Thursday, 31 May 2012

Flaming Olympics

The Olympic torch is travelling through Cheshire and Lancashire today. It will be back in the North West at the end of next month, passing through Salford and Manchester.

You can draw up a pretty lengthy charge sheet against the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee has long been associated with corruption and was led for many years by a Spanish fascist, Juan Antonio Samaranch. The 1936 Berlin Olympics - the first with a torch relay - became a propaganda event for the Nazis. The 1968 Games in Mexico City went ahead after the army had massacred hundreds of students protesting against them.

The build up to the London Olympics has already seen the "social cleansing" of working-class tenants, homeless people and sex workers from surrounding boroughs, restrictions on protesting near the stadium and the now standard corporate control of ticket allocation, merchandise and refreshments.

In itself, though, there is nothing wrong with the idea of an international event bringing together athletes and other sportsmen and women from across the world to compete. The participants themselves are not responsible for the actions of the IOC or host countries - indeed, many of them may oppose them and, in one inspiring example, used the medal podium to signal their opposition to racism and poverty.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

How's that spelt?

According to a study of children's writing by the Oxford University Press, young people are increasingly using American words.

I'm not that bothered about American words being used - it's pretty much inevitable given the influence of film, TV and music. What puzzles me is the seemingly recent spread of American spellings such as "city center" and "TV program". Where has it come from and why now? You can't even blame it on Australian soap operas as you can with uptalking.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

A right Royal do

Ahead of the Diamond Jubilee weekend, republicans like myself are having to withstand the tide of royalist propaganda and merchandise rolling over us.

I can understand the royalist hoopla on a number of levels: people who don't really care about the Jubilee but see it as an opportunity for a party; those who see it as a community thing that it would be churlish not to take part it; the idea that royalty is part of Britain's national identity in the same way as football, a cup of tea or a pint of beer. The Royal Family has also become a soap opera, its members part of a hollow celebrity culture. For shops and other businesses, the Jubilee is simply a means to increase sales, no different from the World Cup or X Factor.

What I really can't understand are the royalist fanatics who plaster every inch of their homes in tat and, like the cafe owner in County Durham, have no time for republican dissent.  That kind of delusion is on a par with people who think they're Napoleon.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Magic in Manchester

I was at the City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday for the Rugby League Magic Weekend, the annual event that sees a full round of League fixtures played at the same ground.

The Magic Weekend has I suppose two aims: attracting new fans to the game by playing matches in a city without a rugby league team and also giving supporters the chance to spend the weekend together there.  I'm not sure how well this year's event did on the former as most of the thirty thousand crowd were clearly there to support their team although I did see a few people wearing Manchester City shirts who had presumably bought the discounted tickets the club were offering to season ticket holders.

There are obvious benefits to the host city in terms of hotel rooms and, if the pub I went to after the game is anything to go by, increased alcohol sales. It also helped that Manchester was untypically sunny this weekend.

I'm not keen on the silly names now attached to rugby league teams and I can take or leave the US-style razzmatazz of cheerleaders and fireworks. The speed, skill and physical contact is what will attract new fans to the game and the Rugby Football League should take credit for giving them the opportunity to see it.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Up the republic

A poll published today shows that sixty-nine per cent of people in Britain support the monarchy, the highest level for over a decade. Apparently, support for the monarchy remains solid across the country and social classes.

It's hardly surprising that support for the monarchy has risen in the run up to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee given the round the clock pushing of it on TV, in the press and by supermarkets and other retailers.  As a republican, I'm actually quite heartened that only just over two-thirds of people still support the monarchy. I would guess it was much higher at the time of the 1977 Jubilee and pretty much universal at the coronation in 1953.

The democratic case for abolishing the monarchy is unanswerable which is why defenders of the instituion never argue that inherited power and privilege is democratic but rather base themselves on flimsy arguments about "stability" and tourist income.

Tom Paine put it well in the revolutionary year of 1776:

"To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.

