"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The English - their driving and their manners

Seriously lacking in both departments, if you sassenach don't mind me saying so. Recently back from a trip to sunny Engerland - driving, I was - so I read this post from Scribbles with amusement:
"You are travelling about 80 mph, he's travelling 90 mph, you are surrounded by other vehicles doing the same sort of speeds, and he thinks it's a great idea to cut you up.

He continues speeding. At 90 miles an hour he obviously can't stay in the middle lane, so when he slams up behind the next car in the same lane, he has to swing out into the fast lane again.

Why? Why do that? If you are intent on going twenty miles an hour and more above the speed limit, why not just stick in the fast lane?"
Hmmm - I found the drive south pretty goddam frustrating too, I'll tell you. My reasons, though, are slightly different from Scribbles here. Why not stick to the fast lane? Um, because apparently in England it is the convention for people in the fast lane to not drive very fast at all. What the fuck is that all about - this business of making the 'fast lane' something of a misnomer? Stay in the 'fast lane' and you'll get stuck behind some asshole doing not 90 but like 60 or 70! Now why are you doing this, pray tell? Maybe it's because like Scribbles you think the outside lane really is a 'fast lane'. It fucking isn't supposed to be - it's an overtaking lane. I don't have time to explain the highway code to y'all but let me reduce it to this: in this lane if I'm going faster than you - which is my default position - gonnae get the fuck out of my way? Because this is what you're supposed to do, in case you were unaware. Which you obviously are. But why?

Here's Scribbles again:
"The worst ones, on a less busy motorway, will also swing into the slow lane if there is space. You watch them making their way up the motorway, dramatically weaving in and out of cars at speed when the fast lane is mostly free."
Fast lane 'mostly free'? Eh, no - I think you'll find you've taken too many drugs. You were, in fact, driving in a country like Germany or Belgium or something but you were too stoned to notice. Because in England, in my experience, the 'fast lane' is the busiest goddam lane on the motorway - clogged as it is with people doing an average speed of 57 mph.

Noticeable as soon as you get south of the border, in my experience. As, by the way, was the distinct lack of manners. In driving, for example. Let someone in in front of you. Do they give you a wave? Do they fuck. Or at least not as often as in Scotland.

This lack of civility is not confined to the goddam roads, let me tell you. I know you'll find this more difficult to believe but people in Glasgow are way more polite than they are in Engerland - and it seems the further south you go, the more pig-ignorant people get. Take Morrisons - please, someone... No, take Morrisons in High Wycome. Same shitty supermarket with the same bullshit two for the price of one deals. But the staff? Nae chat - nothing. My six year old noticed it, goddamit! "Why does no-one talk here?", he asked. I swear this is true. As for the patrons! Banging their goddam trolleys into you without so much as an excuse me. And some asshole drove through the pedestrian crossing when I was walking across it with my six year old son.

"Ho you, ya fucking prick!", I said in elegant fashion - "Don't you know what a pedestrian crossing is?"

I was unable to ascertain if the gentleman in question was in fact ignorant of the purpose of these stripes painted across the goddam road were for because he drove off rather hurriedly. Perhaps it was because I tried to kick his car that put him off debating this issue.

Thing is, I'm not in the least an aggressive and intimidating person - people who know me will bear witness. Well, certainly not by Glasgow standards. And this got me to thinking. You know all this stuff we've been hearing about the 'broken society' - increase in violence, decline in civility and all that? Well, I have a theory. Unsupported, of course, by any quantitative data - but that doesn't stop journalists so why should I bother? Anyway, there's the thing: while it is notoriously difficult to measure, by most estimates crime has actually fallen in the UK. And what is surely impossible to measure is civility - but like most people I'm inclined to think this too has suffered from something of a decline in recent years.

So rather than thinking the two are related in the conventional Daily Heil narrative, I was wondering if the relationship might be inversely correlated? People are ruder these days because they are less likely to get their heads kicked in as a result of their ill-manners. Perhaps people are more polite in Glasgow because if they displayed the level of rudeness that I saw on display in High Wycome, they'd be inviting a slap, believe you me.

It isn't just in Engerland. I was in Edinburgh recently. People eye-ball you on the street in a way they would never do in Glasgow. It's noticeable. I found myself thinking, "What the fuck are you looking at?" Because it's rude. Thing is, I was born in Edinburgh. If I were a full-on Weegie tanked-up on Buckfast, I'd probably find myself saying this.

So maybe the decline in manners are a product of a less violent society? Can't say I can provide much in the way of evidence for this but it's intrinsically difficult to do so - and I think there's something in this. All mafia movies and dramas are about living in societies ordered by a strict code of manners. And the very point about these manners, codes of respect, is that they are a way of pre-empting violent confrontation. I may be wrong - probably am - but let me give you some free advice: if you're visiting Glasgow from the South of England, I suggest for your own safety that you mind your manners.

Uniforms and symbols (again)

Hmmm - if I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself. Hardly the same thing but if I'd known people take what I write on this blog seriously enough to be considered worth responding to, I would have made a better argument than this one about the whole bangles, uniforms, courts thingy.

Norm takes issue with what I wrote here. Now I find myself in the position of having to seriously defend a school management that have little sympathy for. Nevertheless, I basically hold my position for the following reasons:

1) Norm finds himself 'proud' of the decision a British court has made in this case. On one level, I suppose if you agreed with the decision of the court one might feel pride. But my response is different: the fact that a matter like this has to go to court in the first place is, I think, a pretty dismal state of affairs. You may choose to believe that this kind of legalism - indicative everywhere of a breakdown of trust - is entirely the fault of the school but I'm afraid that while I often run out of patience with the more strident voices of the 'new secularism', I retain a certain residual hostility to the number of exceptions that are made in our education system to people's religious sensibilities - which brings me to the second point:

2) This is a trivial case - the school in question was, as I've already conceded, being 'anally-retentive'. However, to isolate this example is to illustrate an ignorance of the vast swathes of exceptions that are made on the grounds of religion in our schools today. You don't want your child to be taught evolution? I have to tell you from experience that the pupils of the religious have been allowed exemption from biology lessons on these grounds. Music? If you think it is earthly, sensual, demonic, I can say with the authority of experience that if you insist on your child's exemption from these classes on these grounds, it will be granted by today's pusillanimous education establishment. Sex education classes? Ha ha - forget it. I could go on but it would feed into the next point:

3) Hitherto I was feeling all reasonable and serene - but at this point of Norm's it has evaporated completely:
"The only thing Shuggy has that might pass for a reason against this is as feeble as it is old:

[B]etter a school run by anally-retentive assholes than one where no-one's running it, where the fucking kids are setting the agenda...

