of water levels in the Ornamental lake in Wanstead Park continues. Growing numbers of people are wondering when the City of London Corporation (CLC) will address this issue seriously?

The regular excuse is lack of funding. The CLC continually tell us they have no money, though it was recently proven that there was an underspend last year on Epping Forest.

We have also been told by Superintendent Paul Thomson that research has shown the footfall for Wanstead Park and the Flats is heavier than previously thought. The actual footfall entitles the area to one third of the £5m budget for Epping Forest - at present nothing like this figure is forthcoming.

The CLC keep dangling out the prospect of a Heritage Lottery bid that will be used to deal with the problems of the park. Trouble is this nirvanna is regularly moved further down the road. Most recently, the excuse was that there could be pending flood defence work required in the park by the Environment Agency.
Maybe we are waiting for Tesco to pay out again, as they did for the new seating in front of kiosk?

This continuous process of inertia, which sees problems like the lack of water in the Ornamental lake not dealt with, cannot go on.  It is time for the CLC to take some positive action to resolve the outstanding issues

-published - Wanstead and Woodford Recorder/Ilford Recorder .-17/8/2017
Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - 17/8/2017

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Speed reading review for Tablet ..Utopia for realists and how we can get there, Dismembered:how the attack on the state harms and Confessions of a recovering environmentalist

Utopia for realists..and how we can get there (Bloomsbury, £16.99) lays out an optimistic  blueprint of a world, where there is a universal basic income, 15 hour week and open borders. Rutger Bergman calls for a massive redistribution of wealth, making for a more equal and just society. He  suggests that people are basically decent, not always trying to rip off the system. Bergman also questions some of the accepted dogma of our times, such as the adherence to GDP as a measure of well-being. The overall message though is one of hope in change.    

Whilst Bergman looks to how life might be, Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Dismembered (Faber, £9.99) warns of what could be lost, if government continues to hack away at the state. The writers expose the lunacy of a growing population, requiring ever more from services, like the NHS, education and care services, whilst government continues to cut resources.

Statistics abound, as to how education, care, prisons, the police and the health service have all been dismembered. However, there are also positive stories such as Thurrock Council where services have improved, after being taken back in house. The authors call for greater articulation of the positive contribution that the public sector makes to the common good.

The least optimistic of these titles is Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a recovering environmentalist (Faber, £14.99). Kingsnorth plots his path, via a number of published essays, from eco-idealist to a man disillusioned with much of the environmental movement. He criticises the reductionist approach that has seen the sole focus being climate change and the need to cut carbon emissions. Meanwhile, things like the mass extinction of many species tend to get ignored.
Kingsnorth himself has responded by moving his family to Ireland where they pursue a more self-sufficient life on a small holding. Questions over the nature of progress and the damage done by the domineering relationship that humanity has developed toward the natural world provide much food for thought.

published in the Tablet - 12/8/2017

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

A life long fighter for social justice - Kevin McNamara, MP

Former Labour MP for Hull Central, Kevin McNamara, has sadly passed away at the age of 82.
In his earlier life, Kevin studied for a law degree at the University of Hull, prior to going on to teach history at St Mary’s grammar school in Hull. He met his wife Nora, whilst studying law, marrying in 1960.

Following his school years, he did two years (1964 to 1966) as a law lecturer at Hull College.

Kevin unsuccessfully contested the Bridlington constituency in 1964, prior to winning Hull North in 1966. He then served as an MP until his retirement in 2005.

The Hull MP served as shadow Northern Ireland minister between 1987 and 1994 under Neil Kinnock. Then, Tony Blair replaced him with Mo Mowlem, when he became leader.

Kevin was a stalwart supporter of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, doing all he could to advance that agenda in Westminster and beyond. Widely touted as a republican in the British media, Kevin strongly believed that had successive British governments taken a different approach to Northern Ireland from 1969, seeking to accommodate the demands of the civil rights protesters, then the war, that brought the physical force tradition of the republican movement to the fore - under the guise of the IRA - could have been avoided.

He supported peace throughout his life in Ireland and beyond. Despite losing the shadow portfolio on Northern Ireland, he remained a key operator in the background, helping Mowlem and Blair bring about the Good Friday Agreement.

A keen student of all things Irish, Kevin took a particular interest in the McBride principles, for which he attained a Phd from the University of Liverpool in 2007.

His commitment to Ireland, though, did not stop him championing the cause of the families of soldiers killed at Deepcut and other British army barracks in the noughties.

The breadth of Kevin’s interests were nicely demonstrated at a Christmas celebration of the Agreed Ireland Forum (another group of which he was an integral part), which included leading members of Sinn Fein, the Labour Party and the parents of those bereaved as a result of their children dying in barracks serving in the British army.

Kevin’s commitment to the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church were a guiding principle throughout his life. He was a keen supporter of international development and the first chair of the All Party Parliamentary  Friends of Cafod group.

