31 December 2006

NEW YEAR'S GREETINGS - I'M OFF OUT

That's too much sitting in front of the computer for one year. Here's to you all.

29 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 11

I've just been on the Reclaim the Night march in Ipswich, and it was a shambolic but good-natured event. A couple of hundred people (I guess), turned up to the town hall steps at 7pm, mainly local trade unionists, feminists and lefties – including a few from the Labour Party, among them the MP, Chris Mole – along with a good showing of feminists from outside the area.

Some time around 7.30pm, there was a speech from a woman from the trades council (whose name I forget) and then another from a representative of the English Collective of Prostitutes (who forgot one girl's name) and after that – and offers of soup to fortify us for the walk – we set off through the town, led, rather incongruously, by a banner declaring "BIRMINGHAM WOMEN FIGHT BACK".

Ignored except by one passing motorist who honked in approval, we made it, mostly along the pavements, to Handford Road, where there was a rather moving laying of flowers in the rec behind the football ground close to where the murdered girls were last seen.

"We don't need protection! We need revolution!" piped up a contingent behind us as we made our way back – and at that point I left. Not because I thought Molotov-throwing radical feminists were about to create a scary confrontation with the forces of patriarchy that could scorch my balls, but we were close to the curry house and I was hungry. What happened next (apart from my eating a curry with a couple of like-minded friends) I can only guess.

28 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 10

No more murders: people are out saying that they'd never known anything go away quite so fast – and thank god it's over. Return to normal.

I hope so. The cordon is off London Road, the town is as full of an evening as it should be.

But the talk in the boozers is now of how the family of one of the dead girls – not the one that has set up a charity fund – is going to do the drug-dealers.

The story is that the girls were being pimped by dealers who paid them in smack and crack (to whom they handed over their takings) – to turn them into de facto slaves. And the dealers/pimps are now living in fear – some have gone on the run – because some of the hardest nuts from one of Ipswich's biggest council estates are after them.

This has come from half-a-dozen sources. We shall see what happens next.

In the meantime, the Reclaim the Night bash tomorrow – start at the Town Hall 7pm – is still very much on.

24 December 2006

BAH! HUMBUG!

I've got a filthy cold and feel like I need a visitation from Scrooge's Christmas spirits. So it's time for a very large single malt, a couple of paracetemol and with any luck some wild dreams. And then tomorrow: "A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!" Aw, fuck that.

22 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 9

I missed this, from my good friend Tim Fenton (the bass player in my teenage punk band) on the BBC's website last week, but it catches well the way it has felt round here this past fortnight:
Ipswich is not a fashionable place.

It's had more than its share of listings among Britain's "crap towns". It's often compared unfavourably to the more middle-class, more photogenic Norwich.

And when the London feature writers come to Suffolk they don't pause long in Ipswich on their way to Aldeburgh and Southwold.

But that antipathy has helped build a tight, sometimes defensive sense of loyalty. There are few people here over 40 who cannot tell you where they were when Roger Osborne scored the winning goal in the 1978 FA Cup final.

With a population of about 140,000, Ipswich is big enough to be a proper town but not so big as to feel impersonal. It's noticeable that the TV crews have had little problem finding people who knew and will talk about the murdered women.

Many remember them as schoolgirls or neighbours and offer the cameras personal recollections. There's ready sympathy for the addictions that drove them to sell their bodies and risk their lives. I wonder if that would be true in a big city.

Everyone is affected. After the fourth and fifth bodies were discovered I decided I would walk the children round the corner for the evening performance of their Christmas play rather than let my wife walk home alone.

A teacher smiled at the children but, with jaw clenched, muttered "isn't it dreadful?" to me. The show went on, though the scene in which Snow White was strangled made one or two of the watching parents shift uneasily in their plastic stacking chairs.

21 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 8

The police have been hinting all day that something was going to happen, and it was pretty clear they meant charging Steve Wright, 48, of London Road, Ipswich, for the murders – which is exactly what they did, but too late for the national press to go to town on it. Or that's what the cops thought. I have a sneaking suspicion that third and fourth editions of all the papers will go massive on the story: you really need a 2am press conference rather than a 10.30pm one if you don't want the story in the next day's papers. And – er – then there's the internet...

CITY OF FEAR - 7

There was another arrest the day before yesterday – Steve Wright, 48, of London Road, Ipswich, a forklift-driver at Felixstowe docks – but not a lot since apart from the news that the police are detaining for questioning both Wright and Tom Stephens, the first suspect arrested, for as long as they can.

I’ve now done my very small bit to help the murder investigation: I gave a witness statement yesterday morning to the police about possibly having seen Paula Clennell the weekend before last (see post here). The cops doing the interviews were remarkably upbeat given the thanklessness of their task and open about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. “But you never know,” said the one who did me. “Anything could turn out to be important.”

In the afternoon I took a walk around the Ipswich “red light district” with a foreign journalist (a woman) who wanted a guided tour. London Road was still cordoned off after the arrest of Wright. There were cameras on cranes at the end of the street, crews everywhere, quite a few cops – and nothing happening. Maybe we should have challenged the police when they told us we couldn’t just wander round, but it didn’t seem worth it. On Handford Road there was a fractious traffic jam, with lots of honking from frustrated motorists desperate to get home. West End Road was just unspeakably bleak.

By the time we got there it was dark and getting very cold, with a freezing fog coming down. “There are no CCTV cameras here,” said my friend, and she was right. Nor were there many people – we saw a couple of teenage boys in hoodies and two pairs of cops looking very fed up in parked patrol cars, but that was it. I can’t think of anywhere more soulless. It’s a wasteland of car showrooms, builders’ merchants and office blocks. “How could anyone come out here?” asked my friend, and I didn’t reply. But the answer is of course drug addiction.

Heroin hit Ipswich big-time – as it hit the rest of the UK – after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Many of my peers got hooked. Two of the members of my teenage punk band in Ipswich in the late 1970s, both boys from caring middle-class homes, committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with withdrawal from long-term smack habits. Two women friends I met on the left journalism scene in the early 1980s spent most evenings ten years later pulling tricks on the street in Kings Cross to buy gear. I could go on.

But it’s not just smack: most if not all of the girls killed in Ipswich were also crack addicts. And that’s a different problem, because there’s no simple way out. If you’re a heroin addict, you need your fix and once you’ve got it you chill out. With heroin, it makes sense to give addicts maintenance prescriptions and lots of love and care. But crack isn’t like that. Crackheads get their hit and turn psychotic, and the more they take the more they want and the worse they get. There's no such thing as a maintenance dose.

This in itself makes a mockery of nearly every suggested change of drugs or prostitution policy that has been put forward as a means of reducing the chances that anything like the Ipswich murders could happen again. Legalised brothels or “tolerance zones” would do nothing to protect girls who are working the streets to fund crack habits. But making it illegal for men to pay for sex would be even worse: it would have the effect of making street prostitution both more lucrative and more dangerous. You can’t treat crack addiction with prescriptions. But coming down harder on suppliers of the drug would simply increase the price paid by addicts, at least some of whom would be driven to take greater risks to get the cash.

Which is not to say that nothing should be done, just that what should be done isn’t obvious.

18 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 6

The arrest of Tom Stephens, 37, of Trimley St Martin, a village just outside Ipswich, has been greeted with some relief round these parts, though no one I've spoken to is daft enough to be sure the cops have got the right man. There was an utterly bizarre interview with him in the Sunday Mirror yesterday (here) , which raises the intriguing possibility that the News of the World will have to give its £250,000 to its ailing rival. The BBC also interviewed him last week for background (here). If he isn't the murderer, he's the sickest of self-publicists.

Meanwhile, there's a Reclaim the Night march in town – not women only – from 7pm on Friday 29 December (details here, but I'm meeting people beforehand at 5.30pm in The Dove, which is a ten-minute walk from the Town Hall). Do come along: it's just over an hour from London, last train back is at 10.42pm and there's even a possibility of being put up for the night by me or one of my comrades (but don't all rush at once).

16 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 5

The minute's silence at Portman Road was respectfully observed, the match was rubbish and I'm glad we won. And I discovered that one of the dead girls squatted a place two of my friends moved into last summer. But how do you turn death into a marketing opportunity? Here's how – handed out to everyone at the Ipswich-Leeds match this afternoon (fold marks show it's genuine):


DISGUSTING REALPOLITIK

The decision of the government to close down the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into the bribery of the Saudi royal family by British Aerospace (latterly BAe Systems) as it pursued lucrative arms contracts is utterly cynical. David Leigh and Rob Evans, who have been working on the story for so long it must hurt, have a great piece here. The good news is that there might be a bit of legal trouble pending for the government on this: click here.