It's the threat of anarchy. Shuggy doesn't explain why, if two exceptions can be permitted without such a worrying descent, three exceptions can't be. Why does an orderly school uniform regime - and that's assuming uniforms are vital, which is itself open to question - break down not at watches or ear studs or both, but just at the point of a bangle or bangle-equivalent?"
Norm thinks I'm making an argument based on the threat of anarchy. Allow me to demur. Hear this: I am making my argument from the experience of anarchy. And if perhaps a little more imagination could be applied to the idea of what anarchy at the chalk-face in the east end of Glasgow looks like, maybe Norm would show a little less haste - and dare I say a little more humility - before he dismissed my arguments as 'feeble' and 'old'.

Update: I missed two letters to the Gruaniad that Norm links - presumably because he thinks they are worth reading. I'm unsure why. Are they being ironic? Frankly, I'm past caring. But let me give you a sample anyway:
"So if her bangle can be worn, so also ought those stating, for example, "Chelsea are Great" or "Elvis Lives"."
Or T-shirts with slogans like 'Fuck the Pope' or 'No Surrender to the IRA' on them? On what grounds should they be excluded? It is, after all, part of their identity, man. And I think they have a reasonable claim to suggest this is a religious identity. So spare me this bullshit - please!

Update #2: GoergeS has pitched in. Here's a segment:
"Supporting the ban Shuggy is chiefly concerned about who is running the place, the kids or the school? Being a teacher, he would, naturally, prefer it to be the school, and having been a schoolteacher myself I have some sympathy.

Which is more than Norm does, but then Norm hasn't had to be dealing with uppity kids in tough schools. He has never felt the pain."
I'm being selective, of course - so read the whole thing. But permit me to enjoy the truth in the selection I've made here because the truth is what this is.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Schools uniforms, religious symbols and annoying teennagers

The school I went to didn't, at that time, have much in the way of a school uniform. More really just a dress code - and that was pretty elastic. Still, I do recall being told under no uncertain terms that wearing a T-shirt with the legalise cannabis campaign logo on it was unacceptable.

Perhaps today I could have got away with it by insisting I was a Rastafarian or something and that such garb was required by my religion. But then I would have had to go to court - and this would have been a real drag, which brings me to the case of Sarika Watkins-Singh:
"Yesterday, a high court judge ruled that the exclusion of 14-year-old Sarika Watkins-Singh from Aberdare girls' school in south Wales because she continued to wear the bracelet - a symbol of her Sikh religion - was unlawful."
I'm a bit agnostic about the whole uniform thing myself but I think schools should be allowed to insist on one if they want - not least because such policies tend be be strongly supported by the parents.

And schools need to have some kind of dress-code. I appreciate there's some who don't agree. But these tend to be either teenagers themselves or the sort of bloggers who, despite being over thirty, are still teenagers at heart. The sort of people who sincerely thought, for example, that the Shabina Begum case was about the 'right of women to control their appearance'. Bah! These form part of the myriad commentators who have had teenagers described to them. Let's keep it fucking real, ok? For every one that wants to wear a movable tent to school, there's a thousand - on a conservative estimate - that would like to turn up looking like hookers. They shouldn't be allowed to; neither should the boys be allowed to look like extras from a 50 cent video.

And make no mistake, this is what this case is about. I have to say I found the Shabina Begum case amusing - what with all the wailing about 'integration' and shit from the usual quarters. Hmph! Articulate and stroppy teenager insists on wearing whatever the fuck she likes to express her 'identity' - except her identity just so happens to be about being immersed into a group. Fairly typical British teenager behaviour, as far as I could see.

As is the case with this bullshit bangle case. The response from HP Sauce was entirely predictable - and the comments thread depressingly so. Nevertheless, in his dissent from this, I couldn't find anything to agree with in what Norm had to say. Don't get me wrong - from what I've read of the school in question, it sounds like it's run by a load of anally-retentive assholes who have way too much time on their hands. I tell you this: some of the places I've taught...if this is all these people have got to worry about - well, it's pretty easy to identify those who have an easy life in this gig.

But, but - better a school run by anally-retentive assholes than one where no-one's running it, where the fucking kids are setting the agenda, where the goddam management have effectively surrendered and have instead reduced themselves to ingratiating themselves to the pupils. This is why the court should have found in favour of the school.

Norm argues that secularism does not proscribe wearing religious symbols in public spaces. I agree - but this isn't - to my mind, anyway - about secularism but whether schools can set their own uniform policies or not.

He is, however, also unimpressed with the argument about uniform:
"The school, it would seem, was willing to allow exceptions of practicality (a watch for telling the time) and - what? - fashion (ear studs). So, not everything on the pupils is quite uniform. By what reason, then, can it be said that an object important to a person on account of her identity speaks to a less important consideration than these two? You will struggle to get an answer to that question."
Disagree - and methinks Norm is taking the whole 'uniform' think a little too literally here. There is, as far as I understand, no specific requirement in Sikhism to wear this particular bangle so the young lady's 'identity' is intact. And I think it's fairly easy to draw a distinction between this and these two examples. Watches? Goddammit all! If consistency is the problem here, let us insist that every pupil wears one. This would stop the little toads turning up late after lunch claiming they 'didn't know what time it was'. And earring studs are not just a matter of fashion. If you have pierced ears but don't wear them then the holes will close over. So for a school to insist on no earrings at all would amount to them proscribing pupils' fashion sense when they are out of school - and that really would be intolerable.