Secondly, as no man at first could possess any other public honours than were bestowed upon him, so the givers of those honours could have no power to give away the right of posterity. And though they might say, "We chooses you for our head," they could not, without manifest injustice to their children, say, "that your children and your children's children shall reign over ours for ever." Because such an unwise, unjust, unnatural compact might (perhaps) in the next succession put them under the government of a rogue or a fool. Most wise men, in their private sentiments, have ever treated hereditary right with contempt; yet it is one of those evils, which when once established is not easily removed; many submit from fear, others from superstition, and the more powerful part shares with the king the plunder of the rest."

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Joey, Joey (apologies to Bob Dylan)

The Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton has been banned for twelve matches and fined £75,000 by the Football Association after he elbowed a player and then kicked another as he was sent off in the team's last game of the season at Manchester City.

Barton has a long disciplinary and criminal record, having been convicted of assaulting a teammate when he was a City player and subsequently jailed for attacking a teenager on a night out in his native Liverpool.  The FA decision though states that the length of his ban is because "such behaviour tarnishes the image of football in this country, particularly as this match was the pinnacle of the domestic season and watched by millions around the globe."

This is the same thinking as that of the magistrate who tried to jail Eric Cantona for kicking a racist Crystal Palace fan in 1995 because she said he was a "role model". Players should be judged on their actions, not where they happened or who was watching. Barton's ban should be no longer than a player in a meaningless end of season lower division game in front of a few hundred fans would get for the same offence.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

It's for charity

There's been some adverse comment following the news that people chosen to carry the Olympic flame around Britain have sold their torches on eBay.  Those who have spoken to the media have defended their actions by saying that they only did so in order to raise money for charity.

It seems that not only does doing something for charity let you off the hook but that doing something not for charity is now seen as suspect. Take the London marathon.  It started thirty or so years ago as a sports event. It is now a fundraising event. TV reporters stopping runners now routinely ask them "who are you running for?" At this year's event, one guy replied "for myself, just for fun" and was swiftly dismissed.

It reminds me of the story Doc tells in Cannery Row by John Steinbeck about how as a student he walked from Chicago to Florida just to see the country. Along the way, he told people what he was doing. They were suspicious and unwelcoming until he lied and said he was doing it for a bet at which point they invited him in for a meal.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't do things for charity if they want, just that they shouldn't feel that they have to either.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Unfiltered in Franconia

Ahead of my trip to Franconia in a few weeks, I've been reading up about the beers there.

Ron at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins has rightly poked fun at the attempt by RateBeer to divide unfiltered Franconian beers into sub-categories based on flavour and colour rather than how they're produced and served. I'm still not sure though what the difference - if any - is between Kellerbier, Ungespundetes and Zwickelbier.  I'm sure a few days research in Franconia will provide the answer.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Gay marriage: a simple solution

The Archbishop of York has added his voice to that of the Catholic hierarchy in opposing gay marriage. In an article in The Guardian, John Sentamu argues - without really saying why - that allowing gay marriage would undermine marriages between men and women. The Catholic Church has been circulating petitions against gay marriage at Masses and in its secondary schools.

Unlike in America, Britain does not have a large body of religious people opposed to gay marriage - most Catholics are not whatever their Church says and circulating petitions against it in schools had led to protests by Catholic teenagers. What the resistance to gay marriage by the Catholic Church and Church of England really signifies is a "long, withdrawing roar" of people who know they no longer have the grip on society they once did.

The root of the issue in England is the intertwining of religious and civil marriage with Anglican vicars, Catholic priests and other ministers conducting ceremonies that combine the two. The answer is to separate them, as happens in many (religious) countries like France and Egypt so people can choose to have a civil marriage, a religious one or both. Everyone could have a civil marriage and it would be up to religious who could have a religious one, with the more enlightened Christians like the Quakers and Unitarians presumably marrying any couple, as they already do with civil parterships.

Separating civil and religious marriage would also probably also involve disestablishing the Church of England, a big step towards a secular society which would also allow Anglicans rather than politicians to control their church.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Ain't that good news?