14 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 4

It seems I was wrong about possibly having seen Paula Clennell, now confirmed as the fourth victim of the serial killer (or killers) on Sunday night: she was last definitely seen just after midnight on Saturday a mile away from my local and the police are sure she was abducted soon after. But the question still remains over why she went off police radar. She'd been interviewed by TV last week and on Saturday night London Road, West End Road and the rest of Ipswich's "red light area" should have been swarming with cops. I'm reliably informed they weren't: it was only on Sunday that the police realised what they had on their hands. In the meantime, it seems, Paula Clennell was killed.

There will be a minute's silence at Portman Road this Saturday, apparently at the insistence of the players. I think it will be kept as respectfully as that for George Best.

13 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 3

Well, it might be her. The girl who dropped into the pub late on Sunday night, drenched, with smudged make-up, to cadge a fag. I was sitting next to the door and when she asked I gave her three cigarettes as I turned away from her. I’ve got the London habit of giving to beggars without engaging. I suppose it’s an unspoken “I don’t want to know”, at best a “Look, I’ll help a bit but sort yourself out”. Whatever, she said thanks and that she’d had a terrible day, then disappeared out the door.

Ten seconds later I looked at the landlord and he looked at me, and we both thought the same thing: could she be on the run from something to do with the murders of three prostitutes – as it then was – that we’d been talking about all night? He went outside to see where the girl had gone. There was no sign.

Next day the police released pictures of two more girls who were missing. I wondered about one of them: could the girl who came into the pub have been Paula Clennell. No one caught more than a fleeting glimpse. We agreed from the first picture published that it wasn’t her. But yesterday two more bodies were found. And today, with new pictures in the papers, the doubts crept in big-time. We phoned the police apologetically: we were probably wrong but there was a slim possibility that the girl was Paula ...

The Suffolk police announced this morning that they took more than 2,000 calls yesterday, and they must have had similar traffic today, most of it going up to a police call-centre in Yorkshire: there’s a de facto national police service now. Most of the information they’re processing must have come from people like us, following the story, willing, and desperately attempting to remember what would otherwise be inconsequential moments of everyday life that might now have some significance – but not quite reliable. Dealing with all that is going to take some time. Let's hope we weren't all wasting police time and that it helps to catch the bastard.

12 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR - 2

And now it's even worse. The third corpse has been identified as another young woman who had been on the game in Ipswich, and two more dead bodies of young women have been found outside the town near Levington, a village with a marina and a pub that does good posh food.

The police media operation is now quite sharp, and the "red light district" around the football ground is, I'm told, now swarming with boys in blue and TV crews and no one else. The suspicion that the cops didn't grasp the seriousness of the situation until rather late remains: if indeed one of the newly discovered bodies is that of a girl last seen on Saturday, there's a question whether there was a serious surveillance failure.

But I'm sure they're watching the CCTV footage as I write, and all anyone wants is for the murderer or murderers to be caught. I don't know what Leeds was like during the Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror, but Ipswich has reacted to this calamity with dignity and decency.

The town's evening paper, the Evening Star, is offering a £50,000 as a bounty for catching what looks like the single perpetrator, but much more prominent are the pages given over to sympathetic profiles of the dead girls and to readers offering condolences to their loved ones. I don't remember the Yorkshire Post being anything other than sensationalist over the Ripper murders, but I could be wrong.

It's so weird that this is happening here — a year ago Suffolk was declared the safest county in England on the basis of crime statistics. For me personally Ipswich has been an unthreatening and benign place since my childhood and adolescence. Now we're in Murder County UK, and we can't do anything about it. I've never been a great enthusiast for minute's silences at football games, but one at Portman Road on Saturday, when Ipswich play Leeds, would be extraordinarily cathartic.

11 December 2006

CITY OF FEAR – 1

I live in a town in which a serial killer seems to be on the loose. Three dead bodies of young women have been found in different places just outside Ipswich. Two more young women are missing. All appear to have beeen working as prostitutes — two of them, the pair now confirmed dead and named, operating from the streets around the Ipswich Town football ground that the media call the "red light district" of the town.

In fact, there are no red lights: the only illumination is from street lamps and offices, in a bleak postmodern urban landscape — a wasteland not of derelict factories and closed-down pubs but of squeaky-clean redevelopments of the past 20 years: the new Suffolk County Council headquarters, the football stadium itself, the nightclub in an old maltings that was the scene of an unrelated murder at the weekend. West End Road is where we go to recycle our waste; Handford Road is empty but for builders' merchants. Dull functional places where hardly anyone lives.

There has been prostitution not far from here for years. London Road, just round the corner, was close to being a real red-light district in the 1970s when it was multiple-occcupancy bedsit land, but it has gone all owner-occupier.

Back then, the girls worked out of scuzzy flats. Today they hang out after dark on the well maintained pavements and grass verges of the most anonymous parts of an increasingly anonymous town, waiting for punters to turn up in cars. Then they do the business in the back seat or behind a tree in the rec or whatever.

It's everyday sordid, we all know about it because we've driven past, we don't condone it. But now it turns out that one of the punters in a car — or maybe someone else — is a killer.

That makes everything different. Everyone I've spoken to feels a sense of solidarity with the girls who have been killed and with their families and friends: they are kids who went wrong rather than the lowest of the low.

But the most palpable feeling is fear. Middle-aged women who go out only to the local pub or Pizza Express won't even venture that far; ordinarily confident young women who walk around town at all hours without a care in the world are organising chaperones. The pubs are empty.

But at least the cops are waking up. I'm told by a reliable source that they had no extra officers on the streets over the weekend, but now it's a major priority to catch the perpetrator. But there's no one out to talk about it. Scary.

9 December 2006

SENSE ON THE CHAVS

Romantics with exaggerated faith in "national liberation" movements in poor parts of the world have been the bane of the left throughout the world for years — some would say for nearly a century — and there's a good piece here on Open Democracy on the prevalent enthusiasm for the populist authoritarian leftist regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Is there any compelling evidence that the left should trust the Chavs any more than it should have trusted the Sovs?

8 December 2006

DISASTROUS 48 HOURS

First my bloody phone was nicked and then I bust a metatarsal — doc reckons it was brought on by impact of slipping while running down a tube escalator yesterday morning (completely sober, I might add). So no Wilko tonight and a couple of days with my feet up trying to reconstruct my contacts book. And crutches. Bah!

30 November 2006

DEATH AGONIES OF THE SOVIET UNION

There is a fascinating long piece in Der Spiegel here (in English) on the internal politics of the Soviet leadership in the Gorbachev era drawing on two books of extracts of Politburo minutes recently published in Russia (in Russian). The extracts are particularly revealing on Germany and Afghanistan — and on the extent to which Gorbachev's reform programme was resisted at the highest level of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

28 November 2006

ODONE DECLARES WAR

Here's the Blessed Christina talking paranoid codswallop at the Defend Freedom of Religion, Conscience and Thought rally held by Liberty and various god-botherers last week.



And this at a time when the government is caving in to religious lobby groups on faith schools and giving self-appointed "community leaders" an unprecedented role on every quango under the sun. Believe it or not, she was my successor but one as deputy editor of the New Statesman.

To be fair, other contributions to the rally are straight-down-the-line liberal defences of tolerance. But really...

Hat tip: Harry.

26 November 2006

HELP WANTED

Still no joy with the original George Weidenfeld cunnilingus quote. But can anyone help me with the origins of this, apparently a common Arabic saying:
Life is like a carrot. One day in your hand, the next day up your arse.

UTTERLY SHAMELESS SELF-PUBLICITY

Michael Foot gives Orwell in Tribune a smashing plug in the Observer's "favourite books of 2006" feature today (click here and scroll down) — but I fear we will end up in Private Eye ... because he wrote the foreword!

25 November 2006

OBITUARY: RICHARD CLEMENTS

Dick Clements deserves to be remembered for many reasons, but there is one thing about him that makes him a legend for me: he managed the stupendous feat of being editor of Tribune for 21 years, and he kept the paper afloat for all that time. During his editorship, Tribune enjoyed extraordinary influence in the Labour Party, and it was usually for the best.