In the latter part of his Parliamentary career, Kevin championed the cause of gypsies and travellers, pushing for local councils to be forced to make provision for the travelling community. He was chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

One of his last public pronouncements came in the run up to the 2005 general election, when in response to then Tory leader Michael Howard’s targeting of the travelling community, he described the leader of the opposition’s comments as having “a whiff of the gas chamber” about them.   

He was awarded a  Knighthood of the Pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great by the Catholic Church.

My own personal recollection of Kevin was from his retirement do in 2005, when after a formal celebration in the Commons, a few of us went round the corner to his favourite Chinese restaurant - all you could eat for a fiver or some such figure. A warm celebration ensued well into the night.

Kevin was on holiday in Spain, when taken ill. He was quickly diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, being transferred back to England. He died among family and friends at home in Formby, Liverpool.

He is survived by his widow Nora, three sons and a daughter.

(5.9.1934 to 6.8.2017)

published - 12/8/2017 - https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-e2ab-Kevin-McNamara-A-man-dedicated-to-peace

8/8/2017 - obit - 8/8/2017

Monday, 7 August 2017

Story of the rise of the Sun newspaper...then came phone hacking, post truth etc

Review of play Ink by James Graham

The play, Ink, by James Graham offers a fascinating insight into the demise of the Daily Mirror and the rise of the Sun newspaper.

Owned by IPC, which also owned the Mirror and other titles, the Sun had made unspectacular progress since its launch in 1964. However, in 1969, Rupert Murdoch decided to buy the title. It was his entry point into the British newspaper market.

The play focuses on what happens, as Murdoch appoints former Mirror man Larry Lamb as editor. An anything goes approach to news, which effectively had a dumbing down effect on the whole newspaper industry ensued.

The Mirror, under its legendary editor Hugh Cudlipp, was viewed as the ideal of what a tabloid newspaper should be, standing up for the mass of people against injustice, yet also witty entertaining and informative. Cudlipp’s Mirror caught the spirit of Britain in the post war years.

Ink is an entertaining play with dark humour, illuminated by some excellent performances, especially from Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch and Richard Coyle as Larry Lamb.

The play reminded me of John Pilger’s documentary Breaking the Mirror the Murdoch Effect (1998). I was fortunate enough to work on that program, which told the story of the Mirror and the damaging arrival of the Sun on the scene. Pilger’s programme was uncannily accurate in providing a critique of the Sun.

The ensuing years have seen the phone hacking scandal and other instances of journalism being drawn into the gutter. This form of journalism has in many ways led to the post truth world and fake news.

For a brief period in the early noughties under the editorship of Piers Morgan, the Mirror did try to return to its basic principals. Pilger, Foot and others came back, the readership responded positively but sadly the owners were not prepared to give the experiment time and normal service – as it had then become – was soon resumed.

The halcyon days of the Mirror when it boasted the likes of Pilger, Paul Foot and Keith Waterhouse  seem long since past. The present day incarnation of the Mirror does a reasonable job in keeping the red flag flying in a largely blue market but it is a pale shade of what went before.

Certainly today, we could do with a decent newspaper with the values of the old Mirror, prepared to stand up for working people against injustice. Such a publication would nowdays no doubt have online as well as a print presence but it would surely succeed if tried.

*Ink finished its run at the Almeida theatre on Saturday, it transfers to the Duke of York’s theatre on 9 September, running until 6 January  

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Film Dunkirk illustrates the futility of war and problemmatic nature of survival

The film Dunkirk provides a gripping expose of the reality of war. The futile loss of life and the problematic nature of survival is all laid bare. Dunkirk also offers a masterclass in suspense, never knowing what is coming next as you live every moment with those struggling to escape the beach.

There is relief as a group of soldiers appear to have survived on a ship, only to have that joy immediately torn away as a torpedo rips into the vessel, transforming in an instance the scene from one of celebration into that of a watery grave. The only way in which the suspense is tempered is when you realise that one of the film’s stars is not going to be killed in the first few minutes.

There is no glorification of war in this epic. Whilst the gory nature of war, with dismembered bodies is not part of the scene, the whole wasteful nature of conflict is well illustrated. Courage too is paramount, among sailors, fighter pilots and those who set off in the small boats from Britain to rescue the troops on the beach

Dunkirk should do much to open the eyes of some who glory in war. Those (usually male) who celebrate war and weaponry, often from a safe distance. The sight of someone being torn apart by a landmine or some such other weapon is not a pleasant sight to see.

War is the ultimate failure of the human condition, a failure to resolve differences without resorting to killing one another, not something to celebrate but remember in the hope that it will not recur again. Dunkirk contributes much to the process of active remembering.   

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Gender focus on BBC pay inequality obscures obscenity of people being paid £500k to read the news in a country where 1 million go to foodbanks

Whilst much has rightly been made of the gender gap in BBC pay, what really outrages the mass of people is the even bigger gap between these salaries and their own. How can it be justifiable in a country that has millions struggling by on the minimum wage, going to food banks just to be fed, to be paying people £500k to read the news. It is obscene.
published in Evening  Standard - 24/7/2017

Sunday, 23 July 2017

A short trip along the coast from Winchelsea Beach to Pett Level

The cycle from Winchelsea Beach in East Sussex to Pett Level is a short but mesmerising journey. A couple of miles in length, on the one side is the sea, jagged rocks rising out of the sand at low tide. On the other side sheep grazing in fields as far as the eye can see.

