A Sensible Surrender

January 3, 2014

Marijuana PlantThe so-called “War on Drugs”, at least as an exercise in law enforcement, may be drawing to a close. On December 11th, Uruguay legalised the trade and possession of marijuana for recreational use. On January 1st, the state of Colorado permitted its sale for the same purpose. On January 2nd, the conservatively inclined Fox Business Network sent a reporter to a Colorado facility which was growing marijuana: the somewhat bleary eyed and distracted owner suggested that fourteen other states were likely to follow in his state’s footsteps and another two were contemplating loosening legislation to allow its consumption for medical purposes. It was also mentioned that the potential value of the market was in the region of $2.5 billion. On the same day, Fox Business’ website reported that the shares of a company called MedBox, which manufactures marijuana dispensing machines, were up by 57%.

When a conservative news network changes the discussion from how to ban a thing to how to make money off a thing, one can be reasonably certain that a paradigm shift has become inevitable. Marijuana will probably be legalised in most countries: the ones that do not do so will be the outliers. This is all well and good.

My opinions on this subject are subject to certain caveats. I am not speaking from an experienced point of view: I have never smoked pot nor do I wish to do so. This is in spite of fact that I lived in the Netherlands in the late 1990’s, a time when “Dutch” was a direct synonym for “liberal” and “tolerant”. Admittedly, I was there for work rather than bohemian purposes; yet, I may have been one of the few foreign residents of Amsterdam who didn’t partake. Being a non-consumer of the product, however, may have sharpened my awareness of its presence. There were many places in Amsterdam which reeked of it: not only did it emanate from the infamous “coffee shops” even in the early morning, it was openly smoked in the streets by passers-by. I intensely dislike the scent of it: I recall my first whiff of it making me sick to my stomach, and this trigger still remains with me. The effects of extensive marijuana smoking are not necessarily pleasant for everyone. I once saw a young man who obviously got a bad batch: after he finished smoking, he sat down in the middle of a central thoroughfare and essentially had a nervous breakdown which manifested itself in the form of hysterical screaming. Eventually, he had to be gently but firmly led away by the Amsterdam police. Despite the distaste informed by my experiences, I would rather that it was out in the open and legal. I believe the problems one can associate with smoking pot are rather similar to another form of substance related recreation: I find how people get drunk to the point that they vomit in public repulsive too. However, at least when discourse turns to those who drink excessively, we generally speak in terms of it being a public health issue. We tend to bring in doctors to pontificate rather than police. We now have an opportunity to move matters on in a similar way in regards to narcotics. We should be asking what is it about modern life, what ennui that lay therein which drives people to abuse themselves in particular ways? Can we construct frameworks, such as minimum pricing, which will allow us to control consumption? What can we do to ensure that vulnerable people, like the young man who lost control completely, receive adequate care?

Beer ReturnsSo long as the anarchy fostered by illegality remained, we were not in a position to ask and address these questions effectively: rather, we were left with the threat of prison, as if humanity could be punished into sensible behaviour. The fateful experience of America with alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s and 1930’s should have proved otherwise; all that fatally flawed experiment did was create a market for poisonous moonshine and made petty gangsters into millionaires. Governments throughout the world have spent billions of dollars in re-learning this particular lesson. The changes put in place by Uruguay and Colorado suggest we’re now at a moment analogous to when Franklin Roosevelt made it legal to drink 2% beer: this small crack in the legal log jam opened wide shortly afterwards.

Fourteen states, $2.5 billion market size: the main danger of legalisation is that the engine of capitalism will start to pick up steam and companies will advertise a particular reefer as better, stronger, and more long lasting in its effects. The facility visited by the Fox Business reporter looked potent enough: my understanding is that the hemp plants raised for this particular purpose give off intoxicating vapours on their own. Furthermore, the reporter and the owner were in an enclosed space. Given this, I was surprised they weren’t experiencing the munchies. I also didn’t expect them to be as lucid as they were. Nevertheless, a reporter from a widely-watched television network visiting such a place is progress of a kind. No doubt a politician will visit such a farm soon and praise the imagination and industry of the growers and may seek campaign contributions. Perhaps a more substantial lobby for Marijuana growers will form in Washington, which will desire tinkering with standards to allow newer, stronger blends to be put on sale.

Yet, this is better. It’s definitely preferable that the sometimes nauseating churn of politics and business happens instead of a young man on a Detroit street corner is thrown in jail after a random stop and search during which he’s found to have a plastic bag of the stuff in his pockets. It’s better that producing pot is no longer racy, but regulated. It’s better that we start having support groups come out in the open for those who wish to give it up. It’s progress, but the kind that comes with caveats, which tends to be the hallmark of a genuine improvement. Yes, the stubborn or the puritanical might construe this as a form of surrender: but giving up when the stand that one takes is proven to be ridiculous is a victory for common sense.

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Happy New Year

January 2, 2014

2014numberNew Year’s is, by and large, tinged with regret. If the year has been particularly difficult, there’s marginal relief to be had at its conclusion; if the year has been splendid, then there’s sadness at leaving it behind and some trepidation as to what the future may bring. Either way, it represents the outer frontier of the holiday season: beyond it, alarm clocks, early mornings, hastily consumed cups of coffee and the commute back to work all beckon. The lights come down, the trees are set out as rubbish, the stores start aggressively marketing Valentine’s Day wares, the holiday season is tucked into the space of memory, revisited mainly when photo albums are opened. Christmas 2013 is finished; the realities of winter remain. As I write this, I am sitting in New York, and a blizzard warning is in effect for this evening. Tomorrow I’ll go out into what the storm leaves behind with my Bradford City scarf tied around my neck and hoist a snow shovel to help ensure my parents’ car isn’t trapped on the driveway.

As I attack the drifting snow, I will remember that Spring will come. There will be trips to the garden centre for pale green seedlings, which always seem so frail in April. The sun will eventually linger into the evening. It will be possible and preferable to sit outside of Nando’s at Bradford’s Centenary Square and have lunch; it will eventually be right to wear sunglasses as I consume my Extra Hot Butterfly Chicken. For the moment, that scene seems a distant dream, something contemplated as one tries to hibernate in the dark or watches the tiny flakes of white descend en masse.

Moreover, January is the poster-child for austerity. Pay day was just before Christmas; the feeling of being flush is gone, replaced with wondering how one is going to stretch one’s finances to the end of the month. According to the Financial Times, British consumer spending in Q3 was up 1.7% though wages only increased 0.2%. This is the month when plain white and brown envelopes are stuffed into mailboxes, the black sans-serif text showing one’s address providing little hint of the cheque coming due. Television and the press encourage us to go on diets: what remains of the turkey is sealed in plastic containers and stuck in the back of the freezer. If Charles Dickens had given us a portrait of pre-transformed Scrooge in January, no doubt the miser would be portrayed as smiling through the month. His view of December’s profligacy, in his mind, would no doubt have been vindicated. It’s no wonder that many Christmas songs plead for the feeling to extend throughout the year, or for it to be Christmas every day.

Dick ClarkSuch pleas are bound to fail. Eventually, we face New Year’s Eve: it’s no wonder so many people get drunk on the night. I happened across one New Year’s Eve television programme which showed a correspondent in Miami who was obviously inebriated. He wandered aimlessly around a hotel with a roving camera team. He made a point of speaking, albeit with slurred and disconnected words, to young women who were all in a semi-state of undress. They appeared to be no more sober than he was. I could easily imagine him waking up the next morning with a damaged career as well as a hangover. Another reporter was in a New York dance club: he was accompanied by women who looked like they were extras from Robert Palmer music videos with their slicked back hair, bright red lipstick, limited dance movements and absolute silence. One of them poured cheap champagne out as freely as if it was water. My father changed the channel and found a testament to how these New Year’s programmes have become ever more mired in mediocrity: there was a show entitled “Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year’s with Ryan Seacrest”. Dick Clark, the long time host of “American Bandstand” (a programme similar to Britain’s “Top of the Pops”) had presented a New Year’s show right up until the year of his death. He was an American institution and presented the New Year with skill and brio. His successor, Mr. Seacrest, as the title of the programme indicates, obviously lacks Mr. Clark’s talents; indeed, this is one of the very few television shows to my knowledge which refers to a deceased host in order to maintain its attractiveness. Mr. Seacrest also made the ill-advised choice of inviting Miley Cyrus, who wore an oversized white fur coat and a vacant expression. Fortunately, the last ten seconds of all the programmes were the same: at Times Square, the lighted crystal ball descended, the crowd chanted the countdown from 10, the ball landed and a sign reading “2014” lit up. Sinatra’s “New York, New York” rang through the air, couples kissed and confetti fell. My family raised a toast. Then my father switched the television off and bid us all good night.