I'm a pagan and as such I insist it is integral to my identity to teach my classes wearing nothing but my birthday suit. Would any court in the land vindicate my beliefs? I sincerely hope not. And neither should they have done so in this case. Let's not be silly about this. Teenagers like to insist that it is their 'right' to do whatever the fuck they want. It's entirely understandable - it's a stage of development driven by hormones, acne, shit like that. But a mature society tells them they can't and gets them to do more press-ups instead. It's the present lack of commonsense to recognise this, still less to impose this, that goes some way towards explaining why we're in the state we're in.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Some other people's stuff

Here's a couple that made me laugh:

Despite the 'howls of anguish' at the SNP victory in Glasgow East (he means me), this gentleman thinks that it is more likely that 'Britain will become potentially more tiresome than Belgium':
"It's more that there are so many potential problems ahead that, regardless of the rights or wrongs of Scottish independence, what worries me is that we're now looking at decades of Quebec-style tedium: narrowly defeated plebiscites on independence, followed by acts of nationalistic pettiness which stoke up the mutual ill-feeling to the extent that another vote needs to be held which is narrowly etc etc.

Not only is the natural human propensity for vindictive and mean-spirited behaviour, especially when nationalist sentiment (the best way, bar religion, of channeling all that is mean and base in humanity) is involved, coming to the fore; consider how much worse the combined efforts of lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians will make things."
I strongly recommend reading the rest - 'sfunny. Probably right too.

Also: I'm not very familiar with the Blairite John Rentoul. I stopped reading the paper copy of the Indy when it turned itself into an anti-war comic and the online version was behind a subscription wall for ages. However, on reading him recently - and I dare say I'm being unfair - he does strike me as something of an asshole. This is what he had to say about Miliband as a potential leader:
"They have to ask themselves the Peter Mandelson question, asked when Brown was being compared unfavourably with another younger Everyman in 1994: "Who will play best at the box office?" This time the choice is between Brown and David Miliband. The young pretender is growing in stature all the time and refreshingly normal. He must be the first Foreign Secretary to throw an American football (a gift from Stanford University on a recent visit with Condoleezza Rice) around his vast office."
To which Laban responds:
"I've noted the increasing triviality and shallowness of contemporary politics... Now apparently chucking a ball around the office is a good sign of premiership potential."
Meanwhile, Chris Dillow questions whether who leads Labour matters that much. In terms of their immediate electoral prospects, he's probably right but in general I disagree that leadership is unimportant. Blair wouldn't be having these problems on quite the same scale; say what you like about him - at least he could make decisions. I also doubt the Tories would be doing so well had IDS stayed in the job; the SNP wouldn't be doing so well without Salmond; and Scottish Labour could have done without the car crash that was Wendy Alexander's leadership.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Betting on Obama?

My default position is to prefer the Democrats to win any election rather than the Republicans. I tend not to get too worked up about it when it comes to the presidency though. There are a number of reasons for this but one that is overlooked to a degree I find inexplicable is that the powers of the US president are circumscribed by Congress to an extent that is, I think, without parallel in any other democracy.

In other words, instead of hearing the cliche that the American president is the most powerful person in the world, I think it would reflect reality better if more people said that Congress, in relation to the executive, is the most powerful legislature in the world.

This is one of a number of reasons why I have misgivings about Obama. He has for me the dual advantage of being neither a Republican nor Hillary Clinton - but whatever other problems might occur should he become president, I'd bet on this one: surely disillusion will follow hard on the heels of the euphoria we'll see should he win the presidential election? This is a function of his limited powers, which will be exacerbated in his case with the fervour of expectations now surrounding him.

Obama is undoubtedly charismatic - but one of the features, and dangers, of charisma in politics is that the carrier of charisma becomes a repository for people's best expectations almost regardless of what they are or what they do. When you have someone with charisma, people take them as representing almost anything they want - regardless of the reality. This is why, for example, Princess Diana could be for the monarchist the incarnation of a royal fairy-tale whilst simultaneously being an anti-establishment figure to those of a republican disposition - rather than what she was: a publicity-seeking, imploding bag of poisonous self-pity.

As for Obama, what we know - rather than what people want to believe - gives me cause for concern. For one, he strikes me as being woefully inexperienced. He is also rather conservative - having had a record, as far as one can tell, of being somewhat accommodating, flexible, in his stance on a variety of issues if this serves to further his career. There is, as far as I'm aware, no example of him being prepared to court unpopularity over an issue over which he feels strongly. Also, while I won't pretend to know what is best in this present situation, like a number of people while I welcome his expressions of commitment to Afghanistan, I treat with great scepticism the idea that the American involvement there is something that can be divorced from its role in Iraq.

However - and it was this thought that prompted this post - the more short-term concern has to do with his electoral strategy, and this is related to the whole issue of his charismatic style mentioned above. Maybe it's pure prejudice, evoked by the sight of Germans getting excited at a public rally and waving flags - even if the flags in question happen to carry the Stars and Stripes - but I can't help getting the feeling that the tone and manner of his European tour wasn't very wise. It might play well on the pages of the European press but in America?

It's the feeling he's peaked too soon and the assumption that the election is as good as won isn't going to go down well with a significant section of the American electorate. People don't like this and this thought floated through my mind: is this like Neil Kinnock's triumphal entrance at party conference prior to the 1992 election, only on a much larger scale? I have no idea but it occurred to me again when I read Paulie's short post on the subject:
"Am I the only one that thinks that McCain at 5/2 today is a very good price?"
No, you're not. I'm not going to have a punt for two reasons:

a) I never gamble. Nothing virtuous about this. Deep down I'm a shallow human being with an addictive personality and an adolescent's impulse towards immediate gratification. Fortunately, gambling is one vice I simply don't understand.

b) Even if I did, in this case I trust reason would prevail anyway. Having ignored my own advice - that in politics it is folly to attempt to predict the future - the memory of failing to predict the SNP win in Glasgow East is likely to be a strong deterrent for quite some time.

But no, Paulie is not alone. I'll eschew any temptation to predict the future this time but we are justified, I think, in remembering what we know from the past: people, voters, do not like being taken for granted - and I think this might prove to be a problem for Senator Obama's campaign. (Predicting again while pretending not to - I can resist anything but temptation.) He is still just a Senator, right? The thing is, he seems to be surrounded by a whole bunch of people who seem to have forgotten this already. Don't think the American electorate have though.