At Pett, when the tide is at its lowest, the remnants of the old stone age forest can be seen buried in the beach.

On the day of my ride, the sun shone bright amid a blue sky. There were curlews poking around the rocks, the occasional one taking off with that low trajectory flight, heading out to sea before veering in, probably to land in one of the pools at Rye Harbour.

Coming the other way to land was the Oystercatcher, that distinctive black and white pattern progressing low across the sea. An energetic flight, with wings beating, as it cuts across above the surf, the distinctive red beak just visible.

Already, on the beach among the rocks are the imperious looking egrets. A member of the heron family, the all white egret has a regal pose standing amid the many rock pools.

The return journey involved cutting in from the road to join the footpath running parallel through the fields all the way to Winchelsea. Rugged in places the picturesque route has the Royal Military Canal on one side, with lakes and fields on the other.

A kestrel rises from a nearby field, hovers, hunting its prey before making off. A matter of minutes later another kestrel almost replicates the flight of the first – clearly an attraction, a fellow admirer watches through binoculars from the hill opposite.

A cormorant comes whirring across the sky, a lumbering flight, no doubt off to Rye Harbour. Viewing the cormorant landing front on, it quickly becomes clear how much aviation has borrowed from the natural world of bird flight - feet coming down in similar style to wheels on a plane about to land

Three egrets sit in a tree overlooking the canal – they fly off as I approach.

There is though also a reminder of the harsh world of nature, with a dead sheep spread-eagled in the water.

The journey continues past fields of broad beans on the right – no black fly there – how do they do that? Finally, the journey through the fields in the sun ends at the base of the hill near Winchelsea, time to return back to base along the road in the opposite direction. A quick vignette of nature both stunning and harsh in the same instant.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Time to give those kids a chance

The recent success of the England under 20 and under 21 teams has reignited the debate about the development of young players for the national team.

The under 20s won the World Cup, whilst the under 21s reached the semi-final of Euro tournament but the big question now is what happens next.

The young players have returned to their clubs to continue development but how much chance will they be given at the highest level?

Over recent years, it has been noticeable how the number of young players coming through the ranks to take their place in the first teams of Premiership football teams has been dwindling.

Clubs increasingly look for instant success, which most often sees foreign players bought in from Europe. There is no need to develop the player, as has to happen with the youngsters brought through the system  The foreign player can, as it were, be bought off the shelf – the finished product, who can be relied upon to do a good job week in week out.

Managers will claim they are under pressure the whole time to compete, failure means the sack, with owners having high expectation and low patience levels when it comes to success.

The sacking of Southampton manager,  Claude Puel, having secured eight place in the Premier league and a League Cup final appearance in his first season was proof of the high expectations even among what would be considered  middle ranking clubs. Watford are another example, where changing managers appears to be an annual ritual regardless of how things have gone on the pitch.

The fans ofcourse are also fickle, they want success but also like to see the local home grown players coming through to represent the club.

The feelings of the fans on these matters was nicely illustrated a month ago when West Ham co-chairman David Gold tweeted to the effect that it would be unlikely that a home grown teenager would break into the club’s first team anytime soon.

The comment did not go down well among fans of a club that earned much of its name and reputation on bringing through young talent. Hammers fans chests swell with pride, as they talk of “the academy” that brought through the likes of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking, Joe Cole Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampards (father and son) and Jermain Defoe.

What did the comment say to the present crop of promising youngsters at the club? Players like Reece Oxford, Reece Burke, Josh Cullen, Declan Rice, Tony Martinez and Martin Samuelsen. It is also particularly galling for some players, who left the junior ranks of bigger clubs, because they believed there would be a chance at West Ham.

Indeed, West Ham’s once proud record of bringing through young players is becoming a more distant memory than the old Boleyn ground at Upton Park. The last youngster to really make it in the first team and endure was James Tomkins, who made his debut in 2008. He was sold last summer to Crystal Palace. Tomkins came through under the managership of Gianfranco Zola, who was the last West Ham manager to really give kids a chance. Others from that era,like Jack Collinson (retired due to injury), Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth) and Zavon Hines (Southend) have since departed or left football.

Many fans thought things would improve when Slaven Bilic took over as manager from Sam Allardyce, who really had no time for bringing young players through. At the end of Bilic’s first season (2015/16), the youngsters won the Premier League Under 21 cup. Bilic promised that the young players would be around the first team squad or loaned out. Plenty were loaned out but few featured for the first team. Some like Reece Oxford seem to have gone backwards.

Adding to the ire of the fans was a recruitment policy that saw some very average players being bought in from abroad. Some felt that many offered little more than the club’s youngsters, who were being denied a chance.