This New Year’s Day, I went to see the New York house in which I spent a good part of my childhood. To get there, I took a long walk in the early twilight. The wind was biting cold: my Bradford City scarf, my coat and my gloves weren’t entirely sufficient in keeping it out. I passed some familiar landmarks on the way.  There was the County Club, which was set on a vast golf course: it had not given up the ghost on Christmas just yet, the wreaths and garlands were hung out across its freshly painted white walls, each tied up with a large bright red bow. Turn a corner and walk further along, and I found a large school which I never attended, but nevertheless, was a familiar landmark. It was built probably in the 1920’s: it was made mainly of red brick, but its height and tall windows spoke of an era that was far less concerned with energy efficiency. It was topped with a white tower that would not have been out of place atop a New England church. I wondered if it was still open, given how difficult it would be to keep heating such a place: I later found out, to my relief, that it was.

Perhaps it was the arch of a set of trees or the fact that some of the houses hadn’t changed, but I clearly recalled being a child and going trick or treating on this street. I remembered carrying a plastic basket shaped like a Jack O’Lantern and knocking on unfamiliar doors. I remember Almond Joy and Hershey bars being deposited into my basket, to be consumed as I watched television later in the evening.

Further on, and more familiar houses lay ahead. However I noticed there were quite a few which had changed: some had been extended, others completely rebuilt. The Fords and Dodges which were parked outside the houses of my youth had been replaced with Audis and Volkswagens. The area had gentrified. Finally, I found my former home. Or rather, I found the address.

The home I was looking for was a compact house, painted beige with dark brown shutters. It was barely two storeys: upstairs was confined to my parents’ bedroom and a small lounge. There was a full living room in which our oversized Christmas tree usually sat. My strongest memories are of the kitchen: my parents put in a bay window and placed the kitchen table right by it. I remember sitting there on winter mornings with the radio on: I would look out at the snow falling and wondering if I had to go to school or if the school would shut due to the weather. I remember the excitement I felt when my school’s name was announced, the scent of my parents’ coffee, the soft light of the kitchen reflecting off the yellow linoleum floor.

But the kitchen was gone, the house was gone: what faced me was not a compact suburban home, but rather a three storey behemoth, done up in dark brown render with white window and door frames. Even the prominent sycamore tree in the front yard, under which I had sought shade in the summer, had disappeared; it had been replaced by a driveway that was set in a gentle arc in front of the house. I saw nothing of what I once knew.

Perhaps I should have expected as much. I thought if I looked at my old home I could somehow commune with myself at the age of 10. If I could have stepped into a time machine and visited him, I perhaps would have spoken of Yorkshire and provided reassurance as to where he was headed. Maybe life would have been more certain with such information. But at that moment I couldn’t connect the structure with anything that remained in my memory. Everything had changed.

Matt Smith recently reassured us during his final moments on Doctor Who (before he turned into Peter Capaldi) that we all change, and it’s OK. Indeed, everything changes, and it’s OK. But this is not necessarily the “OK” that arises from it being beneficial, it is inevitable: we are set to change. 2013 ends, 2014 begins and brings change. Perhaps the best of 2013 will continue: perhaps 2014 will present an opportunity to remedy what was worst about last year. The holidays are over, it’s back to work: while there is no assurance that 2014 will be better, easier or happier than the year that has just passed, at least there is a chance to make it so. When we come to New Year’s again, yes, there will still be regret: but perhaps we’ll have begun to forget who Miley Cyrus is, the Miami correspondent could be stuck in Cleveland and more monuments to greed, stupidity and avarice might have come down. With these bright possibilities in mind, I say, Happy New Year.

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Review: “The Spirit of 45” directed by Ken Loach

July 10, 2013

The Spirit of ’45 [DVD] (DVD)

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Ed Miliband has just announced revisions in the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions. Previously, affiliated unions automatically donated part of their members’ dues into the party’s coffers. The forthcoming changes mean that this will have to be a conscious choice by each individual member.

This represents a dramatic shift: there was a time, not too long ago, when such a move would have been seen as preposterous. The Labour Party was the political wing of the trade union movement: if you were a worker who toiled in a coal mine or a steel mill, there was no other way to improve your lot apart from joining with others in a trade union and voting for a Labour MP who would represent your interests.

Since then, the vast industries which once comprised Britain’s industrial might have mainly vanished. I recall watching a replay of an “Election Night Special” from February 1974 in which Alastair Burnett reeled off result after result. He not only made a point of saying the constituency name, but also stating what the primary industry of that area was. Steel, coal, textiles were all mentioned. Nowadays, we have an economy that is mainly built on services and shopping; the trade unions have been emasculated by Thatcher’s labour laws. The Labour Party is not as naturally linked to the unions which remain, and there are smaller parties like the Greens and the TUSC which vie for the hard core union vote.

It’s perhaps apropos that we now have Ken Loach’s film “The Spirit of 45” to give us a glimpse of what we’ve lost. I first saw it in the theatre at Bradford’s National Media Museum: the audience was mainly of an age group that could remember the mills and vast industrial concerns around Bradford in operation. After the film ended, there was a round of applause. It was a rare accolade as one could hear sadness and regret as well as appreciation.

Loach first provides us with a salubrious reminder of what the world of the 1930’s was like: there was widespread squalor, the poor lived in vermin-infested houses, unemployment and irregular employment were rife. It was a world in which people used the pawn shop as liberally as some nowadays use payday loans to overcome problems in cash flow. It was a time in which if you purchased medical treatment, the doctor would often send around debt collectors to ensure you paid for it.

World War II demanded maximum effort from everyone: a new egalitarianism emerged from the conflict. Furthermore, Churchill was forced to form a wartime coalition that included Labour ministers. They ran many key sectors of the economy: Ernest Bevin, for example, was responsible for production and manpower. Given this, Labour was more strongly positioned than they perhaps realised to win a famous election victory in 1945.

Loach reels off the Labour government’s great achievements: key industries, transport and health were nationalised. Nye Bevan created the National Health Service and decent public housing. By the time Labour left office in 1951, Loach suggests, vast improvements had been made: the song which echoes in the background suggests that “life is a bowl of cherries”.

We then jump to 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher; what was built up post-1945 is shown to be torn down. Miners are beaten for protesting pit closures. The free market runs rampant: bankers show up in Ferraris. Perhaps the most eye watering statistic lay in the number of pit closures: by 1994 there were only 14 coal mines left open.

Loach suggests that the last stand should be made over the National Health Service, the one legacy of 1945 that remains with us. We are shown a montage featuring groups such as UK Uncut; today’s Labour Party is disdained as being “middle class” rather than “working class”.

I enjoyed the film and it does fire one’s imagination: the unlimited greed of the 1980’s would have been greeted with disgust in 1945. One wonders how we get back to such societal norms. I also wished that I could vote for Clement Attlee, as his unassuming, almost twee demeanour was a mask for sincere, principled radicalism. However, the film does gloss over some key facts.

First, the 1945 Labour government achieved much, but it would be incorrect to assume they established heaven on earth: the film is honest enough to state that nationalisation happened “the wrong way” in many instances, namely state bosses replaced private ones. Also, during this time Britain was bankrupt and had to go cap in hand to the Americans for a loan; the effort required to secure this support killed John Maynard Keynes, Britain’s chief negotiator. The role of Marshall Plan aid in rebuilding post-war Britain is also excised.

Additionally, the fact that rationing was still in force until the mid 1950’s is similarly brushed aside. Housing developments didn’t happen quickly enough: squatting, even on former army bases, was rife.