His Tribune was the paper that in the 1960s supported the anti-H-bomb campaign, opposed the Vietnam war and Rhodesian UDI and railed against Enoch Powell. The Tribune Group, initially in 1964 little more than a gaggle of left MPs who supported the paper, became the key left caucus of the parliamentary Labour Party – and played a crucial role in Labour politics well into the 1980s. In the 1970s the Clements Tribune was where the Labour left worked out its Alternative Economic Strategy – as it turned out, a chimera – found its voice against apartheid and expressed, albeit too timidly, its solidarity with the democratic dissidents of the Soviet bloc.

I wasn’t quite brought up on the Clements Tribune, but it was part of my life from my early teenage years. My grandfather was a reader in the early 1970s and I devoured it every time I went round to stay with my grandparents. I spent hours arguing with my grandfather about what it was saying – in particular its campaign against the Common Market, which came to a climax in 1975, when Tribune led the “no” vote camp in the referendum campaign.

I disagreed with my grandfather and with Tribune then – I was a “yes” at the age of 15, as I am today – but I was hooked by the paper’s approach to politics: polemical but rational, passionate but cool. I loved the disagreements about everything, sometimes denunciatory and inflammatory, sometimes factual and dry. I read with enthusiasm the weirdly radical books and arts pages and the no-holds-barred letters and diary. There was too much stuff from boring trade union leaders and dull Labour left MPs – nothing changes – but the rest was the real thing, a vibrant pluralist democratic left newspaper run by real journalists.

It took me another 10 years to accept Tribune’s reformism, but that’s another story. By then, Clements had left the paper, had become Mr Fixit for Michael Foot when he became Labour leader and had then done the same job (briefly) for Neil Kinnock. Tribune in the meantime had gone through a life-threatening crisis after the staff took rather too seriously for the shareholders its long-standing commitment to workers’ control. Whatever, by the time I started working on Tribune in 1986, Clements was no more an occasional visitor – which is when I first met him, cadging fags from the office smokers (me and Sheila Noble) as he set about some research project.

We never became great mates, but he was always solicitous and kind, and he helped me greatly on several stories and bigger projects over the next 10 years. The idea that he was a Soviet agent – as claimed by the Sunday Times some time back – is idiotic. He was a good man who kept an institution vital to our democracy alive for a very, very long time.

23 November 2006

WHERE IS THERE TO GO IF YOU DON'T WANT TO REPLACE TRIDENT?

I was digging around in my filing cabinet the other day when I came across a copy of New Socialist magazine from November 1986 in which I had the cover story, a piece arguing that a Labour government would face resistance to its non-nuclear defence policy from America, other Nato countries and the military establishment.

Believe it or not, this caused a quite a stir at the time. Labour, ahead in the opinion polls, had high hopes of winning the next general election — and after the October 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev the party leadership was optimistic that it could make friends with Reagan. So, because New Socialist was an official Labour Party publication (remember when Labour published things?), various party spokesmen felt it necessary to issue denials that the article represented party policy, which of course brought it attention it would never have otherwise received (and, to be frank, it didn’t deserve).

Not that the small flurry of “Labour defence row” headlines mattered very much. Labour didn’t make friends with Reagan — when Neil Kinnock and Denis Healey visitied him in the White House in 1987, the US president famously mistook Healey for the British ambassador — and it didn’t win the next election. Kinnock abandoned the non-nuclear defence policy just as the Berlin Wall came down.

So why relate this trifling ancient story now? Well, it’s because chancing upon that old New Socialist reminded me of how important the politics of nuclear arms were during the 1980s, not just for me but for thousands of others. And that made me think how oddly unengaged with the politics of nuclear arms nearly everyone is today, myself included.

One reason for this is of course that the threat of nuclear armageddon is rather less immediate than it was 20 years ago. In the 1980s, we knew that if either superpower-dominated bloc started a conventional war in Europe, the other one would respond by going nuclear. Today, as far as anyone is aware, there is no one who has the bomb who is threatening to use it against us in any circumstances.

But declining fear that we will all die in a nuclear war isn’t the whole story — and for me personally it isn’t the story at all. Fear was never my main motive in getting involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and European Nuclear Disarmament. I worried a bit, but I actually thought nuclear deterrence made war very unlikely in Europe.

My problem with nuclear arms was political. The bomb kept the peace (in a dangerous way) but at an appalling cost. It gave unprecedented power to the military-industrial complexes of both blocs, was obscenely expensive, made the Cold War division of Europe an apparently immovable fixture and paralysed people with fear. Getting rid of it — through a mixture of unilateral and multilateral measures, including an enforced international anti-proliferation regime — was, I thought, a necessary precondition of confident, flourishing democracy.

I still think that, even though the Cold War is long gone and the communist police states of east-central Europe are now democracies. (Russia and most of the rest of the Soviet Union have been less fortunate.) I’m also now much more worried than I was in the 1980s that there will be a nuclear war, not in Europe but in the middle east or far east. Yet I haven’t been moved to rejoin CND by Iran’s nuclear programme, by North Korea’s test explosion or even by reports that the Labour government is about to decide to replace Trident as Britain’s “independent deterrent”. Why?

The main reason is CND’s politics. Twenty years ago, it was a genuinely broad-based mass organisation. It had more than its fair share of pro-Soviet communists and a sprinkling of Trots, but its centre of gravity was on the Labour soft left. Today, it is much smaller — and it has become increasingly indistinguishable from the Leninist far left, which blames America for all the world’s ills and supports any opposition to the US anywhere, regardless of its nature.

I could just about forgive CND for having as chair a member of a ludicrous Stalinist sect — Kate Hudson is in the Communist Party of Britain — but I can’t stomach the way it allowed itself to be led in the Stop the War Coalition by the revolutionary defeatists of the Socialist Workers Party, the Islamist reactionaries of the Muslim Association of Britain and the unspeakable George Galloway. The last straw for me was its invitation of the Iranian ambassador to its conference last year.

I’ve not learned to love the bomb — and I want to put pressure on the government not to commit itself to replacing Trident. But to turn a blind eye to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to throw in your lot with cretino-leftist anti-imperialism, which is what CND has done, is not only deluded. It is almost to invite the government and the public not to take you seriously.

21 November 2006

HOBSBAWM ON 1956

I'm surprised there hasn't been more comment on this, Eric Hobsbawm's take in the current London Review of Books on the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Hobsbawm, the most prominent Communist Party of Great Britain intellectual who stayed with it after 1956, is no fool: the piece has plenty of insights into the reasons Hungary rather than any other Soviet satellite exploded when it did.

But in the end he regrets nothing. The Soviet intervention was justified because the revolutionaries went too far and took their revenge on the hated secret police. The key moment, writes Hobsbawm, was

the attack by insurgents on the headquarters of the Greater Budapest Communist Party on Republic Square, temporarily defenceless except for a contingent of secret police after the withdrawal of Russian and Hungarian soldiers. The building was taken, the Budapest Party chief – a strong supporter of reform – killed, and 23 secret policemen lynched by the mob in front of the world’s newsreel cameras. It was this demonstration of anarchic fury, combined with Nagy’s increasing concessions to the maximalist demands on the street, that persuaded both Moscow and Beijing that uncontrollable disorder was impending in Hungary…

The alternative was the reform government’s number two, János Kádár, who had begun to impress the Russians. He left Budapest on 1 November as a member of Nagy’s government and returned six days later in a convoy of Soviet tanks – which made short work of the uprising once its full force was deployed. He has been denounced for his betrayal, but, unlike some other episodes in his long career, notably the execution of Nagy in 1958, it can be justified. The insurgents’ programme was beyond reach.

What was the alternative to a Russian victory, if not a quiet reform Communist regime backed by a reform-minded Khrushchev? (In subsequent years the Kádárs were to develop a family friendship with the Khrushchevs.) Nagy’s choice implied only heroic victimisation – followed sometime in the future by public rehabilitation – and a return of the Hungarian Stalinists, with or without Rákosi and Gerö. Kádár’s solution was the only one available.

"The insurgents' programme was beyond reach"? Only because the Soviet leaders decided it was and sent in the tanks. The fatalism and Realpolitik cynicism are almost Kissingeresque.

15 November 2006

WHAT A GRIM QUEEN'S SPEECH

Reasons to be cheerful are few and far between, it seems, so we've got a legislative programme that will concentrate on law and ordure — cue hysteria from the civil liberties lobby — and carbon footprints. There are odds and ends in the Queen's Speech that are long overdue (Crossrail, corporate manslaughter, free bus travel for pensioners) but this is fin de siecle fiddling. "Security" only works for Labour if it's also about working-class confidence, and too much of this stuff is scarifying triangulation that encourages fear. Get it done with, get Gordon in, and then onwards and upwards. I hope.

