All posts by Jim Gunther

About Jim Gunther

Husband, father, grandfather, humanist, republican, (very!) amateur anthropologist. Interests: politics, education, ethics, comedy, eclectic music taste. Former corporate manager. School governor, charity trustee, volunteer adviser

Own Two Feet

I’ve never been what you would call a hippie. In my late teens and early twenties I had shoulder-length hair – and a beard. Flower Power was at its height when I was about 18 or 19 years old. But the whole hippie lifestyle thing? Not really: my day to day life was fairly conventional: university then work, regular job and all that.

Barefoot in the Past

I can’t remember exactly when, but there were a couple of weeks in my late teens or early twenties when I took to going around with bare feet. Somehow I had this romantic notion that closer contact between the soles of my feet and – whatever I was walking on – would somehow connect me better with nature, or whatever. In practice, a good part of the time I was walking on hard, paved surfaces. Of itself, that was not a problem, nor particularly enjoyable! But the problem with pavements are the little bits of debris which find their way there: stones, bits of gravel and, worse still if not paying attention, broken glass or other sharp objects.

No serious injury occurred in these two weeks, but the odd pebble or stone was, frankly, painful. Cool grass was lovely and everyone has experienced the feeling of bare feet on a sandy beach. Painful in a hot climate, sensual at cooler temperatures!

So, did I really feel more in commune with nature? At the time, not really. I soon went back to wearing socks and shoes. More practical, less risk of injury.

Comfortably Numb

Fast forward to last year. One of the side-effects of my medical treatment was a loss of feeling (touch and temperature) in my feet. About a year ago, this effect reached a peak. Those who have experienced peripheral neuropathy often describe it as like walking around with a pair of sponges strapped to the bottom of the feet. Not unpleasant – just a bit weird! And it really screws up your balance! At worst, I was staggering a bit like a drunk person. Like riding a bicycle, the faster I walked, the steadier was my gait.

Many people experience pain as well as a strange, fizzy “hot and cold at the same time” tingling sensation. The tingling was strangely pleasant, the pain not. Fortunately, I was prescribed a drug which took away the pain completely, leaving me with a pair of feet that didn’t quite feel that they belonged to me.

Sweet Sensation

Over the past year, the numbness has mostly subsided and the feeling has returned, especially to the soles of my feet. But a strange thing has happened: the newly re-grown sense of touch is somehow enhanced, as if my brain hasn’t got used to the novelty of feeling again. So now, when my feet are bare, I seem to feel every little bit of the pile in a carpet. It’s as if the nerve cells that give us a sense of touch are trying to make up for the lost time. And, I have to say, it’s really rather pleasant.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that treatment with strong drugs with side-effects is something to be welcomed. But life does have its compensations. For example, experiencing the sight of a beautiful sunset (thank you Harlech in June!), a stunningly beautiful beach (Iona in September) or many others of nature’s bounties, the memories from my youth of cool grass on bare feet come to mind.

And all the madness and discord in the world about which, sadly, too many of these posts concentrate on, drift far, far away.

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Tangled Up in EU

There’s an awful lot of bollocks being written and spoken about the UK leaving the EU with No Deal. The most misleading idea is that of a “clean break”.

Bullshit Party

No Deal exit appears to be the only declared policy of the Bullshit Party, my name for the private company set up by a certain N Farage which is masquerading as political party. (As regular readers may have noticed, I refuse to use the other B word.) This private company, to the best of my understanding, is set up as one-man, autocratic institution where whatever the leader says goes. There is no resemblance to any form of democratic processes found in normal political parties.

A Dental Digression

But first, a small digression. The relevance should become clear shortly. Let’s talk about dental implants, a significant advance in dentistry and which have become more popular in the last decade or so. I have three. Implants are usually made of titanium, and the reason is this. Titanium has the property that it allows osseointegration. At the molecular level, bone growth forms a close bond with the metal in such a way that the jawbone tissue and the metal implant fuse together, becoming as one.

I’m taking good care of my implants because, if poorly managed, they can develop gum disease rather like that which occurs around actual teeth. The thought of needing the surgical removal of any of my implants makes me shudder. This is because, in a sense, my implants have become a part of me.

Forty Six Years

The UK has been a member of the EEC/EU since 1973. For my children and grandchildren, that means their whole lives.

Over the course of nearly half a century, the lives of people in this country have become progressively integrated with those in other EU countries. The Tory government has banged on and on about getting a trade deal with the EU (and the world). But there’s much more to life than just trade.

Here are a few examples. People have fallen in love with someone from other EU countries, married, visit relatives, go on holiday. Elderly relatives are brought to the UK (and vice versa) when they reach the stage where they need care. Parents working in one EU country bring their partners and children here one they’re settled (and v.v.). Healthcare is available across national boundaries. Young adults cross EU borders freely to go to university, study and learn more about other cultures. Artists and performers travel freely, sharing experiences and enriching cultures to mutual benefit.

Most of the above benefits – and more – have been possible thanks to free movement. Businesses have developed integrated supply chains: modern technology has enabled “just in time” delivery for parts in areas such as motor manufacturing. Foodstuffs and medicines pass freely around the EU, tariff free and without the need for bureaucratic quality and customs checks, because standards have been harmonised. The EU is the only institution in the world to have the size and desire to curb monopolistic abuses by companies such as Microsoft. Roaming charges for mobile phones have been abolished. Peace in Northern Ireland is built upon the foundation that both the Irish Republic and the UK are EU members.

In short, millions and millions of decisions, some small, some large, have been made, by individuals and by companies, based upon the – often unconscious – assumption that the UK is part of the EU. Just like the bone tissue and titanium implants, our lives and livelihoods have become inextricably interwoven with our European neighbours.