The West Ham way, which has now become buying in a foreign team to represent the local east London area, is not untypical amongst Premiership football teams, which will regularly field a team of all foreign players. But what does this do for the national team?

A number of times over recent years, England teams have been fielded with players that could not get into their club sides. There have been players, like Sean Wright Phillips, who have been signed by the big clubs, only to then be left on the sideline rather than get the first team action required to develop to the maximum of their abilities. Arguably, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Theo Walcott at Arsenal have suffered a similar fate. Had they remained a little longer at Southampton they may have got more chances, more quickly.

Some clubs are better than others at bringing young players through. Southampton have a proud record of giving young talent a chance, which still appears to be the case, with the likes of James Ward Prowse prospering at the club.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has managed to combine developing young talent, like Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier and Deli Ali,  with buying in foreign players, to create a Premiership challenging team.

It is this sort of progressive approach that is needed if those young players who have done so well in the international tournaments are to progress to the top level. They no doubt have the talent but need to be given the chance to succeed.

Not so long ago, fans took a more tolerant attitude if a young player was being given his chance and made a mistake or two – it was all part of the learning process. Eventually, the finished product would take shape and everyone would be happy. Today fans, as well as owners are less forgiving. However, if the young players are to develop, then they must be given that chance.

There clearly is another generation of exciting talent coming through in this country. Players that could one day be part of a successful national team. However, that will only happen if they are given a chance, a chance that must include the possibility of failure now and again.

*Clubs must support their young players - published Morning Star - 20/7/2017

Friday, 7 July 2017

Media have played a major role in creating the post truth world

There has been much said about the post truth society, particularly in the wake of the Brexit vote in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, but surely a lot of the responsibility for this phenomena rests with journalists themselves.

Take the Brexit vote, when two of the leading advocates, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, just happened to be journalists. Ok, they were in the government but neither hesitated to use the channels available via their past profession to advance lies like the £350 million a week that would be going to the NHS if the country left the EU.

Some have argued that neither individual expected to succeed with their campaign to withdraw from the EU but they saw it as a good wheeze. Famously, Johnson wrote the two columns for publication, one for staying and the other for going.

Beyond these individuals there are three other clear examples of the British media contributing to the creation of the post truth world.

The first was the ascent of Nigel Farage and UKIP to a place of significance in the political lexicon.

UKIP were a little known force of no more significance than the British National Party until some media outlets decided to give the party huge exposure. The excuse at the time - when there was an outcry about allowing BNP leader Nick Griffin a pew on the BBC’s Question Time  programme - was that covering UKIP was the more palatable option in terms of covering far right politics.

This view may or may not have been valid but what is for sure is that the publicity given to UKIP but denied the BNP saw the former rise to a position where it could dictate policy on Europe and immigration, whilst the other largely withered and died.

Farage himself was goldust particularly for producers of broadcast mediums. A media star, always ready with the quick soundbite and witty quip. A man from a City background, who pitched himself as a man of the people.  Forever seen in a pub with a pint, the Farage image appealed to the populist discontents. Farage amounted to good box office for the media.

There was precious little effort made for a long time to scrutinise the members of UKIP. Eventually some of the barn pot stories began to emerge, like the individual who blamed bad weather on voting for gay marriage and another who referred to bongo bongo land.

Farage though largely remained untainted. Notably, during the referendum campaign, after declaring there would be violence on the streets if immigration was not curbed,  the response from the BBC interviewer concerned was “want an ice cream Nigel.”

Indeed, the BBC deserves high marks in the post truth stakes when it comes to UKIP. The Corporation gave the party so much air time it was ludicrous. UKIP has appeared on 25% of the flagship weekly Question Time since 2010. The party itself got a regular pew to the exclusion of other parties, like the Greens (7%) and more recently the Liberal Democrats, despite its lack of Parliamentary seats.

The result of this easy run for UKIP was a large contribution being made to the EU referendum debate. Indeed, Farage and his party can take high marks for making immigration such a central issue in securing a leave vote last June. 

The second area where untruths can be said to have abounded has been the coverage of immigration. This debate was increasingly shaped by the right wing tabloids like the Mail, Sun and Express. Any negative story relating to migrants was given full play without any sign of balance the other way. A migrant who committed a crime would be given front page billing, whilst the positive contribution of overseas students to the university system and GDP of the country never appeared.

The lack of any positive news regarding migration in a country looking for scapegoats at austere economic times resulted in a logical conclusion.

The drip drip negativity regarding the immigration debate had its impact with the whole context being set according to the UKIP/Migration Watch agenda that there are too many migrants in the country and that they must be reduced. This negativity provided the key to securing the leave vote in the EU referendum.

Finally, there was the referendum question itself, where a whole number of untruths were put out into the public lexicon and not really challenged. This applied to both sides of the argument. The leave side had things like the £350 million change, whilst remain warned of the immediate dire economic consequences of a leave vote. Both claims make great examples of untruths in the post truth world.