And sort Iraq. Please. Call me a neo-con if you want, but getting Bashir and the mullahs in doesn't strike me as too sensible. What exactly is wrong with massively upping the military presence, disarming the militias and taking it from there? Too expensive? I'm not an expert. I ask because I want to know.

8 November 2006

DON'T LET THIS BE TRUE

A disturbing story arrives from the liberal Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, claiming that Communist Party of Britain bigwig Anita Halpin, an ultra-Stalinist hack who also sits on various National Union of Journalists committees, has come into a vast amount of money.

She is, apparently, the sole living grandchild of the artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose painting "Berliner Strassenszene" has just been flogged — or was due to be flogged — by Christie's today in New York, with the expectation that it would raise between £10m and £14m.

The painting, it seems, was stolen by the Nazis in the 1930s, and has now been "restituted" to the nearest thing there is to its original owner.

I've no idea whether this story is accurate: the painting was certainly advertised as being on sale today, and my Swedish comrades tell me that there is no ambiguity in translation of the news piece.

But the worst possible thing that could happen to British left politics right now would be for the Communist Party of Britain to come into a pornographically large sum of money. It is utterly bankrupt politically, a throw-back to the worst of the 1930s and 1940s, when the British left intelligentsia (with a few honorable exceptions) sucked up to Stalin through the purges and his pact with the Nazis. It is the last organisation on the British left that deserves a penny.

I really, really hope that someone is having a laugh, that I've been had, that there's been a terrible mistake somewhere along the line. But if it is true: just remember, as the cash washes into the pockets of opportunists, mountebanks and charlatans, that Stalinism is the worst enemy of democratic socialism.

Update
OK, I got some of this wrong, but it wasn't a bad tip. Here's the Guardian following it up. I particularly like the fulminating CPB gen sec...

2 November 2006

1 November 2006

SHAMELESS SELF-PUBLICITY

No one else is going to blow my trumpet, so I might as well do it myself... Reviews of my collection Orwell in Tribune are coming in — and so far so good. Sean French was positive for the Independent last Friday, Martin Rowson embarrassingly enthusiastic for Tribune the same day and Gordon Bowker critical but upbeat for the Observer last Sunday. Thanks for the kind words — and the same goes to my blogging comrades Paul Evans and Peter Robins. The Scottish Sunday Post has also apparently been very nice but I havnae seen it and cannae find it online. I was, however, thinking only yesterday that a version of the Post's famous strip cartoon The Broons could be a winner in Private Eye, what with old Gordon being a shoo-in for the Labour leadership (as predicted here, incidentally) and all that.

29 October 2006

HELP WANTED

The bizarre hoo-hah over Tom Bower's new book on the rise and fall of Conrad Black (see here and here) reminds me that Black's wife Barbara Amiel had an affair in the late 1980s with the notoriously up-for-it publisher George Weidenfeld (then in his 70s) -- here he is in his pomp.



I know this is not the crucial question of the hour, but for several years I've been trying to find where and when it was that Weidenfeld said, apropos of his womanising, that
I don't go much for fucking, but I am the king of cunnilingus.

Can anyone give chapter and verse?

27 October 2006

THINK TANK REBRANDS

Britain's leading ideas factory has adopted a new look in response to unfortunate recent events.



Please feel free to reproduce graphic.

25 October 2006

ONLY A WHOLLY ELECTED SECOND CHAMBER WILL DO

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 October 2006

Call me an old cynic if you will, but I have a sneaking suspicion that no one reacted to last weekend’s leak of Jack Straw’s latest discussion paper on reform of the Lords by exclaiming: “Wow! A 50 per cent elected, 50 per cent appointed second chamber! What a brilliant new idea!”

Because it isn’t brilliant, and it isn’t new. In fact, it was proposed, and rejected by MPs — just as every other option was rejected — last time Lords reform came up, when the late and much-missed Robin Cook was leader of the House of Commons.

What was wrong with it then is what is wrong with it now. In a democracy, the legitimacy of legislators can be rooted only in direct elections. A second chamber that is 50 per cent appointed is by definition not legitimate. And no amount of guff about the need to encourage distinguished people from all walks of life to lend their expertise to the legislative process (see, for example, Max Hastings in Monday’s Guardian) can disguise the fact. If those distinguished people want to play a part in the legislature, they should put themselves up for election — end of story. There really is no democratic alternative.

And of course everyone knows it. Indeed, I suspect that the real reason Straw has resurrected the 50:50 proposal is precisely that a second chamber lacking democratic legitimacy would not be able to challenge the primacy of the Commons. But there is another simple way of ensuring the leading role of the Commons, which is to carefully delineate in law the respective powers of the two houses of parliament. Plenty of other countries do it. There is no good reason Britain can’t do the same.

***

The 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution has been marked by a series of features in the Guardian and a very good book by Victor Sebestyen (which I reviewed in Tribune last week) — but I’m a little surprised at how little the left (at least in Britain) has had to say about it.

Hungary 1956 was one of the left’s great watersheds of the 20th century — perhaps not as important as the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 or the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 but certainly up there with the Spanish civil war and the Hitler-Stalin pact. Before the Soviet tanks rolled in to smash the reformist Imre Nagy government and the workers’ councils that had sprung up to defend it, it was just about possible honestly to consider that what was wrong with Soviet communism was down to Stalin’s excesses and that the regime was essentially on the right tracks. (This is not my view of the Soviet Union, need I say.) Afterwards, only fools and liars could praise the Soviet Union as a workers’ state.

Throughout the western world, Hungary caused a mass exodus from communist parties. The Communist Party of Great Britain — never a mass party like the French or Italian communist parties, but nevertheless a significant force on the left — lost one third of its membership, including its most talented intellectuals, most notably the historian and polemicist Edward Thompson. Some ex-communists withdrew into political inactivity, but Thompson and others threw themselves with vigour into creating a New Left that was explicitly anti-Stalinist and socialist.

That New Left fizzled out, but its members remained key players on the British left — as Labour MPs, in the peace movement, as writers — until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those who are still alive are getting on a bit now, but their role in reviving what had become a moribund British left culture deserves to be marked. We need a few like them today.

***

Now, I know this is controversial but it has to be asked: what exactly do all those people clamouring for rapid British and American withdrawal from Iraq — from Simon Jenkins to George Galloway — think would happen if their demands were met?

Would the Iraqi people, joyous at throwing off the yoke of imperialism, settle down at once to live in peace and harmony? Somehow I have my doubts. The wave of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing currently sweeping Iraq suggests that a rapid British and American withdrawal would be the prelude to civil war and mass slaughter not unlike the catastrophe of Indian partition in 1947.

That things have come to this pass is certainly at very least an indictment of the British and American governments’ failure to plan what happened after they toppled Saddam. And we can continue to argue about whether it was wrong to topple Saddam at all. But what is important now is that Britain and America, having helped create this almighty mess, do everything they can to avert civil war. And for the life of me I can’t see how they can do anything unless they have large and well equipped armies on the ground in Iraq.

20 October 2006

HUNGARY 1956: WORKERS' POWER



Paul Anderson, review of Victor Sebestyen: Twelve Days – Revolution 1956 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20), Tribune, 20 October 2006


The story of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 has been stylishly told before. Two books in particular spring to mind: the British historian Bill Lomax’s Hungary 1956, published in 1976, and Sandor Kopacsi’s In the Name of the Working Class, an eyewitness account by the Budapest police chief who sided with the revolutionaries, which was translated into English in 1986.

What Victor Sebestyen manages in his new history, however, is to tell the story with verve at the same time as explaining for a post-cold-war readership the international context of the extraordinary events of October-November 1956, when an overwhelmingly working-class uprising came within a whisker of overthrowing a Soviet-imposed Stalinist dictatorship.

In Sebestyen’s account, the roles of Nikita Khruschev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Dwight D Eisenhower, president of the United States, are – rightly – as important as those of Imre Nagy, the reformist Hungarian prime minister from 24 October to 4 November 1956, or indeed of any other Hungarian. It was Khruschev’s insistence on showing the Hungarians who was boss and Eisenhower’s refusal to do anything that might risk war that determined the revolution’s fate – its brutal suppression by Soviet invasion.

The revolutionaries resisted the tanks with petrol bombs and rifles, and the workers’ councils that were such a notable feature of the revolution continued to organise strikes and demonstrations long after ceding control of the streets to the occupiers. But their leaders were arrested and imprisoned and Hungary returned to communist dictatorship under the opportunist Janos Kadar, who remained in power until 1988. Nagy and his closest comrades were executed in 1958.