No “Clean Break”

Anyone thinking there is such a thing as a “clean break” for the UK from the EU hasn’t thought it through properly. Leaving with No Deal would be like taking a pair of pliers and ripping out one of my implants without anaesthetic or antiseptic precautions. The resultant wound would be ghastly and would fester. No Deal is the same – or worse – but, this time affecting the whole country.

The division, bad feeling and tribalism we see now is a mere walk in the park, compared with what might follow a No Deal exit. People who should know better, including our Prime Minister, are already using the language of war – the vocabulary of the far-right thugs. Women (including MPs) are fearful for their safety and worse. People will die. Lots of people seem to favour No Deal – and soon – on the assumption that all the nastiness will stop. Think again: it would make everything worse, a lot worse. The UK’s negotiating position would weaken considerably, prey to the whims and fantasies of Trump’s USA.

There is no such thing as a clean break from the EU, only pain, death and division. There is no “taking back control”.

Bullshit Means Bullshit

Which brings me back finally to the Bullshit Party (which Johnson’s gang of thugs and delusionists are trying to ape). Their leader has stated that the only acceptable, “true” version of Leave is No Deal. That argument, as I have attempted to point out above, is based upon the lie of “clean break”. There is no logical reason for the Bullshit Party to exist.

Lives, jobs, family relationships, civility itself are all at stake. Get real. And, for all our sakes, think!

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Abolish Ofsted?

Disclaimer: the views presented here are my personal ones only and in no way represent those of any schools with which I have been, or continue to be, associated.

I read a spine-chilling story in Saturday’s newspaper which stated that Chinese journalists will soon be required to pass a test, grading their understanding of the teachings of their leader, Xi Jinping. Here’s an account by a US news outlet on the same story. Journalists in China need a licence to practice their profession. In effect, this new edict reduces their role purely to that of propagandists for the Chinese government. Presumably, those journalists with poor marks will be barred from their jobs.

Strangely, you may think, this story brought to mind an organisation which strikes terror in the hearts of the professionals it seeks to regulate: Ofsted. Strangely? There is a strong resemblance, which I explain below.

Amanda Spielman Ofsted
Amanda Spielman, CEO Ofsted

Coincidentally, on the following day, the Labour Party at its conference has announced that it will include in its manifesto a commitment to abolish Ofsted and replace it with a new system mainly based around local authority inspection. The Times Educational Supplement gives a balanced account here and reports that teaching unions are strongly supportive. It’s worth noting that the comments posted below the TES report help to flesh out the main arguments.

Measuring Affluence

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said: “I believe Ofsted measures poverty. It measures deprivation. It doesn’t measure excellence. And I think Ofsted has to measure excellence.” From my 32 years’ experience as a school governor, I have long since come to broadly the same conclusion. But here I must first declare an interest: I am a Governor of a school in a deprived area with an exceptionally high level of students for whom English is not their first language. The head and the teachers work exceptionally hard to overcome these disadvantages and ensure that our kids progress well in their long and difficult journey of catch-up with children from more privileged backgrounds. But sadly, we concluded some years ago that it is virtually impossible, arithmetically, for our school to be recognised as “outstanding” because of the way Ofsted measures success.

The Number Fairies

The children’s author Michael Rosen writes an occasional series of articles for the Guardian under the title Letter from a Curious Parent. Rosen is clearly a man after my own heart and I always find him a good read. This article from April 2019 is a case in point.

Rosen’s main criticism of the current system is in its obsession with some highly suspect data and its systemic ignoring of other, more difficult to quantify, factors which influence the overall quality of the education given by a school. The present school “data” is a starting point for deeper probing and insights. It is not the end product from which facile conclusions can be drawn, for example in the notorious league tables so loved by government Ministers and ill-informed sections of the media.

A further major problem with the present Ofsted data system is this. It takes a single dataset (raw students’ results in tests) and cuts them every way conceivable, sub-dividing by gender, ethnicity, a somewhat arbitrary binary disadvantaged / non-disadvantaged categorisation and who knows what. Declaration of interest number two: I have a maths degree and several years’ experience working with statistical analysis in my early career. One of the effects of measuring differences between these various categories is that false positive results will occur by chance and by small sample sizes. Over-emphasis on the detail leads to a regime where false trails are pursued and invalid conclusions are drawn.

In short, the present approach to measuring school performance is statistically illiterate.

Project Fear

The really pernicious effect of this űber-accountability is on the consequences flowing from this rush to judgement. As a governor, I have spent much time discussing (anonymised) individual data, individual kids’ needs and circumstances and the pupil-orientated interventions used and known to bring about improvement. Much of this internal data is now, by Ofsted decree, ignored by their inspectors. Never mind the facts, just look at the huge amount of numbers we can produce for just one school. Reputations can be raised and destroyed by this flawed inspection process. The effects can last years and can destroy the careers of and create unnecessary stress for dedicated, hard-working teachers. The resultant increase in teacher “burn-out” and early retirement, together with the deterrent effect on would-be recruits to the teaching profession, does a huge disservice to teachers and pupils alike.

I am a strong believer in the need for accountability, especially for something as important to future citizens’ life chances as school education. I spent over 20 years as a fairly senior manager in a large corporation devising, redrafting, tweaking and adjusting various performance measures to try to ensure that the more senior managers had a clear and incisive insight into the performance of those we managed. Not an easy or straightforward task. Transferred to the world of education, the issues get ever more complex and important. But a world in which an Ofsted visit is viewed with fear and trepidation – and is seen, to a large extent, as a discredited lottery – is a world gone mad.