Imagine you went to the factory where you worked one day and the boss told you that it might be closing. You'd be understandbly concerned. If, after a few months of uncertainty, the boss told you that it wouldn't be closing but he'd be cutting your pay and other conditions, you might be relieved to still have a job but hardly feel like cracking open the champagne.

That's exactly what's happened at the Vauxhall car plant in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. But politicians from all the main parties have been falling over themselves to hail the decision by General Motors to build its new Astra there in return fot the workers and their union Unite agreeing to a four year pay deal, starting with a two year pay freeze, and more "flexibility" over shift patterns and other conditions as a "victory for Britain".

The other factory in the running to build the new Astra was the Opel plant in Bochum, Germany, now threatened with closure. Presumably the workers there weren't cheap or "flexible" enough. Clearly General Motors had already decided to close a factory in Europe and used the opportunity to play off British and German workers and cut the pay and conditions at the one that they kept open. I'm sure they'd claim that it was necessary to do so in order to keep the factory open but I doubt very much that GM's top executives or shareholders are taking cuts to their pay or dividends.

All this underlines the need for trade union co-operation and solidarity across Europe. Imagine what would have happened if the workers in Britain and Germany had told GM that they weren't prepared to swap their pay and conditions for their jobs and would strike if it shut either factory.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Football's foreign legion

The news that Kenny Dalglish has been sacked as Liverpool manager by the Boston-based Fenway Sports Group, owners of the Red Sox baseball team, got me thinking about the ownership of Premier League football clubs. As far as I can see, only three top-flight English clubs - Bolton, Everton and Stoke - are now owned by people who have been lifelong fans of the teams.

Some people argue that businessmen have already owned football teams and don't see it as a problem that the new generation of owners live in Abu Dhabi, Miami or Missouri as long as the money keeps rolling in. The difference though is that the people who owned football clubs in the past - the Edwards at Manchester United, the Hill-Woods at Arsenal - were businessmen AND fans. They were susceptible to pressure from fans over ticket prices, player transfers and managerial appointments in a way that people in boardrooms thousands of miles away for whom the club is just one part of a sports empire will never be.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Back to the 80's with Dexys

The line-up of Later with Jools Holland last night included Dexys, the reformed Dexys Midnight Runners.

Along with Madness, Dexys Midnight Runners was one of the bands I listened to quite a bit in the early 80's. I suppose it was the fact that - like teenagers who listened to rock and roll in the 50's - I enjoyed the traces of the music's roots without at first knowing what they were. Dexys Midnight Runners combined Irish folk with black American music, a hybrid dubbed "Celtic soul". Madness on the other hand based their sound on Jamaican ska and, like the Rolling Stones with Muddy Waters, named themselves after a song by their musical hero, Prince Buster.

Dexys' lead singer Kevin Rowlands has struggled with drug addiction and financial problems in the years since the group's heyday so it was good to see him back on TV last night, transporting me back to those days with Come On Eileen.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The price of beer (again)

The Scottish Government yesterday introduced a minimum price for alcohol of fifty pence per unit, equivalent to a pound for a pint of ordinary strength beer. As we all know, the actual price of a pint is between two and four times that depending on where you are drinking.

The Scottish Government claims that minimum pricing will help tackle the country's alcoholism problem but I just can't see it working out like that. Poor people who have a drink problem will scrape together the extra cash somehow for cider and fortified wine and better off alcoholics won't even notice because the wine and spirits they drink are unlikely to be affected anyway.

You could of course argue that the UK Government is already using minimum pricing by placing a high level of tax and duty on alcohol. And if we can have minimum prices, why can't we have maximum prices too, say twice the mimimum. That would work out at two pounds a pint, about what it should be if you take off the tax and duty.

On tax and alcohol duty, the Goverment line seems to have changed. New Labour ministers claimed ridculously that raising it was the only way to stop binge drinking. Now, according to the Treasury, alcohol duty has to go up to help cut the deficit. So the message to patriotic Britons is clear: drink more beer!

Death in Derby

A sixth child has died following a house fire in Derby last week.