What the revolution might have turned into if Khruschev had left it to its own devices cannot of course be known. Sebestyen makes less of the role of the workers’ councils than Lomax and others, which to my mind is a shame. This was a self-managed proletarian revolution above all else, and it is not too fanciful to believe that it might just have created a pluralist, egalitarian, decentralised, self-managed socialist society.

But never mind. If Sebestyen doesn’t speculate about the potential of the workers’ councils, it is nevertheless clear from his account that the overwhelming majority of Hungarian revolutionaries wanted at very least some form of democratic socialism rather than a return to capitalism. The communist claim that the revolution was an attempt by fascists to seize power was, quite simply, a slanderous lie.

Could anything have prevented the defeat of the revolution? Perhaps if the west had threatened military action in support of the revolution, Khruschev would have been forced to back down. But the west was in no position credibly to threaten military action – the Hungarian revolution coincided with the debacle of Suez, which tore the Atlantic alliance asunder – and, of course, the Soviets had the bomb.

Sebestyen was born in Budapest and was a small child when his family left Hungary after 1956 as refugees. A respected journalist in Britain, he has a great feel for the politics of the 1950s and writes in a terse demotic style. This is an exemplary work of popular history that deserves a wide readership.

... BUT NOT TOO BUSY FOR THIS

Very pleasant to meet you, Louise and Stroppybird, without your catsuits on ... and with Dave and Lady M and the others there too it almost turned into the nearest thing I've seen to ...

I then made my excuses and left.

17 October 2006

TOO BUSY

Not much will be going on round here for a bit because I'm up to my ears.

13 October 2006

BIRDS IN CATSUITS

The comrades at Stroppyblog have taken my advice ... almost. Stunning redesign by Will.

HOW ABOUT THIS?

I've just found this flier for Tribune from early 1941 – when the Nazi-Soviet pact was in force. Good, eh?

LET THEM GET ON WITH IT

It is clear we need to get out of Iraq. Them Arabs just want to kill each uvver — innit guvnor? It's none of our business. Let em get on wiv it. Nuffink to do wiv us. Let em kill emselves, who cares, bloody Arabs, eh, guvnor?

11 October 2006

ON THE BALL

As usual, local and regional journalists hit the story before the nationals. What is the most important book de nos jours? Forget the Booker, it's mine, and thanks to Steve Russell of the East Anglian Daily Times and Bridget Galton of the Ham and High (can't find the piece on Google), the people of Ipswich and Hampstead know it already. Thank you and I owe you both a drink.

5 October 2006

DRUNKEN LEFTIST EVENT IN FITZROVIA

Just back home from my Orwell in Tribune bash at the Wheatsheaf, which went really well apart from my pathetic attempt at a speech. It was great to see you all, I'm sorry I wasn't able to talk to anyone at length, and thanks everyone for coming. I've covered costs for beer and books and if the IOUs are honoured the Tribune Fighting Fund will be better off by a couple of hundred quid. Good night, and I love you all!

1 October 2006

BOOGALOO DUDES

Hak Mao has found some excellent You Tube of Mott the Hoople and Iggy. Busy sad old fart that I am, I've not yet worked out how to post video properly. But I did "I Wanna be Your Dog" more than once live many years ago. And "Search and Destroy", while we're at it. And "All the Way to Memphis" and ... oh, shut up!

30 September 2006

MY ADVENTURES IN A GORILLA SUIT WITH JEANETTE WINTERSON

The news that the novelist Jeanette Winterson is to appear on the platform at the Tory conference next week marks a first in my life. Never before, as far as I am aware, has an old friend addressed a Conservative conference.

OK, I mean old friend in the sense of friend from some time back: I haven’t seen her since the launch of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, her first novel, more than 20 years ago, and I still think of her as Jan. But at university and for a while afterwards we were good mates. I shared a house with her, her then partner and a couple of others in Crotch Crescent (after Mrs Crotch the hymn writer, I believe) off Marston Road in Oxford in 1979-80, and I have fond memories of going to Staithes, near Robin Hood’s Bay, with her and another friend for a holiday.

She also gave me a bit part in a student production of Cabaret she directed, which ended up on the Edinburgh fringe (without me, I hasten to add).

For this spectacular, which as I remember was very poor apart from the singing of the lead characters, I had to do a dance in drag in a gorilla suit while peeling a banana.

Well, actually, it wasn’t a gorilla suit, because we couldn’t afford more than the mask: I had to fake an all-over suit by sticking black fur to an old pair of wellies and making a rudimentary pair of arm-length black furry mittens. (The dress covered up the rest.) The problem was that it was impossible to peel the banana with the mittens on – which I discovered only on the first night, as the audience howled in derision.

But I digress. The point is that the dancing gorilla in drag was being set up for something nasty. As I pranced like Walter the Softy and desperately attempted to peel the banana, the MC sang a song that started: “If you could see her through my eyes, you wouldn’t wonder at all…” and ended: “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!”

This was the cue for Nazi stormtroopers to invade the stage, rip off my gorilla mask and kill me. I then had to play dead while everyone else got on with the show, for what seemed like a lifetime.

I hope Jeanette has better luck with the Tories next week.

THE CAMERON TWITS PROJECT

This is laughable. Vote chump! Why has the Guardian led with it?

29 September 2006

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE!

I think it must be a slow news day in Ipswich.

HEADLESS CHICKENS NOT SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT – 1

Congratulations to the Labour Party on a successful conference. I'm with Anatole Kaletsky here, who makes several pertinent points about the outbreak of unity in Labour ranks – and about the extraordinary vacuity of the party's thinking on just about everything. Alice Miles, whose picture byline is the sexiest of anyone's in the national press simply because her glasses are not on straight – total geeky babe or what? – adds to the case here. Call me what you like, but the Murdoch press is increasingly the place where the Labour story is being told as it is.

26 September 2006

GORDON WAS OK

The boy done Gordon as we've always known him. He's as clumsy as ever as a speaker but sincere and serious. "Freeedom, decency, fairness ... common standards of citizenship and common rules ... and I've met many of them ... a shared national purpose for our country ... and let me say this ... I'm proud to be Scottish and British ... and I've met many of them ... together we defeated fascism and built the NHS .. . and let me say this ... thousands of chances to expand young people's horizons ... we, the Labour government share your concerns... and let me say this ... we are doubling public investment in social housing ... no longer a Britain of them and us ... and I've met many of them ... but a Britain of we the people working together ... the empowerment of local councils is what we must now do ... and I've met many of them ... and let me say this ... Britain cannot lead the world by standing still ... all the talents of our country ... a progressive future that is still to be built ... and let me say this ... poverty of opportunity and poverty of aspiration ... and I've met many of them ... there is a vision of the good society ... more prosperous and secure ... and I've met many of them ... we will never lose sight of your aspirations ..."

He'll do.

22 September 2006

COLUMNIST OF THE CENTURY

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 September 2006


No British writer of the past 100 years has a greater reputation as a journalist than George Orwell. His three great books of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia — although not perhaps as ubiquitous as his two best known novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four — are the only examples of British journalism from the 1930s now in print in popular editions. Every other journalist I meet, from foreign correspondents to sub-editors, says that Orwell was a major inspiration.

Yet Orwell’s journalism, or at rather his everyday journalism, is not as widely read as it deserves to be. Unless you have worked your way through the final ten volumes of Peter Davison’s magisterial 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, published in the late 1990s, you are unlikely to have taken in more than a tiny sample of the journalistic writing Orwell did in the last 20 years of his life.

Everything is in Davison, of course, but it is spread through more than 5,000 pages, interspersed with letters and fascinating ephemera. There was a generous selection of Orwell’s journalism published in four volumes in the 1960s as Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow Sonia, but Sonia kept out a lot because it was too political for her tastes. In the 1980s, the New Statesman produced a slim pamphlet of Orwell’s contributions to its pages and the writer W. J. West edited two volumes of Orwell’s broadcast scripts for the BBC in 1941-43. And a couple of years ago came a collection of his reviews and reportage in the Observer.

Until this week, however, there was a glaring gap. The routine journalism on which Orwell’s reputation is primarily based is not his work for the BBC or the Observer, let alone his half-dozen reviews for the New Statesman, whose editor, Kingsley Martin, he hated. Rather it is his columns for Tribune, 80 of which appeared under the rubric “As I Please” between 1943 and 1947. And now, thanks to Politico’s Publishing, they are all available in a single volume, Orwell in Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, with a foreword by Michael Foot and an introduction by me.