“Much Worse Than That”

A few months ago, I attended a Local Authority briefing session for governors. When the formal session had ended, I fell into conversation with a governor from another school, a woman I have never met before. I made some comment to the effect that I was unsure, on balance, whether Ofsted’s existence was a good or bad thing for the education of our children. I said I thought it was probably bad. “Oh no!” said my interlocutor. “They’re much worse than that!”

With Stupid Boy Pike as current Education Secretary, it looks like we will have to wait for a future Labour government before there’s any chance that things will improve.

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Lost for Words

It’s been four weeks since I last posted to this blog. Events in the world of politics have moved so fast, and with such horror, you could say I have been lost for words.

My original aim was for the blog content to be reflective, rather than a running commentary on events as they occur. The past four years have been so extraordinary that many – perhaps too many – of the posts have been on the subject of politics.  I never for a moment expected matters to take such a dark turn as they have done in the six weeks. By this I mean since our current Prime minister was selected from a shortlist of two by some of the most reactionary people in our land. These are the Tory Party members, representing 0.2% of the electorate, 0.13% of the population, but highly unrepresentative of our views.

Constitution

It is tempting at this time to point out how the UK’s ramshackle, Heath-Robinson, cobbled-together “constitution” is not fit for purpose. I came to the view quite a while ago that some form of Public Enquiry to inform constitutional reform was needed. The damage to Britain’s international reputation is crumbling fast and is on the brink of being destroyed. A priority for later, but not too much later. We can’t keep kicking this can down the road.

For now, it suffices to quote from a leader article in today’s Financial Times, which says all that needs to be said in commendably few words:

The FT’s “until now” could not be clearer. The clear and present danger is our “unscrupulous leader”, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He needs to be removed from office as quickly as possible, ideally before he can do more harm. But it is important that all reasonable methods, in line with those ramshackle constitutional conventions, are followed, if at all possible.

From where I sit, the only body in a position to carry this out is our Parliament, imperfect creature that it is.

The Immediate Task

The immediate task is to stop a No Deal exit from the EU dead in its tracks. There is just about time for that to happen next week: we can only hold our breath and hope. Those opposed to Johnson’s tricks seem reasonably united around using legislative means to pass primary legislation to block No Deal, a catastrophic course of action opposed by around three-quarters of the UK population.

All those who care about the future of this country and who are in a position to effect a change of course must focus unrelentingly on this task.

Plan(s) B

And if this fails?

There are two routes to a possible General Election, one via Johnson and one via Jeremy Corbyn. Both are risky, as only a fool would predict the outcome in these frenzied times. Johnson may call an election himself, thinking a mixture of populist (and unbudgeted) spending plans, together with the lottery that is our first-past-the post voting system may win enough English seats to give him victory. The other route, via Corbyn, involves a successful vote of no confidence in the Commons, which, frankly, is looking far from assured.

We can be reassured that the Scots won’t put up with Johnson’s antics and, especially with Ruth Davidson gone, we could hope that the number of Tory MPs in Scotland will drop from 13 to a figure close to zero (ideally, equal to zero). This should enhance the chances of the Tories being unable to form a government after an election. But, with 80% of the press rabidly rooting for him, Johnson may fool enough English voters to get him over the line. I really hope not. As a bonus, perhaps the DUP archbigots may lose some seats to more rational, and less hate-filled, politicians in Northern Ireland.

Uncivil Service

Johnson’s No Deal plans are so risky and egregious that there has even been talk of divided loyalty in the Civil Service, raised by its former chief back in the less troubled times in March: “The civil service have a loyalty to the government of the day but they are also servants of the crown and the country. Normally there isn’t a conflict because you expect the government to act on behalf of the country but in the situation we are now in, where the interests of the Conservative Party are not necessarily the same as the interests of the country and the consequences are so grave, I do feel that their responsibility to crown and country needs to play in.” Yesterday, he had hardened his position: “We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day.” Alas, tactically, this would likely play into Johnson’s “people v. elites” gambit. We are indeed in unprecedented times.

Civil Unrest

If all else fails, there is a case to be made for civil unrest. Not of the “beat-’em-up” type advocated by the thuggish wing of the Leave supporters. I’m referring rather to a whole variety of creative ways of making the country ungovernable.

Leavers and Remainers

A striking feature of the various pro- and anti-Leave marches (apart from the violence of the former and its absence in the latter) was the wit and imagination that went in to some of the hand-made pro-EU posters. Compare this with the sterile flag-waving and twattish phrases for the Leavers. It’s surely not beyond the wit of us to devise clever ways to frustrate government policies and actions without unduly inconveniencing others. Perhaps it can be done in some cases without breaking the law: a last resort option with an honourable history (Chartists, Peterloo, Suffragettes, etc.)

So, anyway… Think up some ideas whilst those who have the power focus on the immediate task in hand. To stop No Deal. Dead. The rest can wait, for now.

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Turd on the Wire

Hanging around

Like a turd on the wire,
like a punk with his pants on fire
In my mind, all the time: only me.
Like a worm on a hook,
like a thief or an old fashioned crook
I have saved all my worst things for thee.
When I, when I have been unkind,
I hope that you really don’t mind.
When I, when I have been untrue
I hope that you still haven’t a clue.
Like a monster, deformed,
like a beast with his horn
I have torn all who don’t think like me.
But I swear by this song
and by all whom I have wronged
I will do it again, just you see.
I saw a poor man leaning on his wooden crutch,
I said to him, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a filthy rich man leaning on my opened door,
I cried to him, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

Oh like a turd on the wire,
like a punk with his pants on fire
In my mind, all the time: only me.

