Monday, 30 January 2012

The horns of a dilemma

I'd like to see The Iron Lady, I really would. For anybody my age, who can remember her administration all too clearly, (my father coming home from working a night shift to declare with resignation to my mother, "She's got in") and spent their teenage years with her forming a constant backdrop to their lives, Thatcher is a hugely important and controversial figure.

Alan Davies, in his excellent, personal diary of the time for Channel 4, put all this much more eloquently than I can. His documentary recalled all too vividly the times we lived through. This was an era of the ending of free school milk, the miners' strike which so bitterly divided (and continues to divide) previously tightly-knit communities all over Britain. Of the absolute crushing of the union movement. Of the move towards privatisation of all our major national industry. Of huge job losses, massive cuts in private sector spending (any of this sounding familiar?) but most tellingly, the era in which money became the absolute prime motivator for everything. An era in which one woman, through the force of her personality, the culture of fear and contempt even within her own Cabinet and a dogmatic belief in her way that bordered on obsessive, managed to change the entire face of our society (a society which she didn't believe existed, of course) through sheer force of will.

Boom/bust economics, the culture of greed, the idea of banks as risk-takers rather than safe havens for one's savings, the abdication of responsibility for actually running pretty much anything, the idea that the 'market' will take care of things, all these concepts were actively made to flourish under her. She actually succeeded, I think, in moving the entire country to the right, politically speaking. People started to vote with their wallets rather than their sense of social responsibility. We are, for me, still paying the price for her government to this day, and in fact the present lot are recapitulating many of the worst policies, partly no doubt because they're Thatcherites themselves. She's left behind a dogma that plenty of Conservative thinkers still live by - she's still doing damage even now, even as a frail and evidently demented old woman. (I mean that in the medical sense – as in 'suffering from dementia' – not as a cheap shot).

The film has received mixed reviews, and I wonder how many of the reviewers were, like me, wide-eyed teenagers during this period. It may be that the film retains a bit less resonance for anybody older, or indeed younger, than my generation. Her family have distanced themselves from it completely, apparently unhappy at its portrayal of her as she is now. But here's the thing. I still can't stand the woman. I can't bear what she's made us, the legacy that Thatcherite economics, Thatcherite thinking, has left us. I've signed the petition (I realise this may sound morbid or even celebratory, but it's not) requesting that she not receive a State funeral on her death, because for millions of people she represents nothing less than the living embodiment of misery, bitterness, neglect, unemployment, despair, and they don't want to see that celebrated, however respectfully it's done.

So I think, on balance, I'll probably not go to see it. I worry that it'll elevate her, seek to celebrate her 'achievements', however bleakly it may paint a picture of her currently. I also worry that any portrayal of her as she is now may evoke an entirely understandable and human sympathy for the woman, rather than the politician, which overshadows the damage she did, and continues to do. Her family, it seems, are keen that she be remembered for who she was at the peak of her powers, not for what she is now. I heartily agree with them.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Fish in a barrel

It's a hoary old chestnut, complaining about the pay and bonuses awarded to the higher-ranking executives of large companies or banks, but that does not mean that it's never justified. This is particularly true when the individual is working for a company which is largely owned by the UK taxpayers.

This bit of news will cause the usual fury among those of us who earn a living wage, rather than what's euphemistically called 'remuneration'. It's not that I'm envious of his income - personally, I've never been motivated into a job by money alone and have, in the past, actually felt guilty about earning a good wage during periods when I didn't think there was sufficient work about for me to be earning it. I think most people would feel the same way – it's not about that, it's about fairness and the justification for him, and others like him, earning this kind of money.

His bank, 82% of which is in public ownership, and which has made thousands of people redundant during its recent struggles, seems nonetheless to have been able to take this decision without consulting that 82%, or anybody else. This seems a contradiction to me – a private company quoted on the stock exchange is answerable to the shareholders at each AGM, and subject to a vote approving the pay of the directors at the same annual get-together. They do, of course, almost always see those votes passed, but they are at least subject to that scrutiny, subject to the questioning of the people whose investment has helped support the organisation financially.