The development of the post truth world has ofcourse also been hugely aided by the development of social media. Courtesy of the likes of Facebook and Twitter, individuals can surround themselves with like minded people, who just provide echo chambers for their own thoughts and prejudices. These prejudices are not challenged but reinforced in such a context.

So we have post truth, a situation where facts don’t matter. If a particular scenario does not fit with the prejudices of an individual then they can be dismissed as untrue. The scenarios that fit with those prejudices become truth.

It is a highly dangerous world, amounting to a mass of people continually putting two and two together but failing to come up with four.

The Brexit vote and triumph of Trump in America are due in the main to the way in which the mass of working people have been made to pay for the banking crisis of 2008. The austerity measures, the lack of pay rises and job insecurity have bred the discontent. But instead of seeing the causes and maybe asking for more from the rich and those who created the crisis in the first place, other scapegoats have been found such as migrants and the EU. It is a worrying world where ignorance almost becomes a badge of honour for many people.

Many in the media at the moment are struggling to try to put truth back on the agenda. In America, the post truth world has reached such a level that the President can cut out a large number of the news media on the basis that they are not telling his truth. Whilst it must be hoped that some sanity returns, the media have a long way to go to get back to a truth based world. What is more before that can happen, some need to hold up their hands and admit to the role they have played in creating the post truth world in the first place. Covering serious issues was seen as a game, entertainment triumphed over information and education functions of media. The result, the host of a reality TV game show is not President in the White House and Britain is set to leave the EU.

* published 14/7/2017 -Tribune - "The media have played a major role in creating the post truth world"

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Jimmy McGovern's "Broken" offers an insight on community, priesthood and a society torn by injustice

Jimmy Mcgovern's "Broken"was a brilliant drama, using Sean Bean's character Michael Kerrigan as the vehicle to look at a number of social problems.
The tone is similar to that of Ken Loach's film, I Daniel Blake, pulling together issues hitting people today in an engaging narrative.
Broken, though, could also be seen as an advert for the Catholic Church and the priesthood, showing both at their best - a supportive community, with an empathetic priest, committed to the fight for social justice. A priest, who is more social worker than police officer to his flock.
The characters are brilliantly drawn, showing both good and ill. If only there were more such communities and priests around.
Sadly, the peculiar nature (terms and conditions of employment) of the priesthood, often draws in the strangest individuals, who certainly have the demons of the Kerrigan character but lack the empathy and thirst for justice. There are some about but too few. 

Surprising, that the Church has not more openly embraced the drama, maybe those in the hierarchy see the Kerrigan character as too challenging, an activist priest getting involved?
 Broken though should be seen as a call to stand up and fight for justice in an increasingly unequal and divided society. A really authentic piece of work from a great writer and dramatist.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Is football still the game of ordinary working people?

The old news reels of football show mainly men, standing often in flat caps, with scarves and sometimes waving rattles.

What a contrast to today, when the football supporters are a mixture of men, women and children, All are all seated, some in luxury boxes, often wearing the latest club shirt, with players names on display.

So how much has the game changed over the past 50 years, can it still be called the working man’s game? If it has changed, is that for the better?

I began attending football matches in the mid-1970s, mainly at West Ham United’s home ground of Upton Park. The game was certainly different in those days. Most people were standing, the majority males, often fathers and sons.

In the early days, as a kid I used to get to the ground a couple of hours before kick-off in order to get down the front, where you were right next to the pitch and no one blocked your view.

There was a good camaraderie but these were also the days of football violence. There could be disruption on the terraces but more often outside. Away fans would run the gauntlet between Upton Park station and the ground – about a half mile stretch. A favourite chant from the home fans was: “You’ll never make the station.” Most did, with the side roads sealed off with police vans and mounted police everywhere.

The violence in my view was over hyped in the media. Some of the scenes I witnessed also made me wonder, such as when a police officer on duty came over and struck up a conversation with an off duty colleague standing nearby. The gist was there had been a great fight and he had missed out.

One of the most dangerous situations I got caught up in was at the 1975 FA Cup final at Wembley. West Ham beat ~Fulham 2-0 but in the crowd there was a surge. We nearly got crushed in the rush and but for a couple of men shouting out that there were kids, we could easily have been trampled.

These were great days for football, the spirit, and the excitement of the pitch side experience and the almost religious devotion of fans to their teams.

The writing though was also on the wall for the various tragedies that occurred over the next decade or so such as Hillsborough, Heysel and Bradford.

The owners of football clubs really did not give a damn about fans. Those that go misty eyed over the good old days, as though football clubs were owned by representatives of the people, who were at one with the fans really are deluded. If the owners couldn’t make money out of fans they weren’t interested. Compared to today, the football grounds were prehistoric.

The lack of concern for the fan was well illustrated in the period that ran up to the Hillsborough tragedy. The football was far more important than the supporters. So when there started to be pitch invasions, the authorities reacted by erecting fences. This put the fans in an almost cage like situation, unable to escape onto the pitch, when there was a trouble. The tragic events that unfolded at Hillsborough were partly the product of this approach.