Barbara CastleFurthermore, by jumping over most of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, Loach completely overlooks key events like the struggle between Harold Wilson’s Labour government and the trade unions. Neither Barbara Castle nor “In Place of Strife” are mentioned. One can argue that these ruptures within the framework of a functioning social democracy are preferable to the anarchy and squalor of laissez faire policies, but nevertheless, to ignore them entirely weakens the argument. It also means that Labour’s evolution into the party it is today is more inexplicable: an uninformed viewer would wonder why Labour “dropped” the unions. The truth is, and Ed Miliband appears to understand this, that as work has evolved, unions have evolved too and with it, so has the Labour Party. The mass industries of old no longer exist: there are more self-employed people than ever before. Small businesses, i.e. ones which are not conducive for the growth of mass trade unions, predominate. Labour has had to manage the rather difficult feat of maintaining one foot in the past while taking a step towards the future. Loach does not explain any of this.

Nevertheless, one can look on in something like wonder and even envy: the idea that there was full employment, the chance of a decent home without a heavy mortgage, a reasonable standard of living available to most and a societal emphasis on equality, does make the world of 1945 seem appealing. But perhaps what is most alluring about this era lay in what the 1945 Labour government inspired and fostered most: hope. We live in an era of unbridled cynicism: we accept that things are the way they are and this is how it will always be. This was not always true, and belief has managed to lever off foes like the Nazis and raise up institutions like the NHS. If we did have some of the Spirit of 45, the future might be altogether brighter: because it would not only seem possible to do better, it would be a direct goal.

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A Weekend with Labour

July 8, 2013

Labour ItemsBradford’s summer has rolled up its shirt sleeves, offering its inhabitants a rare but welcome mixture of bright sunshine, blue skies and genuine warmth in the air. As I look out my window, there are no rainclouds on the horizon, rather, a pleasant haze has settled on the city. Earlier, I drove to Bradford Interchange rail station: the taxi drivers in their ranks were no longer huddling in their vehicles for warmth as is their wont during winter but rather visiting with each other. No jackets were worn. Happy chatter predominated, despite the fact that after all, it’s another Monday.

Perhaps the city’s general good mood will be sustained by the sunlight’s continued strength: in such weather, the pedestrian precincts of Bradford become an alluring mix of light and shadow, the Victorian buildings with all their alabaster grandeur standing silently by. Perhaps also it will be kept alive by the afterglow of a pleasant weekend; I can fully sympathise. I’ve just had an enjoyable few days, mostly spent in the company of the Bradford Labour Party.

If one reads the newspapers or watches the news, it is tempting to believe that Labour is presently locked in a life or death struggle with the unions, in particular, with Unite. Blairites and Brownites appear on television and mischievous presenters try and provoke conflict between them. Tom Watson has left his high office as Labour’s chief campaigner; Ed Miliband is portrayed as a latter day Sisyphus – every time he pushes up against the vast boulder of the media’s disdain, and eventually beats it, it rolls back down again, supposedly thanks to the lubricant issued by Len McCluskey. Labour certainly needs to take back control of the narrative: at present it suggests that unions are as reputable as crime syndicates, though there is a strong case for suggesting payday lenders (and Tory donors) like Wonga are the real criminals. To put it another way: somehow, the media has decided that unions, made up as they are mostly of people on modest or average incomes, are worse than the avatars of finance which got us into our current economic predicament and are presently perpetuating the malaise. Ed must stare at the top of the hill, look at the boulder placed in his path, sigh, and push against it yet again.

Yet, all this seemed far removed from my weekend with Labour. It began on Friday evening with a Bradford East constituency meeting at City Hall: this was my first official engagement with the party and in preparation for it, I donned a red shirt. My other half Caroline and I were greeted outside the entrance by Councillor (and formerly Bradford’s Lord Mayor) Naveeda Ikram. Her greeting was effusive, only surpassed by that of my local councillor Ruth Billheimer a few days earlier; I don’t think I’ve ever been welcomed to any organisation so warmly. We went inside: Bradford city hall is as splendid on the inside as it is outside. Its theme is essentially Victorian gothic, windows have stained glass symbols representing the various sections of the city. As we entered the wood panelled room in which the meeting was held, I was greeted with a round of applause by all the members around the table: I was momentarily stunned. All I’d really done was leave the Liberal Democrats. For their part, the local Liberal Democrats weren’t all that concerned that I had departed. Earlier in the week, I had been feeding my cat when I heard a knock on the door; as repairmen had been and gone I wondered who it could be. I rushed down and opened it: there stood a Liberal Democrat councillor I had met a couple of times. He seemed earnest enough, and a smile stretched his grey bearded face.

“Can I speak to Dr. Defoe, please,” he asked. I repeat: we had met on a couple of occasions. He had also mangled my surname.

“Yes, that’s me,” I replied, “we’ve met.”

He was flustered for a moment. He continued, “Well, Ruth Billheimer was boasting that she you had joined the Labour Party. I was in the area and wanted to check if it was true.”

“Yes,” I replied.

He lowered his head slightly. “So it is true. Good bye, then.”

I shut the door. There hadn’t been any attempt to persuade me to return. I tried not to laugh.

The meeting featured the Leader of the council, David Green: he had the air of a man who had too much to do and too little time in which to do it and yet feeling horribly responsible for it all. Having met him, it was less surprising that he had good naturedly submitted to the Twitter hashtag of #blamedave.

He gave us an update on the Westfield situation, which seemed positive. However, he also told us facts of which I had been previously unaware: for example, the Department of Education is demanding that school funding is “equalised”, i.e., a school in the suburbs gets the same as one the city. There is a problem with this approach: city based schools often require extra funding and facilities in order to overcome problems associated with poverty or improving language skills. Thus Bradford’s attempts to bolster schools in more deprived areas were likely to be undermined, leading to poorer outcomes. Furthermore, David told us that the cuts in local government spending were likely to be so severe that Bradford would struggle to do more than offer the bare minimum of services. Nevertheless, he said, the council had delivered on projects like the City Park and would continue to do so.

After the meeting ended, Caroline and I went to Nandos for dinner. We sat at an outdoor table and looked out over the City Park: young people were gathering, the pub next door was filled to overflowing with young people, and youthful music, with its insistent pounding beat, was playing. Had the project been a success? It would be difficult to disagree. Standing by was the City Hall, illuminated brightly against the advancing night.

The next day began with my first “Labour Doorstep” event, held in Keighley. The intention of “Labour Doorstep” is to visit voters, ask them about their future voting preferences and address any issues they may have. I awoke early (partially at the insistence of my cat), made coffee, put 3 folding chairs into my car’s boot: they were for the Canterbury Carnival later in the day.

I was a taxi driver, ferrying Ruth, Caroline and a keen young activist named James to our destination. James’ knowledge of Bradford politics is encyclopaedic, and he apparently has the phone number of every Labour politician in the area. He’s fourteen.

I don’t know Keighley particularly well and my satellite navigation knew even less, its calm, strangely accented voice consistently threatening to lead us astray. Nevertheless, we found the small play area on Arctic Street where the activists were gathering. The sun streamed down: the salubrious warmth began to bake me. It was so bright I wasn’t conscious of the fact that I was wearing sunglasses. For a brief time, I stood there talking to Ruth, talking to my other half, talking to other activists: it was like being at an extended family reunion. Everyone was friendly, some were eccentric, we all had something in common despite being wildly different in other respects. We were even asked to pose for the kind of group photos one sees emerging out of family reunions; many had taken out their mobile phones for taking a variety of snapshots. No doubt if there was a conference hall behind us instead of a playground, we would have sat at long tables, broken bread and talked the rest of the day.

Clipboards, maps and leaflets were distributed: my other half, Ruth, James, another Bradford activist named Michael, a Keighley councillor called Adrian Farley and I were split off into a team. We had to drive to the location: my navigation system went insane again and I ended up at the entrance of a golf course. After trying to coax my satellite navigation into providing a sensible location, we ended up where we were supposed to be: it was along a pleasant road leading to the golf course: on either side were stone cottages, some were relatively new, others were Victorian or older. Few cars were in the driveways: this was one time where pleasant weather was unhelpful. Summer in its shirtsleeves invites out of the house to enjoy its splendour not necessarily hear about the clear and present dangers to the National Health Service.