Update: Hmmm - seems the Kinnock comparison occurred to someone else too.



Remember this, anyone? How fucking embarrassing was that? I remember being profoundly embarrassed - and that was before Major won the goddam election...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Jeremiad

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace - Jeremiah ch 8 v 11
You'd have good reason to ignore the apocalyptic tone of the following post. I might be over-compensating for my failure to predict the SNP win in Glasgow East. There is also the fact that I've spent the last ten hours sweltering in traffic with a six year old and a face swollen with toothache. But even without these exacerbating factors, I would be sick at heart tonight because I take the view that for once the rhetoric of the SNP mirrors reality: this result really is an earthquake and I have the feeling the after-shocks will be felt for many years to come, for generations to come.

I find it heart-breaking that the analysis thus far has been so short-term, so self-interested, so petty-minded - focused as it is on Brown's future and Labour's prospects at the next election when what is really happening is a strange eruption in Britain's political firmament. Gordon, apparently, has dismissed leadership speculation with the assurance that he's "getting on with the job". But you're shit at it, Gordon. Unbelievably shit. So shit you could say we're being confronted with being shit as a form of excellence. Consider the implications: we have lost a seat that has been returning Labour MPs since the 1920s. The third safest seat in Scotland. The fifth in Britain. I'm afraid the SNP are correct to say there is now no such thing as a safe Labour seat anymore.

It should go without saying that Brown should go now - not because this will necessarily improve Labour's prospects at the next election. No, as I've said before, as a matter of principle. But the PLP won't get rid of him, of course - they are, as Oliver Kamm rightly says, the 'sentimental party'.

How late it is, how very late - yet the complacency on display thus far has been absolutely shocking, astounding. And I don't just mean the Brownites - what else would you expect of people like Douglas Alexander? No, I mean the Blairites too. Feeling pleased with themselves, apparently. How dare they, how dare they? Shame on them. Take this nauseating piece from John Rentoul, for example:
"This morning's result in Glasgow is the worst possible for Gordon Brown and the best possible for the Labour Party. A margin of 365 votes is so close that it means that, if almost anybody else had been Prime Minister, Labour would have held the seat."
How wrong is it possible to be? This wrong, apparently. Had Labour held by a few hundred votes with some Blair clone at the helm we are being asked to believe this would represent a victory, a vindication of triangulation? No, no - and here it's worth while asking who is the author of this historic failure? Blair. Who felt beholden to some undemocratic deal made in some fucking London pasta joint? Blair. Who lacked the balls to sack him despite his egregious disloyalty? Blair. Remind me who endorsed Brown's leadership bid again? Oh that's right - it was Blair.

And who, anyway, is the author of the left-behind society? Because it was this that the voters of Glasgow east recoiled against. Disappointing for the Blairites no doubt but I'm afraid there's precious little evidence that the personality of Gordon Brown was much of an issue on the doorsteps of Easterhouse, of the Gallowgate, of Ballieston. Crime was, housing was, drugs were. Despite his frankly Victorian solutions, it was the Tory IDS who drew more attention to the problems of this part of my city than any Labour MP ever did all the years Tony Blair was Prime Minister. This should be a source of shame for the Labour party in Scotland. They have healed the wound of the people lightly - because they thought they were like African-Americans and the Democrats: take them for granted because they have nowhere else to go.

But unlike African-Americans, Glaswegians have devolution - and devolution brought with it a proportional voting system. I think it would be fair to say that Scottish Labour have yet to come to terms with the shock this has brought. Labour in Scotland advocated both because they perceived them to be in their interests and pushed a soft nationalist line to this effect. This is what now has come back to haunt them. They sought to not so subtlety de-legitimize decisions made by the Westminster Parliament on the unconstitutional grounds that a majority of Scottish MPs failed to give their consent. They shouldn't complain now when the Tories play the same card - yet they do.

Even had devolution been constructed with impeccable federal balance, there was always the danger that it would set in motion a dynamic of which its authors had no control. How much more with a constitutional settlement that has almost none of these virtues? Once upon a time under Tory rule there was a truism oft-repeated that Labour were the most Unionist party in Scotland. Yet I can't rid myself of the feeling that this party of the Union has unwittingly become the author of its demise.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Glasgow East: live blogging

12:05 Hmmm - dunno how long I can last with this. Been watching the beeb for about 10 mins and already I'm losing the will to live. So far - nobody knows anything but this doesn't stop the pontificating pundits. Or maybe they do but they've neglected to tell us. Anyway, they're still talking about the implications of a Labour loss. As I've argued previously, the fact that people can even suggest this as a possibility in Labour's third safest seat in Scotland is pretty grim news.

One thing vaguely interesting: apparently the kind of hostility against Brown found in Crewe and Nantwich hasn't been evident on the doorsteps here. Seems reasonable enough: the constituents of Glasgow East have been taken for granted long before Brown was Chancellor, never mind Prime Minister.

12:23 Argh! How horrifiying is Nicola Sturgeon? Don't know who she is? Consider yourself fortunate. Here she is defending the SNP's ludicrously partisan attack on Wendy Alexander.

12:30 Ah, someone talking sense. Seen him before, missed the name - Gerry Hassan? - talking about Scottish Labour's aversion to elections.

12:32 Leadership elections, that is. Result near - looking close...

12:40 There's my MP at the count. Waste of space that didn't bother to reply to my email about the Iraqi translators campaign. There's everything that's wrong with Scottish Labour right there...

12:50 John Mason's turned up looking pleased with himself. Here's some info. He's big on committees but, the evidence would suggest, he doesn't have sex. Scary.

01:08 Hurry up, for fuck sake!

01:30 Goddamit all - they're talking about a recount.

01:43 Oh dear - seems it is indeed a full recount. Latest rumour is that the SNP has a margin of 354, which is less than the votes for the SSP candidate who shares the same surname as the Labour candidate. Disappointing - I'm gonna have to call it a night. Assuming that Labour have lost, this is a complete disaster. Labour has no safe seats in Scotland anymore and that it is the SNP who have them on the run gives confirmation, if it were needed, that the Conservatives are the opposition in England only. I'm wondering if this by-election might be remembered as the day the Union died? For one wonders how it could survive a Conservative government in Westminster and an SNP administration in Holyrood. Too apocalyptic possibly but I'll tell you what this ain't - this is no ordinary 'mid-term blues' by-election.