The big change in football came about in the early 1990s. The pressure for all seater stadium and better conditions for supporters were at least partly fuelled by the perceived hooligan problem and then the tragedies that occurred. However, the game was also changing big time for the players.

It was not until the 1961 that the players union managed to get rid of the maximum wage. Up until that time the players really had not been paid that well at all. Some look back with nostalgia to the days when the players went to matches on the same buses as the fans. These were the days, when football was just a game. But a pretty badly paid game all the same.

The abolition of the maximum wage saw footballer’s wages increase. Fulham’s Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week player. The stars of the 1970s were well paid for their work. The glamour and commercial opportunities started to become available, certainly for the big players like George Best and Bobby Moore. However, what these players earned in the 1970s was small beer compared to the rewards on offer for the likes of David Beckham in the 1990s and the stars of today.

The cry sometimes goes up that football is not what it was because of the money. Money has spoilt the game. There is no doubt some truth in this view. But from another angle, it is possible to argue that a decent share of the increased money has gone to those who directly produce the product, namely the footballers.

The man or woman in the stadium might gasp at the hundreds of thousands a week that a player may earn but at least it is those who play the football who are getting the rewards. The Professional Footballers Association has played a major role in obtaining these increased wages, as it did in organising the strike that got the maximum wage abolished back in 1961. Arguably the PFA is the most successful trade union in the land, when it comes to getting a fair days pay for its members work.

Ofcourse the rising levels of footballers pay is not totally due to the union, the rise of agents has also contributed. The clubs can no longer dictate terms to the player. Some would argue the agents have too much power, being able to unsettle players by fanning interest from other clubs. Equally, they will make demands on clubs to get a better deal for their player. Perhaps the agents do have too much power but at least players are seeing a good reward for their endeavour.

The big jump in wages for footballers really came with the introduction of the Premier League, with accompanying TV money. TV had played a large role in football over many years, with Match of the Day a staple of Saturday night viewing. However, the arrival of Sky as a major TV football promoter totally changed the dynamic.

TV money has been flooding into football for the best part of the past quarter century. The boost offered by the most recent TV deal saw the bottom club in the Premiership last season getting as much as the previous year’s Champions Leicester.

The advent of the Premier League has certainly seen the position of football in the national psyche rise. Football is now often headline news across the media. In the 1960s and 70s, no matter how important the game, football stories always remained on the back pages and at the end of news bulletins. Today, football can dominate front middle and back pages of newspapers and whole news bulletins. Football is big business.

It is the big business element that troubles those who say it’s not what it was.  Clubs owned by foreign billionaires, some of whom seem to be more interested in piling up debt against assets, than pursuing the football ethos of the local area.

It can also be argued that the role of the fan has diminished. Television is the dominant force in football because it is putting so much money into it. So it is TV companies who effectively decide when games are played. The fans will accommodate.

The fan tends to be another exploitable commodity. The old tribal loyalty of the supporter remains but in this day and age it is milked by the clubs with the branding exercises, constant kit changes and price rises.

Despite all the billions put into football by TV, the price to go to a game is at a very high level. I often wonder how ordinary working people of the type who attended football in the 1960s and 70s can attend the game today. Admission prices have risen well beyond the cost of living over the past three decades. It is a strange irony that many of those playing the game for £30k plus a week come from the same backgrounds of those on the terraces, who would be lucky to earn such an amount in a year. Yet still the fans keep coming.

Take West Ham. Back in the days when I used to stand on the terraces, the average gate was about 27,000, with the capacity at 39,000. Last season at all seater Upton Park, the ground was at full capacity of 35,000 for most of the season. The move to the new London Stadium saw the capacity go up to 57,000 – season tickets quickly sold out, with all but 5,000 already renewed for next season.

Working people still make up the hard core of those attending football matches. Football though has become a fashionable thing among all the classes. From Princes William and \Harry to former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron everyone has a football team. (Though in the case of Cameron the devotion appeared superficial, given his propensity to forget which team he supported.)

There are more families at football matches these days. Girls are as keen as boys, with female football now really taking off across the world. (The TV companies have seen the potential for another exploitable source in the women’s game.)

Football though has come to reflect the business world. The clubs with the most money, employ the best managers and win the trophies. It was all becoming a bit predictable but then along came Leicester City. Leicester famously won the Premiership in the 2015/16 season, with a relatively cheaply assembled team. There were no huge wages or transfer fees but the players became imbibed with a team ethic and will to win that saw them brush aside all of those mulita billion clubs.

Leicester’s victory was similar to that of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s. Another team of also rans, galvanised to become an unbeatable force. The Leicester victory and those giant killing efforts staged by lower league teams in the FA Cup each year prove that football retains its magic. Whilst most years it is the big money clubs that win everything there remains that possibility of an upset, a giant killing.

