Sunday, February 28, 2010

Orlando Zapata Tamayo

Cuban dissidents are rotting in prison. Has anybody noticed?

There's a regime out there where people are routinely sentenced to 36 years in jail on the grounds that they're political opponents. People get thrown in jail with charges such as "contempt", "criticism" and "alteration of order".

This same regime has never held free elections. Not once. The same family (two brothers) has been at the helm for fifty years now, outwearing most dictatorships you can think of, including Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet, Ceaucescu and many others.

You'd have thought that this type of regime would garner little sympathy from most people on the left.

Instead, would you believe it, this one-party state is actively supported by a lot of well-meaning people all over the Western World, the same people who are consistently vocal in support of freedom and the rights of the oppressed; people who call themselves "liberal", "progressive" and "socialist".

There are acclaimed, intelligent leftist bands endorsing it, trade unions organising support rallies and progressive MPs writing eulogies. In case you hadn't clocked it, we're talking about Cuba.

This week, the Castro regime allowed a peaceful 42-year-old bricklayer and democracy activist (Amnesty International had declared him "a prisoner of conscience" after his arrest in 2003) to die after an 86-day hunger strike in protest against government abuses, prison torture and brutal treatment of political opponents.

The brave freedom campaigner was called Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nigel Farage's geography lessons

UKIP's biggest own goal since the days of Kilroy-Silk.

It may sound unlikely, but Prime Minister Gordon Brown may -just this once- be grateful to UKIP and their top MEP Nigel Farage.

In one quick go, Farage successfully managed to score a major political own goal, deflecting accusations of bullying away from Downing Street and onto himself. How? Take a look at what he mouthed off in the European Parliament on Wednesday. Referring to President of the European Council Mr Van Rompuy, Farage said:
"I don't want to be rude. But you know, really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low grade bank clerk. The question that I want to ask and that we are all going to ask is: who are you? I had never heard of you; nobody in Europe had ever heard of you. [...] You appear to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation states; perhaps that is because you come from Belgium, which of course is pretty much a non-country".
Now, most people would agree that, whereas you can have the lowest opinion of Europe, the EU, or the President of the European Commission, there's no need for a politician to resort to such low, insulting, attention-seeking personal attacks. Generally speaking, these are best left to overpaid professional bullies a-la Jeremy Clarkson or Chris Moyles.

Worse, however, is the way Farage tried to justify his words. The following day on BBC Question Time, he repeated that Belgium is a non-country because there is friction between the two main linguistic groups (the Flemish and the Waloons).

But if you apply the Farage yardstick then, there's an even bigger "non-country": the United Kingdom, a place where millions of people have voted for parties that want independence of both Scotland and Wales. Would that be enough to call you a "nobody with the charisma of a damp rag", Mr Farage?

One Day Without Immigrants

On March 1st, migrant workers in France, Italy and Spain will go on strike to demonstrate the importance of their work and fight for their rights.

Last Wednesday's BBC documentary The Day The Immigrants Left, presented by Evan Davis, was one of the most instructive pieces of television as seen in quite a long time.

The experiment took place in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, a town hit by high-unemployment. Twelve Brits on the dole, some long-term, were offered a chance of filling the shoes of as many immigrant workers in the fields of food packaging, agriculture, catering and construction.

Best of all, the programme didn't pass judgement. The viewers could make up their mind over whether tabloid-based common places such as "the foreigners are stealing all our jobs" or "the British are lazy" have any foundation at all.

And the result was a mixed bag. There was the proud local carpenter displaying a work ethic that could give the most eager Lithuanian a run for his money. Also, two guys who turned up for work at a food packaging plant with a massive chip on their shoulders seemed quite determined to prove that it's the "foreigners"' fault and that British workers could do as well if only they were offered the chance.

Alas though, some simply couldn't be arsed. One of the local chaps who was due to show up at the same factory the following morning texted in sick before he'd even started. The same happened with the three out of four people who'd been given the chance to work at a local Indian restaurant. And the only one who did turn up threw in the towel after a couple of hours.

And then there was the asparagus farm where, quite simply, the three Brits could not hold a candle to their foreign colleagues. They were slow, unwilling and clearly not interested in the job. One in particular appeared extremely resentful when any advice or guidance was given.

Most interesting was the opinion of the local employers. The one in charge of the potato factory was adamant that the number of British applicants slumped in the late Nineties. Evan Davis double checked: are you sure that they stopped applying before the latest wave of immigration took place? Yes, was the answer.

The boss at the asparagus factory was positive: without migrant workers he'd have to shut up shop. And for all talks that foreign labour is undercutting 'homebred' workers, it was only thanks to the minimum wage that the British asparagus pickers didn't end up earning significantly less than their Eastern European counterparts.

On March 1st a similar experiment is going to be repeated but this time on a massive scale.

France, Italy and Spain are all about to witness the first concerted migrant workers' strike. "La journée sans immigrés, 24h sans nous", "Un Giorno Senza Di Noi" and "Un Dia Sin Immigrantes" will call for a mass boycott of buying, selling and working - highlight the social benefits of immigration.

From farming to food packaging, from builders, cleaners and carers to nurses, chefs and the hospitality industry, the idea is to show that, without migrant workers, a whole country can easily grind to a halt.

For too long, too many people in the whole of Western Europe held too many jobs in contempt. Somebody else filled that gap for us -often in really crap conditions- and made it possible for society to carry on and expand.

Like a bunch of spoilt little brats, we've been too quick to forget.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Some people are seriously appalling

Watching this programme on disability hate crime made me feel ashamed of being human. There is no way certain evil behaviour can be explained, let alone excused. Judge for yourself.

[Read more about subhuman scums starting on disabled people here]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Booze warnings: patronising state

The same government that made alcohol available 24/7 now want to make 'health warning' labels mandatory.

Rumour has it that the Department of Health is considering mandatory health warnings on all alcoholic drinks in the style of tobacco products.

