Friday, February 20, 2009

"These severely utilitarian and philistine times"

It's from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious but we'll overlook that on this occasion because the report from the Cambridge Primary Review is a beautiful thing, people:
"Children's lives are being impoverished by the government's insistence that schools focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of creative teaching, the biggest review of the primary school curriculum in 40 years finds today.

Labour has failed to tackle decades of over-prescription in the curriculum and added to it with its own strategies in literacy and numeracy, which take up nearly half the school week, the Cambridge University review of the primary curriculum found.

Children are leaving school lacking knowledge about the arts and humanities having spent too many years "tied to a desk" learning times tables, the head of the review, Robin Alexander, said."
It's full of goodness criticising the modern tendency to have a goddamn test every other day, arguing the "the assessment tail wags the curriculum dog". And there's other gorgeous stuff about Whitehall attempting to micro-manage everything and about how it doesn't even fucking work because "despite this too many children still leave primary school having failed to master the 3Rs."

Simple case of a Weberian situation where a rational means - the aforementioned goddamn tests - becoming an end in themselves and therefore irrational. I've been making this point for forty-five years - a couple of years before I was born and quite a few before the National Curriculum was introduced.

Whom the gods wish to destroy, first they make accountable. And make no mistake, the Tories wanted to destroy teachers and state education. That Thatcher in trousers Blair who hated the public sector just as much as his heroine simply made matters worse. The Shadow Children's Secretary, Michael Gove, said, "I now realise that the arrogant Tory centralising policies that I supported have all but ruined education in this country". Journalists looked on in astonishment as he then took out a revolver and blew his own brains out.

Ok, he didn't really. What he actually said was... ach, who cares what he said? His conspicuous failure to blow his own brains out is the important point.

Anyway, since the vast majority of teachers have been arguing the same points made in the report for years to no avail, I've come to the conclusion that talking about it is completely fucking pointless. Instead, I'm increasingly coming round to brother Will's philosophy that what is really required at this time is the acquisition of weaponry in order to go on a killing spree. (His argument about tea, on the other hand, is frankly an outrage and possibly blasphemous.)

Failing that, there's the Holden Caulfield option of getting a job pumping petrol and pretending to be a deaf-mute so you don't have to engage in conversation with people who talk shit. Because I'm tired of listening to and reading people talking shit about education - journalists, bloggers, politicians, parents, and yea verily - even teachers themselves. 99.9% of you are so full of shit. Makes me so tired. Soul-tired.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Regardless of which side of the fence I'm on, the grass looks rather brown and withered to me

In Comment is Pants, Sarfraz Manzoor argues that people who extol the benefits of singledom protest too much, are self-deluding, and should avail themselves of the joys of coupledom:
"The most magical thing about relationships is realising how much joy one gets from not being selfish, of how much happiness can be gained by making someone else happy. It's the happiness of the first call in the morning and the last one at night; the warm comforting glow of knowing that there is someone for whom you are the most important person in the world. Meet the right person and you are with someone who makes you better, who lifts you out of your worst habits and helps you be the best you can be and being all those things for your partner. It is about cooking meals for the both of you rather than heating up another TV dinner alone. It is about realising and relishing the fact that there are things more precious and pleasurable than me, myself and I."
No kids yet then? Call me an old cynic but this sounds like it's either completely made up or it's quite a new relationship. Yet no mention of that essential part of the magic of togetherness - getting in touch with each other's inner sex demon. How boring is that?

There's not a lot of balance here, is there? I've been married and it definitely has its advantages but among the myriad downsides of this arrangement is that occasionally you have to spend time with other married people.

I'm not saying it's always the case but the business of sitting around with a bunch of neutered adults talking about shit that doesn't even matter can be an experience so excruciatingly dull it makes you want to rip out your own eyeballs. Especially if you're stuck in a room with some smug tosser like Sarfraz Manzoor.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

School assemblies hoo-hah

I used to teach in a school that attempted to have a inclusive 'let's celebrate the gorgeous mosaic of our diversity' assembly once. Even by today's standards, it was an embarrassing and really very stupid event. I did wonder at the time: who couldn't be offended by this crap? I was offended because this sort of vacuous nonsense gives legitimacy to the notion that faith per se is a virtue - never mind what people actually believe or whether the beliefs being celebrated contradict each other. I wouldn't know but I'd imagine that anyone who took their particular religion even remotely seriously would have found it fairly offensive too - although if memory serves, it was near the end of term and most pupils had the good grace not to turn up in the first place.