(with acknowledgements and apologies to the late, great Leonard Cohen)

 

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Mr Men 2019

A lot has happened since the last time we met the Mr Men!

The Big House

Little Miss I-Know-Best
Little Miss I-Know-Best

The Big House still has twenty-eight rooms. But the people in the room across the little bridge, room Number Nine, are getting crosser and crosser. They shout at each other a lot and can’t agree about anything. Little Miss I-Know-Best had come to an agreement with the people in the other 27 rooms. But she needed the people who met in the voting corner of Number Nine to agree. Everyone had agreed that these people’s views were “sovereign”, which means they get to choose on behalf of everyone else and that’s it.

The trouble was, the people in the voting corner said “NO!” to her plan. And then they said “NO!” and then “NO!” a third time. So the Nasties agreed they needed a new leader. Bye-bye, Little Miss I-Know-Best! It seems you didn’t know best, after all!

The Nasties Vote

The Nasties have a funny way of choosing a new leader. At first, everyone who wants to be leader throws their hat into the ring. Not a real ring. Just a pretend one. The hats aren’t real, either. But, anyway, ten people threw their not-real hats into the not-real ring. We have met two of these before: Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me. You may remember, Mr Mad stabbed Mr Look-At-Me in the back last time, saying Mr Look-At-Me was too naughty to run room Number Nine.

We shall be meeting four more Mr Men and Little Misses very soon: Mr Doormatt, Mr Jagged Savage, Little Miss Loathsome, and Mr Rabid. They also said they would like to lead the Nasties. Also in the race were Mr Harpic (who was round the bend), Mr Front-Bottom (of rhyming slang), Little Miss Runavay and Mr Roary-Lion. Mr Roary-Lion didn’t really roar like a lion. But his hair looked a little bit like a lion’s mane, and so his name suited him.

At first only the Nasties allowed in the voting corner have a say. Their job is to vote (or stab) until only two people are left. These were Mr Look-At-Me and Mr Front-Bottom. Then all the Nasties vote for the winner while everyone else looks on and cries helplessly.

Mr Look-At-Me Again

Mr Look-At-Me
Mr Look-At-Me

Mr Look-At-Me won, chosen by the Nasties to lead the people in room Number Nine out of the Big House. Some of Little Miss I-Know-Best’s helpers said they would try to stop Mr Look-At-Me burning down the little bridge to the other rooms. Mr Hammond-Organ said he would play mournful tunes on his Hammond organ. That would do the trick.

“Do or die!” said Mr Look-At-Me. But he needed to choose his helpers, just as Little Miss I-Know-Best had done three years earlier. Only this time, Mr Look-At-Me did something different. He only chose people who were mad or just changed their minds to stay as a helper. Let’s meet the new helpers.

Mr Jagged Savage

Mr Jagged Savage

Mr Jagged Savage was put in charge of all the pennies in room Number Nine. This was a Top Job. Mr Jagged Savage is made up of two parts. His head is a balloon. His body is very sharp and jagged: the jagged edges had been made very sharp when he was told by Little Miss I-Know-Best to be Hostile to everyone.

Mr Jagged Savage knew that, if his head touched his body, it would go BANG on the sharp jagged edges. So he learned how to nod his head carefully. But he could not shake it, in case it burst. But Mr Jagged Savage was happy. He was still a helper and had all the head movement he needed for when he met Mr Look-At-Me!

Mr Rabid

Mr Rabid

The second Top Job went to Mr Rabid. This was to talk to all the leaders outside room Number Nine. Mr Look-At-Me once had this job, but he did it so badly that he left.

Mr Rabid is a dog. A very fierce dog. He snarls all the time. Mr Look-At-Me thought that Mr Rabid might make his own time in this Top Job look not so bad. We shall see! To make himself more fierce, Mr Rabid sometimes adds extra letters “a” to his name, like “Raabid”. Once he got so carried away, he spelled it “Raaaaaaaaaabid!”

Mr Rabid is not bright. He spent months coming up with an agreement from the other 27 countries to help reduce the damage caused by smashing down the little bridge. He then voted against his own plan! Everybody knows that a Rabid dog is a mad dog! I don’t suppose the leaders in other countries will be keen to talk to Mr Rabid again.

Little Miss Pretty Petrifying

Little Miss Pretty Petrifying

Little Miss Pretty Petrifying has the third Top Job. The job is to ensure that all the people in room Number Nine behave and to keep foreigners from crossing the little bridge. She had only two jobs outside politics. Both were to make the companies look better, one in tobacco and the other in alcohol.

She helped to write a book called Britannia Unchained which said a lot of silly things, such as the workers in room Number Nine were “the worst idlers in the world”. Little Miss Pretty Petrifying is not looking to make new friends!

Mr Doormatt

Mr Doormatt

Mr Doormatt is another dog – a very submissive dog! He is in charge of making sick people better. He kept this job by letting everyone walk all over him. When he sees anyone with the name Big Pharma, he rolls over on his back and lets them take any part of him that they think will make them the most money.

Mr Doormatt should not be trusted to look after anyone – even himself!

Little Miss Don’t Trust

Little Miss Don’t Trust

Little Miss Don’t Trust also had a hand in the Britannia Unchained book. People have said the book is no good because the authors were too lazy to do any research before they wrote it. What a silly way to write a book!

She takes over her new job at International Trade from Mr Fox-Up, whom we’ve met before. Mr Fox-Up was very bad at his job, so Little Miss Don’t Trust doesn’t have to work very hard to do better!