02:25 Result: SNP win. Majority: 365. Swing: 26%. Conclusion: we're all fucked.

Correction: Swing was 22%. The conclusion remains unchanged.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Against diets

"Ye are the salt of the earth", Jesus told his disciples. I've thought more than once that there's an entire generation growing up that were they to hear this, they'd fail to understand that he was doing a bit of a self-esteem raising exercise here. Because in Middle Eastern climes the reference to salt would be immediately be understood to connote good things: salt as an essential preservative was nothing less than a giver of life.

Whereas today the notion that these disciples must have been a pretty toxic bunch would be the most likely message the youth of today would draw from such a comparison - which brings me to this story, a parable of our times you could say:
"A mother of two has won more than £800,000 in damages after a radical detox diet left her brain-damaged and epileptic, it emerged yesterday. Dawn Page, 52, was told to drink an extra four pints of water a day and reduce her salt intake in order to prevent fluid retention and lose weight. Within days of starting the "amazing hydration diet" she began vomiting uncontrollably but was assured by nutritionist Barbara Nash this was "part of the detoxification process". Mrs Nash even urged Mrs Page – who weighed 12 stone – to increase the amount of water she drank to six pints per day and eat fewer salty foods. But Mrs Page, of Faringdon, Wiltshire, suffered a massive epileptic fit brought on by severe sodium deficiency less than a week after she started the diet in 2001. She was rushed to intensive care, but doctors were unable to prevent permanent brain injuries."
Salt: generally most of us consume too much but if you don't get enough, you'll die. An obvious point this isn't. Not these days.

The story also illustrates the way in which modern food fads like to ignore the basic mechanisms the body has to tell us when we need something. Not getting enough fluids? The mechanism that usually comes into play here is called thirst.

Today when it comes to food, assuming no basic knowledge should be the default position. Lemme give you another example. One particularly obnoxious pupil I taught last year, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, convinced himself that he was fat. So he didn't eat for three days. He asked me - and I swear this is true - if not eating can make you tired.

I said, "Of course it can, disagreeable cretin. Food has calories in it, calories are units of energy - so if you don't eat, you'll lack energy. Moron."

Then I bitch-slapped him with my revolver.

Ok, I didn't really. I did try to get the whole calories point across to him though. In fairness to him, while he was and is a complete asshole, in today's world he could be forgiven for not knowing this because we have as with the salt thing a whole generation that think calories per se are evil - rather than what they are: something we actually need.

And this is where we are, it seems to me: there are a lot of things that while most of us consume too much of them, are actually necessary to keep body and soul together - but this fact has eluded an astonishing number of people.

Like fat, for example. It's not intrinsically evil - you do actually need some, y'know.

Here's some free food advice: eat a balanced diet with fruit, veg, carbs (these too actually not evil) - and protein. Yes you need this too - amazing the number of vegetarians there are who don't get this. "The vegetarian diet is so healthy", they bleat. Not if you're not getting enough protein it isn't - but I digress...

Wanna lose weight? Eat less and/or take more exercise. That there is such a thing as the 'diet industry' is testimony to the fact that there are an astonishing number of people who don't get this. Thing is, it is in their interests to perpetuate a situation where people don't get this - so that they can continue to sell their mental food regimes. The idea that there are any foods that are intrinsically evil is a damnable lie. But what are intrinsically evil are faddish diets. I don't know this from experience but it's something I've always instinctively known is true. Who the fuck can live on these programmes that were clearly designed for tortoises or rabbits or something? No human being. This is why people go on them, lose the weight and then put it on again. No, no - this is no way to live. If you want to lose weight, you have to change your lifestyle permanently - and attempting to eat a calorific content appropriate for a fucking cockatiel just ain't sustainable in the long-run.

There's something else as well: don't want to lose weight? My advice would be to not let it worry you. Or at least not let this weird notion going around these days that what you eat and how much you eat is something that is imbued with moral significance. That self-regarding actions can be thought of otherwise is indicative of an illiberal spirit of the age, I feel. I'll illustrate this with a degree of honesty about myself that I'll no doubt regret later. Slim, toned, fairly fit is where I find myself at my age. Take exercise, all that shit. But as I still also treat my body as a repository for various noxious chemicals, this has slightly less than fuck all to do with healthy living and mostly to do with a narcissistic attempt to delay the comedy of evolution for a few more years so that I can still persuade women younger than myself to sleep with me. Because if there's any truth in the saying that everyone gets the face they deserve by the time they're fifty, I'm gonna look like shit having a bad day. So until then, I'm making the most of it. Nothing moral about this in the slightest - if anything commensurate with the opposite.

But I prefer this to going around hectoring people. I'll have another drink instead. Because alcohol, to the chagrin of the puritans, isn't bad for you - it's just that so many of us consume too much of it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Against workfare

This term 'workfare', originally coined in the United States, describes a welfare system where the able-bodied unemployed are compelled to work for their benefits. Although sketchy at the moment, this seems to be what the government is proposing.

Here Johann Hari declares himself in favour on two grounds. One is that a system that allows people to languish on benefits for years erodes the work-ethic and as such does the welfare recipient no favours. The other related point is that if we don't confront this fact, the Conservatives will introduce a much more punitive system.

I had intended to dismiss this second point with a single sentence: being harsh with people to pre-empt the Tories being even harsher with them isn't a good reason for doing anything. But it occurred to me this needs fleshing out a bit for if he is serious about this as a Tory-defeating strategy, what he is advocating here is triangulation. With regards to welfare, it's worth taking a moment to consider what the implications of this has been in the United States. It wasn't Nixon, Reagan or Bush Snr who promised to end 'welfare as we know it' but President Clinton. One of the ironies of his presidency is that he achieved precisely the sort of thing his rightwing critics advocated - but gained no credit for it because he was perceived as being on the wrong side of the 'culture wars'. Ending welfare as the Americans knew it was exactly what he did, for he terminated a federal government responsibility to provide relief to the able-bodied unemployed that had been established since the New Deal. This has laid the foundations for the 'Wisconsin model': Johann rightly criticises this punitive system but fails to make the connection between this and the sort of triangulation he is advocating.