For the most part, I was watching and learning: I observed as Ruth met a voter who had just finished tidying his yard. He was an enthusiastic Labour supporter and they chatted pleasantly as they stood in his open garage. For the most part, however, few were at home: leaflets from the local Labour councillor were folded and pushed through mail slots.

I personally encountered my first voter while accompanying James. He knocked on the door, and an elderly woman wearing a navy blue blouse emerged. James told her who we were and she stated quickly that she had supported Labour, but voted Conservative at the last election. A swing voter: however, she said she was still happy with her choice and shut the door. A swing voter, perhaps, but one who had swung in the wrong direction.

It was time to go. The sun was still streaming down and I was regretting my decision not to wear a hat. Naveeda arrived in her small Toyota and picked up Ruth: our next destination was Horton Park and the Canterbury Carnival.

Little Horton MosqueEn route, we passed St. Luke’s Hospital. James informed us that it was right on the dividing line of Bradford East and Bradford West constituencies: one half had David Ward for an MP, he noted, the other had George Galloway. We passed the magnificent Little Horton Mosque: a beautiful and imposing structure made of red stone and punctuated by brilliant green domes. James remarked:

“Whenever I hear people say that immigrants come here and just take benefits, I remind them that immigrants built places like this.”

We arrived. Following Naveeda’s car, I had the rather surreal experience of driving along the park’s paved footpaths. The sun was still strong, families were out on the grass, children were playing, the tidy flowerbeds were in bloom. Our little convoy passed by a pond, then climbed up a gentle incline. We parked. Labour had a stand in the shade of a tree: across the path stood a bright orange patterned tent, no doubt this was where the festivities would take place. Naveeda drove on: Ruth, Caroline, James, and I along with Ian, our local campaigns officer and several others set up our stand. We blew up red balloons, set out packets of crisps and orange drink pouches. We tried in vain to fasten the balloons to the table with stickers, eventually Sellotape sufficed. We were ready.

Labour BalloonBusiness was slow at first: a pair of workmen in florescent vests asked for water, we gave it to them. Others sought similar refreshment. We began giving away red Labour balloons to children: unfortunately we had no helium. I discovered a talent for blowing them up and fastening string with slip knots to the ends. We got the parents to sign the petition we had with us, demanding that Cameron cease and desist his changes to the NHS. More children filtered in. The pace of giving away balloons increased. A number of young faces peered at us from around our table, every expression indicating a desire for a balloon. A young blonde boy in a bright green shirt admired Caroline’s red rosette: she gave it to him along with a balloon.

Eventually the Carnival arrived. Naveeda was at its head, carrying a bright red star attached to a tall wooden pole. More children crowded around, more signatures were collected. A Bradford West activist named Khaleed who had come along to help went into the crowds gathering more signatures. Ruth, Naveeda, the Deputy Mayor and Lord Mayor posted for a photograph. A young Indian man performed acrobatics at the top of a pole held by his compatriot: he spun around at the top, impersonating the action of the blades on a helicopter.

We ran out of balloons. We ended with a bang: I accidentally burst the last balloon in my efforts to blow it up. We ran out of pages of the petition to fill: every last space had gone. Naveeda revealed a sumptuous picnic of spicy samosas, onion bhajis and chicken which was second to none. The vegetable samosa in particular had real fire and kick, belting me pleasantly with spices the moment I bit into it. I sat with my colleagues underneath the tree and ate. Nearby, a hawker was selling secondhand clothing for 10 pence per item. The families were beginning to disperse across the park. The sun was beginning its downward arc, slowly processing into twilight. I drank some water: it would be soon time to go.

Already, Ruth and James and Caroline and I were talking about further events. Summer in its shirtsleeves would bring out more fairs and gatherings: we would carry the message outward. Nothing was necessarily inevitable: the cuts weren’t going to help, the changes to the National Health Service had led to an increase in waiting times. The Tories were trapped in an ideology that made a fetish of the market, which was contrary to the spirit of the Health Service. The whole idea of charging foreigners for using it was merely a gateway drug, trying to get the public used to the concept of paying. It was possible to do something different. Perhaps summer in its rolled up shirtsleeves made hope more apparent: it’s difficult to think of such a day when doused by November rain, difficult to see the possibilities when your information comes solely from the popular press. We would have to carry enlightenment with us and spread it outward.

It was time to go home: the next day promised a trip to Halifax to pick up some end tables acquired on eBay and watching Sunday politics programmes. That evening, I happened across a clause in the Labour Party rulebook:

“The party is anxious to encourage the recruitment of new members and to ensure that new members are properly welcomed into the party and opportunities offered to enable their full participation in all aspects of party life.”

I thought, yes, I was just at the start, but at the same time, it felt like I’d been there for much longer. This past weekend, I’d been properly welcomed: indeed I felt like I had come home.

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Why I Joined Labour

June 27, 2013

Cut Up Membership CardSo, I quit the Liberal Democrats and joined Labour.

I’ve been disgruntled for some time. Every time I saw a Liberal Democrat minister or MP appear on television meekly defending the policies of the Coalition government, I cringed. A tinge of nausea followed whenever I recalled I was donating money to this farce. I tried to console myself with the thought that I wasn’t giving them much else: not my efforts, nor my time, nor my support. When I joined, I was already a square peg in a round hole: as time went on, this ill-fitting slot diminished then disappeared entirely. It felt as if the party was keen on my Direct Debit mandate; it didn’t seem they were all that interested in much else.

Nevertheless, I held back on quitting: there are many Liberal ideas which I hold dear. For example, I’m pro-Europe: it’s good that there is a party which wholeheartedly shares this increasingly unpopular view. Furthermore, civil liberties matter greatly to me: I am totally opposed to the “snoopers’ charter” and Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about the extent of surveillance going on in both the United States and United Kingdom are troubling. It’s important that some political force says “No more”.

Additionally, there are many good people in the Liberal Democrats. At the top of the party, there is Vince Cable, who seems to find coalition with the Tories as pleasant as a prolonged colonoscopy. There are many councillors and grassroots activists who find the Coalition as repellent as I do: however, they seem to be increasingly isolated and beleaguered.

I care about Liberal history: I think the ideas of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge are worth preserving in their original wrappings. The Liberal voice which speaks to this tradition still has much to say: too bad it’s been smothered by Coalition. Worse, the combined legacies of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge have been deliberately undermined by their heirs.

After a long period of reflection, what made me finally pull the trigger was the Chancellor’s Spending Review, which was absurd, cruel and anti-intellectual. It’s clear that Osborne is as unfamiliar with the idea of a good society as he is with the “The Paradox of Thrift”.

The Chancellor also doesn’t seem willing or able to address the enigma of companies which do billions of pounds worth of business in the United Kingdom, yet pay no income tax. Rather, he only attacks targets which have a limited ability to fight back: he intends to balance the nation’s books on the backs of the poor, the disabled, and the marginalised. I knew that once Osborne had finished his rancid précis that he would send out Danny Alexander to defend it. Alexander would swallow hard and take a beating in the name of policies which he probably finds dubious if not outright reprehensible. He has the government’s ledgers in his possession, he surely knows that Tory policies aren’t working. He must know also that austerity only works if somewhere else is prospering and willing to buy your country’s goods: this was how Canada was able to mount its sustained cuts programme. Because people wanted Canadian timber, oil and minerals, they could slash the budget: demand came from somewhere and the economy didn’t collapse. We are not Canada: when spending was slashed, confidence nosedived and growth flatlined. The budget cuts didn’t cut the deficit; rather, the automatic stabilisers of welfare payments kicked in, and thus caused the benefit bill to rise. Of course, if cutting the deficit is the main priority, the other option is to cut those payments, thus adversely affecting the poorest. This is the option that has apparently been taken.