Little Miss Loathsome

Little Miss Loathsome

Little Miss Loathsome has a job where she is supposed to look after business. Her new boss, Mr Look-At-Me, once famously said a very rude word about business. Now, Little Miss Loathsome is confused. What exactly is she supposed to do?

She has decided to do what she does best and just be loathsome. If she tries anything harder than this, her head will explode!

Little Miss Bilious

Little Miss Bilious

Little Miss Bilious has a bilious-looking face. She has a job looking after all the trees and the flowers and the rivers and to stop the world getting too hot. She plans to do this by being sick all over them.

She once had a job working for Mr Two-Face which she didn’t understand. The thought the “Good Friday Agreement” was just about which Easter eggs to buy. And she thought it would be good to burn down the little bridge connecting room Number Nine to the other 27 rooms. She didn’t care that most of the people she was supposed to be looking after didn’t agree.

Perhaps she will be better at being sick over things.

Mr Stupid-Boy-Pike

Mr Stupid-Boy-Pike

Mr Stupid-Boy-Pike once had a job selling fireplaces. When he was at school, he used to take his pet spider to school. He thought this would scare and impress the other children. Instead, they just kept away from him.

Little Miss I-Know-Best gave him a job standing in front of big toys like guns, warships and aeroplanes. He liked doing this. He also tried to sound frightening by showing people his spider and saying tough things like “shut up” and “go away”. Everyone thought he was a bit stupid.

This made him the obvious choice to be in charge of all the schools. When the teachers heard this, they all laughed and laughed. They thought it was a joke. Then they were told it was not a joke. So they all cried and started looking for new jobs. Who will teach the children in room Number Nine? Perhaps Mr Stupid-Boy-Pike can teach some spiders to do it!

Little Miss Rudderless

Little Miss Rudderless

Little Miss Rudderless used to be called Little Miss Traffic-Light. But now she has changed her mind about Mr Look-At-Me to keep her job. So she has a new name. Her job is to maintain the thumbscrews and manacles at the Department for Work and Pensions. Officially known as Sanctions, these and other instruments of torture are used under the “Hostile Inquisition” scheme. But only on people who are wicked enough to be poor or disabled.

Little Miss Rudderless is a Marxist and likes to quote from the great thinker. “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others” is her favourite.

Mr Mad (Again!)

Mr Mad
Mr Mad

After stabbing him in the back, Mr Mad is now once again best friends with Mr Look-At-Me. So Mr Look-At-Me has given him a new job in his team. His new job title is Chancer of the Dutchie on the Left Hand Side. This means he is free to do what he likes. What in practice will happen is this. Mr Mad will stab in the back anyone who disagrees with his new best friend and Great Leader. This includes stabbing himself or the Great Leader if that pesky little bridge isn’t burnt by Halloween.

The Mad House

The leaders of the other 27 rooms in the Big House have a new name for room Number Nine. They call it the Mad House. I think, children, (oh, and, by the way, sorry about your future…) that you now know why. Sweet dreams!

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A Coup for Unreason

For nearly the whole of my life, I never imagined it would come to this. I find myself today arriving at a stark conclusion: my government is now my enemy. The Age of Endarkenment is upon us.

The gang of zealots, far-right extremists, bigots, thugs and unthinking believers that we laughably call the Cabinet share not one reasoned thought among them. From everything we know about them so far, there is no reasoned argument to support their beliefs and ideas. The actions we can expect to flow from this will be unreasoned and unreasonable. Nothing reasoned or reasonable happened yesterday. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson first staged a purge and then a coup: a coup for unreason.

Let’s do a quick pen-picture of the mob now ruling our lives.

Johnson

Twat-in-Chief

Many words have been written about our new PM, so it’s very hard to find anything new to say. He’s known to be a serial liar (and the 92,000 Tory members who voted for him knew that already, were too stupid to notice or just didn’t care). Fantasist, racist, misogynist, et cetera et cetera: the list goes on. Most obvious characteristics: lazy, poor on detail, extremely narcissistic. Basically he’s a mini-Trump who speaks a bit of Latin. His social development skills stopped developing when he was four. Think four-year-old with a dagger (and now keys to the nuclear codes). (Trump, by contrast, is a three year old.)

Javid

The new Chancellor is a former investment banker. This makes him part of the gang who brought us the 2008 crash and subsequent austerity policy and the rise in inequality and poverty. He bangs on endlessly about his Pakistan-born bus driver dad and so represents 50% of the token BAME representation in the Cabinet. He has done little to lift the burden of Theresa May’s hostile environment while he was Home Secretary under May.

He’s untested at the Treasury and it’s hard to predict how he will interact with Johnson’s planned spending rises. There’s a fair-to-middling chance this “government” will do the same as all recent US Republic regimes and let the debt and deficit rise to unsustainable levels. Or we may get random “slash and burn” cuts to public services not on Johnson’s “wish list”. The inevitable devastating effects will mainly hit the poor, the vulnerable and the disabled.

Raab

The Leave extremists’ Leave extremist. Has never had an intelligent thought, as far as I can tell. He has made some amazingly stupid suggestions in the past, e.g. profit-making state schools, diluting workers’ rights still further and cutting support for green technology. He’s the archetypal free market fundamentalist “true believer” and probably actually believes the shit about the UK benefiting from leaving the EU. Oh, and he’s also said that feminists are “obnoxious bigots” and that men get a raw deal. So, just a regular guy, then.

There’s a distinct possibility that Johnson appointed him so that Raab can win the “worst Foreign Secretary ever” accolade which Johnson himself currently holds. Raab is in with a good chance for this.