I don't know about you but I've never met anyone -not a single person - who's ever quit smoking after reading health signs on packets of fags. Like, NOT ONE.

Introduced in the early nineties, warnings such as "Smoking kills", "you're gonna die" and "What a piece of shit you are for smoking" were made to cover at least 30% of a cigarette pack in 2003 - presumably a measure for the inattentive. Most recently, "picture warnings" have also been introduced, along with measures to "hide cigarettes under the counter".

But with alcohol the contradictions will just be comedy material. Here's a government that makes a substance available 24/7, practically everywhere, but then goes apeshit that those bottles and cans don't carry a clear enough warning that the same substance is bad for you.

In fairness, eradicating booze culture in Britain is no easy feat. If anything, the problem's spiralling out of control. Ask any foreigner and one of the first things they'll tell you is that Britain's a country of pissheads, that they've never spotted such massive amounts of binge drinking anywhere else and that, put next to an average Brit, Boris Yeltsin looked like a teetotal.

Watch most British TV programmes, dramas or soaps and every other scene takes place to a background of one or more stressed out characters knocking back a shot of whisky, vodka or other.

Someone said somewhere that a large sign on both fags or booze saying "Thank you for your contribution to the tax man" would probably make a stronger impact. The Government should definitely give that one a go.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gordon Brown's got bad breath

Right in the run-up to the general elections, the political world has been hit by a storm that has shoved every other issue aside.

Forget public debt, unemployment, inner city poverty and the future of manufacturing. The issue that matters is another.

Following previous rows about the Prime Minister's favourite biscuits, as well as speculation over his use of anti-depressants, the state of his eye sight and his chewed fingernails, Gordon Brown has now been accused of using his breath to intimidate staff.

It all started when senior Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley, anxious to plug his new book The End of The Party, quoted a number of staff at No.10 Downing Street accusing the Prime Minister of making their life a misery with his pongy mouth.

This ignited a political battle over whether Gordon Brown suffers from halitosis or whether this is simply a Tory conspiracy aimed at discrediting the Prime Minister as recent opinion polls indicate Labour is making up some lost ground.

According to one of Rawnsley's sources: "the air in our Downing Street office is really unpleasant. Each time the PM opens his gob we recoil in horror. It's like being hit in the face by a rotten onion". "Needless to say", the source adds, "the whole thing's ruining our lives. We dread coming into work".

A senior adviser complained of getting "routinely shoved aside" by the Prime Minister's breath. "You get this stolid stench lingering on. It's just beastly. Something is rotting inside that man's guts", he noted.

According to a civil servant who's a regular visitor to No.10, Gordon Brown's breath is "rank". "There's something rectal about it", he added.

A junior aide who spoke on conditions of anonymity said: "What's most tragic is that the PM doesn't even want us to open the windows. He's got this obsession with draughts, but we end up being the victims, having to work surrounded by this constant, pungent stench. We're actually getting paranoid that our clothes are starting to reek of the Prime Minister's breath".

Richard Littlejohn added his bit in his Daily Mail column, calling the Prime Minister "a Scottish sociopath" and describing "volcanic, irrational outbursts of cock breath".

However, the row got out of hand when an executive at the National Halitosis Helpline disclosed that "at least three or four staff at No.10" had contacted the charity in distress. A Downing Street spokesperson slammed it as "an inexcusable breach of confidentiality".

Peter Mandelson stood up for the Prime Minister: "There's a difference", he said, "between a boss with halitosis and one with a temperamental mouth". "What comes out of his mouth may be demanding, but it's not halitosis", the Business Secretary noted, rejecting calls from the Conservatives that the Prime Minister should submit himself to an 'Halimeter Test', a clinical device which is very effective at determining levels of certain VSC-producing bacteria.

According to an editorial in today's Times, "Mr Brown should not be pilloried for crimes that he hasn't committed" and the Independent too stuck by the Prime Minister:

"Recent revelations certainly paint an unappealing picture of daily life in Downing Street. [...] Mr Brown stands accused of unbecoming breath, but not malicious, and certainly not criminal. Unpleasant though it may be, this is not what most people would consider to be halitosis".

Sarah Brown weighed into the row about her husband's breath insisting he doesn't suffer from halitosis. The Prime Minister's wife followed a string of senior Labour figures in defending him, saying "What you smell is what you get".

"I know him as a hard-working decent man and he isn't anything else". In what's been interpreted as a coded swipe at David Cameron, Mrs Brown added: "At least he doesn't conceal his real breath with chemical stuff like Airwaves or Fisherman's Friend. What you smell with my husband is what you get. It's all genuine and natural".

In the meantime bookmakers are taking bets on which issue will be raised next in an attempt to bring Brown's political career to an end. Stinky feet and sweaty balls are current favourites at 2/1.

Tracey Emin & Co: the "exile" that never was

Didn't Tracey Emin and other millionaires threaten to up sticks to dodge tax increases on the rich?

Time and again we hear threats from the rich, the greedy and the famous that, if taxation goes up by a penny or two, they will have to leave the country and bugger off elsewhere.

The most recent threat I remember was last November when Boris Johnson announced that Tracey Emin, Hugh Osmond and Michael Caine were already packing their bags. "The 50p tax rate that is beginning to drive these people away is a disaster for this country, and it is a double disaster that no one seems willing to talk about it", wrote the current London Mayor.

And only the most heartless envious leftist would not to see their point. Imagine the devastating psychological consequences of having to put off purchasing yet another mansion?

Either way, the simple question is: how long is it taking them to pack their bags? Have their travel agents been on strike for the last six months? What's stopping them from doing a Phil Collins, that is taking their quazillions to Lake Geneva?

It's the point made this morning by George Monbiot in the Guardian. "Sadly, most promises of self-imposed exile are empty", he wrote. "They seem to be intended, like Boris Johnson's warning last year that the City of London would be reduced to a ghost town by the new taxes, to dissuade the government from taking action".