The head of the household, Mick Philpott, has been the subject of media attention in the last couple of years for being an unemployed father of fifteen children with his wife and girlfriend and has appeared on cheap - in both senses of the word - TV programmes fronted by the odious Jeremy Kyle and Ann Widdecombe.

Whatever you think of Philpott's lifestyle and what it says about the benefits and education systems, it cannot be right that eight people, including six children, were living in a three bedroom semi-detached house. It seems that the family had been on Derby council's waiting list for rehousing for some time.

The Government's decision to cap housing benefit can only lead to more situations where families are living in overcrowded housing, especially in London with its sky-high rents, and more firefighters facing the grim task their colleagues in Derby experienced last week.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Private school prattle

The Education Secretary Michael Gove yesterday made a speech to heads of private schools in which he argued that the dominance of privately-educated people such as himself in business, politics, journalism and TV is a problem.

If he were serious about tackling the problem, there is a lot he could do. Most of it would not even need new legislation, such as ending the charitable status of private schools and setting quotas for privately-educated pupils in university admissions equivalent to the percentage of school students they represent (around 7% , compared to a third now and rising to nearly half in top universities).

Of course, Gove will do none of those things, pushing ahead instead with more state-funded but privately-run Academies and "free schools" that may get a few bright working-class kids to Oxbridge but will increase rather than narrow the gap between rich and poor in education.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Green beer

This news story about a town in Massachusetts that is attempting - quite rightly - to ban bottled water got me thinking about the environmental impact of my favourite water-based drink, beer.

There are two ways beer can impact on the environment, how it's produced and how it's distributed.  Homebrewing is I guess the greenest method of producing beer and also of course the oldest. In England, the only thing the Anglo-Saxon alewife may have done that had any environmental effect was to light a fire to dry the malt. The Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century obviously transformed brewing with the use of coal-driven steam power.

Cask beer still has an environmental edge on industrially produced lagers and keg beers though, both in the lack of chemicals used in its production and the fact that it's usually transported over shorter distances than the tankers full of Guinness or Carling. The ideal method would probably be that used by Youngs in South London for many years, beer in wooden casks delivered by a horse-drawn dray.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A talent for language

Last night on Channel 4, Hidden Talent looked at how people learn languages. It's something I've been interested in since studying theories of language acquisition as part of a teaching course at Manchester College of Arts and Technology in the mid-90's.

I broadly agree with those - including Chomsky, Krashen and Pinker - that humans have an innate abilty to learn languages ("Language Acquisition Device") and that the key to doing so is exposure to a level of language just beyond what you understand ("comprehensible input", or i+1, in linguistic jargon).

The programme touched on some of the issues around language acquistion. Learning a foreign language is not the same as learning your first one but there are some shared features such as being motivated to learn (a "low input filter"), not afraid to make mistakes (a "low output filter") and prepared for the the "unexpected answer", for example: "Which way is it to the town centre?", "I'm sorry, I'm not from here."

A lot of what they argue rings true to me. I studied German to A Level but only went to Germany for the first time three years ago. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly things I thought I'd forgotten came back, my increased fluency after a few days/beers and the increased friendliness of people when you speak their language, despite or even because of a few grammatical errors.

The Channel 4 programme was moving at another level. The person chosen as a guinea pig was a young homeless guy living in a hostel who had dropped out of college and become estranged from his family. In the process of learning Arabic (referred to strangely by the programme makers as "one of the world's most complex languages"), he travelled to Jordan, where after a few weeks he was fluent enough to do a live TV interview, and also was reconciled with family. You could argue - and I would - that most people exposed to a language for a lengthy period will learn it but even so his was still an impressive achievement.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Mission impossible?

The Association of Catholic Priests, an unofficial grassroots group of Irish clergy, met in Dublin yesterday to call for reform of the Church, specifically married priests, the ordination of women and the election of bishops.

A married clergy is not impossible, but unlikely with the current Pope. The Eastern Catholic churches have married priests and there have also been papal dispensations for married Anglican clergy opposed to women's ordination to become Catholic priests in the last decade. The ordination of women is much harder to imagine given the theological questions it would open up, not least among the ex-Anglicans who have joined the Church over this very issue.