I first realised they would make a fantastic book 20 years ago, when I started working as Tribune’s reviews editor. I was already a big Orwell fan — one of the main reasons I went for the job was that Orwell did it from 1943 to 1945 — and my office at the paper contained the bound volumes of back issues. I spent hours poring over the yellowing pages, admiring Orwell’s direct demotic writing style and his extraordinary range of subject matter.

But simply to transcribe all the columns would have taken money Tribune didn’t have or time I didn’t have, and I never got further than dreaming. Ten years ago, after the New Statesman sacked me, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands and even got a proposal together — but then another job turned up. It was only last year I decided to try to get a publisher. Chris McLaughlin, the Tribune editor, mentioned the project to Politico’s, and all of a sudden I had a contract and a deadline.

I underestimated how much time the book would take even with accurate optical character recognition software: I spent the heatwave in July proofreading rather than sitting by a pool. But now it’s out, all the effort feels worth it.

Despite the diversity of their subject matter, Orwell’s Tribune columns form a single coherent body of work. In the words of the critic D. J. Taylor in his recent Orwell biography: “One of the most engaging features of the column, read sequentially, is the sense of dialogue, points taken up, conceded or refuted, continuity rather than a trail of pronouncements which the reader could take or leave as he or she chose.”

The columns are also still remarkably relevant. If there is a single theme that runs all the way through them, it is that the left needs a more nuanced conception of politics. And this emphasis on the things the left habitually ignored — books, sport, popular racism, the sensationalism of the popular press, the slipperiness of political language, religious intolerance — rather than the programmatic core of 1940s democratic socialism or the week-by-week flow of events, makes Orwell’s Tribune columns more accessible than anything written by his contemporaries.

I’m also hoping that the book will make a bit of cash for Tribune. The paper holds copyright on the Orwell it published but has never made a penny from it, giving away permissions to republish whenever asked. Now, with a bit of luck, it should at long last benefit materially from its greatest contribution to the world of letters.

Orwell in
Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, compiled and introduced by Paul Anderson with a foreword by Michael Foot, is published by Politico’s at £19.99. You can buy it here.

19 September 2006

18 September 2006

THE BRITISH INFIDEL COUNCIL DOES NOT REPRESENT INFIDELS!

The blatant opportunism of the renegade jihadist lapdog Harry in launching a so-called organisation to represent British infidels can only outrage all true infidels! He and his cronies are lickspittles of the jackboots of imperialism, a clique of rabid Papist-Zionist jackals unconnected to the militant infidel youth! The sole legitimate representative of Britsh infidelism remains the Infidel Association of Britain!

17 September 2006

GIVE HIM A COMPLETE IGNORAL (AFTER THIS POST)

Iain Dale has set himself up as the arbiter of the Brit political blogosphere and too many people are taking it seriously. I'm only number 50 in his Labour bloggers list and I just don't care. He represents nothing whatsoever apart from the insignificant gay Tory West-Ham-really-but-Norwich-City-on the-doorstep lobby. As a straight Labour Tractor Boy I know just where he's coming from...

16 September 2006

ORWELL AND SUFFOLK

The obvious connection between George Orwell and Suffolk is the surname the aspiring author Eric Blair adopted as a pseudonym in 1932: the River Orwell is the tidal estuary that links Ipswich to the sea. But his Suffolk connections go further than that.

As a 17-year-old schoolboy at Eton, he spent much of the Xmas holiday of 1920-21 with cousins of his father in Burstall, a small village just west of Ipswich, where – as we know from a letter written to a friend – he picked up a large cage rat-trap, which several biographers suggest was the prototype for the cage full of rats that finally breaks Winston Smith’s resistance to torture in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A year later, after he left Eton, he and his family – his father Richard, a retired colonial administrator then in his early 60s, his mother Ida, nearly 18 years younger than her husband, and his younger sister Avril – moved from the home counties to the small Suffolk coastal town of Southwold, to a rented house in Stradbroke Road near the lighthouse. (His elder sister Marjorie, five years his senior, had married and left home the previous year.)

The young Eric spent six months at a crammer in the town swotting up for imperial police service exams which he took and passed before going off to Burma as a colonial policeman. Not much is known about this time in Southwold apart from the fact that he got into trouble for sending a dead rat to the borough surveyor as a joke birthday present.

He came back from Burma on leave in 1927 and after a couple of months announced to his parents, who had by this point moved to another rented house, in Queen Street, right in the centre of town and near South Green, that he had decided to quit his job in Burma and become a writer. For the next eight years, Southwold was his main base – though he spent a lot of time away.

In late 1927 he moved to lodgings in London, where he experienced for the first time the poverty of the East End, then the next year went to Paris, where his aunt lived, in an attempt to make it as a freelance. But he ran out of money and turned to working as a washer-up to try to make ends meet – an experience that eventually made its way into Down and Out in Paris and London – before admitting defeat and returning to Southwold just before Xmas 1929. Feeling a failure, he took a job looking after what he called “an imbecile boy” in the nearby village of Walberswick.

The job did not last, but he didn’t leave the town for good until late 1934 – though he often went off in 1930-31, dressed as a tramp, to do the research for what became Down and Out; and in 1932-33 he worked in suburban west London as a teacher, an occupation he was forced to give up by illness. Not only Down and Out (published in 1933) but also the novels Burmese Days (1934) and A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) were written largely in Southwold. A Clergyman’s Daughter starts and ends in a Suffolk town, Knype Hill, at least partially based on Southwold.

His family had been living in genteel poverty until the early 1930s, but an inheritance and Avril’s success at running a tea room made them comfortably off. They bought a house in the High Street and became pillars of respectable society – Orwell’s father a familiar figure in the posher of the local golf clubs and his mother a doyenne of the ladies’ bridge circuit.

Orwell said he didn’t like Southwold, and the best bits of A Clergyman’s Daughter – a novel he later dismissed as “tripe” – are a vicious satire on the parochialism of provincial small-town life, including tea rooms. The chief protagonist of the novel, Dorothy Hare, is the dutiful daughter of a rector, and her reputation is destroyed by a malicious gossip.

But he had lots of friends there, including one woman, Eleanor Jaques, with whom he had an affair, and another, Brenda Salkeld, the gym mistress at St Felix girl’s school, whom he wooed unsuccessfully for several years and on whom Dorothy Hare was loosely based. And his distaste for the place did not prevent him visiting it regularly after he left, the last time in early 1944 after the death of his mother. (His father died in 1939.)

People apart, there was something about the bleakness of “the low, barely undulating East Anglian landscape” that Orwell liked. Although it was “intolerably dull in summer”, it was “redeemed in winter by the recurring patterns of the elms, naked and fanshaped against leaden skies”. Seventy years later, I feel much the same way. It's just a pity all the elms have died.

POPE BENEDICT XVI - WHAT A BASTARD!

The Pope's lecture in Regensburg last week was an outrage. He had the temerity to attack atheism and irreligiousity in a manner more fitting to the middle ages than to the 21st century. As an atheist I am so deeply offended that I am going out immediately to burn down a church.

13 September 2006

HEADLESS CHICKENS SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT - 3

Peter Hain declares himself a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership; Alan Johnson is already up for it even though I can't remember him having said so; you could add Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett, a Campaign Groupie and A. N. Other and we've got a bit of contest on for a non-job.

The big question, however, is whether anyone is going to take on Gordon for the leadership. And – please forget McDonnell – I don't believe there are any takers.

Meanwhile, Blair put on a stunning performance at the TUC Congress today in his question-and-answer session. Nervous he might have been, but he dealt with a hostile audience with panache. And he was right about public services and about globalisation.

12 September 2006

HEADLESS CHICKENS SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT - 2

David Aaronovitch is on the ball. I think I'm a Milibandite too, incidentally, though I can't see David M making it to Number Ten quite yet. Little-known fact: he used to turn out for the Tribune cricket team. Miliband, that is, not Aaronovitch.

11 September 2006

HEADLESS CHICKENS SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT – 1

OK, now I’ve read all the papers and – well, it looks to me that Labour did a pretty good job last week of ensuring that it loses the next election.

No one comes out of this smelling of roses. Blair has been forced to admit he is a dead man walking and has lost it with his party. Brown will forever be suspected of attempting a coup, particularly after the revelation that Tom Watson, the instigator of the letter demanding Blair’s prompt resignation, visited Brown at home the day before the letter was leaked. And Charles Clarke was “stupid, stupid, stupid” to have attacked Brown as he did, even if he was spot-on about what is wrong with the Chancellor.