But what of this erosion of the work-ethic, which is the central thrust of Johann's argument - as it is of most critics of the current system? Of this business of people living a life on benefits he says:
"This isn't what the Welfare State was intended to look like. You were not supposed to fall asleep in the safety net and raise your kids there so they know nothing else."
This is quite correct. Beveridge, when constructing his famous report, envisaged the experience of living on unemployment benefit - as it used to be called - to be a temporary affair. But it's worth remembering why: Beveridge imagined that unemployment benefit would cover those temporarily afflicted by seasonal and frictional unemployment. The more severe problems of cyclical and structural unemployment were something he thought could be solved through the then fashionable doctrine of demand-management. Easy to understand why these ideas should be in vogue in a nation emerging from the experience of total war; easy to understand how they came to be dashed on the rocks of experience, as indeed they were in a seventies Britain trying to cope with the combined challenges of newly-industrialising countries and oil-shocks.

Which brings me to this: to me there are two questions that Johann doesn't really grapple with here. These are: what causes unemployment and how does welfare system work? I can't pretend to give a comprehensive answer to either of these questions but I do want to suggest a couple of things that are missing from what I consider to be a fundamentally moralistic, and therefore flawed, analysis of these social and economic problems.

Of the first, I think this has to be acknowledged: unemployment is not a function of the morality of the poor - it is a function of capitalism. You don't have to buy into the vulgar Marxist notion of capitalists conspiring to create a reserve army of unemployed labour to bid down wages. You don't even have to be a Marxist of any kind to recognise what I consider to be two incontrovertible facts that can be verified from economic history. The following should, in my view, be accepted as a bare minimum:

a) Mass unemployment has been a periodic characteristic of capitalist economies from their genesis simply because they lack any inherent mechanism to prevent it.

b) To maximise profits, capitalists using the best technology available will economise on labour wherever possible.

These leaves workers who are available to move into areas where they can produce goods and services for which there is greater demand - but it is the transition that is the problem. This is what economists call structural unemployment. Now, in making this transition, we are asked to believe that it is self-discipline and moral character that is causing the difficulty here and it is on this point I have the greatest disagreement with David Cameron and his New Model Tories - and by extension with Johann Hari in as far as he with him. And while he would no doubt strenuously object, agree with him he does. If you've read the piece linked above, you'll have read the morality tale about his pal 'Andy' who started smoking spliffs at school and never bothered getting off his arse after that. An anecdote perhaps - an anecdote certainly but we are assured this is no isolated case:
"Go to the place where I was born – Glasgow East, site of the potentially Brown-busting by-election this Thursday – and you will see them spreading before you in great concrete estates of poverty. You can taste the ennui in the air. Ask the kids what they want to do when they grow up and they shrug with heartbreaking indifference and say, "Dunno"."
I'll decline the injunction to 'go there' on the grounds that I've already been there. Taught there - and in this capacity it's a case of swallowing the 'ennui'. But there's no point in making this observation without asking why this is. There's the problem of unemployment, which won't go away no matter how many people get on their bikes - but there's something else as well and it has to do with how our welfare system works.

It is characteristic of Victorian piety to demand from the poor a moral fortitude that their critics neither exhibit themselves, nor expect from their peers. This is why, for example, David Cameron can smoke weed and snort coke and all that happens to him is that commentators admire the way he deflects 'unjustified' questions about his 'private life'. But the left-behind society has no such privacy.

The other curious thing about our society is that we are asked to believe it is only the well-off and the rich that respond to incentives to work. Don't tax incomes or profits too much lest you incentivize inertia, the Thatcherites told us. Very well - so why doesn't this apply to the poor, the low paid, the unemployed? I can't claim to set the world to rights but I can make a small suggestion: we might want to consider reforming a system that has a marginal benefit withdrawal rate starting at 100%, falling to something around 80% when you break into the 'applicable amount' and your housing benefit starts to disappear. Then there's the rate of marginal tax once you break out of the benefits threshold altogether. Maybe a minimum citizens income might be an idea? Not sure about this myself but right now I'm thinking it would be preferable to this notion that the poor should be forced through 'community service' to genuflect towards the work-ethic.

Because the poor are different from us: they have less money.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Labour and the Catholic vote

I came across this article by Geoffrey Wheatcroft via Paulie. Here's the thrust of the argument - you can read the rest yersels:
"Whether or not the Government holds Glasgow East on Thursday, this by-election helps explain why Labour retains a bedrock of support in Scotland. Religious faith may have faded, but sectarian loyalties remain: Glasgow East is a Catholic constituency, and Labour is the Catholic party."
Paulie suggests that it might be 'over-simplified'. I prefer 'largely bollocks' and since Wheatcroft's 'aren't the natives strange?' argument has been repeated elsewhere of late, I thought it might be worth explaining why.

Not all the article is bullshit. Wheatcroft rightly points out that "the Tories have been gravely damaged by the eclipse of political Protestantism." But he doesn't follow through the logic: Scottish voters, in the main, have long since abandoned the habit of voting on sectarian grounds; it is class that is the overwhelming determinant of voting behaviour - as it is in the rest of the country.

Any residual sectarian voting has been neutralised by the shift in the main parties' position on Northern Ireland: Major pursued a peace deal; Labour abandoned its previously rather silly policy of a 'united Ireland by consent'.

This leaves us here: there is absolutely no question that the Catholic Church is deeply interwoven into the fabric of Scottish Labour but I can't say this firmly enough: despite what commentators would have you believe, despite what the clerics wish was true - there is no 'Catholic vote' in Scotland. Certainly not the kind that can swing a constituency.

Catholics are more likely to vote Labour in the way that all religious minorities, with the exception of Anglicans, are - which is to say only slightly and while I'm too lazy to produce any data to support this, if this religious influence were controlled for income, I doubt it would register at all.