It is the election of bishops though that really is a bridge too far for the Vatican. The Catholic Church has been accurately described as a fragment of the bureaucracy of the late Roman empire that has floated down through the centuries intact. It's not clear who would elect bishops - clergy? laity? - but whoever it was it would subvert the whole basis of the Church, which teaches that the Pope, as the bishop of Rome, is divinley appointed. The conclave of cardinals that elects a Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit to choose the man who then becomes Christ's representative on Earth.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Where did Saturday go?

The Premier League has opened the bidding on the rights to broadcast live football for 2013-16. The broadcasters awarded contracts to show Premier League football will get an extra sixteen matches, bringing the number up to 154 matches or forty per cent of the total. 

None of those matches will be shown at three o'clock on a Saturday, another blow to the traditional kick-off time. And while Sunderland v Arsenal or Spurs v Newcastle at 12.30 p.m. might be a travel problem for away fans, late morning here is of course mid-afternoon to early evening in massive target audiences for the Premier League's marketing department like the Gulf, Russia, India and the Far East.

At least the Premier League is seen by the FA as one of its main assets. For the second year in a row, the FA Cup Final is being held early in the season alongside League matches. All the things you used to be able to say about it - played at three o'clock on the Saturday after the end at the season at Wembley in front of a hundred thousand fans - have been pushed aside in the last decade. You get the feeling that for the FA it's now like a bit of old furniture that doesn't really fit the trendy new colour scheme which they would love to throw in a skip if it wasn't for the fans' emotional attachment to it.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The curse of the Chargers?

Police in Southern California have discovered the body of former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau after he apparently killed himself with a gunshot to the chest.

The method of suicide is similar to that of Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson last February. Duerson left instructions that his brain be examined by a medical team at Boston University investigating Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain condition found in boxers, ice hockey players and American footballers who have received blows to the head.

Seau is also the eighth member of the 1994 San Diego Chargers Super Bowl team to die. Three of the other seven died in accidents but another four have died in their late thirties or early forties as the result of drug or heart problems. 

The premature deaths of so many apparently fit and relatively young men cannot be a coincidence. It demonstrates the dangers - eliminated or at least restricted in other sports - of allowing players in American football to bulk up (legally or illegally) and then clash heads with each other.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Catholic Church and children in care

A Scottish sheriff's inquiry in Paisley yesterday found that the deaths of two teenage girls who committed suicide jumping off a bridge could have been prevented if there had been more staff on duty at the care home where they lived and safety precautions had been taken.

Niamh Lafferty and Georgia Rowe died in October 2009 after absconding from the Good Shepherd unit in Bishopton, Renfrewshire. The home, now closed, was originally run by nuns before being taken over by a charity called the Cora Foundation, described by the Catholic Media Service at the time as "an Agency of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Scotland." The Good Shepherd home has since been the subject of allegations of physical abuse of the teenage girls sent there.

That the care of children has been transferred from local authorities to unelected and unacountable mangement boards is alarming enough — one of the trustees at the Good Shepherd home, ex-Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie has dismissed the scandal, remarking "Girls are going to abscond. That is just one of the predictable consequences of the challenged girls who go to the centre and the environment which the centre has to manage." —  but for them to be placed in the hands of the Catholic Church given its appalling record in this area is a sick joke.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

May Day

Today is International Workers' Day, also known as May Day.

In Britain, May Day conjures up images of rosy-cheeked rural labourers dancing round a May pole. And peversely, the public holiday to mark it rarely falls on the day itself: this year, it's on May 7th.

International Workers' Day commemorates the 1886 general strike in Chicago for a eight hour working day. In 1889, the first International Socialist Congress in Paris called for demonstrations to mark the day and it has been celebrated by workers across the world since.

May Day is above all a celebration of international working-class solidarity, irrespective of age, gender, colour or sexuality, a message summed up by the union organiser in John Sayles' 1987 film Matewan.