I don't recall the taxpayers being consulted on this one. How has the bank's board been able to take such a decision without any apparent input from outside? That's what annoys me about this, not the amounts involved specifically. The bank's board will doubtless argue that they are legally obliged to honour promises made in his contract, and so they are. But is it beyond the wit of the people who write these contracts to build in clauses which limit or remove bonuses during periods of financial loss, in case of a required publicly-funded bale-out, etc? They're supposed to be professionally competent people (though perhaps some of the banks' results lately show the reality there as well).

The other line we're constantly fed is that the top financial employers have to pay these salaries at board level to get the best people, that if they didn't, they'd 'go elsewhere' and their great talents would be lost to the country. I'd like to know where exactly it is that they're supposed to go? Which land of milk and honey is enjoying such immunity from what's a global economic problem that they could head off there in their droves and earn these riches, while at the same time still working for one of the top banks? It's a world economy – most of the large banks or financial institutions operate internationally, so a dire set of results in Britain, for example, will be felt outside our borders as well. The same applies in reverse – witness the effect that the crisis in Greece could have on the entire European Union. So that argument simply does not wash.

This is not a personal thing against Mr Hester – he just happens to be the man in a suit currently sitting in the media's cross-hairs, no doubt there are numerous other people earning considerably more, in considerably less public circumstances, with just as little justification. But he could take advantage of that publicity by setting an example and refusing the bonus, settling instead for struggling by on his reported £1.2 million basic this year. I'm not going to hold my breath, though.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Jazz hands

Just spent a pleasant evening with my g/f at a jazz club just a few minutes from the house. Now anybody who knows me will already be aware of my ignorance of most things musical, but my ignorance of jazz goes above and beyond that standard setting by some orders of magnitude.

So, a few things I've learned this evening:

My missus gets sufficiently drunk on one cocktail and two glasses of wine to skip down the street singing. In truth, this was already well-known to me.

Good jazz musicians, to my ignorant ears at least, have got unbelievable talent and hands which move in a blur. Also, they sound like they're just free-forming but then, with no discernible signal, suddenly all hit the same notes together and were evidently following a rhythm and score which were quite hidden to me the entire time.

If you're putting together a jazz composition, there are clearly some fundamental rules which must be followed if you're to be taken seriously. I suspect that, like my missus' all too well-known lightweight tendencies, none of this will be a revelation to anybody who's actually into music. But here goes:

1) Under no circumstances make the piece less than 20 minutes long. I assume any idiot newbie writer who makes such a schoolboy error as to produce a shorter piece is thrown out of whatever passes for a jazz writers' union for the affront.

2) The above important rule of composition length has clearly been imposed to allow the saxophonist, after a long, long, loooong intro, to stand at the side and let the other musicians have their solos while he presumably gets his breath back. At least five minutes of high-speed drumming, best done with the drummer's eyes firmly closed. A bit of piano thrown in if the drummer doesn't mind. Then cue the sax again, who clearly knows exactly where they are in the piece despite it sounding like it could be anywhere to me.

3) Make the title of the piece correspondingly long.

4) Don't let people think they know when the end is coming. It must at several points during the latter stages sound like it's finishing, only to then go on longer than the final scenes at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, before eventually expiring on a single, sharp note which catches you by surprise.

5) Having seen a world class professional do it, I've come to the depressing conclusion that I'm probably never going to realise my long-held ambition of standing at the back of a band in smokey clubs looking cool and plucking at a double bass for a living. Apparently you have to hit all the right notes and everything, and at no point did he spin it about its pointy foot thingy, which I was always under the impression was the hardest and therefore, for me at least, most dangerous bit of the occupation. This has proved sadly untrue.

All in all, a most instructive evening.

Occupy your time more effectively

I know it's not the said thing if you're of the bleeding-heart liberal persuasion (and I am), but I find myself agreeing with the judgement in Court yesterday that the Occupy London encampment at St Paul's can be removed. It's not that I disagree with their reasons for being there, of course, rather that I genuinely don't believe they'll achieve anything with this action except make a historic and important site look terrible and inconvenience people who have nothing to do with the problems they're seeking to address.

The financial institutions of Threadneedle Street have, needless to say, gone about their business utterly unconcerned and entirely unaffected by it. Not so St Paul's, which may be an icon of a Church I don't like, but is certainly not to blame for the world's financial ills. It has found itself forced to close its doors for the first time in ages, has had resignations among its senior clergy as they wrestle with the conflict between their Christian consciences and the huge problems the camp is causing them, and has generally been buggered about considerably.