There is precious little evidence that Catholics even agree with the Vatican on issues like abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and the like - still less that their voting behaviour is influenced by them. Anyway, the convention in British politics - thank God, if you'll pardon the expression - is that Parliamentary votes on these questions are a non-partisan affair. Do all these London commentators think Glaswegian voters are so ignorant as to be unaware of this? Probably. But they're wrong.

I'll predict that Labour will hold Glasgow East. The reason for this has nothing to do with the proportion of Catholics amongst the electorate and everything to do with the proportion that are poor. Whether you like it or not, the working class are still more likely to give their vote to the Labour party. This is not the 'broken society' but the left-behind society and this is why you don't have to be Nostradamus to predict that the voters of Glasgow East will deliver a big 'fuck off' to Cameron and his decaffeinated brand of Victorian piety.

I'll also predict that whilst losing, the SNP will substantially increase its share of the vote. This will have nothing to do with the SNP's opportunistic and unscrupulous attempt to ingratiate themselves to the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland. I tell you this: if you've lived in Glasgow for the last twenty years or so, you can't fail to have noticed the increase in prosperity here. More people are working, own cars and houses, go on foreign holidays, eat out - shit like that. But the thing is, rising prosperity has actually made these areas worse in some ways for the simple reason that as soon as folks get sufficient income, they get the fuck out of there. Because hair-shirts are only the choice of garment for those middle-class people who aspire to be downwardly-mobile, in my experience.

So there's a fair amount of people who would like to give Labour a kicking on Thursday - but still more that possess a memory. The Tories hate Glaswegians. We hate them right back. This is why they don't have a prayer in this by-election. Fuck all to do with religion - everything to do with them being bastards. The SNP will do better with their boring, whining, mono-causal explanation for everything but not well enough. Because they used to get called the Tartan Tories; those of us that possess memories understand that this epithet was given for good reason.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Prepare for death

There is something comical about this government's assumption of cradle-to-grave competence. Provided they haven't identified you as a criminal in the womb and ASBOed your foetal ass, they can ensure you have a fulfilling, non-food wasting, exercise taking, non-smoking, obesity-avoiding life.

But as you live and move and have your being in this society that the government has 're-built', take care that in your bliss you forget not that one day, perhaps sooner than you think, you're going to die. It is because people are, in the government's estimation, generally insufficiently prepared for the Grim Reaper, that they have come forward with this initiative:
"Funeral homes and crematoria will be encouraged to hold open days as part of a government plan to help people better prepare for death.

Ministers believe such events will make death and dying less taboo subjects, and will encourage more people to make wills and plan for where they want to spend their final days."
You read it here first: the task that the government has set itself is nothing more or less than to make death 'less taboo'. Good luck with that. I think you'll find your only slightly less esoteric goal of 'raising aspirations' a walk in the park compared to this one.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More Glasgae East stuff

Parochial of me, I know. It's just that I'm so impressed with all the attention the place has been getting. Particularly from the Tories, given that the proverbial snowball in hell has good prospects compared to those of the Conservatives in Glasgow East.

In a distressing turn of events, the Scottish Tory leader has popped into the gym in the hope that this will boost the campaign.

This is bad for two reasons:

1) The very idea of Annabel Goldie working out leaves a disturbing image lingering in the mind.

2) Do her actions indicate some knowledge on her part that her going to the fucking gym to spread Cameron's distinctively sickly and decaffeinated version of the gospel of Self-Help is actually going to swing a few voters?

Are there really people out there who say to themselves, "I wasn't going to vote Tory but now Annabel has donned her leotard, I've changed my mind."?

Surely if such people exist, they should be killed. Several times.

Fortunately I don't think they do and it's just that Ms Goldie is completely out of her fucking gourd.

It has been noticeable the way this little by-election has brought out the parties true colours:

Scottish Labour? Incompetent, disorganised, fucked-up selection procedures, producing a candidate that looks like she was baptised in bad vinegar. No change there, then.

Tories? Have been attributing poverty to the moral deficiencies of the poor since anyone can remember; clearly the effort of being all nice and tumble-dried has exhausted them and they've reverted to type.

And as for the SNP:
"The SNP candidate in the Glasgow East by-election sparked a fresh row over Scotland's future last night, when he warned the Nationalists might not accept a No vote in a referendum on independence.

John Mason, who is a Glasgow councillor, said the SNP could go on asking the people in successive referendums until it got the answer it wanted – a view which puts him at odds with Alex Salmond, the First Minister."
I have to say, it must be tough coping with the contradictions of being a nationalist: on one hand, you're in mystical communion with the Scottish volk; on the other, there's the small problem of what to do if and when they've failed to appreciate their manifest destiny, despite your best efforts to outline your vision of a nation made more sublime by lots more state-sponsored kitsch.

Keep asking the question, is what you do.

In fairness, Alex Salmond only thinks the question needs to be asked every generation. With Mr Mason, the Will to Plebiscite beats more urgently in his breast, inflamed as it is with something one can only describe as passion:
"When you ask someone to marry you, sometimes you have to persist," Mr Mason said during a campaign visit to a community health shop in the Barlanark area of the constituency.
Paulie's the only blogger I know who gets this. The rest of you think referendums are a Really Good Idea because they're more Democratic.

This is because you're all mental. Politicians have referendums when they think they're going to win - and even when they lose, they really do have the brassneck to keep asking the same question until they get the answer they want. They've already done this in Ireland already and now pressure's being put on them to do this again.

I digress...

Anyway, can someone tell me how journalism works? Because I don't get it. When Cllr Mason was coming out with this drivel about referendums being like importuning your love with offers of marriage, was there no one on hand to say, "You analogy doesn't hold because what you're asking for is a divorce, you stupid prick!"? Or there was but this kind of thing is considered impolite? I wouldn't know but it shouldn't be.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sexual healing

If the name of the column is anything to go by, this is what Pamela Stephenson Connolly claims to be offering to the sexually perturbed and confused. And I think we can all agree that if you find yourself writing into the Guardian to get advice about your sex life, the confusion factor is pretty fucking high. Here's an example:
"My boyfriend is an outgoing type, always the life of the party. Even when we're alone he wants to joke around. I love him, and sex with him is satisfying when we finish what we start. However, when we're making love he is easily distracted. It could be the sound of someone moving around in the next flat, or noise outside, but pretty soon he loses his erection. Is this normal? How can I keep his mind on the job?"
It may be prejudice on my part but her response struck me as being so Californian:
"It is "normal" - for someone whose brain is wired in such a way that paying attention to one thing at a time is challenging. Your boyfriend may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), meaning that he has difficulty filtering out sounds and other stimuli that are competing for his attention.