Try and deny that.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Be nice to shop assistants

You may think you're religious, well-brought up, very liberal, or simply a very nice person. There's only one way to find out.

You may have heard about the allegations of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's bullying of his staff.

Yesterday's Observer referred to "abusive behaviour and volcanic eruptions of foul temper" as it reproduced extracts from journalist Andrew Rawnsley's new book.

Apparently, the culture at No.10 is/was one of rage, fear and paranoia, with many members of staff -even at the lowest level- victims of bullying from Prime Ministerial circles. According to National Bullying Helpline boss Christine Pratt, "three or four people" from Gordon Brown's office had contacted the charity in recent years.

Now. For the sake of balance, we must also remind you that Andrew Rawnsley has a new book to flog and that, as one of the most senior Observer columnists, he may have been given ample backing by his own paper. It's also true that Peter Mandelson has said that Brown is no bully and that he is simply "demanding of people".

However, and here I pick up on an excellent point made by Neil Robertson at The Bleeding Heart Show, whether it counts semantically as "bullying" or not, nobody should routinely shout at staff - at any level, in any organisation. Not even the Prime Minister. It doesn't matter if he's stressed. He should ask the earthlings in his office how they feel.

Neil writes:
"Over the years, I’ve developed a completely arbitrary but generally quite reliable method for measuring a person’s moral worth. Where some people might totter up a person’s good deeds, charitable giving, political beliefs or religion, mine is far more straightforward: Are you nice to shop assistants?".
For years, I had the misfortune (or maybe the fortune) of working as a barman, waiter, receptionist. These are amongst the lowest paid, most repetitive, least rewarding jobs in the country. You're supposed to be efficient, nice, polite, smiley, professional, obedient, aware, meticulous, patient, punctual, on the ball and sympathetic for the minimum wage or little more. You're supposed to give up most week-ends and bank holidays. While excellent for social observation and developing misanthropy, those jobs offer no incentive whatsoever .

Truth is, most people haven't seen what life is like on the other side of the counter, desk or till. It may not be their fault, but they're simply not aware of the difference a smile or an understanding customer can make. Most don't even think you're a disposable piece of shit who's taking stick for something you're not responsible for. It simply doesn't cross their mind.

You can think you're religious, well-brought up, very liberal, or simply a very nice person. But it's on those occasions that, like Neil says, "your moral worth" comes across.

Politics, in those cases, counts jackshit.

This is simply my personal experience, but allow me to say that the nicest, most humane, most understanding manager I've ever worked with was actually an old school arch-Tory, a pub landlord. We used to have lots of political chats and debates during dead afternoons and evenings behind the bar and, politically, we agreed on nothing. But he never ever patronised anyone and would always ask you, not tell you, to do stuff. In my dysfunctional book, he will always remain the most left-wing manager I've ever had, even though his heroes were Margaret Thatcher and William Hague.

On the other side, I remember once I was working as a receptionist at a Museum somewhere. Not a particularly bad job, but you know, hardly glamorous Mick Jagger material. There comes a self-professed "staunch socialist", "friend of the people", "left-wing" fifty-something senior lecturer I had the misfortune of meeting during my time at University of Birmingham (apparently he's no longer there now, he fucked off to another continent).

I greet, but there's no 'hi', 'hello', 'good morning' in response. Nowt. He looks at me, chuckles and then says "god you've made a career for yourself since university" and he starts laughing and off he goes, walking in with his wife and two mates. My fellow receptionist who was with me looked dumbfounded: "who's that prick?" she asks me. "My old lecturer at Uni. He's a socialist", I answer.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Foxhunting and the Tories

There's one issue where David Cameron hasn't changed his mind: repealing the hunting ban.

As the clock's ticking towards the general elections, the debate over the fox hunting ban (one of the issues that took centre stage in the early Noughties) is making an unexpected comeback.

On Thursday, an article by Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs Hilary Benn accused David Cameron's Conservatives of going against the will of at least 75% of public opinion as the Tories prepare to repeal the ban if they win the elections.

Echoing Cameron's own declarations that "the hunting ban is a bad piece of legislation", the party's "animal welfare spokesman", Andrew Rosindell, has allegedly pledged to have the repeal of the ban featured amongst the priorities for a Conservative government.

To many, fox hunting could prove the ultimate test over whether the Conservatives have truly moved forward or not under David Cameron. It is no coincidence that, in spite of very aggressive campaign tactics, the pro-hunting lobby has completely failed to convince the general public.

First, like Benn notes, "they tried to pit country against town", even though opposition to fox hunting is overwhelming in rural areas as well.

Second, they perpetrated the notion that the ban is "an unsubtle excuse for class war", as Catherine Bennett argues in today's "New" Observer, a claim embarrasingly at odds with the fact that so-called "lower classes' activities" such as dog fighting or badger baiting are completely illegal.

Third, there was the myth that fox hunting acts as pest control against a "large and unmanaged fox population", stopping short of saying that a ban would pave the way for foxes taking over the country, perhaps with some sort of socialist coup d'etat. Somehow that never materialised.

Four, they said (and still do) that the ban is not a priority and that Labour should worry about more important stuff - in which case why did they bother with all the hysterical demonstrations?

Finally, the pro-hunting lobby whipped up fears that a ban would cause massive job losses in the countryside and cripple rural economy. As if the risk of redundancy notices handed out to hangmen was the reason to retain capital punishment.

Either way, no significant impact on rural economy was recorded when Scotland banned hunting in 2002 or when the same took place in England and Wales in 2004 (which also outlawed hare coursing and stag hunting).

Evidence suggests that, while not perfect, the current legislation is certainly a step closer to civilisation than the old status quo where foxes and hares were chased for miles and their life ended when their organs were ripped to shreds.

In the space of five years, David Cameron has managed to perform one about face after the other: on Nelson Mandela, on the Minimum Wage, on the homophobic Section 28 and on same-sex civil partnerships.