Patel

“Pretty” – in her ideas and beliefs – she most certainly is not. The other 50% token BAME Cabinet minister and a woman to boot. She was sacked by May for a very serious ministerial misconduct offence for which (like Liam Fox under May) she should never again have been appointed to high office. She has spoken in favour of the death penalty as a “deterrent” and suggested diverting International Aid spending to military purposes.  Now presumably she’s busy looking for ways to make the Hostile Environment even more hostile – involuntary euthanasia for the disabled would be a logical end-point for her known views. About as nasty a person as you would never want to meet.

Gove

A wild card, in every sense of the word. Nobody really knows what he will do in his new role. When in charge of education, destroyed accountability in England and introduced reforms from which it will take at least 20 years to recover. He was hated by everyone I know in the field of education. He did do a better job at Justice, but that was simply by undoing Failing Grayling’s disastrous reforms. So maybe he’s there just to walk behind his new boss and pick up the shit he leaves everywhere.

Hancock

He survived yesterday’s purge to remain at Health. He appears to have been rewarded for his spineless support of Johnson and his “no deal” threat as an act of unprincipled, opportunist sycophancy. My regard for him has fallen as a result.

Leadsom

Loathsome can be guaranteed to bring zero intellectual content to her role as Business Secretary. Her only other distinction was to be stabbed in the back by the “men in grey suits” in the dying days of her leadership contest with May three years ago.

Truss

An extreme a believer in free markets and all that evidence-free stuff as you can find. I can only say I’m relieved she didn’t get the Chancellor’s job. Another “true believer” with no redeeming features.

Villiers

Now Environment Secretary, she failed to understand her brief when Northern Ireland Secretary, moving me to  write in 2016 that she should be sacked for supporting Leave, ignoring the delicacies in the Good Friday Agreement.

Williamson

Private Pike is an apt but flattering description of this waste of DNA. When Defence Secretary, he was fond of making threatening-sounding, but ultimately absurd, threats to foreign countries (e.g. telling Russia to “go away and shut up”). He always ended up sounding like a petulant schoolboy. He was sacked by May for “compelling evidence” of leaking information from a National Security Council meeting: a very serious offence.

Now, after just a few months, he’s rehabilitated and back to fuck up Education, about which it appears he knows nothing. He should stick to what he does best: posing in front of bits of military machinery trying to look tough. This sort of behaviour is usually associated with men with very small penises – in Williamson’s case, to go well with his even tinier brain.

Rudd

She’s one of the turncoats who has traded power under Johnson for principle. She keeps her role at Work and Pensions. In the far-right atmosphere of the nouvelle regime, presumably she will be encouraged to intensify the Hostile Regime for benefit claimants, including the disabled.

Wallace

At Defence there will be some photo opportunities posing in front of leaky aircraft carriers, our two warships and some penis-shaped missiles. Perhaps Private Pike can give him some tips. He has Home Office experience, so presumably knows how to look Hostile to foreigners.

Barclay

He keeps his masochist’s role as Exiting the EU Secretary. Despite the name, more of a wanker than a banker.

Morgan

Another resurrected minister sacked by May. Mostly harmless and in a minor role, but she did allow her Christian beliefs to distort her decision making when Education Secretary.

Jenrick

Our new Communities and Local Government Minister, apparently. Owns three homes, so should be right on top of the housing crisis. I’d never heard of him until yesterday.

A Right(-Wing) Shower

Given the potential for record-breaking temperatures today, we could all do with a cold shower. But not this lot.

We should take inspiration from Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist, who today encourages civil disobedience. Seems like a good idea. The rational and the civilised among us have to start the fight back from this insanity. Only 99 days to go until 31st October. Ideas?

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Two Islands

There are 136 inhabited islands in the British Isles, according to Wikipedia. In this post, I shall concentrate on the two biggest: Great Britain and Ireland, country by country.

Republic of Ireland

My first visit to the Republic of Ireland was in 1974 with my first wife-to-be (as she was then). We did a circuit of the south coast and returned for a couple of nights in Dublin at the end of our holiday.

My recollection was that Ireland was a poor country: the buildings were a little shabby and the rural parts were still very socially conservative. The country felt oppressed under the heavy, authoritarian fist of the Catholic Church. I saw the deference with which locals showed to their local priest, a god-like figure in the community. All in all and coming from London, we felt we had stepped back in time about twenty years or more. Dublin had some interesting historic sites and buildings – I particularly remember Trinity College – but was in many ways unremarkable. The Temple Bar area was quiet and semi-derelict, a far cry from the youthful and vibrant quarter of the city much favoured by British (and Irish) hen and stag parties in more recent times.

Temple Bar, Dublin

Two things that struck me have not changed. The first – and most commonly commented upon by visitors – was the friendliness of the people we encountered. The second was the mixing of people of all ages, at a Caleigh, in a pub, to have a good time. (The English, then and now, seem to me to socialise within their own age groups, especially so in London and the South East. It might also be more of a middle-class thing.)

Northern Ireland

My only visit to the six counties of Northern Ireland was for work, during the so-called “Troubles” in the 1970s. A more honest term might be Civil War. I can’t even remember now what the purpose of my trip was. What I do remember is sitting in the restaurant, alone, at a table beside a very large plate glass window which acted as the outside wall to the street below. I was staying at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, Europe’s most bombed hotel. It was bombed 36 times during this period, according to Wikipedia. I remember thinking “Is this wise?” Happily, nothing untoward happened during my stay, but I do remember the oppressive and unnerving security checks everywhere I went.