Don't take it personally.

You should suggest he be evaluated and treated for ADHD, while remembering that he is probably a bright and creative person, who could do with your help in staying on-task."
Dunno about healing but this advice is certainly soothing. If Mr and Mrs Connolly had opted for Glasgow instead of LA, I like to think her advice might go something like this:
"Unless bits of it actually fall on me, the fucking ceiling collapsing wouldn't distract me from 'staying on-task', ok? Given this is, as far as I can gather, the way of all flesh, you really should accept that yer boyfriend just ain't that interested. I suggest you get him tested for Shagging Someone Else Syndrome (SSES).

Do take it personally."

Out on the wiley, windy moors...

We'd roll and fall in green.
You had a temper like my jealousy:
Too hot, too greedy.
How could you leave me,
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you. I loved you, too.

Bad dreams in the night.
They told me I was going to lose the fight,
Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering
Wuthering Heights.

Heathcliff, it's me--Cathy.
Come home. I'm so cold!
Let me in-a-your window.

Heathcliff, it's me--Cathy.
Come home. I'm so cold!
Let me in-a-your window.

Ooh, it gets dark! It gets lonely,
On the other side from you.
I pine a lot. I find the lot
Falls through without you.
I'm coming back, love.
Cruel Heathcliff, my one dream,
My only master.



Honestly!

Via

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Raintown blues

I have to say that I've been enormously impressed with the attention that the forthcoming by-election in Glasgow East has been getting.

The constituents of Glasgow East are much like the rest of us except they have had rather more disadvantages to put up with. I could elaborate but I wouldn't want this to obfuscate what I consider the most obvious, glaring difference: they have less money.

This, it goes without saying, is a much too economistic and mundane explanation for the Tories who prefer a more Victorian narrative:
"David Cameron acknowledged his debt to Iain Duncan Smith as he stood in a church in the East End of Glasgow to deliver his address on personal morality. Mr Duncan Smith, in turn, credits the deprivation he found on the estates of Gallowgate for inspiring his 'modern, compassionate Conservatism'."
"Modern, compassionate Conservatism", it would seem, is Samuel Smiles with more smiles. I think we're supposed to find it heart-warming that Glasgow inspired this little 'crusade':
"Of course, circumstances — where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make — have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make."
So obviously the east end of Glasgow is so fucked up because there is a larger proportion of the population there who have a greater marginal propensity to make bad life-style decisions than elsewhere.

Hitherto, I had been prepared to attribute a greater weight to social circumstances in forming character - but if we take Cameron at his word, I feel we can do no other than to draw the following conclusion: it is not by accident of birth and upbringing that David Cameron is a complete wank - it has been a conscious choice on his part.

My own view is that this has been both a foolish choice, and an aesthetically disastrous one - but my point is that what I now understand to have been a lifestyle choice on his part to be a complete wank does not appear to have resulted in him living in poverty in the east end of Glasgow.

Drifted off from the point, which was this: the single most significant thing about this by-election is that anyone's paying attention at all. I love these pundits pontificating about whether a 'seismic change' is taking place in British electoral politics. "Not yet", so many of them say earnestly, with authority. No-one is on hand to point out that the "seismic shift" has already happened. There are indicators aplenty but here's just two that people really should pay more attention to:

1) Labour has lost control of Scotland. Pundits, politicians, and the tuned into the funky vibe bloggers seem not, on the whole, to have understood the significance of this.

2) It is not a question of whether Labour can hold Glasgow East - it is the fact that the outcome is seriously considered as uncertain that is the significant thing. I suspect that Labour will hold this seat but that there's the prospect of a real contest means that there is no such thing as a safe Labour seat anywhere in Britain.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls...

Friday, July 04, 2008

On schools and cops

Ed Balls strikes me as the sort of person my son's mother dismisses under the label "macho dick-head":
"Schools judged to be either "coasting" on their good results, or doing too little to reverse poor performance, will face the threat of direct intervention from central government."
One day - although I suspect no time soon - the penny's going to drop and people are going to realise that central government intervention is the problem rather than the solution.
"Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, outlined new powers yesterday to enable his department to force local authorities to issue both successful and failing schools with a formal warning notice, giving them 15 days to make improvements or be taken over."
That's 15 days people. What does he imagine any school can do about anything in 15 days - even under the threat of being invaded? There's more lunacy:
"In a separate move, Mr Balls said that schools would be made to collect and publish records of children's lifestyles, through a new set of "wellbeing indicators", likely to include healthy eating, participation in sport and attendance."
You'd find it sinister if you didn't understand that Mr Balls is the spokesman for a fading regime that can't even control its own ministers - never mind its own party - never mind education in this country.

___________


This is completely unrelated but did you know that Glasgow police force was the oldest in Britain? I didn't - and neither did the Met when they claimed to be "the oldest police service in the world".

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Glasgow and the Gaza strip

We're used to politicians being blamed, or taking credit for, things that are beyond their control but Angus Robertson has taken this pointless ritual to new levels of absurdity:
"A furious row has broken out over claims that the Scottish Nationalists compared an impoverished area of Glasgow hosting a crucial by-election to the Gaza Strip.

Labour lambasted Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, for arguing that life expectancy in Glasgow East is lower than in the war torn territory in the Middle East.

He suggested the legacy of decades of Labour rule is that men in the constituency live on average four years less than those in the in the Palestinian territory, which in March was subjected to air strikes."
Govan - a quaint fishing village on the Clyde - has been won twice by the SNP. As a consequence, life-expectancy is ten years higher than the national average, infant mortality is a fraction of that for Glasgow as a whole, and the wombs of Govan women are significantly more fertile than in the rest of the country.

Via: Will
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