Looking on the bright side, Clarke's intervention might just be seen in retrospect a year hence as the wake-up call Labour needed to stop it electing Brown as leader. But the chances of that are remote, because it’s still very difficult to imagine anyone mounting a credible challenge to Brown, for all his dunderhead incompetence (at best) this week.

John McDonnell won’t get the nominations required to run (and anyway he is not credible, for the rather obvious reason that he is a Trot headbanger). Clarke himself would get my vote, but I’d be amazed if he crossed the nominations threshold either. Either John Reid or Alan Johnson might do better, but neither has significant support either in the trade unions or among Labour’s individual members – for many of whom Reid is a hate figure. David Miliband is too young and inexperienced and has no political machine behind him of any description. The momentum is still all with Gordon, and that in itself means anyone with an eye on a future career will probably keep his or her powder dry.

So my money – for now – is on an uncontested leadership election, Brown becoming PM, continuing bickering from his many party critics as he fails miserably to claw back the Tories’ opinion poll lead, a Tory victory in 2009 or 2010, then 15 or more wilderness years for Labour as this week's protagonists try to take their revenge on one another.

Welcome to the progressive century, comrades!

GOT A BLACK CAT BONE, GOT A MOJO TOO

Been on R&R for the past week so nothing on the Labour crisis until I've read everything. In the meantime, many thanks to Emily C for turning me back on to the Blues Bar, which is still as marvellous as it was before the good friends I used to meet there — er — died. Fantastic jamming and some belting renditions of the standards. Don't go, because it makes it difficult to get a drink if there are too many people around.
'Cos I'm the hoochie-coochie man
Everybody knows I'm here

4 September 2006

DRINKING OPPORTUNITY

I've got a launch party on Wednesday 4 October in the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, London W1, to celebrate publication of Orwell in Tribune: 'As I Please' and other writings, which I've edited. All Gauche readers welcome, but don't expect very much free beer. Kick-off 6pm in the upstairs bar.

1 September 2006

BOOK MEME

Just to prove I'm not lazy, just busy, here belatedly is my take:

1. Name one book that changed your life
Modern Capitalism and Revolution by Paul Cardan (pen name of Cornelius Castoriadis).
2. One book you've read more than once
English for Journalists by Wynford Hicks.
3. One book you'd want on a desert island
The Economist Style Guide.
4. One book that made you laugh
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.
5. One book that made you cry
Waterland by Graham Swift.
6. One book you wish you'd written
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.
7. One book you wish had never been written
Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? by Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
8. One book you're currently reading
Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert.
9. One book you've been meaning to read
Great British Bus Journeys by David McKie.
10. Now tag five people
Everyone else has done it.

IKEA SUCKS

I went to IKEA's Edmonton branch today to get two Billy bookcases to match the dozen others I've collected over several years of bibliomania — and made the mistake of not persuading a friend or family member that he or she needed to buy some furniture too (I don't drive).

It must be easy to get there by public transport, I thought, and they've got a delivery service.

Wrong on count one: Angel Road station, which opens for two hours every day, is a mile-and-a-half away, as far as Neasden tube from the other north London IKEA. I did manage to avoid the horrible experience of the showrooms by going to the exit and walking straight into the warehouse, and I got through the till with my 2m tall Billy flatpacks at £29 each within 20 minutes. Hey, success, I thought, and I've beaten the IKEA hard sell! I've left without cushions, picture frames or rugs I don't need and I've not wasted a whole day!

Then came IKEA's revenge. I went to the delivery counter, where a young man solemnly told me it was going to cost me £90 to have the stuff delivered. I thought about telling him to stick it. I looked at him. He looked at me. And I realised I the only alternative was abandoning the bloody things and walking out, which would cost me £60 and leave me without the bookcases I need. So I coughed up. But never again.

16 August 2006

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL


Madeleine Bunting
is an affront to all that I hold dear. She is part of a mainstream media assault on atheists and secularists that insults us insistently and leaves us no option but militant resistance.

I used to be a moderate atheist secularist who was tolerant of believers, but the insistent vicious attacks by Bunting and her cronies leave me no choice. I’m getting so much grief from their condescending and uncomprehending assault on my culture, an assault reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, that I cannot contain myself any more.

In fact, I feel myself being drawn into a terrorist network that will burn down every fucking mosque, church and synagogue in the country! I wanna kill the religious indiscriminately! Yeah, that’s it! With car bombs and with knives! Suicide bombers for secularism! That’s me!

It’s no good blaming the government for talking only to extreme atheists: moderate humanists are out of touch with the anger of the irreligious masses, particularly us youth.

They need to talk to nutters like me if they’re gonna get a hold of the profound alienation that the atheist community feels today, particularly us youth. Otherwise the churches and mosques and synagogues will burn!

We demand vengeance – or at least representation on several Home Office quangos and a bit of understanding. Or else!

NOTE FOR IDIOTS: This is a satirical post.

12 August 2006

I’M A HOG FOR YOU BABY, CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF YOUR LOVE

All right, I realise that the remastered stereo luxury version of Dr Feelgood’s Down By The Jetty came out a month ago, but I’ve only just got the Nectar points to get it. And what a stonker it is ... except that, er, it’s no more than a stereo version of a very fine mono record, and Wilko’s guitar sounds better on the original. OK, there are some decent out-takes, including a fine “Route 66”, and “She Does It Right” and some others sound pretty good in stereo. But what’s the point? The extra material wrecks the integrity of the austere small-but-perfectly-formed package that the original was – is. I’ve had the same experience too many times. I blame capitalism. All the same,
If you see my baby walking
I’m not walking by her side
Ain’t no need to look too far
Because I won’t be hard to find

I'm walkin’ twenty yards behind her
Cause I love the way she shakes behind

remains a great lyric. I can see it, but I can't quite believe anyone ever did it.

11 August 2006

CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 4 August 2006

As some of you might be aware, it’s Tribune’s 70th birthday this coming January — and boy, are we planning a party! I have been given a sneak preview of the celebration plans and can now exclusively reveal what is going to happen (with a bit of luck).

1. Anniversary special issue of Tribune
There will be a special issue of Tribune to mark the anniversary. As in 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2002, nothing will be done to plan the editorial side until two weeks before publication, when a desperate call will be made to the former member of staff who compiled the previous anniversary issue. He or she will be too busy to help. The special issue will therefore contain the same material from the archives that appeared in all previous anniversary issues. No one will notice.

2. Birthday rally in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1

No left-wing anniversary would be complete without a rally in Conway Hall. The Tribune 70th birthday celebrations will be kicked off with an event that will rekindle comrades’ memories of the good old days.

Neither the heating nor the lighting will be working properly, so comrades will have the opportunity to savour all this historic venue’s traditional mid-January ambience. The legendary early-1950s public address system will also be in use, so the whole audience will appreciate the back-chat of those on the platform although no one sitting in the gallery will hear a word from any speaker.

The rally will be advertised to start at 7.45pm with eight speakers, but will not get under way until at least 8.15pm as the editor, in the chair, waits for stragglers from the pub. It will in fact comprise 15 speakers, 10 of them representatives of trade unions who have notified the editor the day before that there will be no more funding unless their man is on the platform.

The event will begin with an oration from a foxy international comrade whose command of English is uncertain and who reveals herself, after 30 minutes of fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric, to be an unrepentant admirer of J. V. Stalin. Everyone on the platform will retain rictus grins as the editor makes repeated unsuccessful attempts to bring her diatribe to a close before introducing a member of the Cabinet.

The member of the Cabinet will begin his speech by making it clear he believes he is wearing a famous ceremonial garment, the Mantle of Nye. He will go on to detail the success of the government in reducing paperclip wastage in Whitehall. Thirty minutes into his speech there will be an opportunity for audience participation as Mr Walter Wolfgang and assorted Trotskyist hecklers make an intervention, shouting: “This is rubbish!”, “What about Iraq?” and “You are not wearing the Mantle of Nye and I claim my five pounds!” A Tribune staff member will then pass a note to the editor telling him to get on with it because at this rate the meeting will end after the pubs shut. The editor will ignore it and call Mr Tony Benn to speak.

At 9.25pm, after Mr Benn sits down to warm applause from Mr Wolfgang and the Trotskyist hecklers, the general secretary of the largest trade union that subsidises Tribune will deliver a speech. By 10.55pm, after several other general secretaries and MPs have droned on at length, there will be fewer than two-dozen people in the audience, all either Tribune staff or relatives of the platform speakers. There will then be a collection, which will raise £12.47 and a £5 Argos voucher. There will follow a desperate search for a bar that is still serving and takes Argos vouchers.