I don’t have the trappings of state to keep me at a remove from these facts, nor am I lulled by talk of “governing in the national interest” nor is my conscience stilled by the occasional Pupil Premium. I live in Bradford; our council and public services were already under pressure due to cuts to local government. Our food banks are overextended: demand is such that it’s likely a new one will be set up in Otley. Grant Shapps’ breezy assumption that somehow one can take 10% more without too much bother is purest nonsense. Furthermore, I see Tory ministers who have been promoted far beyond their competence imposing their Manichean world view on British society: in their eyes, there are only “shirkers” and “strivers”. The Tories are doing their best to create conflict between these two segments in order to stay in power and prevent tough questions being asked of the wealthiest.  Specifically, there is an elite in this country which is untouched by the cares that afflict the majority, and even seem relatively unbothered when they transgress the law. Why are there are no policies in train which will bring this aristocracy down to earth?  And why, on the contrary, does their perch seem ever more lofty?  Is it the consequence of bad policy or by design?

Rather than cry halt, the Liberal Democrats continue to prop up this intolerable state of affairs, albeit sometimes with palpable reluctance. Yes, it would probably be electoral suicide for them to walk away now, but an honourable defeat is preferable to sustaining a dishonourable compromise. Once the catharsis of getting an electoral savaging had passed, then perhaps the party could have rediscovered its purpose. I was not alone in feeling this way: I did not have enough compatriots who could make it happen. For my part, there was nothing to stop me from saying, “Sorry, no more. You’ve gone too far already; I can’t bear it any longer.” I wrote a letter saying farewell. Later, I took out my membership card, got a pair of trusty scissors, and cut it in two.

Nye BevanHaving resolved to leave, it didn’t necessarily follow I’d join Labour. Yes, I’ve previously been involved in a trade union; I was even a chapter president for a time.  Yes, much of my economic analysis dovetails nicely with what has been said by the Shadow Cabinet. I’d much rather see a Labour government than what we have currently. Watching Ken Loach’s “The Spirit of 45” recently made me wish I could vote for that pleasant Mr. Attlee. Nevertheless, another spirit, that of Tony Blair, still wanders the corridors of the Labour Party’s soul. My perception is that his shade is fading; once it dissipates for good, then perhaps the genuine idealism that Loach exposited so beautifully will make itself fully evident once more. For example, I can’t imagine Aneurin Bevan tolerating the failings of the Care Quality Commission; he would have been disgusted by the thought of people in the National Health Service simply not caring about patients as they should and being debauched by the ideology of the market. To him, public service was just that: a high and noble calling to work for the benefit of the people. He demanded the best of those who worked in those services; he also believed public services required proper funding, even if that meant that the wealthiest had to pay. The Labour Party, imperfect as it is, is the primary vessel of these ideas. It is also the most likely means by which this ethos will achieve realisation.

Nevertheless, when I filled out the form and set up the Direct Debit mandate, I was uncertain. I had been a member of the Liberal Democrats but not really “in” the party; I was sure that I would likely have disagreements regardless of whatever political party I joined. I am admittedly a cantankerous soul. Additionally, unlike before, would there be a chance to actually help? Would it be possible to make a difference in my community?  I didn’t have to wait long for my answer: I’ve received a warm welcome. I’ve been more politically active and engaged in the past 24 hours than I have been in the past one and a half years.

In the centre of Bradford, there is a mural which celebrates the centenary of the founding of the Independent Labour Party in January 1893. It states, “there is no weal save commonweal”. This work of art celebrates the city’s crucial role in Labour’s formation: similarly, Labour is embedded in Bradford’s DNA. I’d like to think that before any political allegiance I hold, that I am a Bradfordian first. Given this, perhaps joining Labour was only natural.

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City ’til I Die

June 5, 2013

Green PaperI looked at the form. It was printed on green paper; the black sans-serif letters ensured the questions were clear: did I want to be a councillor, was there anything in my past that could embarass the party, and why did I want to do this? As I scanned the paper, I exhaled.

I’ve lived in Bradford for nearly two years; I have become very attached to the city. Last Saturday, this affection was particularly evident to me; I went into the centre of town for lunch, taking advantage of the fact that it was a beautiful day. It was so warm that my usual morning trip to the rubbish bin didn’t require putting on slippers: rather, the pavement radiated a pleasant heat. My cat Amelia followed me out of the open front door. She sniffed the air, and then bounded into the midst of a patch of buttercups growing on a small expanse of green in front of my home. She was ready to frolic.

Despite the lovely weather, I felt some level of trepidation: the English Defence League were supposedly in town. They were there, presumably, to protest against Bradford’s diversity, which in my opinion should be a source of civic pride. However, a quick check on Twitter suggested only 3 people had turned up to their “rally”.

Bradford Pride 2013So, accompanied by friends and my significant other, I went in. After parking the car, our party set off by foot. In the distance, I could hear pop music booming out of outdoor speakers. The sound echoed throughout the city centre, ricocheting off of buildings both illuminated by sunlight and cast in shadow. Upon arriving at Centenary Square, I saw that Bradford Pride was in full swing right in front of the majestic town hall: the city’s LGBT community apparently hadn’t been at all cowed by the threat of the EDL. In fact, I didn’t see any EDL presence whatsoever. In contrast, Bradford Pride was as diverse as it possibly be: a young man was singing on stage, in the audience were two women dressed in niqabs. Couples of all varieties were on show, visiting the beer tent, wading in Centenary Square’s vast water feature, eating at outdoor restaurant tables in the golden light and warmth.

I smiled. I don’t think I’d been happier to live here; elsewhere, the voices of hatred and intolerance were supposedly at full volume. Not here: I later found out via social media that the EDL’s motley band had retreated from Bradford. They apparently went to Leeds and spent a less than productive afternoon harassing shoppers. In London, there were clashes between supporters of the fascist British National Party and United Against Fascism: both groups were dwarfed in numbers by those opposed to culling badgers. There was turmoil, but not in Bradford. Families frolicked in the spring sunlight. The scents of peri peri chicken and fresh beer out of the tap lingered in the air. On stage, a singer tried to reprise Erasure’s greatest hits; what he lacked in raw ability, he made up for in sincerity. A young lady with curly red hair and sporting a rainbow bow tie accompanied by another young lady who was presumably her partner even offered free hugs. All was at peace.

Bradford City FCCould Bradford be improved? Certainly: compare it to London and it’s obvious that there is a vast difference in wealth. Nevertheless, Bradford possesses fertile soil from which the green shoots of a renaissance could emerge: there is fibre optic broadband available in much of the city, it is a particularly young town, and even its industrial heritage makes it appealing to those who like “steampunk” couture. It is held back by a number of factors: central government, for example, seems determined to reduce the city to penury, cutting its budget with all the aggression of a crazed butcher with a chainsaw. Most recently, the National Media Museum, which has a wonderful IMAX theatre, was put under threat. Bradford has also suffered from a notable lack of self-belief, though the recent promotion of Bradford City FC to League One seems to have provided a much needed boost to the city’s psyche. Bradford’s politics are an additional barrier: an electorate that can enthusiastically vote for George Galloway is showing obvious signs of stress. For eight years, as control of Bradford city council passed between Labour and Coalition parties, the development of a shopping mall in the city centre has languished: was this due to political timidity? Was it due to stupidity? Both? It’s only been recently that the end of “the Hole’s” tenure in Bradford has come within sight.

Many thoughts raced through my mind as I examined the green form. It would be easy to look at Bradford’s problems and think that no one person could possibly make a bit of difference. Certainly, my membership of the Liberal Democrats hitherto had left me with the distinct impression that my contribution was neither wanted nor desirable. Hitherto, I’ve been invited to two “chats” on topics including equality and taxation. I played the role of “Mr. Awkward” with some relish at these gatherings, asking questions which perhaps didn’t chime pleasantly: for example, when the discussion turned to the environment, I’d asked why the party had allowed schemes to encourage the use of solar panels to be dismantled. When the attendees were expected to be grateful that the income threshold had been raised so as to remove many poor people from taxation altogether, I pointed out that this wasn’t sufficient to counter rises in the cost of living, including the increase in VAT which the Coalition had enacted. Yet, they sent me the green form; I wondered if filling it out would be an act of futility. I’m probably flattering myself in thinking my name would be recognised, but perhaps it might, and the green form which I was filling out with a black ink pen would immediately be put on the reject pile. Indeed, not only might it be futile to send the form in, it might be a complete waste of time to even think of serving the city. I’m a refusenik, a rebel, a renegade. All that I’d seen so far suggested that the party had two tiers. One was for the hoi polloi who could pass all the resolutions against Coalition policy they liked; the second (and upper) level was for those who actually made the decisions. Loyalty to the leadership was what ensured selection and progression; but, I thought, I’d rather be loyal to the truth and to Bradford. This apparently had a cost; hitherto, I hadn’t even been asked to stuff leaflets in envelopes despite having offered to do so.