Now he's got to realise there's one more to do: only five years ago he voted against the hunting ban. He may as well remember that, quite simply, animal cruelty is something Britain's voters don't like.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why is Corus' closure not on the front pages?

As a hammer blow is about to be dealt to the North-East, the government's lack of political will is there for everyone to see.

The media have decided they're not really interested in what could turn out to be the biggest casualty of the economic downturn in Britain so far.

After all, it's a complex and depressing story: the Corus steel plant in Teesside is about to shut down, with 1,600 skilled jobs about to be laid to waste along with a staggering further 8-10,000 job losses in the supply chain.

Much more has been said about Gordon Brown appearing on Piers Morgan's Life Stories or David Cameron's daughter breaking his i-Pod. A regional disaster with a guaranteed knock-on effect is about to take place and most people don't even know.

And yet causes for outrage are there aplenty. Teesside has been leading world steel manufacturing since 1917. Stretching from Redcar to Middlesbrough, it features the largest blast furnace in Europe. Privatised by the Thatcher government in 1988, the company was bought by Tata Steel for £6.7 bn in 2007, creating the world's fifth biggest steelmaker.

So how can it be that, with a general election looming and with every economist warning that extensive job losses pose the biggest threat to the economic recovery, we are allowing such a bedrock of our economy to go down - with devastating consequences for a whole region?

Why can't the government go beyond half-baked claims that they're "prepared to help the company and to work with any potential buyer" and simply take the company by the jaffas and ferry it across to better times ?

Some would tell you that the answer lies in a combination of the massive downturn and British steel being no longer competitive. But there are two flaws in this argument.

Firstly, the government has offered financial support to an ailing sector before. In October 2008, it made £500bn available to the banks in loans and guarantees, forking out financial sums that we didn't even know existed. Sure, it was inevitable, many say, as the entire economy was about to come crashing down along with the banks.

And yet an aid package to rescue Corus would be only a tiny fragment of the Great Bail-Out of 2008. More importantly, it would save the government billions in benefits, re-training schemes and the additional social costs of an entire area.

Also, it would help a sector that will always be viable. Steel will always be needed and British companies will have to buy steel anyway, all the time, except that they'll have to import it from abroad, dealing a further blow to an already embarrassing import/export balance - currently lagging at the bottom of the EU table. Steel manufacturing in the North East is also high quality. Its main competition has rarely stemmed from cheaper countries.

And in fact, Corus has received a number of offers, except that nothing has been finalised. According to Unite the Union, this is a "smokescreen" and a "disgraceful charade": "Serious offers have been made to Corus that would allow production to remain at the plant", said Terry Pye of Unite, "but the management has dismissed them all out of hand".

The suspicion that the sale is being thwarted "for competitive reasons" was also mentioned by the Financial Times: "Ray Mallon, Middlesbrough’s elected mayor, claimed a credible consortium interested in buying the plant had received no response from Corus to a request to 'look at the books' and to allow due diligence".

Nor are people convinced by claims that EU state-subsidy laws would rule out serious government intervention: last year, rules on both subsidy and state loan guarantees were extensively relaxed (at least until the end of 2010) and, according to the European Commission, by April 2009 ten countries had already taken advantage of the more lax system, the most popular example being Germany granting Opel €4.5bn in state guarantees.

It has been estimated that the German government has put aside €115bn to help any company in any industry, the only pre-requisite being that they are "victims" of the crisis and that they were performing well until the downturn kicked in.

It is purely a matter of how high different governments value the role played by manufacturing in society. In Britain, so it seems, it's far from being a priority. Alas, thousands of workers and their families are about to suffer the consequences.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Falklands: Littlejohn's wet dream

What a pain in the arse those 'yuman rites'. If only we could just bomb the shit of another country, Littlejohn fantasises.

Look at him. Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail drooling over the dream of a great BRITISH war part two:
"Twenty-eight years ago, 255 British servicemen gave their lives to liberate the islands after General Galtieri's invasion. Mrs Thatcher's campaign was our last great imperial adventure. Could we do it again? Although the Falklands are far better defended than they were in 1982, all the evidence suggests not [...]

Let's imagine Argentina attempted a second invasion. The British garrison would offer fierce resistence. So would the local territorials, Port Stanley's answer to the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard. We've also got four fighter planes, one destroyer and one patrol boat stationed in the area".
The man's licking his lips, sweating, his eyeballs popping. Cause for masturbation, surely. Or like Littlejohn himself would probably scribble: 'mas-ter-bay-shun'.

True colours: David Cameron's Tories

Excellent job by Johann Hari in today's Independent.

Amongst other gems, did you know that "[I]n his mid-twenties Cameron went on a week long “jolly” to white supremacist South Africa, breaking sanctions against the regime, paid for by a shadowy pro-Aparthied lobbying group"?

Read it all here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

25 years of EastEnders

On Feb 19 1985 BBC One broadcast the first ever episode of EastEnders. Tomorrow, a special 'live' episode centred around the murder of Archie Mitchell will mark the 25th anniversary of the programme.

Contemporary British popular culture is often criticised for its descent into a mix of industrial scale car crash television, Simon Cowell's naff-a-thons, and the rise of bullying dressed as gossip in the guise of tabloid journalism and "magazines" a-la Heat or Closer.

If that may not sound encouraging, it is instead remarkable that one of Britain's most popular television products continues to be a work that, if not exactly realistic, at least prides itself on mirroring real life.

Even around the time of its conception, EastEnders kept well away from the gloss of popular 80's US soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty. Even compared to its Australian contemporary Neighbours, EastEnders' characters were often nasty, grotty and ugly, their teeth far from perfect, while the storylines followed the template of the humdrum social realism of 1950s' British cinema.

It's to their credit that the BBC stuck to that formula. Centred around tales of deception and cheating, domestic violence and addiction, teenage pregnancy and mental health, EastEnders proved incredibly successful with the public, soon becoming the nation's favourite TV programme. Many of its characters have become national institutions: the Mitchell brothers, Dirty Den, Ian Beale, Auntie Peggie, Bianca, Rick-aay and so on.

