Friday, 4 October 2013

The Octopod menace

Anyone finding themselves upon one the major thoroughfares of leafy suburb Jesmond the other night may have seen a pony-tailed dark trenchcoated and becapped figure picking up small objects from the pavement.  What could it be?  A performing/fine arts student working on their latest project/happening?  Well, that would be the normal explanation for this part of Newcastle, but no, it was I.  And what was I picking up?  Well, conkers, obviously.

I have spoken of this before.  Basically, I was gathering conkers because last year I was told that they keep spiders away.  Now, I don’t know if this is true, but I certainly seemed to have less spider activity in my flat since putting down conkers last year in dusty corners and behind bookcases etc where the enemy foregathers.  It could be coincidental but given my problematic past relations with those malicious fly-eating arachnids (faults on their side only) any defence against them will be utilised.

And, rather brilliantly, unlike last year, this autumn has been good for conkers, or bad for conker gathering children, whichever, and so I have this time been able to gather a goodly number.  A very goodly number in fact.  Perhaps a few more than I actually need.

Never mind, the fact that I can barely move for conkers detracts from the possibility that their presence may spare my heart from one of those nerve-jangling octopedal forays across the carpet.

And that's a price worth paying, surely.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Witchcraft, a Human Right?

Good Lord, what on Earth has happened to the Tory party?  I mean to say, they were never a particularly pleasant grouping - a political philosophy based on fear, greed and snobbery tends to militate against that - but they at least had a robust toughness to them at one time.  Now they behave like, well, like over-privileged public schoolboys with an inaccurate assessment of their own intellect and competence.

I refer, of course, to the deeply embarrassing Government response to UN representative Raquel Rolnik’s summary of findings into her investigation of the consequences of the Governments Spare Bedroom Under Occupancy Penalty (aka the Bedroom Tax) policy.  Grant Shapps (as he’s calling himself this week) denounced the summary as being full of lies, but that was itself a lie.  The Daily Mail excelled itself by shifting from its 1930's blackshirt default setting to the 17th century and denounced Ms Rolnik as a witch.  No, honestly.  Check it out here.

The most noticeable thing about all this is the sheer lack of dignity.  Say what you like, but in the old days, the Conservatives at least could command a certain degree of gravitas.  But can you imagine Churchill or MacMillan coming up with such stuff?  Disreali?  From Cameron’s hissy-fit over Syria via Iain Duncan Smith’s crass lying and petulant attempts to blame anyone else for the conduct of the department he’s in charge of to this, it is a sad comedown for the party of Edmund Burke.  And yes, I am conscious of the curious irony of being somewhat nostalgic, on a conservative way, about the good old days of the old Tory Party.

Now, where did I put my ducking stool:

Friday, 6 September 2013

Folk Dancing - A Warning

So it’s been a while and among the stuff that’s been happening was a curious encounter with Morris dancers. 

Now I had never held particularly strong views on Morris dancers, unlike some.  I was happy enough that they’re about on bank holidays keeping the old folkways alive and making small children cry.  It pleased me that there is a serious schism in the Morris dancing world between those who see it their duty to keep the moves pure and exact to those written down a hundred and a bit years ago and those who believe that Morris dancing is a fluid living thing that moves with the times.  Bit like those interminable arguments about grammar.  And while I like folk music, a lot, I have never been tempted to get involved with all those sticks, bells and hankies.

My attitude has hardened.  Let me elucidate.

The time, a few months back, a Saturday.

The place, the pleasant if alarmingly well-off Thames side town of Abingdon.  To be precise, a pub at lunch-time. 

We were meeting people and had scouted out places for lunch and this seemed pleasant with a cobbled courtyard and extensive and not too, for Abingdon, expensive a menu.  But when we returned, we found it filled with Morris dancers.

It seemed that there was some get-together going on and so every Morris dancer in the South had descended on Abingdon, and then onto this pub for lunch.  Well, we weren’t in a hurry and were hungry and hey, they were only Morris dancers.  It would be fun.

Now it turns out that there are two things we did not know about Morris dancers.  The first is that – like toddlers – they are constantly restless, always moving and, unless gently persuaded otherwise, liable to start hitting each other with sticks.  They also have no volume control.  If two Morris dancers meet for the first time in a year, they do not shake hands or hug and talk wryly about time passing or the snows of yesterday.  No.  What they do is stand at either end of a pub lounge and shout to each other with that dispiriting heartiness. that middle class and middle aged men with beards and pot bellies like to indulge in.