This experience forms part of the reason why I'm inclined to be suspicious of this story about a headteacher in Sheffield who supposedly resigned because she encountered such resistance to her attempt to abolish separate religious assemblies in favour of multi-faith assemblies.

Perhaps the small number of parents who complained and allegedly accused her of being racist were indeed being entirely unreasonable. I don't know - and neither do you. I do know, however, that you wouldn't have to be devoutly religious to object to your child being subjected to this shit. I know I wouldn't be too happy about it. The fact that it's the law to have assemblies of this nature doesn't wash - anyone who knows anything about schools understands that this practice is honoured more in the breech than in the observance.

Unlike some people, I'd be disinclined to rush to judgment. We're told only a small number of parents complained, that the headteacher was supported by a majority of the staff and the parents - yet not only does she resign but the chair of governors does too? "She has been hounded out. Very few people objected to this change.", according to the Mail. Hounded out by 'very few people'? I doubt we're getting the full story here - but frankly it isn't interesting enough to find out the rest. The internal politics of a school distract from the wider point, which is that this wouldn't happen in the first place if the sensible thing was done and collective worship in schools was scrapped altogether.
"A mother with three children at the school said that Mrs Robinson was "a marvellous head and loved by the children". "What she was doing was quite right. The children sit together in class so why shouldn't they share a school assembly?" she said.
Because in class, there's no reason not to sit together. Two plus two equals four regardless of race or creed. But with religious assemblies, this is not so. There is good reason why children of other faiths or no faith might not want to sing 'Onward Christian Soldiers'. I was made to sing this when I was at primary school. Can't say I appreciated it - and I certainly don't want my son to be made to sing it. If the headteacher of this school was making all the pupils sing 'Onward Christian Soldiers', or whatever the modern day equivalent is, what she was doing was not 'quite right'.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Another year older...

It was actually last week but didn't celebrate until the weekend.



I found it quite difficult to keep the joy and excitement under control.

This old age thing has very little going for it, in my view.

Still, I got some cool pressies - most of them bottle-shaped, which was good. They included this one...



Not sure if the picture captures it that well - it's a bottle of Absolut vodka in a red sequined gimp mask that has been specifically designed to house bottles of Absolut vodka.

You could argue that a society that has the time and resources to produce red sequined gimp masks specifically designed for bottles of Absolut vodka is a little decadent.

It should go without saying that I couldn't possibly agree with this.

Misfortunes of the present age #1

That everyone has an opinion on everything. Tiring, don't you find?

I suspect this is what was behind this rant I found via Norm:
"I don’t believe I have the right to an opinion about something I know nothing about—constitutional law, for example, or sailing — a notion that puts me sadly out of step with a growing majority of my countrymen, many of whom may be unable to tell you anything at all about Islam, say, or socialism, or climate change, except that they hate it, are against it, don’t believe in it."
Norm's comments are to the point. It got my attention because pupils go on about their right to their opinion quite often. I won't tell you what I usually say to them because you'll worry your children are being subjected to slow-death by sarcasm - with some justification.

It's the old failure to distinguish between rights and duties, innit? People wouldn't get themselves into such a mess if they got this but it isn't very well understood, in my experience. People do indeed have a right to their opinion - it's the idea that this creates some corresponding obligation on my part, as if everyone's opinion was equally valid and equally worthy of respect. Clearly they're not.

Some of today's youth get really quite offended if you say this - so you have to explain it to them. Very slowly. You're entitled to your opinion that the world is flat but I'm afraid it's round. The evidence is copious as it is overwhelming. Plus I've seen it on the telly and I'm afraid the whole faked moon-landings isn't an opinion I'm going to waste precious minutes of my life listening to.