Sure, critics would say that there are a dozen plot holes and that EastEnders staged more murders than the mafia and more resurrections than Jesus and Lazarus on ketamine. Like, it's not unlikely that tomorrow Archie Mitchell walks in through the back door saying he just hopped to Marbella for a few weeks.

One could also argue that the programme redefined the definition of "agoraphobia", with virtually no character ever venturing beyond Albert Square. No-one ever suggests going for a drink somewhere that isn't the Queen Vic and god forbid if a tea or coffee wasn't consumed in "The Caff". Etcetera.

And yet, no other programme managed to woo the nation's imagination on such a large scale for such a long time, striking the perfect balance between fiction and social realism. Viewers' ratings often top ten million per episode and it's not uncommon for a character's trouble and pain to be granted workplace debates up and down the country the following morning.

The beauty of it, is that - for once - such a major programme is consistently centred around the gritty everyday life of working or low/middle class characters, something that in most other countries would be unthinkable.

Often the stories involved have pushed the boundaries and portrayed real-life debates, prompting a complaint or two over issues such as euthanasia, homophobia, abortion, rape, prostitution - all subject matters that most prime time programmes wouldn't touch with a bargepole.

Also, EastEnders has so far resisted the frenzy of juttery filming, epilepsy-inducing flashes, pop-ups and fast lights that today seems mandatory for each and every TV product, from Dispatches and Panorama to Skins and Champions League Weekly. Otherwise, so it seems, they're not deemed "cool" enough for public consumption.

One can only imagine the devastating effect on the viewer that a fast forwarded Dot Cotton or Peggy Mitchell filmed diagonally to a background of sped-up drum'n'bass would have on the viewer.

Instead, EastEnders is proving that high drama and commercial success don't have to involve hackneyed editing techniques and extreme TV fakery.

And so happy 25th birthday to EastEnders and may the future bring more of the same.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

We're all simpletons

Mass public sector redundancies will mean more "freelancers" available, the experts tell us.

In the last few days the British press enjoyed having a pop at Greece and the rest of Europe, quickly forgetting -obviously- the humongous impact of the downturn on the UK. Suddenly it's as though none of it ever happened.

But then look at yesterday's news reports announcing that, with the recession far from over, we're about to witness major redundancies in the public sector. Two weeks ago, Birmingham City Council announced around 1,300 job cuts.

Now, according to a survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and business advisers KPMG, many employers are in the process of sticking thousands of redundancy notices through the letter box.

Covering the news, yesterday's Today programme on BBC Radio 4 summoned up a certain expert (I can't remember his name) who reiterated that the redundancies are not going to be a bad thing and that every cloud has a silver lining etc.

Apparently, the pain of having public workers joining the dole queues will be cancelled out by a rise in the number of "freelancers", the good old word that, in the early days of the Blair government, was dangling from the gob of every politician even though it simply means "casual".

When the Radio Four chap pointed out that those "freelancers" won't have any job protection or pension scheme of any kind, the "expert" retorted "Oh but no. It's going to be a business to business relationship" without elaborating - of course. Yes, I know you're smelling something. And that must be the copious amounts of bullshit. Because even a 5-year-old would grasp that a desperate casual or agency worker would sign up for anything, forget pension schemes and guarantees.

This fake one-way optimism, however, is in line with the general assumption that the British public is a collection of simpletons who would swallow up anything.

Like, we've lost count of headlines announcing "the recovery", and it may as well be the case for a few shareholders. Yet we learnt today that the UK rate of inflation rose up to 3.5% (Consumer Prices Index -CPI) or 3.7% (Retail Prices Index -RPI) in January. And this is why pay freezes are being imposed left right and centre, with rises in 2010 expected to range between zero and 2.25 per cent. That is, only for fuckers like me or you, not for executives.

To a lot of people whose rent, utility bills, food shopping and transport are going to eat further into their wages this word - recovery - may end up sounding a little bit hollow.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On yer bike, Tebbit

His bile must be getting to his head.

I don't know what possessed me to take a look at Norman Tebbit's blog, as he still is the most spiteful, homophobic, right-wing politician in the whole history of mainstream British politics.

I knew that the ultra-Thatcherite former Cabinet member was capable of stooping as low as suggesting that gays be barred from holding Government jobs. I knew that he's so paranoid he could probably see a left-wing/masonic/LGB conspiracy in a portion of mashed potatoes.

What I didn't know, however, is that the guy can be so dumb that he can't even read through the crap that he scribbles day in day out on his Telegraph blog.

Check this out. Pointing the finger at New Labour, he wrote:
"Some of them are so sick that they see a paedophile behind every tree, global warming in every sunny day, a potential rapist in every man – and find good livings in the fear and panic businesses".
Now, Tebbit. I'm no fan of New Labour, but -global warming aside- can you not tell that you just listed the most blatant characteristics of the entire Tory press? The Daily Mail and the Daily Express, for instance. Or The Sun. Those newsrooms plastered with posters and icons of good old Maggie, your old master.