The same goes for the camps in Parliament Square. They've been there for years, and they've achieved absolutely nothing except forcing huge expenditure on repairing damage to the green at a time when the money would be better spent on addressing some of the problems they're protesting about. Look at Brian Haw - the man gave up his life, his family, everything, but died having achieved nothing more than a bit of publicity and having had his placards mimicked in art. To me it seems a waste of a good man's energy and altruism, qualities which could have been directed into forms of protest which actually achieve something.

I also don't believe that removing the camps is stamping down on the right to protest. Marches still happen, protest can still be made, just not permanent forms of it stuck on the city's streets like a limpet. But as I've said before on these pages, the forms of protest which work best these days are much better organised and focused, and take a different form. Look at what 38 Degrees have achieved, or the petition to have the Hillsborough disaster Cabinet discussions made public, among many other such petitions. With our vote, with large numbers organised and focused over the internet, and most importantly with the withdrawal of our custom from organisations we see causing these problems in the first place, we can have much more effect than by sitting in a tent on a London pavement for months at a time. You have to play the system to change it, regrettably.

You also have to have a clear idea of what it is you want, not just what you don't want, if you're going to be taken seriously. A similar camp was set up on the Old Steine in Brighton, until it was blown away by the pre-Christmas gales. During its stay, the local paper interviewed one of those responsible for it. When they asked him what the aims of the Occupy movement were, in a response reminiscent of the aims of Life of Brian's People's Front of Judea, it was the complete dismantling of the capitalist system and dominance of corporate interest. When asked what he'd replace it with, the answer? "Something else."

I realise that this is but one member of a diverse and extremely loose group with a wide range of interests and ambitions and a worldwide reach, and that he does not necessarily reflect the group as a whole, but their very form and lack of structure is part of the Occupy Movement's problem – if they want to be taken more seriously by the people they seek to influence, if they want to actually change things, they need to think, speak and focus themselves a bit more intelligently than that.

Friday, 13 January 2012

My kingdom, such as it is, for an apostrophe

I've been writing this blog since June 2010, and have managed to get this far without writing an entry specifically about apostrophes. The time, however, has come. This news, while hardly surprising given the feebleness with which we seem to be giving up on grammar as a society, is nonetheless depressing. A company which sells books, for crying out loud, dropping an apostrophe which had correctly featured in its name since the firm's inception. If they can't see the paradox inherent in a book store chain doing such a thing, then they're clearly not being run by people with any vision.

Their MD's defence of the move is particularly mystifying. He claims it's now going to be a 'more versatile and practical' spelling in the digital world. What the hell? The last time I checked, the digital world had no particular problems in rendering apostrophes without any difficulty. That is, frankly, bollocks. If it's some pathetic effort to compete with Amazon and other online booksellers, it's going to make not a jot of difference.

And how is something that's less accurate 'more practical'? That's just nonsense. Why not just drop the first 't' as well? Maybe a couple of the vowels, there are way too many of them. Practical my arse. It's about making things easier – removing the need for any Waterstone's employee to actually have to make a decision about whether to include a bloody apostrophe or not. That way they can safely employ less literate people and pay them less. Or something. (As you can probably tell, I can't for the life of me see any good reason for the move.)

This may seem like a petty, pointless thing to complain about, and perhaps it is. But the way I see it, this is nothing less than a long-standing and esteemed seller of words, with all their inherent power and beauty, weakening those qualities by leading the charge toward a dumber and less literate society. It's thoroughly depressing and I'm sure I will not be the only Waterstone's regular who not only continues to spell their name with the oh-so-difficult character left intact, but also withdraws their custom from the wretched place unless or until they reconsider. If they suffer the exact opposite consequences to those they envision from this baffling, expensive and simply wrong decision, maybe they'll see sense and change their minds.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Mackenzie's honesty shows up his section of his profession for what it is

Having heard from numerous people on the receiving end of some of the worst excesses of tabloid 'journalism', we now begin to hear from the other side at the Leveson Inquiry. Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of the Sun, has been disarmingly frank in his admissions as to his attitude to facts while in charge there, and extremely irritating in his so-called justification for some of those excesses.