Frankly some adults aren't much better. We see this in the whole 'respecting other people's beliefs' thing. I believe this, therefore I'm entitled to your respect. Afraid not. You can believe, for example, that every word of the Bible is true if you wish but the law of non-contradiction, which is essential for coherent thought, makes it really rather difficult to respect this view, especially when it becomes obvious that the holder of this opinion hasn't read the damn thing all the way through.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

On the parties of God

Occasionally I realise there's still a big chunk of Marxist in me. It wouldn't have to be that - you could go for Weber's 'disenchantment' maybe. Whichever - I still take the view that the parties of God are done for, the zeitgeist has dispensed with their services and they really should leave the world stage. I realise this isn't the popular view because they seem resurgent. But it is because their days are numbered that they are full of rage and fury; they know their time on this earth is short.

I'm not talking about religiosity per se or 'spirituality' - but the parties of God as political organisations.

I appreciate this sounds too determinist but their fatal flaw is their attitude to scientific inquiry and specifically their inability to harness technological change to the business of production and the improvement of human welfare.

Religious movements the world over are in a state of denial and are as a consequence shifting to the right.

This is what is behind the rehabilitation of four ultra-conservatives - including one Holocaust denier - by the present pontiff of Rome.

It is this denial that is behind the ultra-conservatism of the Islamists too. Their attitude to liberty and democracy is sometimes portrayed as 'irrational'. It isn't. It is a perfectly rational defence of their interests because it is in the absence of these that they flourish. When it is present, there is reason to think that they won't.

Both the doctrine of Papal Infallibility and the doctrine of the Inerrancy of Scripture - what we would now call 'fundamentalism' or 'scripturalism' - were 19th century responses to the onslaught of the Enlightenment. Neither of these claims to cognitive infallibility can withstand the spirit of scientific inquiry so wherever the latter is given some civic latitude, the former always and everywhere lose out.

This is one of the reasons why Oliver Kamm is wrong about the study of theology when he claims it isn't a branch of intellectual inquiry. Norm rightly rubbishes this here - but there's something else as well: both Mr Kamm and people like Richard Dawkins would be more favourably disposed to theology as an academic discipline if they had a better appreciation of how it functions in modern universities. Or more specifically, while I have no quantitative data at my disposal, anecdotal evidence would suggest that the average theology department produces at least as many converts to scepticism and atheism than the average biology department. Or maybe not - but they certainly aren't in the business of transmitting 'revealed truth' in the way Oliver Kamm implies.

Sorry - this didn't turn out anything like I intended. Didn't mean to get so overarching and prophetic. But the parties of God - along with all those who give them succor in the misguided view that they serve an 'anti-imperialist' or even progressive function - are on the wrong side of History. I know it doesn't seem like it but they are - and that is that.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Obama Administration suppresses torture claim?

The Graun and the Times carry this story - so it must be true. According to the Times:
"The United States government has threatened to withhold intelligence cooperation with the UK if evidence of the alleged torture of a ‘terrorist’ detainee at Guantanamo Bay is made public.

Details of how a British resident held in the detention camp was allegedly tortured and what UK intelligence knew about it must remain secret because of the US threats, the High Court ruled today.

Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones said lawyers for the Foreign Secretary had told them that the threat by the United States still applied under President Barack Obama's Administration."
The Guardian reports:
"[W]e did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials ... relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be," they said.

The judges said they had been taken aback by the severity of the threat made by the US government."
The article goes on to repeat the point made above - that the threat remains in place under the Obama Administration.

Might not be true but assuming it is: d'ya think y'all could stop with the Obama-worship now? Cos it showed a leaning towards the Great Man theory of history, which is bollocks. Plus all this idolatry was giving me the creeps, frankly.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Nationalisation and the left-right divide

Unclear why this rather simple-minded post from Ian Dale should have sparked such a ding-dong because it merely repeats what is a fairly common theme amongst the 'libertarian' right: the BNP support nationalisation - nationalisation is a 'socialist' idea, ergo the BNP are socialists.

Sharp as a water-melon this guy. I don't really want to get into the trading of insults because the Flying Rodent does it rather better. But it does provide yet another interesting example of how modern Conservatives and other assorted 'libertarians' of the right seem to be so impressively ignorant of economic history.

Various commentators on the left have rightly taken issue with the nonsensical idea that a party can be positioned on the political spectrum solely on account of their attitude towards state ownership. However, I can't see anyone who has made the obvious point from economic history that could have circumvented a lot of this bullshit from the outset, which is this: nationalisation per se is not a leftwing or socialist idea.