Open your eyes and stop talking rubbish, you bitter old man. It is your friends who are turning a wonderful country into a bunch of fearful paranoid hypochondriacs afraid that a paedophile is lurking behind every corner.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ten guitar heroes

#10 Daniel Ash (Bauhaus)
Try: In The Night (1982), She's In Parties (1983)

#9 Graham Coxon (Blur)
Try: She's So High (1991), London Loves (1994)

#8 Johnny Cash
Try: Folsom Prison Blues (1955), I Walk The Line (1956)

#7 Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music)
Try: Streetlife (1973), More Than This (1982)

#6 Richard Hawley
Try: Born Under A Bad Sign (2005), Remorse Code (2009)

#5 Keith Richards (Rolling Stones)
Try: Satisfaction (1965), Street Fighting Man (1968)

#4 Chuck Berry
Try: Maybelline (1955), Johnny B Goode (1958)

#3 Mick Jones (The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite)
Try: Clampdown (1979), Know Your Rights (1982)

#2 Johnny Marr (The Smiths)
Try: This Charming Man (1983), Unhappy Birthday (1987)

#1 David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
Try: One of These Days (1971), Money (1973), Shine On You Crazy Diamond (1975), Comfortably Numb (1979)

***
Also rans: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Mick Ronson, Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), Stan Cullimore (The Housemartins), James Dean Bradfield (Manics), Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order), Bernard Butler (Suede), Vini Reilly (Durutti Column), Scotty Moore, James Honeyman-Scott (The Pretenders)

"Look, we're attacking!"

Today's papers are reporting the biggest offensive in Afghanistan since 2001.

Operation Moshtarak was announced a while back as "a crucial test of the new US strategy to roll back insurgents in Afghanistan" and it's a joint offensive inovolving American, Afghan Canadian, British, Danish and Estonian forces for a total of 15,000 troops.

What is odd, however, is that such a seemingly significant pivotal move was actually announced to the press weeks before it would even take place.

As Michael Portillo observed on BBC This Week on Thursday, "it's been billed as highly significant but the thing that makes you doubt it is the fact that it's been billed: what serious military operation is advertised weeks in advance?".

Critics suspect the move is primarily theatrical, especially as similar operations in nearly the same area of the province obtained the same result: coalition troops take over but then fail to keep hold of the area.

However, as the Independent reports, "
the slogan of the new US strategy is 'Clear, Hold, Build', and it has the declared intention of not withdrawing after expelling or killing the Taliban, but of winning the support of local people by protecting them and providing services such as roads, clean water and electricity".

Friday, February 12, 2010

Disgusting, says the Daily Mail

To hear Daily Mail churnalists slagging off the WAGs' world is the equivalent of an alky going on about the shitty pints served in his local while asking for the usual again.

Look at what Amanda Platell scribbled today. "My night with wannabe WAGS made me ashamed of my sex", she wrote, concluding that those young women are "selling their bodies to the highest bidder" therefore "perpetrating the oldest profession in the world". In itself, hard to disagree with, really.

What's incredible though is the way Platell fails to notice that, for years now, the Daily Mail has been obsessively bigging up the WAGs and their "glamorous" existence day in and day out -with the possible exception of the Sun, more than any other daily in Britain.

Run the word "WAGs" on the Daily Mail search engine. You are returned with 858 entries. If you consider that the expression came into common use around spring 2006, that's roughly a WAGs-related opinion column, article or photo gallery every day and a half.

Granted, some of those stories have a negative/Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells feel to them. In many cases, however, their coverage consists in telling the wider world about all the 'fun' and 'glamorous' lifestyle those WAGs enjoy. The tone ranges from envious to celebratory to proper talking up. Imagine how ashamed Ms Platell would feel if she ran through the following Daily Mail headlines:

"WAGs splash out £60,000 on shopping spree"; "WAGs out and about in Baden Baden"; "WAGs kitchen"; "The WAGs (northern branch) are back!"; "Footballers and their WAGS enjoy family time"; "the WAG who preferes horses to handbags"; "WAG Alex Curran shows A-listers where to party in Liverpool" (etc etc...)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Breaking news: Alexander McQueen commits suicide

Celebrated fashion designer Alexander McQueen has committed suicide. The news was confirmed this afternoon and it comes just days before the start of London Fashion Week.

Born in the East End of London, McQueen, 40, was one of the biggest names in today's fashion industry. He had boutiques in New York, London, Los Angeles, Milan, and Las Vegas.

He was said to have been severely hit by the death of his close friend Isabella Blow in 2007.

Fairness/unfairness

If you're after some cash, force your way into someone's home brandishing weapons and threatening rape and murder. Reast assured you will not go to jail.

(Contribution by Stan Moss)

Last year two "drink and drug fuelled yobs" broke into a house in Hull armed with a knuckle duster and a spade demanding money as they threatened to burn everything, rape the mother and then kill the whole family.

They then grabbed an ornamental sword and reiterated their threats.

The two then dropped the sword but continued with the death threats, at which point Mr Fullard (the homeowner) grabbed the weapon and sliced one of the intruders' ear off in self defence (see photo). He was arrested and, after a legal ordeal that lasted ten months, he was finally cleared.

The two armed scumbags (both with previous convictions) were given a 6-month suspended sentence (meaning that they won't spend a single minute behind bars) and 100 hours of community work, which they should complete within two weeks tops.

The moral of the story? If you're after some cash, force your way into someone's home. Feel free to brandish weapons and to threaten rape, arson and murder. Reast assured you will not go to jail.

-----
Just as a term of reference, in 2005 two young men caught spraying graffiti onto trains in Manchester were sentenced to 10 months' youth detention. They actually did time. The judge said "he hoped it would deter others".

Also in 2005, a 73-year-old OAP from Exeter was sentenced to prison for refusing to pay an outstanding council tax bill of £53.71. A 71-year-old from Northamptonshire was jailed for 28 days for a similar offence.

The reader can decide whether the justice system in Britain is fucked up or not.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A plea to the Left: ditch the pompous language!

The Left's most important challenge: attracting activists and MPs that don't stem from the inner circle of academia, research and "think tanks".

One thing at the back of my mind has been bugging me for a while.

It was brought back to the fore by a paper called Culture and Society, Then and Now that I recently attempted to read/decipher. Published not long ago in the New Left Review journal, it was written by a critical theorist called Francis Mulhern.

In itself the paper contains a number of interesting thoughts and analyses from a leftist perspective. One, for instance, is Mulhern's critique of 'multiculturalism' as a sort of fig leaf for the liberal establishment to deflect from fundamental questions about class and inequality. This is, however, a summary. A very crude summary of an incredibly complex piece.