He openly admitted that he once held the opinion that, "...if it sounded right, it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in." This is unbelievable. Stories that could change or destroy lives, would be taken as fact by millions, 'lobbed in' on the grounds that they 'sounded right'. That's basically a licence to say what you like about who you like, providing it's vaguely plausible to your own self-interested ears. This is what I've always thought the tabloids do anyway, but to hear it openly and unrepentantly admitted before the Inquiry was mildly surprising.

He says in later years he was 'less bullish', and that the Sun got more cautious after he left. But it sounds as though the reasons for that caution were entirely commercial, and his attitude to what goes to press is pretty nauseating: "If you publish it in the Sun you get six months' jail and if you publish it in the Guardian you get a Pulitzer prize," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of snobbery involved in journalism." What absolute bollocks. Has he noticed how the style and content of the stuff his 'newspaper' published, and publishes, compares to what goes into the Guardian, or any other broadsheet? 'Footballer Joe Bloggs's sex shame with X-Factor judge's daughter' - you know the type of thing. Typical red-top fare, but not something you'd likely see in the Guardian, to stick to his own example. Mackenzie need only examine his own paper's stories if he's after the real reasons why the different sections of the press are viewed so differently. It is not beyond a tabloid journalist's abilities to print what they want without attracting legal attention, but if it's less sensationalist it sells fewer papers.

Mackenzie even found time to have a pop at Anne Diamond, who has previously given evidence to Leveson as to the distress caused by tabloids turning up at her baby son's funeral. He called her a 'devalued witness' and claimed she should have been more hostile at the time, "...if she felt as strongly as she appeared to feel at Leveson you would have thought 20 years earlier she would have been massively hostile to us, and she wasn't." The woman was grieving the loss of a baby son at the time - just maybe she had other bloody things on her mind. The fact that she still feels strongly enough 20 years later shows exactly how hurt she must have been.

But, to people like this hack, this toad, this abhorrent weasel of a man and the equally ghastly, loathsome newspaper he once edited, since when has the hurt they can cause, or indeed, as he so openly admits, concern for things like the facts, ever been of the remotest concern? More editors, former editors, showbiz columnists etc, are due to give evidence yet. Expect more of the same greasy self-justification in the days to come.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Another Twit

Oh the perils of Twitter. A few months back I wrote this piece about an idiot footballer claiming that comments posted on Twitter had been 'taken out of context'. He, at least, has some defence in that people expect footballers to be stupid - you would not, though, anticipate that an experienced politician, one who stood for the leadership of the Labour Party in fact, could be similarly idiotic.

But Diane Abbot has fallen foul of exactly the same problem. Here's the background to what she said and how she's back-tracking. As I've said before, to blame context for the 'misinterpretation' of anything said on Twitter, a medium which permits just 140 characters per message I believe, is monumentally stupid. Diane Abbott has been a voluble and high-profile campaigner for racial equality, so to issue such a crass and thoughtless statement on Twitter, something seemingly entirely contradictory to the message she usually campaigns for, is so naive as to be almost beyond comprehension.

In the immediate aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence trial, and with the Suarez racism row still all over the sports pages, race relations are at the top of the news and political agenda in this country at the moment. It's a time where we're examining our attitudes to race as a society, examining the way people of different cultures interact with each other in Britain. A time where passions on this could run high. Context, if you're to make any kind of comment on these matters, is bloody important.

Twitter doesn't do context. It's about immediacy. It absolutely exemplifies the modern mass media. Her comment was apparently in response to an earlier message complaining about the term 'black community' lazily grouping all people of non-white ethnicities together as if they're all the same. That will, of course, be lost in the shit storm that the press now stir up about her Tweet, because there's a lot more mileage in it for them.

The last bit of that Beeb report, on a later Abbott Tweet, shows up her lack of understanding of what was likely to happen and, if anything, makes her naivety even worse: "Tweet taken out of context. Refers to nature of 19th Century European colonialism. Bit much to get into 140 characters." So she admits that you can't contextualise a 140 character statement, but went ahead and put it out there anyway, knowing that the medium she was using was inadequate for the task. The mind bloody boggles.