The other thing concerns the thing we all do know about Morris dancers.  They wear bells on their trousers.  But what only becomes apparent if you are in a pub full of Morris dancers who never stop wandering around the place, is that these bells are loud.  Very loud.  Very very loud.  If you would care to think of a loud thing, they are louder.  The practical upshot of which was that every time one walked past our table, all conversation was completely drowned out.  And as aforementioned, walking around is what Morris dancers like best after dancing, hitting each other and shouting.

At first I was inclined to be charitable.  They’re having fun, it’s better than loud sports commentary or those fruit machines that unexpectedly explode into noise just as someone is finishing their story, even Morris dancers may take their luncheon.  Then I noticed that the bells were not, as I had supposed, sewn onto their trousers but were in fact attached to a sort of mini cricket pad which was attached to the leg with Velcro.  In other words, it would have been a matter of a moment for the dancers to remove their bells and so make do with shouting at each other.  But no.  The bells had to stay on despite the genuinely surprising noise level they produced.  My charity died as swiftly as it does when I see a chugger approaching.

Still, like the Ring Cycle, it had to end some day and they departed to return to their primary task of boring adults and scaring children, leaving us in what can only be described as suffering from serious bellshock.

And that is why I will never again gaze upon a Morris dancer with kindness in my eye.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Morality of Political Opportunism

When something appalling happens there is often a rush to find an explanation, something nice and easy that will return life to normal.  Thus the murderers of Jamie Bulger were driven to it by watching violent horror films, as was Michael Ryan who committed the Hungerford massacre.  Rapes are caused by the victim wearing short skirts and tight tops and entering dangerous situations.  Muggings by being in that part of town at that time of night.  

And a father kills his children because of the welfare state.

I have never been so pleased that I have never voted conservative or bought a copy of The Daily Mail or so ashamed of being English as I have been this week what with first the Mail, then closely after the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, stating and hinting that the reason Mick Philpott killed six of his children is because of the welfare state.  Let us be clear about this.  This is what they have said.  They have maintained that those children are dead and died horrifically because of child benefit.  They are, of course, wrong.  Those children are dead because an evil man set fire to their home as part of a custody dispute.  To use this as an argument against the welfare state is like using the Fred West murders as an argument against cowboy builders*.

*And if you find that essay into black humour inappropriate, then kindly consider the inappropriateness of using dead children as political ammunition

I note that some commentators are trying to distance themselves from this.  They are trying to claim that these killings highlight, in some way, issues about welfare payments.  But that is not what was said.  The Daily Mail stated and Osborne and Cameron hinted that there is a causal link between these deaths and the benefits system.  Do you get child benefit?  Then you’re a danger to your children.  What they have said is as simple as that.  Do they believe it?  Apparently not.  But they said it and therefore they can only have done so to shore up a political argument.

Think about it.  Consider it.  Be appalled at what has happened to us.  This dreadful tragedy occurs and the reaction is to use it as a way to popularise a controversial political policy.  Then wonder at the moral corruption that allows it.  It is truly despicable.  Those who looked to use the bombing of the Twin Towers as an opportunity to criticise the foreign policy of the USA were rightly excoriated.  So must those who do the same with this case.

It is sad that the right wing of this country has fallen into such moral depravity as to use the killing of children to make cheap political points but it is the case and anyone right of centre has the burden upon them to reverse this.  If you buy The Daily Mail you are complicit.  If you intend to vote Tory and have not contacted your MP/local party to complain about this behaviour you are complicit.

And may God forgive you.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Fighting Back: the Newcastle Labour Party Way

So back to the Civic Centre to view Newcastle’s Labour led council debate the budget which will, inter alia, close down a number of branch libraries and a couple of respite care homes, Newcastle City Pool and Turkish Baths.  As you may remember, I attended a previous meeting as recounted here.

Unable to get into the public gallery this time, I watched from the Banqueting Hall where a video link had been established.  This did actually have its advantages.  The camera not only showed the person speaking but the one behind them as well and so we were cheered by the sight of a tory councillor apparently spending the entire evening when not actually speaking engrossed in a book.  A labour councillor at one point seemed to receive what was, from his expression, disconcertingly odd news by text.  But that is by-the-by.

So what did we learn this time?  Well, the labour councillors are still blaming everyone else for all this but at least this time they are angry at what the Government wants them to do.  They are very angry.  They are incandescent with fury.  They are so angry that they are going to…

…do exactly what they’ve been told to and a bit more.

This is a new approach to defiance that had not previously occurred to me.  It would certainly have made the film 300 shorter (and world history probably somewhat different) if Leonidas and his Spartans had defied Xerxes and the Persian horde by escorting them into Greece, possibly waiting for them at Thermopylae holding up a little sign reading ‘Xerxes/Persians’.