Which begs the question: the revolting, inaccessible, superelitist way so many people on the Left insist on writing/speaking, effectively putting off a massive pool of people with a potential to find both hope and political inspiration in certain ideas.

I apologise for picking on Mulhern's piece, but it's the perfect example of the tons of stuff on the Left written in the arsiest, most arcane, incomprehensible, "ivory tower" sort of fashion.

Am I being populistic and pig ignorant and tabloid-esque? Ok then, you tell me: why else would you pepper your article/analysis/paper with spectacularly convoluted paragraphs right from the off? To what ends? What possible benefit is there aside from displaying narcissistic, self-loving, self-referential tendencies that are so reminiscent of my old University lecturers? What purpose does it serve but to remain a futile exercise for the few?

Laying down your concepts properly and avoiding lazy language doesn't mean you have to
test the readers' patience as they go through each paragraph six times trying to make sense of what they're reading. That is, if they don't pack it in within a minute.

Last week, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme by David Runciman about the Left's incapacity to speak to ordinary people. Referring to the US in particular, Runciman explained that this is why the Right often wins the argument - in recent decades, "right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling [...] popular anger against intellectual snobs".

According to author Thomas Frank, many voters who are repulsed by the patronising liberal language believe that, by voting Right, they're going "to strike a blow against elitism". Of course though, the end result is "like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy". Which is why ridiculously pompous posturing needs to be ditched asap.

This is a challenge that the Left is losing and -at least in part- it explains why Labour and the Left (in Britain as well as elsewhere) are increasingly failing to attract activists and, in turn, MPs that don't stem from middle class professionals and the shrinking inner circle of academia, research and "think tanks".

Just think about it: there are precious few current Labour MPs of working or even low/middle class background. More worringly, none of them is a spring chicken anymore.

13 years too late

Yesterday's farce in the Commons highlighted one thing alone: electoral reform is one of Labour's biggest failures.

In theory, the news that Parliament finally agreed to back a referendum on changing the voting system is something to welcome with open arms.

In theory, again, voters will be asked whether they'd rather keep the current First Past the Post system, or the so-called AV (Alternative Vote).

The choice is expected to be between more of the current winner-takes-all (meaning Labour or Tory winning by a landslide for periods of ten to twenty years), or something a little (though only a touch) more reflective of the popular vote.

As it is, millions of voters are literally wasting their time. The last two general elections were textbook in the way they highlighted the enormous disproportion between popular vote and allocated seats. In 2005, Labour received only 35% of the popular vote but were handed 55% of the seats. 22% of the electorate cast a ballot for the LibDems but all they got in the Commons was 9.6% of the seats.

In practice, however, the debate may prove futile. As it comes in the dying stage of this Parliament, the whole motion was tabled way too late. Also, it's yet to go through the Lords. A referendum wouldn't be held before October 2011, and the Tories already said that, if they win in May, a popular vote on the subject will be given the elbow.

Yesterday's speech by Jack Straw in the Commons was actually infuriating. As he called the referendum "a fundamental plank of our democracy", he said that "the alternative vote takes on the considerable strengths of our system and I suggest, builds on it. We propose a referendum because we believe it is not for us to decide, but it is important the people should have that choice". What a cheek.

So much do Straw and his party believe in it that they waited thirteen years to propose a referendum on the subject. Thirteen years. Reneging on promises, playing dumb and procrastinating, saying no but and maybe, dragging their heels, kicking and screaming. Thirteen bloody years, squandering massive majorities, to stage this belated, half arsed attempt at wooing the LibDems before the curtains are drawn.

Yesterday a Tory MP was right when he said that Straw is the same person who "has so successfully and personally obstructed [electoral reform] for over a decade".

Electoral reform remains one of the biggest failures of Labour's time in office.

More on the subject on Make My Vote Count.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Electoral reform: more urgent now than ever

Forget the hot air of pre-election proclaims: there cannot be a serious change of direction under the rotten, outdated form of bicephalus communism that is this voting system.

While the recession of the late 70s may have -at least partly- been attributed to the allegedly decaying social democratic consensus or to the striking unions, the current mega-crisis is purely the product of capitalism at its greediest.

Like we noted last year, if you consider lower income tax at the top, weak trade unions, the explosion of casual work, the availability of cheap foreign labour, City de-regulation, tax avoidance and excessive pay at the top, this recession kicked in after two consecutive decades of the most solidly business-friendly and worker-unfriendly economic set-up since the 19th century.

Even so, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues in today's Guardian, the shift to the right seems unstoppable. He adds:
"The latest survey from the National Centre for Social Research showed that, for one example among many, the proportion of British people who thought that homosexual relations were wrong had fallen to 36% from 62% in 1983. And yet those who supported redistribution from rich to poor had also fallen, from 51% in 1994 to 38%, and for the first time only a minority even of Labour voters believed in redistribution".
The problem, however, remains structural. Who is a victim of this recession supposed to turn to? The same party who presided over the City's binge, relaxed-about-the-filthy-rich and we're-all-freelancers-now? Or maybe the Etonians who would do exactly the same except without introducing each policy with "We understand your concerns but..."? Where exactly is the way out on offer?

"Oh", I hear you say, "but you don't have to vote Labour or Tory". Well, not quite. The country's electoral system leaves you with very little choice. With the exception of a handful of seats (i.e. Brighton Pavillion and certain LibDem candidates somewhere) -nowhere near enough to make a difference- parties questioning the general direction as embraced since 1979 don't stand a chance and never will.

****
Also: listen to Turkeys voting for Christmas, or read this summary on BBC News Online.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Labour can win: the Express explains why

This is the gist of what Leo McKinstry, Britain's most paranoid and right-wing columnist writes in today's Hypochondria Gazette Daily Express. One of the most stunning pieces of political lunacy ever produced.