Europa Hotel in the Troubles

The Good Friday Agreement brought peace and reconciliation to the north of Ireland, contingent on the UK and the Irish Republic both being members of the EU. Let’s hope peace continues, despite the stupidity of the current batch of politicians. The DUP are now mad that the UK parliament has voted for equal marriage for same-sex couples and abortion rights for women to bring this corner of the UK into line with the rest of us. Who knows what will happen next?

Scotland

I’ve had several trips to Scotland, occasionally on business, but more often as a tourist. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. Scottish independence is certainly on the cards – I would certainly vote “yes” in the next independence referendum if I were fortunate enough to be Scottish – but I’m not. I have exactly as much say in Scotland’s independence as I do about who will be our next prime Minister: a hostage in my own land.

Independence Parade in Glasgow

My wife and I enjoyed our trip to Glasgow last autumn: a vibrant and interesting city. We’ll be travelling to one of the western isles later this year. We can check out the vibes in a beautiful part of our islands.

Scotland’s form of nationalism seems pretty progressive and social attitudes similarly so: much the same applies in Ireland, especially since Sinn Fein modernised its policies and adopted progressive attitudes to women’s rights and same-sex marriage. The English form of nationalism, by contrast, verges on fascism.

Wales

The Welsh are something of an enigma to me. We’ve recently returned from a week’s holiday in Snowdonia, a stunningly beautiful part of these lands. In the 30-35 years since my first visit, I notice an increase in the prominence of – and perhaps pride in – the Welsh language. Recent opinion polls show a clear lead for Remain, in contrast to the 2016 result in Wales. Perhaps the message about all that European Regional Development Fund money is finally breaking through there.

Harlech Castle

England

Which just leaves the fucking English – of which I am one. Ah… England, land of inequality and lack of opportunity for most. The near certainty of yet another old Etonian as Prime Minister. The near certainty that he will be the third person in a row to earn the distinction “Worst PM in my lifetime”. What on earth is the matter with us?

A Deprived Bit of England

A small consolation prize: the thug Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is in jail. Good! What’s this? His 12th criminal conviction, I think.

England v Ireland

All of this leaves me to ponder on one thought: the contrast between England and Ireland over the last 30-40 years. During this time, Ireland has progressed beyond all recognition: from a backward, relatively poor theocracy to a modern, inclusive forward-looking democracy. (Not perfect, by any means, but stupendous progress has been made in a relatively short time.)

England, by contrast, seems to be regressing into a divided, hateful, intolerant and bigoted place. Honourable exceptions are the cities: London, Cambridge and Oxford spring to mind – prompting accusations of elitism from me, of course. Sadiq Khan seems a breath of fresh air as Mayor of London after the embarrassment of his predecessor and his ludicrous vanity projects.

So why is there such a contrast between Ireland’s and England’s progress to modernity over the past three to four decades? Both countries joined the EU (EEC then) in the same year, 1973. I struggle to provide a convincing explanation.

Nostalgia and English Exceptionalism

A partial explanation lies in the phenomenon known as “English exceptionalism”. This seems to have been explicitly recognised and discussed only in the past few years – and especially as one of the explainers for the denialism and fantasies of many Leave supporters. A much longer-standing problem has been the whitewashing of our imperial past. It is only in the last decade or two that our education system has started to take a more critical and impartial view of the history of the British Empire. This means that anyone over the age of about forty was told by the state (i.e. at school) a wholly one-sided version of the imperial story.

The mix is made more toxic by a strange nostalgia for the second World War and “plucky Britain’s” survival of the blitz. Historian David Olugosa, writing in today’s Observer, makes an interesting, and much overlooked, point. Those old enough to have actually been alive during WWII and who saw the suffering first-hand, were “far more likely to oppose Brexit” than baby-boomers. (More details are available at this LSE British Politics and Policy blog post.) Olugosa describes my generation as “brought up watching war films rather than cowering in Anderson shelters”. One of my schooldays memories is that the climax of the school’s Film Club season one year was a showing of the film Dambusters – all stiff upper lips, bouncing bombs and militaristic music.

The Dam Busters

It seems that, unfortunately for those of us who voted remain, that 2016 was exactly the worst time to hold a simplistic “in/out” EU referendum. Yet this still does not fully explain why the English of a certain age are uniquely prone to this stuff. The Republic of Ireland, of course, was officially neutral during the war: does this sufficiently explain the difference? Or is it somehow bound up the English class system? Any ideas?

 

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Boys Only

I was educated, from age 11 to 18, in a single-sex school. To make matters worse, my student days were at a single-sex college at a university where male students outnumbered female students by 7 to 1. So I spent my teens and the first part of my twenties in an environment where girls / women were hard to meet.

A 2015 post, First Doubts, touches on the fact that, in these formative years, I consider myself to have been a shy person. I leave it to those who know me to decide how well, or not, I have managed to overcome this problem in the following fifty years.

Why do I mention this now? Well, two recent news items (of which more below) prompted me to have some reflective thoughts on the psychological effects of single-sex education. The two stories both concern men who attended single-sex schools: Mark Field and Boris Johnson. Both Tory MPs: Field a minister (until he was suspended) and Johnson a backbencher (since he left the Cabinet). One a candidate for our future Prime Minister; both behaving in a misogynistic way.

The Mansion House Incident

The video of the incident involving Greenpeace activist Janet Barker and (suspended) minister Mark Field has been widely shared on social media. Here’s one link:

Predictably – and sadly – the incident has already divided opinion. There are those (almost exclusively in the Tory Party and its media supporters) who take the view that Barker got what she deserved. The rest of us, me included, see this is a wholly disproportionate reaction by a privileged white man to a peaceful (but disruptive) interruption to proceedings. It’s clear from the video that Field stays angry all the time he’s gripping Barker’s neck and pushing her out of the building. This is despite Barker’s repeated  statement: “This is a peaceful protest”. Field’s final words when had pushed Barker out of the building are telling: “This is what happens when people like you disturb our dinner.” (My emphasis.)