NB That last picture is of Councillor Nick Forbes, the council leader.  The joke doesn’t really work if you don’t know that.*

*nor if its not actually funny.  Yes all right, pedants

When the labour councillors were not being angry, they were being sad.  One was so sad she was dressed in black, because she was in mourning for what she had to do you see, as she explained to us.  In fact she was so sad that she burst into tears.  Now I’m sure the gesture was well-meant and that the tears were genuine, but the harsh fact is that in politics gestures and tears are meaningless without action.

It was not all bad news.  The two respite care centres in Heaton have apparently been saved and that is brilliant, no question.  Unfortunately, at least two councillors (including Forbes) decided to sneer at us who had been campaigning for the libraries for, as they hinted heavily, putting our luvvie interests and hobbies over the plight of desperate children and their carers.

Now as someone who has extensive personal knowledge of the importance of respite care I could start announcing loudly how upset I am, how insulting such insinuations are to me, how callous etc etc.  I could even start crying.  But I won’t.  I just sigh and wish for an opportunity to tell these two councillors that the reason politicians are held in contempt is because they behave contemptibly.

The debate lasted for over four hours and labour councillor after labour councillor stood up to denounce the Coalition and, occasionally, us.  Then, at twenty to eleven on Wednesday the 6th of March 2013 the budget proposals were approved in their entirety and a labour council settled back to do the Government’s work for it.

Actually, I lied.

I really could weep.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Wearisome Writer

Terry ‘dreary’ Deary is in the news at the moment having made a number of remarkably stupid comments about libraries. 

He’s now in a sulk because he’s been called on them and seems to be backtracking a bit.

I’ve had my eye on that one for a while, ever since I discovered that he’s a Shakespeare sceptic – he reckons Will was too lower class to be a good playwright and thinks the plays were written by Christopher Marlowe after faking his own murder because that is so much more probable.  It’s all there in The Slimy Stuarts volume of the Horrible Histories.  My distaste for him deepened when I found out that when he was invited to open a local museum, he gracelessly gave a speech about how boring museums are.

It is of course because of the Horrible Histories that Deary’s pathetic pronouncements are news.  I have read a good few of them and, apart from the Shakespeare scepticism, liked them.  I enjoy the TV series as well – not least because Deary’s involvement is restricted to an occasional cameo.  However, there is a forgotten figure in all this.  One who I think is a major factor in the success of the books.  That is the illustrator.  He’s called Martin Brown
and the books would not work nearly as well without his contributions.

I do hope he gets a percentage of the royalties.

So, boo to Deary who stands revealed as the little bore we all avoid in the pub and here’s to Martin Brown and the makers, writers and performers of the TV series.

Let’s finish on a song:

Friday, 8 February 2013

Think locally, act noisily

Well that, unlike a Steven Poliakoff television series, was interesting.  A couple of nights ago I found myself at a council meeting for the first time. For why?  Well, a public petition against the library closures here in Newcastle had gathered over 2, 500 signatures thereby automatically triggering a debate in the chamber.  Now as a signatory of that and specific library petitions and as someone who, as my facebook friends are glumly aware, is keen on keeping libraries open, I thought I might attend.

It turned out I was not alone.

Now, it has often been pointed out that Newcastle Civic Centre bears a certain resemblance to a James Bond Villain Lair from the ‘60s

and I will not argue with that.  However, while James Bond Villain Lairs always seem to have plenty of space for minions, tanks of piranhas, rockets and, on one occasion, two nuclear submarines, the Newcastle Council Chamber has a surprisingly small public gallery.  Say fitting about fifty to sixty people. 

This turned out to be awkward as rather more turned up.  Say about one hundred.*

*And before anyone starts saying ‘that’s not very many’, may I point out that this was at 6 o’clock on a bitterly cold February evening and was also more than the original architects had ever planned for

Well, by virtue of being near the front, I got in but about forty to fifty people were left in the stairwell.  I offered to stand leaning against the wall but was firmly told by an official that I could not.  I asked why but answer came there none.  It was also apparent that there were empty seats at the back of the chamber, on the same level as the councillors.  At first we were told that they were for the disabled only until it was pointed out that there were abled people sitting there as well.  We were then told that it was a Health & Safety issue which does rather raise the question that if there is a strict H&S limit on the number of people allowed on the chamber floor, why has seating been provided for an unsafe number?  Mayhaps the council decides its postings by dint of musical chairs and so need a few maneuverable seats for the purpose?  I would not like to ask.