Nevertheless, with a swoop of the pen, I signed the form off, folded it, and sealed it within a small white envelope. I then dropped it in the mailbox. As I bade it a silent farewell, I resigned myself to the possibility that it’s likely there will be no reply. No matter: this is a good home, and a home worth giving time, effort and energy to help make it even better; as the fans of Bradford City chant, I’m “City ’til I die!” If one avenue is blocked, no doubt there will be another way.

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On “Muslim Appearance”

May 26, 2013

Michael AdebolajoAs it turned out, those who murdered drummer Lee Rigby were about as nondescript as you could get. The horrifying video of Michael Abedolajo holding blood soaked blades indicated he was wearing nothing more extraordinary than blue jeans, a hoodie and running shoes. A photograph of his counterpart showed he was similarly difficult to spot in a crowd: he wore a khaki jacket which looked like it had been acquired from a discount store.

The focus of most media coverage is rightly on Lee Rigby, his undoubted character, his achievements and his family’s terrible grief; that said, the immediate reaction of the authorities said much about how they behave under stress. This response was counterproductive and hints at an official view of Muslim citizens as separate from the general population.

Let’s review: shortly after the attack, Nick Robinson, correspondent for the BBC, quoted a Whitehall source which said that the perpetrators were of “Muslim appearance”. Robinson was quickly upbraided on social media for using this term, which in the end proved not to be his own. The phrase itself, issued at a point when the news was hot and passions were burning brightly due to the shock and revulsion that the public rightly felt, was cack-handed at best, malicious at worst. The moment it was uttered, it added to a lingering and pernicious narrative of the Islamic world as the source of terrorism, although as ETA in the Basque lands and the various factions in Northern Ireland prove, terrorism has neither an ethnicity nor a religion. Such a statement could only help stir up mindless racists such as the English Defence League, who immediately descended upon Woolwich: they clashed with police at Woolwich Arsenal station. Also, a man was arrested after coming into a mosque in Braintree armed with knives and an incendiary device.

No doubt it would have emerged that the killers of Lee Rigby believed themselves to be followers of Islam and were motivated by “jihadist” causes. Regardless, it was incumbent upon the authorities to be cautious in the language they used, not utilise a phrase like “Muslim appearance”, particularly since the photographs taken in the aftermath indicated that this simply wasn’t true. What perhaps made this cold blooded murder all the more horrifying was how commonplace the alleged perpetrators looked: they could not be picked out walking along Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. There was nothing extraordinary about their dress or looks, certainly nothing that obviously said they were extremists.

So why did the Whitehall source say to Nick Robinson that they were of “Muslim appearance”? Could it have been a mere poor choice of words: were they trying to suggest that they believed the crime had “jihadist” motivations and expressed this badly? Or is it a symptom arising from the subconscious of the bureaucracy and political class that is willing to assign a Muslim character to a crime such as this?

The superego of the state kicked in, obviously, and all political leaders have been quick to say, rightly, that this crime is contrary to both the letter and spirit of Islam. However two contrary impulses can exist simultaneously: a political leader may know that Muslim citizens are deserving the same protections as any other, and we should be equal before the law. However, the same political leader may have gut instincts which exist in diametric opposition to what he knows. Sometimes, if not often, emotion lashes out more quickly than reason has the ability to get hold of it and we are left with the aftermath of phrases like “Muslim appearance”.

I live in Bradford; though I am not a Muslim, many Muslims also call this city home. There are plenty of Christians, Sikhs and Hindus who reside here as well. Although there are particular “neighbourhoods”, in suburbs like mine, we live side by side in our homes, working, paying taxes, tidying lawns and washing our cars on the weekend. By and large, this works, because we operate in an atmosphere of quiet tolerance and respect. “Tolerance and respect” in extremis means that if a Pakistani man is killed in Birmingham by a white person, that my Muslim and Sikh neighbours don’t assign this malicious deed a “Christian appearance”; it means that the dreadful murder of Lee Rigby is not assigned a Muslim character by the authorities or myself. Rather, it means that both my neighbour and I look at both murders with mutual outrage and shock: we are thus united, rather than divided, by revulsion and a demand for justice. The authorities’ response indicates an intellectual understanding of the principle, but not an intuitive nor instinctual predilection to act in accordance to it. This gap creates a space for the pernicious weeds of bigotry to grow.

The EDL protests AslanThis void also offers opportunities for those who profit off of division: UKIP proclaims it is “non-racist” or “anti-racist”, but its attacks on immigration chime in a particular way to those who wish to remove influences seen as “foreign”. The English Defence League is an outlet for the anti-intellectual and disenfranchised who despise the world as it is and seize upon the simplistic expedient of blaming the “other”; they too find oxygen in such a space, as their world view is lent some credibility by those who govern us. On the other hand, the preachers of hate and intolerance can also point at the authorities and say that Muslims will never be full citizens in a land that perceives them as alien, and indeed, such a state is anathema and will never dispense true justice until it espouses their faith.

Most people, regardless of individual religious belief, regard the avatars of extremism as cranks and loonies; nevertheless, as the killing of Lee Rigby shows, it only takes a few to wreak terrible damage. It is incumbent on all citizens to squeeze the space in which hatred flourishes into as cramped quarters as possible: it means that the public will need to turn its face away from the subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos dished out in the media, assorted demagogues and by certain political parties. It means using reason to combat passion and emotion, which often cannot contend with complexity. It also means the authorities as well as citizens will need to feel (as well as think) that all who live here are of equal worth and that murder has no religious character whatsoever, rather, it is the mark of madness.

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A Reticent Wagnerian

May 22, 2013

Richard WagnerI work in an open plan office; there are positives and negatives. On the plus side, at least I’m not confined to a cubicle and I can converse with many of my colleagues without leaving my chair. Less happily, when it’s a particularly busy day and the phones are going off every few minutes and the keyboards are clattering on, it can be noisy the point that it’s impossible to hear oneself think. To help remedy this, I bring in my iPod and a set of sturdy headphones; when I have intricate work to do, I tend to put on the music of Richard Wagner. As today is the bicentenary of his birth, I have more cause to consider him than usual.

I am a reticent Wagnerian. There is no escaping the fact that Richard Wagner was a disgusting anti-Semite; furthermore, he wasn’t an admirable character in general. He was a spendthrift and a scoundrel: he depended upon his friends far too much for financial support and had numerous scandalous liaisons. He even ran off with the wife of Hans von Bülow, the man who conducted the première of Wagner’s magnificent work, “Tristan und Isolde”. The lady in question gave birth to a child of Wagner’s while still married to Bülow.

Worse, Wagner’s descendants were early and ardent supporters of Adolf Hitler. Their succour meant a great deal to the budding dictator; he was a fervent admirer of Wagner and his works. Hitler’s favourite piece was “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Wagner’s only mature comedy: apparently, Hitler knew most of its tunes by heart. When the Third Reich was declared on March 21, 1933, this was the piece of music used to celebrate its malignant birth. Indeed, Hitler was so enamoured with “Die Meistersinger” that it’s possible this influenced the choice of setting for the infamous Nazi “Nürnberg” rallies. Also, it’s not inconceivable that Nazi parades often carried ornate, square banners because of the opera’s staging instructions (Act 3, Scene 5 of “Die Meistersinger” features various trade guilds in procession with similar flags).