Certainly a large swathe of the left has always and still does support varying degrees of state ownership but it is the end that this was supposed to serve that is the important point. It was, and still is to a lesser extent, as a means of wealth distribution. But anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of history understands that this was never - and it not now - the only reason a national government ever took anything into state ownership. Apart from anything else, the huge range of polities that have done this should be enough for the idea that nationalisation equals left-wing to be laughed out of court. Didn't just about every country in the world have a larger role for the government in the development of their railway networks? Nothing to do with them being more or less 'socialist' and everything to do with them following the lead from the world's first industrial nation.

Building rail networks was obviously essential for servicing the needs of developing capitalist economies. Then there's the examples of state ownership used as a rescue for capitalist economies. From Heath's nationalisation of Rolls Royce to Northern Rock today: Keynesian, probably - but socialist? Not very.

Conservative governments in this country supported nationalisation when they thought it expedient. They used to pride themselves on their pragmatism. They also used to do a whole lot of other stuff that Mr Dale et al have either conveniently forgotten about or didn't know in the first place. Wasn't it the Liberals that supported the abolition of tariffs whilst the Tories were opposed? It should go without saying that this isn't the only part of the Liberal tradition that the Conservatives have attempted to appropriate...

I appreciate there's genuine disagreement over the usage of traditional political concepts. It can be confusing so here's my rough and ready guide: see people who claim the traditional categories of left and right are redundant? They invariably belong to the right.

Update: DK has taken issue with this. I fear Mr Kitchen has misunderstood what I meant because he says, "To try to pretend that the state was responsible for building the British rail network is absolutely laughable." Indeed it would be - but I didn't. Tried to post a clarification under his post but the form wouldn't take for some reason - so here it is:
"To try to pretend that the state was responsbible for building the British rail network is absolutely laughable.

Indeed - but you've misunderstood me if you think I'm saying otherwise....

Didn't just about every country in the world have a larger role for the government in the development of their railway networks? Nothing to do with them being more or less 'socialist' and everything to do with them following the lead from the world's first industrial nation.

Was this unclear? Every other country other than Britain had a quite large role for the state in the construction of their railways networks - because they were following Britain's examples - but learning from our mistakes. Like the pointless duplication of track with different gauges, for example. And then there was the 'Railway Mania', leaving unfinished lines and some rather burned investors.

You missed the wider point too - which as that while just about every other industrialising country had something approaching to what we would describe as 'nationalisation', it doesn't make any sense to describe this as socialist or leftwing in intention."
I trust that's clearer?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

For John Martyn

As the Times piece on the day of his death noted, while John Martyn was seen as the hard-drinking Scottish troubadour par excellence, he was actually born in Surrey to two light-opera singers. But his parents divorced when he was five, from which time he spent his formative years in Glasgow where he attended Shawlands Academy on the south side of the city.

John Martyn always saw himself as Scottish and Glaswegians, or those of us who were aware of him, were happy that he did so because we could proudly claim him as one of our own: Glasgow doesn't produce many geniuses and whatever else he may have been, John Martyn was a genius.

Before I heard and saw John singing and playing I wouldn't have thought it possible - and even now I'm finding it difficult to comprehend - for one man to possess so much talent. With the voice alone, one would feel the gods had been generous - but he could also play the guitar like no-one before or since has ever done. This combined with an ability to write songs of such heartbreaking beauty...

An extraordinary combination but unlike many I'm neither surprised, nor do I consider it a grave injustice, that John Martyn never enjoyed commercial success. To do this in popular music is a fairly straightforward matter: you either need to produce a few simple foot-stomping anthems that will get a hall jumping or if you're inclined to play it slow, your ballads need to have generous helping of sugar to make them more palatable. John wasn't prepared to do either of these things. Following the success of Solid Air, Island records hoped for something equally marketable to follow. Instead they got Inside Out, an album that has been not unreasonably described as 'willfully inaccessible'. (I hope I can declare this to be my favourite without sounding too much of a pseud.)