People like you. We can all speculate as to what exactly Field meant by this. I’m sure that, in part, he meant “people who do not share my views”: the whole anger shtick at the audacity of people who challenge his rich, white, male privileged position. But there’s more than a suspicion that “people like you” also refers to women; women who do not know their place.

One thing’s for sure: a thug wearing a black tie is still a thug.

The Screaming, Shouting and Banging in Carrie Symonds’ Flat

Which leads us naturally to incident number two and Boris Johnson. (Carrie Symonds is Johnson’s current girlfriend, apparently.) Shortly after midnight last Friday, police were called to the flat where Johnson is living with Symonds. The police left after satisfying themselves that no-one in the flat was in danger.

The neighbour’s concern followed loud noises of screaming, shouting and the smashing of glass or crockery. Symonds was heard to shout “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. It came as absolutely no surprise to hear that Symonds had also yelled “You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything.” The British public have a legitimate interest in the moral character of anyone standing to be our next Prime Minister.

True to form, three tabloid newspapers went into full attempts at character assassination of the neighbour who had recorded the altercation. Here’s an example from the Daily Mail in one of their full-throated “make the lives hell for ordinary people exposing inconvenient truths” mode. “Guardianista” seems to be a term of abuse for Mail journalists: it feels like a particularly puerile and infantile turn of phrase to me.

The neighbours were concerned for the safety of those involved after three tries to speak to the occupants and getting no reply at their front door. It subsequently emerged that three neighbours were concerned about the safety of the occupants.

Johnson’s private life is of no particular interest to me nor is it, per se, for judging his suitability for high office. But his character, and anything which throws light on this, is of serious public concern. Oh, and a “private” life that is so loud that it can be heard by three sets of neighbours in the small hours of the morning doesn’t seem to be so very private. What it reveals about Johnson’s attitude to women is also relevant – and disturbing.

False Victimhood

Today’s tabloids, in search of a lurid headline, are pursuing the Johnson “complicated sex life” angle. Speculation is rife. The Daily Mirror asserts “Boris ‘wants to get back with his wife’”.  The Mail says the opposite: “Despite bust-up, couple insist: We are stronger than ever”. Meanwhile, the Sun reveals “Boris and Carrie had 4 rows in 6 weeks”. Other papers concentrate on the “pressure to come clean” aspect. Taken together, it presents Johnson with an opportunity to play the victim: he’s being criticised for matters in his private life, poor dear.

Some of us are old enough to remember the scandal of John Profumo and Mandy Rice-Davies, where an out-of-control sex life threatened national security. But those were different times. Perhaps, on this occasion only, the last word should go to his former boss Max Hastings, who states that Johnson is “totally unfit” for office.

So What?

What do I conclude from these two very different incidents? Well, both illustrate the anger which is aroused in people like them who carry round with them an unswerving sense of their own entitlement. In that respect, they come from a very different upbringing from me. In retrospect, I feel that my “boys only” education meant that my teens and early twenties were, perhaps, a bit less exciting than they might have been. But I hold a strong suspicion that, for Field and Johnson, their single-sex education is a factor in their misogynistic attitude towards women.

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Zombies

I’ve taken a bit of a liking to the quirky comedy series What We Do in the Shadows. An inept group of zombies have taken over two streets in Staten Island, New York and seem a bit confused how to complete the zombie takeover of the whole of America. Or something like that.

Zombies alert!

To quote a former Tory Party leader: “Remind you of anyone?”

Well, yes, actually. And they look like this:

Horror Show

There’s one big difference, however. What We Do in the Shadows is played for laughs. What the second group of undead are playing is deadly serious.

Car Boot Hostage

Zombies taking control is bad enough. But the sheer helplessness of the majority of us who have no say in who will be our next prime Minister is far, far worse. I can do no better than quote this tweet from Tom Freeman: “I miss the days when Tory leadership elections were something I’d watch with half-amused anthropological curiosity rather than the horror of the abductee trapped in the back of the van.” Tom sounds like a man after my own heart.

The 99.8% with no vote

Rocky Horror Show

There have been many political commentators who have analysed the field of candidates in some detail. So I shall not do that. Suffice it to say that all ten want the UK to leave the EU, in varying degrees of extremist catastophe. A couple seem prepared to accept a further delay if that would help negotiations and a smoother exit. The rest say variations on the theme “31st October, dead or alive”. A couple have a simple solution to the lack of Parliamentary majority for Leave: make sure MPs don’t get a chance to vote before the end of October. In other words, suspend democracy in the interests of “the people”, i.e. the 52% of voters who voted Leave 3 years ago.

We have until the end of next month for this horror show to play itself out.

Little House of Horrors

The Conservative Party once saw itself as the party of business and the “natural Party of government”.  It has turned into a real monster: one that thinks “fuck business” and has given up all pretence of responsible government. The trouble is, it keeps feeding the monster and the monster keeps growing and needs more feeding. With the Tory Party in thrall to Mr Slime and the risk of his disciples becoming minority-vote MPs thanks to FPTP voting, the House of Commons could become a House of Horrors.

At the risk of repetition: “Remind you of anyone?”

The Tory-eating Monster

Nightmare on Downing Street

Maybe we’ll awake on 23rd July and find it was all a dream…
Or maybe it will end like this: he bears a frightening resemblance to Dominic Raab, don’t you think?

Our next PM?

Aaaaaagh!

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