On a less esoteric level, Wagner may have helped form Hitler’s peculiar, perverse vision of Germany. Through what he called “music dramas”, Wagner tried to create an art form as potent as Greek theatre, which spoke to and about German history and culture. In essence, he was a mythologist and propagandist as well as a composer. Hitler bought into these legends, but obviously missed much: in “Das Rheingold”, the dwarf Alberich gains the power to rule the world but has to forsake love in return. The god Wotan takes the Ring which grants this authority, but it is cursed. In “Tannhäuser”, a wayward singer in thrall to Venus and sensual pleasure finds forgiveness from God through love and penitence. Altogether, though Hitler may have heard the music, he never fully listened to what it had to say. The result was dire: as Stephen Fry stated in his thoughtful documentary “Wagner and Me”, Hitler and his minions left a sizeable, indelible stain on the magnificent tapestry of Wagner’s artistic legacy.

Stephen Fry – Wagner and Me [DVD] [2010] (DVD)

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The popular association of Wagner with blood and violence was reinforced by Stanley Kubrick: perhaps the most famous scene in “Apocalypse Now”, in which a squadron of armed helicopters attack a Vietnamese village, was made all the more terrifying by the rousing cries of the Valkyries embarking on their famous ride.

And yet when I put on one of his “music dramas” and hear the overture rise, all this seems to dissipate. It’s the musical equivalent of biting into an exquisite chocolate truffle: deep, rich, complex, with sweet and bitter intermingled. The dissonance of the famous “Tristan chord” speaks of endless longing in a single moment: it takes words alone much longer to get there. The “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser calls to mind the longing for home and for the solace of God.

Richard Wagner – Tannhauser "Pilgrim's Chorus" – Bayreuth Festival

Also, Wagner was philosophically more complicated than his anti-Semitic rants might suggest: he was simultaneously a political liberal, indeed, for a time, he was considered a dangerous radical. In 1849, he had to leave Dresden and his lofty position as Royal Saxon Court Conductor for the safety of Switzerland because of his association with revolutionary causes. This may seem surprising given that in our era, that prejudices like Wagner’s are seen as retrograde, the sole province of the reactionary and benighted. Yet in Wagner’s day, it was possible to believe in democracy, progress, and liberty, yet also think that certain races were superior to others; the modern mind struggles to see how this logic can possibly work, but in the nineteenth century, there was a prevalent belief that Providence had made some nations and peoples more fortunate than others. As religion’s grip weakened towards the century’s end, Darwin was interpreted in such a way as to suggest that some races were more “fit” to survive. Indeed, Darwin’s devoted cousin Francis Galton was a pioneer of the pseudo-science of eugenics. George Bernard Shaw, a noted socialist and eugenicist of Galton’s ilk (and a fan of Wagner’s) suggested in 1910 that people who were unfit to live should be killed humanely with poison gas (to be fair, however, there is some evidence that he was being facetious). Later, Shaw was a vigorous defender of Stalin’s Russia, lending it particular support just as the regime was starving and brutalising the people it ruled. Yet Shaw’s reputation, as well as that of Darwin is relatively unblemished compared to that of Wagner; no one goes to see “Pygmalion” and wonders what Shaw would intend to happen to Eliza Doolittle had she remained an uncultured flower girl. Charles Darwin remains on the list of the most revered figures in the history of science.

Nevertheless, Wagner’s genius, linked as it is so intimately to his faults, challenges his modern aficionados; perhaps it’s important to remember that few human beings are entirely bathed in light or shrouded in darkness. The human heart contains both angels and demons fighting for every scrap of territory. It would be incorrect to say that Wagner was a moral man, but he certainly was brilliant. He was an anti-Semite, yet perhaps oddly, he entrusted the première of his last opera, Parsifal, to the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi. It would be wrong to suggest that Wagner created the Nazis, but he certainly influenced them. His music envelops the listener, but it should not snuff out awareness of how even good ideas can be perverted, particularly when complexity and outright contradiction are brushed aside.

I will spend most of the bicentenary in my open plan office. No doubt, as my colleagues file into the office and I need a refuge for my thoughts, I will don my headphones once more. I’ll press a button and the theme to Tannhäuser will rise. The Pilgrims’ Chorus will make me pause for a moment; I will shut my eyes and enjoy it washing through my senses. It will not be without guilt nor hesitation: not then, nor ever. However, some things are simply too precious to give up merely because they have strings attached.

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Review: “Skyfall” starring Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem

February 20, 2013

Skyfall [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

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I thought that James Bond had turned a page. Both of Daniel Craig’s initial outings in the role were markedly different from the blend of high-tech silliness and misogyny which characterised the previous episodes: his was a James Bond that could genuinely fall in love, get hurt (indeed nearly die), and was kept in check by a formidable matriarch (Judi Dench). I hoped that “Skyfall” would continue this progress; I looked forward to James Bond becoming a more three dimensional character. I relished the prospect of something which had hitherto been ridiculous becoming something interesting, as occurred when “Batman” was revamped. When a “Skyfall” DVD landed on my doorstep, I hastened to watch it.

My first impressions were positive: we see Craig arriving too late to prevent a fellow agent being fatally wounded. A touch of humanity is applied when Bond ignores his superior’s urging to chase after the perpetrator in order to administer some rudimentary first aid. After finding that his efforts are in vain, he’s off again in hot pursuit and is shot during the chase. Following this, Bond disappears.

After this, we are provided with another interesting plot element: we are shown Bond’s retirement plan, namely to feign death and retreat to an anonymous island in the tropics. This is not some winsome paradise, however: he appears bored and listless, and he spends his evenings playing drinking games with a scorpion on his wrist poised to sting him.

Yet another positive becomes apparent after his return to duty: entropy is a major theme. Bond is no longer as physically fit, nor as good a marksman, nor as psychologically prepared for duty as he once was. We see him undergo a series of tests, after which he collapses, exhausted. He stands before a mirror and picks out bits of shrapnel from an old wound. The unflappable, almost superhuman agent is shown to be frail and possessing altogether human weaknesses which are accumulating over time. I wondered if this plot point was directly inspired by the last Batman film, in which the hero was simply too old and broken in body and spirit to carry on as he had previously. MI6’s mission is called into question as well: politicians ask if it’s an anachronism, particularly since a ghastly security breach has led to several prominent agents being killed.

Late in the narrative, we learn more about Bond’s past: it’s revealed he was an orphan, which may explain the contradiction between his general emotional detachment and his unusual devotion to Judi Dench’s M. She perhaps represents the parental influence that Bond lacked; otherwise, humanity offers limited opportunity for him to feel sentiment. We also discover that M prefers to select orphans as agents; this hints at pathological characteristics of her own. Allusions are made to agents operating in the shadows: this suggests that such operatives are shadow people, cut off from having much in the way of roots. I am not well versed in the world of espionage, nevertheless, this idea has resonance.

The film is short on wacky devices. Ben Whishaw has expertly taken up the mantle as Q; he quietly but cleverly derides the idea of exploding pens and other such bric-a-brac. He supplies Bond with nothing more outrageous than a gun that is coded to his hand print and an emergency radio. Q also suggests to Bond that he could do more damage with his laptop, wearing his pyjamas and with a cup of Earl Grey tea in hand than Bond could ever do out in the field with his gun; anyone involved with technology will probably be unable to suppress a smile at that remark.

Finally, it was good to see Britain as the central location for a Bond film: this was an atypical approach and should be applauded, as it has hitherto seemed that Bond simply couldn’t wait to get away from the UK the moment the opening credits finished. Furthermore, while the film is London-centric, it does not take place exclusively in London: we are also taken to the Highlands, albeit it its majesty is shown to be rather bleak.

Javier Bardem in SkyfallAll these positives, however, cannot fully mask the film’s problems. Firstly, the antagonism at the heart of the story is more than somewhat ludicrous: MI6 is threatened by a lone criminal (and his hired cronies) who is hell bent destroying the agency and M in particular. Javier Bardem, playing the villain, looks more than mildly preposterous with blonde hair; he is also shown to be a typical Bond grotesque, complete with a prosthetic device that reminded me of Moonraker’s “Jaws”. His motives are rather facile from a plot perspective: he was once a British agent, later handed over by M to the Chinese as part of a deal. He intends to avenge this betrayal.