Before Thursday, I had no idea that I was capable of feeling so bereft over the death of someone I did not know personally. So much so, I've been trying to get my head around it. It's not as if I would have liked to have known him particularly. Cliché is hard to avoid on these occasions. There's much been written about John's 'rock and roll' lifestyle replete with anecdotes about him being 'difficult', 'prickly' and 'cantankerous'. Scotland is the land where everyone 'ken't yer faither' so it goes without saying that I've spoken to one or two of John's contemporaries and from what I can gather, this is an understandably euphemistic account of John's often egregiously aggressive behaviour. Deborah Orr's recollections come the closest to matching what I've heard from people who have known him:
"I love John Martyn's music. But I had the misfortune to be sitting near his party in an Edinburgh bar in the early 1980s. It took me a while before I could reconcile the sweet romanticism of his songs with the rude, drunk, aggressive and demanding boor who had dominated everybody's evening.

It was tragic to observe over the years that he grew no wiser as he grew older, even though his self-destructive ways led to leg amputation, then early death. Like a lot of creative types, Martyn, right, died believing that his dreadful behaviour was justified because of his art, and even that the latter would not have existed or thrived without the former.

It's a great shame that he never ever stopped to ask why so much of his most celebrated work had already been completed while he was still a young man, less damaged by the ravages of his poor lifestyle choices. It's amazing, really, that even though the spectacle of talent squandered in such a way is ubiquitous, the myth of the desirability of creative chaos, and artistic "suffering", maintains such a firm cultural hold."
Yet I was left with the feeling that this account, while undoubtedly accurate, wasn't a little mean-spirited. Leaving aside the fact that most artists produce their best work when they are young - and the fact that I don't think many people, including myself, would agree that John squandered his talent - is it really that easy to separate these things? It's not that John needed to drink to be creative, or that his creativity made him drink - they were just two expressions of the same personality. John did whatever the fuck he wanted: in his personal life this was supremely destructive; musically it was sublimely creative. Or perhaps it is simpler to say this: God chooses to keep His treasure in earthen vessels - if you have a problem with this, take it up with Him.

In any event, his personal life was not, and is not, my concern. The love was for the music. In explaining what this meant, it is also difficult to avoid cliché. I recognise so much in what others have written. For me too he provided the 'background music for my life'. My sister got me Solid Air for Christmas when I was about 17. After that I couldn't see past John for years. Then the years turned into decades. I don't think there's ever been a significant moment of heartbreak in my life where I haven't listened to John giving tune to the inarticulate rage of my heart. And it gets more technical than that. What to do when you're learning to play the guitar in the aesthetic musical wasteland that was the eighties? You regress, is what you do. There was Jimi and Muddy - but they were both dead. There was the other Jimmy - and he might as well have been. There was also Eric - but he took to wearing a cardigan. I'd date this earlier than most - he never recovered his form since he was playing with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in the sixties.

And then there was John Martyn. His music had already rescued me from a blues-purist phase I was going through. He remains the most significant musical influence in my life. To this day, when I play guitar, I can never finger-pick without a plectrum because if I do, I just end up sounding like a low-rent version of the John Martyn I wanted to be like for so many years. But better than all this - he was still playing. I'm not one for gigs - I love music but frankly there's so few artists I find interesting enough to make it worth my while sitting through a whole set of their songs. I've only seen two artists more than once - one was the legendary Peter Green, the other John Martyn.

Famously erratic in his performances, John was always at least sensible enough to try and hold it together a bit when he had an album to promote. The best of these performances for me was at the Renfrew Ferry where he was on tour to promote his album of covers, The Church with One Bell. Squandered his talent? Goddamit all, the man had been living the life since he was seventeen - here he was at fifty, and what a set he played! The air was thick with marijuana smoke and anticipation. We were expecting a support act but there was none. Instead the band came on and began to play the opening bars of 'Couldn't Love You More' - a few moments later big John clambers onto the stage. He's a little late but once he starts to sing, everyone forgets space and time. It went uphill from there. I don't have the words to describe the joy and exhilaration that I felt on this night.

Herein lies the bitter-sweet tragedy of it all for me. It has to do with John's passing - but it has to do with a wider sense of the passing of time, the passing of an age - which Laban remarked upon in his touching tribute. We will never see the likes of John Martyn ever again, never see him play again. Laban's post made me mist up a little - this one made me cry. It's the story of how John played for some prisoners, leaving them "feeling for a while like members of the human race once more." I've never been in prison but this is what I bear witness to as well. Yesterday's gone - now we have smoking bans, obesity strategies and the X-factor. Would this age give enough space for someone like John Martyn? I don't know but I take leave to doubt it.
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