Even though Labour's presided over the biggest economic crisis in decades as well as the most oppressive, smelly and incompetent government since Bloody Mary, Gordon Brown and his henchmen are still in with a chance of winning the next general elections.

It isn't David Cameron's fault. OK, he should say it loud and clear that barbwires should be put up along the coast and that we should all do a Lost and propel the island away from Europe. But, truth is, Labour can still win because in the last thirteen years they have socially engineered the country.

The fact is that Labour has developed several large voting blocs which guarantee that its vote will not fall much below a third of the electorate, no matter how dismally the government performs: amongst them public sector employees, immigrants and welfare claimants.

Look at the amount of quangoed consultants that we've got. And don't get me started on GPs. Those lazy, rude fucks whose job is to scribble sicknotes in illegible handwriting, who else do you think they're going to vote for? Or staff at the clap clinic. Apparently chlamydia has quadrupled since Labour came to power. Haven't you twigged it yet? More clap, more staff, more patients - all indebted to Labour.

Then there's the students. Ok, maybe not students cos Labour tripled their tuition fees. Actually though, Labour also introduced 24-hour-drinking...so yeah, students too, they'll feel nothing but gratitude for longer and better piss-ups and vote for Gordon Brown. See what I mean?

Not to mention the dole scum. Why else do you think unemployment went right up in the last couple of years? Right when Gordon Brown clocked that he weren't gonna win, he engineered mass unemployment so that a million extra people would sign on and get £180 squazillion a year. And if you're a welfare claimant, you're automatically a Labour voter/activist/supporter.

Then there's the immigrants. They were all ushered in so that they could vote Labour. What you saying about the Muslim vote being lost after the Iraq war? Nah. According to the University of Authoritative Studies, around 80 per cent of migrants and ethnic minorities back Labour, so stuff it.

Then there's the specs wearers. The NHS are still dishing out glasses for free, so that's millions of short-sighted people cajoled by quangoes and the state to vote for Big Labour.

And how about staff at the Millennium Dome? Why else do you think Mandelson wanted that monstrosity built? How many workers can that enormous thing guzzle? But this is exactly it. They owe their job to Labour and that's precisely where they'll put their cross. And just to show you what conniving bitches they all are, they even tried to rebrand it (it's called the 02 Arena now) so as to cover their tracks!

And then there's the anti-smoking lobbysts, those who got longer holidays and those on the minimum wage, BBC newsreaders and union leaders, the park rangers and the Welsh. And also the Scots. There are at least 16 million people in Labour’s client groups. When combined with corrupt postal voting and the £220million a year spent on state propaganda, it is no wonder that Labour is feeling confident.

Contemptuous of democracy, Brown - and Brown alone- has built a system that could help him cling to power.

(ed. it's precisely articles like McKinstry's that scare the pants off people when they picture a potential Conservative victory)

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Comedy heroes

#10 Edmund Blackadder (Blackadder 1982-1989)

#9 Pop (The League of Gentlemen 1999-2002)

#8 Albert Steptoe (Steptoe and Son 1962-1974)

#7 Rick (The Young Ones 1982-1984)

#6 David Brent (The Office 2001-2003)

#5 Inspector Blakey (On the Buses 1969-1973)

#4 Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers 1975-1979)

#3 Victor Meldrew (One Foot In The Grave 1990-2000)

#2 Alan Partridge (KMKY, I'm Alan Partridge 1994-2002)

#1 Del Boy (Only Fools and Horses, 1981-2003)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Council to axe 1300 jobs while splashing out £193m

News just in on the saga about the new library and the perma-regeneration of Birmingham city centre.

While work on the controversial new 'Library of Birmingham' is finally underway in Centenary Square, new projects are coming in concerning the future of Paradise Circus and John Madin's Central Library.

For those interested in how the site may look like in the future, sketches by architect Glenn Howells for Argent developers will be on display at a public information exhibition which is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday at Paradise Forum.

In the meantime, the debate's heating up over the recent announcement that 1,300 Birmingham City Council staff are likely to be axed. The idea is to save £27.7m which, according to GMB union, will affect "frontline services", that is to say "mainly community day nurseries and youth services across the city".

This is big news, because exactly at the same time, as the Birmingham Post notes, "the council intends to borrow £135 million over 40 years, at a total cost of £300 million, to fund the [new library] project".

John Terry and family men

Don't those talks of "shaming the country" ring a bit hollow?

The John Terry saga seems to have finally come to an end. Yesterday's meeting with England coach Fabio Capello resulted in the captaincy being taken away from the 29-year-old Chelsea defender.

The Daily Mail, who sweated with excitement throughout the scandal, are saluting the event with this epic headline: "Grazie Signor Capello: After days of dithering by the FA, it takes an Italian family man just ten minutes to sack captain who shamed England".

And yet, as the Gospels would tell you if they'd been re-written in the 21st century, let the Premier League player who is without sin kick the first ball.

Because John Terry may have been involved in one too many a shady thing, but a quick look at his colleagues is hardly an example of Daily Mail-sponsored righteousness and family life.

The football world has an astonishing capacity to instantly sweep sordid crap under the carpet, but together Premier League stars have crashed more cars than a whole series of Crash Bang Wallop, joined more orgies than the whole porn industry and gambled more money than the whole of Las Vegas.

Not many for instance remember the mega "party" that Man Utd players organised two years ago. The Mail themselves noted that Terry's potential successor as captain, Rio Ferdinand, "once participated in a homemade video of an orgy while on holiday in Cyprus". Some may even remember his eight-month ban in 2003-4 for failing to attend a drug test.

So who's going to "set a good example for the kids" then? Wayne Rooney? Frank Lampard? Steven Gerrard? Ashley Cole? Any suggestions? Until the next one gets caught?

Perhaps it would be just better (and easier) if the papers simply ditched those hollow talks of football players "setting examples for the kids" or "being role models". Just knock the sanctimony on the head, stop fooling yourselves and treat it for what it is. An entertaining game played by superoverpaid young men on a massive power trip.