Another complaint is that clubs do not bring through their own local players anymore. West Ham were well known for developing home grown talent, a tendency that reached its nadir in 1966 when the club provided three home grown players for England’s World Cup winning team. West Ham were the last club to field an all English team in an FA Cup final back in 1975. Today, though, West Ham have just one home grown player in the side, captain Mark Noble, with vice chairman David Gold recently warning that it would be difficult for youngsters to break into the side in the future. However, other clubs do it, most notably and successfully over recent years have been Tottenham Hotpsur with the likes of Harry Kane, Deli Ali and Kieran Trippier. So where there is a will, home grown players can still break through.

It also has to be said that the standard of football today is much better than in past years. The game is much quicker and the skill content higher. Foreign players have helped raise those standards. In a funny way the arrival of so many foreign players in football again mirrors what has been happening in the wider society. Just as employers in other businesses often can’t find the skills they require in the domestic market or that those skills cost too much, so too with football. Clubs have found they can get higher skilled players for less from abroad. It has been a marked development in football over the past quarter century that has seen the supply of players from the lower and non-leagues to Premiership clubs dry up. The top clubs go abroad for talent.

So overall, football has changed over the past 50 years. It has evolved very much in the way that the society of which it has been a part has done. The neo-liberal market economy that has dominated society resonates in football. The insecure contracts, particularly of those in non-playing roles in football clubs, the foreign players and commodification. Notably, though, the players have done better than many other workers when it comes to securing the fruit of their labours. Football does remain the people’s game, some of the people may be a bit different from those of the post war period but the game is more popular than ever. The sense of community remains, while the entertainment value is high. So certainly football is not what it used to be but who knows it maybe better.  

*published in culturematters - http://www.culturematters.org.uk/index.php/culture/sport/item/2544-football
published in Morning Star - 5/7/2017

Sunday, 25 June 2017

What happened to living simply

Whatever happened to living simply? It was a great idea, championed by Church agencies, encouraging people to live sustainably and tread more lightly on the earth.

I know the idea is a work in progress, with valuable manifestations in the form of things like the live simply awards for parishes but there is still a long way to go.

A recently published book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth, challenges the notion that humanity has made much progress at all toward living simply.

Kingsnorth plots his own journey from long walks in the wilds as a child through being an anti-road protester at places like Twyford Down to where he is today – living with his family in a bungalow, working 2.5 acres in traditional methods.

Kingsnorth has become disillusioned with the environmental movement or what he calls neo-environmentalists. He tracks how the focus of environmentalists has been reduced down to cutting carbon to address climate change or as he succinctly puts it “the business of sustainability.” The argument has become one of windfarms versus wave machines. Other issues like the mass extinction that have been going on over recent decades have been sidelined.

Kingsnorth highlights how consumption remains a false God under this model of development. There is no effort to reduce levels of consumption, simply to consume in a more sustainable way.

He also takes issue with the idea of progress as defined in society today.  He looks at the Palaeolithic period between 30,000 and 9,000 BC, when people were living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. People were taller and healthier even that late 20th century Americans. This well being was due to the healthy lifestyle but they became too good at hunting, killing off the food supply while over producing  people, thereby sowing the seeds of demise.

The next phase of development was agrarian, which was more labour intensive and less healthy and so it goes on. He mentions the green revolution of 1940s to 1970s, which boasts to have fed another billion people. However, the cost was in terms of what the herbicides and pesticides etc did to the environment. There was ofcourse also the need to keep feeding that extra billion and further billions beyond that.

So progress as understood, if not changed, amounts to the steady destruction of the environment.

The way to fight back, in Kingsnorth’s view is the live in a simpler way. He himself has recoiled from the world, moving to the small holding in to Ireland, seeking to live with nature, using the traditional methods like the scythe to cut the grass and make hay.

He has got rid of much technology from his life like smart phones, television etc. There is a sense of a turning back of ‘progress’ in the conventional sense to reclaim some of the simpler more eco-friendly ways of living. He talks of five points to adopt: withdrawing, preserving life, getting your hands dirty with physical work, recognising nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges to preserve creatures, skills etc   

There is much value in what Kingsnorth suggests. He throws down a challenge to walk the walk as well as talking the talk.

Kingsnorth’s recollections reminded me of the lives of two Christian environmental activists, Ed and Barbara Echlin, who live in East Sussex. They similarly practice what they preach, growing most of their own food, generating energy and not using aircraft for travel. They also campaign vociferously at local, national and international levels for the environment. They are among the growing number of people who live true lives of witness.

The Church has been slow to move on the environmental agenda, despite some excellent leadership in the area from Pope Frances and Pope Benedict before him. It is time for a renewed effort to live more simply in order that others can simply live. This effort needs to go further than a bit of recycling here and there, we need to fundamentally review the way in which we live and change life for the simpler.

*Confessions of a recovering environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth

published by Faber and Faber,  price £14.99
- article published in Universe 23 June 2017

Saturday, 24 June 2017

When will Tablet and other media give Corbyn a fair run?