Bardem is in control of events in a manner which seems unbearably unlikely: for example, accompanied by only two other gunmen, albeit all dressed in police uniforms, he somehow manages to defeat the entire security apparatus around the Houses of Parliament. He can hack into the most complex systems with ease; furthermore, somehow he has amassed a fortune which has enabled him to afford an army of mercenaries willing to fight and die for the sake of his personal vendetta. He even launches into a typical Bond villain monologue at one juncture, detailing how rats can be made to eat each other. I am certain Bardem enjoyed playing such an over the top character; it was the most “carpet chewing” performance I’d seen this side of Al Pacino’s Satan in “The Devil’s Advocate”. However, the film’s essential grip on some semblance of reality ended the moment he appeared.

Furthermore, though I was initially cheered by the sight of James Bond’s old Aston Martin DB5 (which he utilises as an escape vehicle) this was purely due to my liking of that particular car’s design. I realised later that Craig revving up its engine was a turning point: after this, it seemed as if the old format for Bond films reasserted itself with a flourish. The Aston Martin still retained its old ejector seat, a hangover from “Goldfinger”; Bond shows it off to M. A preposterous gun battle happens in an unlikely location. Bond coughs a bit rather than dies of smoke inhalation after a sizeable explosion. By the end of the film, “M” has returned to the wood panelled office of old, eschewing more modern digs; just outside it, Miss Moneypenny has made a return as M’s assistant, reprising her classic role as a metaphorical used handkerchief full of the sputum of sexist innuendo. As it was with Lois Maxwell and Sean Connery, it is unlikely the relationship will ever be fully consummated or explored. “Bond will be back”, the end credits promised. The old Bond, I sadly concluded, had indeed returned.

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An Ex-Catholic’s Guide to the Papal Succession

February 19, 2013

Catholic Art Praying HandsI was once a Catholic; I went to a Catholic school. I recall receiving my first Holy Communion on a bright Spring morning; all the children taking part were obliged to have a banner made by their families proclaiming their love and support. My Swedish grandmother, though she was Lutheran, made my banner. It read:

“God made us a family. We love one another. We forgive one another.”

This faded tapestry still hangs in my bedroom in my parents’ home, a reminder of love that lingers despite the passing of years and of people.

I recall the kind people who worked at my school; there was an aged nun named Sister Jeanne d’Arc who taught me how to play the piano. She was firm but not strict; I believe much of my love of music came from my awkward fingers plonking out hesitant melodies on old ivory keys in her musty practice room.

I remember the Catholic Church I attended when I lived in London. It was a rare place: it was a venue where all socio-economic groups mingled. The middle class, the unemployed, the native born and new arrivals all gathered together there to pray. Father Godfrey, Father Michael, Father Tony, Father Norbert – all were gentle and generous men who cared deeply about their flock. The church itself was a Victorian neo-Gothic structure but not outrageously ornate; after a time, the parish received some money for a much needed refurbishment. An aesthetically pleasing lick of paint was daubed on its 19th century beauty. My parents renewed their wedding vows there not long after the work was completed: I remember the flickering candles, the freshly clean Victorian tile beneath their feet, the statues of saints all the brighter for their exquisite restoration.

My attachment was not just sentimental. Catholic teachings contain a number of positive social doctrines. For example, Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum about the need for the equitable treatment of labour and said that the State had an obligation to look after the poor. The free market, Rerum Novarum states, is not everything: this sounds refreshing to modern ears, which are weary of the pablum from bankers and politicians which drones otherwise. Rerum Novarum is a moral document that every government, regardless of political complexion, should study and consider.

Given my history, it was with considerable reluctance that I left Roman Catholicism behind. Despite the warmth, the familiarity and the memories that I had built up within the Mother Church’s confines, I could not ignore its treatment of women, homosexuals and the way that it covered up its scandals, particularly the abuse of children in its care. I sought refuge and found some solace in the Church of England and its solid grip on moderation: although it has its problems, and its struggles for fair treatment are not nearly over, at least there is some passable resolution to these questions that can be seen in the middle distance. Some parts of the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States, have made great progress.

In contrast, the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger to succeed Pope John Paul II plunged Catholicism into night. There was always an element of murk and mystery which surrounded the Vatican, things hidden behind clouds of incense; “The Godfather 3” was a subpar film but nevertheless its portrayal of intrigue, scandal and even murder within the Church rang true. During the Renaissance, scions of the Borgia family became popes, so did the Medici: both houses were less than ethically salubrious. The Vatican, then as now, is a surpassing expression of the idea that only God is perfect. Yet Ratzinger, as Benedict XVI, did not throw open the doors, nor did he let sunshine penetrate its darkened corridors. If anything, his detached, somewhat professorial manner only made the gloom deepen. Pope John Paul II was credited with witty sayings such as “Stupidity is also a gift from God, but it mustn’t be misused”, whereas his successor was notable for boneheadedly driving a wedge between the Catholic and Muslim communities by quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus in a less than judicious way.

Tu Es Petrus - VaticanPerhaps thanks in part to Benedict’s reactionary temperament, the Vatican is still one of the few places in which the past not only lives, it’s nearly as tangible as the present. The unearthing of deceased Popes began the moment that Benedict XVI announced his retirement: it was pointed out he was the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, which was done to heal a schism in the church. Some have qualified this statement by saying Benedict is the first Pope to quit voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294. There is an additional argument which could be made: there was a period in which there were several Popes all vying for recognition. One of them, Felix V, gave up his claim in 1449 and was later made a cardinal; this act brought the period of multiple popes to an end. One would think that with this track record that there would be little dispute that the Pope can quit: as is apparent, for a time they were abdicating left, right and centre. As with anything else associated with the Catholic Church, this is not the case. I have visited St. Peter’s Basilica, and inscribed on the inside of its main dome are Christ’s words to Peter: “Tu es Petrus”. This translates as “Thou art Peter”: as any Catholic schoolboy can tell you, Peter means “rock”. This is followed by Jesus’ addendum, “et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum”, which means “And upon this rock I shall build My Church and I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” These words represent authority: the Popes are referred to as Peter’s direct heirs. The supposed “keys to Kingdom of Heaven” are part of the Papal seal. Some Catholics no doubt argue or at least feel that such an obligation cannot be simply cast aside. But the Pope is also supposedly infallible on matters of doctrine “concerning faith or morals”, or has been since the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). But in the end, the arguments are for nought: Benedict will leave at the end of the month. There will be a conclave of the College of Cardinals, a cloistered event which in the era of “Big Brother” should likely be televised and narrated by someone from Newcastle until they’re ready to proclaim “Habemus Papam”. That’s that.

Or is it? After all, Benedict will be living in a refurbished apartment in the Vatican; he will be a neighbour to the next Pope. It is entirely possible that while he lives, he will be seen as the “true pope” by people who oppose his successor’s policies, particularly if those are out of kilter with a traditionalist point of view. To be fair to Benedict, he has said he’d like to spend the remainder of his life in prayer; prayers, however, can be heard by others than to whom they are directed. Is this interlude a break with Papal history or merely a latter day repeat of the period in which there were several Popes at once? Given this potential handicap, could there be a charismatic liberal Pope and a period of reform in which openness and transparency become, if one will pardon the pun, cardinal virtues?

Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless it does matter: while the Pope is no longer the arbiter of Christendom, and he can’t stand at the gates of Rome like Leo the First and command Attila the Hun to leave the city be, he still can influence the priorities for over a billion worshippers. He can speak about moral and social issues in a way which few can; there could and should be another Rerum Novarum for the Twitter age. He has the chance to sustain and nurture the institutions which provide a beneficent upbringing like mine. He has the opportunity to extend Jesus’ dictum of “Love one another as I have loved you” to whole segments of humanity that have been hitherto shunned or misunderstood by the Church, and by so doing thus remove the necessity for those who love justice as well as God to leave its embrace. He can be a true disciple; he can also lead. Time will tell.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a fiancée, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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