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.