So it was, by the time the first of the public petitions were due to be debated, many of the people who wanted to hear could not get in.  One chap voiced his objections strongly, pointing out that there were forty people who couldn’t get in.  The Mayor, who was chairing the meeting, told him to be quiet.  He objected again and was again told to be quiet.  Now other members of the public began to shout queries about why couldn’t people use the chairs downstairs and despite being the Mayor telling us very firmly that this was not acceptable, the shouts continued.

So she ordered that the public gallery be cleared.

Nothing happened.

So she ordered it again.  Again, no one moved.  The couple of officials who were on the scene looked unhappy and I found myself trying to remember passive resistance techniques.  Sadly my dreams of being the new Rosa Parks were dashed when the Mayor then announced that the meeting was adjourned.

Then I booed.

I booed the Lord Mayor of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne.

For someone brought up on Trumpton, I’m still having difficulty processing this. 

In my defence though, I doubt the Mayor of Trumpton would have handled the meeting with such maladroitness.

Anyway, after about ten minutes, the meeting was opened again with a few people allowed to sit in the mysteriously unnecessary chairs on the chamber floor.  The Mayor gave us in the gallery a breathtakingly patronising and condescending ticking off for our appalling behaviour earlier.  We were naughty naughty members of the public and she was not going to put up with our shenanigans.  If I hadn’t still been in middle class culture shock for the boo, I’d have been tempted to make one of those sarcastic ‘whooo’ noises that teenagers do.  The chap who started it all off continued shouting that there were still people who could not get in and why could we not move to the banqueting hall which, apparently, has plenty of space.  He was told to shut up, then ignored and was finally persuaded away by an official.

Finally we got to the public petitions, the reason for the debate, the reason why the debate was happening and why so many people had turned up.

There were (and I can’t get hold of any official details of the meeting so forgive me if I’ve got this wrong) five of them.  Now, each one had to get a minimum of 2, 500 signatures to spark the debate.  So, that means an absolute minimum of  12, 500 signatures.  Even if you allow for a massive amount of duplicate signatures and casual signatures (‘yeah sure mate I’ll sign’) that is a lot of people.  Did it not occur to anyone that a fair number of those signatories might turn up for the debate?  By the reaction of the Mayor and councillors, apparently not.

Anyway, each petition was presented and debated.

It’s all the government’s fault.

That was all we got from the Labour councillors who spoke.  Well, apart from a severe finger-wagging from one councillor,* who seemed to be in charge of setting the budget, at those of us who signed the libraries petition for allegedly not reading it properly.  The implication seemed to be that we were the hopelessly na├»ve dupes of someone or other.  Way to ensure my vote Councillor!

*as stated I can’t get official details of the meeting and I don’t want to get her name wrong so I won’t give what I heard it as

I don’t know if council leader Nick Forbes, the T Dan Smith de nos jours, was present.  If he was, he didn’t speak.  I have read several interviews with him where he bemoans that his hands are tied, that he hates what he has to do but it is all because of the massive and disproportionate cut in the central government grant and until that meeting, I had a fair amount of sympathy for that position.

Not now.  While it would be unfair to say that the labour councillors present were revelling in the cuts, it is fair and accurate to say that they showed not one jot of regret or unhappiness at what they are planning.  At no point did anyone say anything along the lines of ‘we hate having to do this, but our hands are tied’, instead fingers were pointed at the opposition councillors, at the government, at us who had signed the petitions, but never at themselves.  I had not thought that my contempt for the Labour Party could go any lower after the invasion of Iraq, but the Newcastle Labour Party managed it.  Those who acknowledged the presence of the public at all did so tetchily or fearfully.  The rest kept their backs firmly against us.  I do not know what they believe their role to be, but it certainly does not seem to involve fighting for the interests of the people of Newcastle.  This city is under a second appalling attack by a foul Tory-led administration, and they are rolling over and letting it happen.

They may want to be seen as martyrs but they in fact collaborators.

And finally, because this is by far the longest blog I’ve ever written (I am happy to go into more details of what was said etc, ask in the comments if you're interested, I made notes), always remember this catechism:

We could afford the Olympics: we can afford libraries and respite homes
We could afford the Royal Jubilee: we can afford respite homes and libraries
We could afford a Royal Wedding and we can afford a Royal Christening: we can afford respite homes and libraries
We can afford Trident: we can afford libraries and respite homes
We can afford to become militarily involved in Mali: we can afford libraries and respite homes

                                                 and all together now

We can afford a tax cut for top earners: we can most certainly afford respite homes and libraries!

This is not an economic issue, it is a political one.