When will there be some positive coverage in the Tablet of the Corbyn led  Labour Party? The election result was extraordinary, especially given the vitriol directed at Corbyn by the mainstream media and many of his own backbenchers. He had an astonishing campaign, promoting social justice across the land.
Surprise surprise, the social justice message found an audience across the generations but especially amongst, the young, who came out in their millions to vote for something they could believe in. It is extraordinary that as Church we go on endlessly about the social justice teachings but when a leader of the Labour Party talks in similar terms they get derided. Surely, time for a more positive approach?

* published in Tablet - 4/6/2017

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Jeremy Corbyn - zero to hero in seven short weeks

The result of the general election is still sending shock waves through the political system of the UK.
Nothing has been the same since that uncannily accurate exit poll came in at 10 pm on election night. From that point on, it was clear that PM Theresa May had badly misjudged the mood of the country, when she called a general election, having previously denied she would do such a thing.
The calculation seems to have been that the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party was weak and divided. The opportunity was there to strike, secure a 100 plus majority and rule with impunity. How wrong was that calculation?
The most amazing factor of the entire election was the way in which Corbyn grew in stature as May declined. Corbyn was constantly out on the road, talking to the public, debating in the media. Meanwhile, May seemed to be hiding from the public. She refused to debate with the other leaders, whilst claiming she was strong and stable – the person most suited to deal with the EU.
The launching of the manifestos was another crucial point in the campaign. The Labour manifesto was first leaked, then officially launched a week later – a deft way to draw maximum publicity to the content. The manifesto, which promised more funding for the NHS, health and education, went down well with the public. A public tired of austerity for the many, whilst the few went along with business as usual, getting ever richer.
The manifesto though whilst portrayed by some as some sort of outlandish left document was very measured in tone and fully costed. As the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith noted it would only put the UK on the same footing as other European countries in terms of how it was run.
The Conservative manifesto was another disaster, not costed, it seemed to target the very people who usually support the party. The now infamous dementia tax, coupled with a decision to end the triple lock on pensions and restrict winter fuel allowance for the elderly. May was backtracking on the dementia tax within days of the manifesto launch.
The question of the EU exit process, the alleged reason for the election, proved another strong area for Labour. A well nuanced position saw the party promising not to leave the EU without a deal. The position appealed to both remainers and leavers.
The election campaign was punctuated with terror atrocities in Manchester and London. However, even these attacks seemed to work against the Tories.
What appeared like a perfect opportunity to at last look like a“strong and stable” leader turned into another disaster, as police cuts - particularly in Manchester - that the Police Federation had warned against- were trumpeted across the media.
The result of the election was largely due to a very good Labour campaign led by Corbyn, against a truly appalling effort from the Conservatives.
Corbyn’s honesty appealed, especially to young people, who came out in their droves to vote Labour. The commitment of the young was brought home to me by my next door neighbour, whose son made a special trip back from York University for the day to vote in east London.
Labour also managed to mobilise, the thousands of activists who have joined the party since Corbyn became leader, on the streets. The organisation Momentum played an important role here. The energy and idealistic enthusiasm of many of the younger people knocking on doors and attending rallies was infectious.
Corbyn’s Labour also managed to overcome an almost universally hostile media. He continued to make the grown up arguments, whilst there was intense activity on social media to try to circumvent the negative coverage in the mainstream papers like the Sun and Daily Mail. The strategy seemed to work. The result should cause for question in editorial offices across the land – the message, to get out more and maybe talk to your kids.
One of the more amusing elements of the success post-election was to hear those in the Labour Party who have spent so much time over the past 18 months denigrating Corbyn, now having to praise him. As ever Peter Mandelson attempted another spin masterclass, talking in the third person of those who had under rated Corbyn, whilst failing to acknowledge himself to have been foremost amongst them. Meanwhile, the same media commentators who told us that Corbyn had no chance now pen pieces explaining why he won. Penance indeed.
The future now looks bright for Corbyn and Labour. Re-energised, the party can look forward to another general election in the not too distant future. If the momentum can be kept up and divisions in the party avoided, Labour should win next time. The one proviso must be that the Conservatives, with a new leader, surely cannot perform so badly again.
Corbyn needs to keep going – his energy for a man of 68 is truly extraordinary. I have known Corbyn for more than 20 years, often dealing with him on miscarriage of justice cases like the East Ham 2 and Bridgewater Four. Also, on Ireland, where his valiant efforts together with those of the likes of Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell helped lay the way for the peace process.
It is ironic that having attacked Corbyn relentlessly for his role in talking to Sinn Fein that the Tory Party now seeks to get into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party – a party with past close links to Loyalist paramilitaries.
The Labour leader has certainly gone from zero to hero in the space of seven short weeks. Never regarded as a leader, he has grown into the job, stood by his principles, when being pilloried from all sides. Fortunately, for us all, he has remained standing with his message of hope resonating with people across the generations. The challenge now is to keep the pressure on the government, as Brexit negotiations open. As for the man himself, he will probably be reflecting on the aptness of something his former mentor the late Tony Benn said: “First they ignore you, then they say your mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

* published Universe 16/6/2017