3. Celebrity fundraising party, Queer Cavalier restaurant, London WC1

In addition to the traditional rally, Tribune will be holding a celebrity fundraising dinner orgainsed by Zhdanov Jenkins Associates at the exclusive Queer Cavalier restaurant in London’s Soho. Tables will cost a bargain £25,000 for rich bastards from the City who want to get in with Gordon (£2.50 unwaged and Tribune staff and contributors).

The highlight of the event will be a speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in which he will hint that he is wearing the Mantle of Nye underneath his suit. He will then make a coded reference — the import of which is made clear only to the political editor of the Daily Mail — to the effect that the owners of Britain’s newspapers can rest assured that the unions can expect no favours.

After the speech, everyone will get hopelessly drunk. At least one pissed hack will say: “I don’t know how to be an opposition journalist. I’m fucked!” — in homage to the great Mr Peter Oborne’s performance at Tribune’s 60th bash in 1997.

4. Article in Guardian Media

The editor will write an upbeat peice about Tribune for the Guardian’s Media supplement. The result will be a four-fold increase in circulation of the Guardian and a 20-fold increase in the circulation of Tribune. Really.

9 August 2006

OBITUARY: MURRAY BOOKCHIN

The American left-libertarian polemicist Murray Bookchin, who has died aged 85, is rightly credited as a pioneer of the modern ecologist movement (and as a critic of its back-to-nature, anti-modern fundamentalists), but he also played an important intellectual role in the revival of anarchism and libertarian socialism in the 1960s and was a historian of note. The essays collected in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971) provided, together with the work of Colin Ward and his collaborators on Anarchy magazine in London, the most convincing case for considering that anarchism was of more than historical interest as a practical political philosophy. And his The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936 (1977) remains the best available riposte to orthodox Marxist historians who dismissed the Spanish anarchists as a movement of "primitive rebels". The Guardian has an obituary here.

5 August 2006

OBITUARY: PIERRE VIDAL-NAQUET

The polymath French intellectual Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who has died at the age of 76, is best known on the Anglo-American left for his polemical demolition of Noam Chomsky for the latter’s defence of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson – part of which is available here. But he is worth remembering for more than that. He was a brilliant historian and classicist and an active left libertarian until his death. The Independent has an obituary here.

4 August 2006

IN DEFENCE OF BLAIR – 3: THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES

Like it or not, only a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine could possibly be viable: a "democratic secular state" is a chimera. Israel needs to be persuaded to agree to lift the siege of Gaza, tear down the wall, remove the settlements from the West Bank and accept a deal based on 1967 borders – perhaps with the status of Jerusalem still to be decided, with the old city internationalised for a period. The Palestinians need to be persuaded that Israel will not do any of this until they renounce rocket attacks, suicide bombs and so forth. And of course they will not be convinced until Israel stops bombarding and blockading Gaza.

Again, sorry, but this seems to be roughly what Blair is proposing. Is there any credible alternative?

IN DEFENCE OF BLAIR – 3: LEBANON

Hizbullah fires dozens of rockets into northern Israel, randomly killing civilians, then kidnaps Israeli soldiers and demands the release of prisoners held by Israel. Israel responds by air strikes on what it thinks are Hizbullah positions, killing civilians. Hizbullah continues to fire rockets. Israel responds with more air strikes, killing more civilians and creating a massive refugee crisis … OK, we all know the story.

Of course, it would be great if both sides just stopped. But both sides need to be persuaded to stop, because both have interests in prolonging the action. Hizbullah gains kudos with every rocket it fires; the Israeli government needs to be able to boast of success to frightened Israelis. The upshot is that pious expressions of the desirability of an immediate ceasefire have no chance of effecting one.

To complicate matters, although the Israelis have undoubtedly killed more civilians and caused more suffering in the past three weeks, Hizbullah is the greater long-term threat to peace. Supplied by Iran and Syria, it acts as a state within a state in Lebanon and is committed to elimination of the “Zionist entity”. Unless it is disarmed and the areas it controls are brought under the control of the Lebanese government, there will soon be another crisis like the current one.

This, roughly speaking, is the position taken by Blair and the British government, which have argued for a ceasefire accompanied by the disarmament of Hizbullah and introduction of an international force in southern Lebanon to oversee the process. The Lebanese government seems to agree, and there’s at least a hope that the Israelis can be persuaded to accept such a deal. Is there any credible alternative?

IN DEFENCE OF BLAIR – 3: IRAQ

A memorandum to the prime minister from the outgoing British ambassador to Iraq suggests that, as things stand, low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is more likely than the emergence of a stable democracy. Two senior American generals express much the same opinion.

Now, these are statements of the bleeding obvious – yet they are big news. Why? The legitimate reason is that it is newsworthy that high-ups are worried about what is going on in Iraq. Much more important, however, they give John Humphrys and other journalistic titans a chance to have another go at forcing members of the government to admit that the invasion of Iraq three years ago was a terrible mistake.

I’m so sick of this game I start shouting at the radio every time it starts. It’s not that the rights and wrongs of the Iraq invasion are not worth discussing – it’s just that they’re not now what matters. The issue today is what happens next and what, if anything, Britain and America can do to minimise sectarian strife and encourage the development of a democratic civil society in Iraq.

Now, one possible course of action is withdrawal of all occupying forces and either (a) replacing them with a UN force; or (b) letting the Iraqis get on with it unhindered. Option (a) would be fine if the UN had any worthwhile experience of counter-insurgency, which it does not. Option (b) would almost certainly lead to a civil war that is anything but low-intensity, with massacres and (quite possibly) direct intervention by regional powers.

Neither option is credible. At least if the US and Britain stay, there is some hope of keeping the civil war low-intensity. But isn’t the best hope for Iraq that the US and Britain do more than merely stay – that they actually increase their presence and make a concerted effort to suppress the low-intensity civil war? In other words, shouldn’t the left be supporting the current policies of the US and British governments regardless of what we thought about the 2003 invasion? Is there any credible alternative?

26 July 2006

OBITUARY: TED GRANT

Ted Grant, Trotskyist guru of the Revolutionary Socialist League (aka the Militant Tendency) has died at the age of 93. Thanks to Hak Mao for the link to this oddly moving obit by his long-time comrade in arms Alan Woods.

21 July 2006

TOMMY SHERIDAN LATEST

"Of all the things about me the worst thing said was that I had sex on my wife's bed with another woman behind my wife's back." Does this involve a particularly painful feat of contortionism? Or have I missed the point?

GEORGE GALLOWAY, STALINIST SCUMBAG – 2,453

My thanks to Ken Weller for alerting me to this, a nasty little piece by Galloway in Alexander Cockburn’s cretino-leftist Counterpunch to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the Spanish civil war. It purports to be an appreciation of John Cornford, the communist poet who died while fighting for the International Brigade in Spain at the age of 21 – but it is laced with venom.

“But for a bullet in the brain on the Ebro,” he declares, “Rupert John Cornford might have loomed as large as George Orwell in the British left-wing lexicon.” Fair enough. I’m not a great fan of Cornford as a poet, but he’s undoubtedly worth reading (and Orwell thought so too). But then Galloway goes on:
Orwell would probably have informed on him to his bosses in British Intelligence. For Cornford was a Communist.
And he continues, a propos the volunteers for the International Brigades:
their memory has been sullied by Orwell's slanders, unfortunately reinforced by Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom.
This is disgusting Stalinist drivel. Orwell did not have “bosses in British Intelligence”, and he did not inform on anyone: the famous list he handed over in the late 1940s to his friend Celia Kirwan, then working for a Foreign Office propaganda operation set up by a democratic socialist Labour government, was of people he considered should not be approached to write for it because of their pro-Soviet sympathies. Big deal.

And Orwell did nothing to sully the memory of the International Brigade volunteers. He did expose the vile role of the Stalinists in suppressing the Spanish revolution in 1937 – and his disgust at the failure of the British left to recognise what they did remained with him throughout his life. But that is not the same thing. There is not a word against the International Brigades volunteers anywhere in his work. Indeed, he became friendly with at least two veterans of the brigades, Hugh Slater and Tom Wintringham – both of whom parted company with the Communist Party soon after their experience in Spain and played key roles in the Home Guard in 1940-41 when the CP was defending the Hitler-Stalin pact. In the leftist jargon of the time, which of course Orwell hated and would never have used, his attitude to the International Brigades was that they were lions led by jackals. Which is a bit like the ordinary members of the Respect coalition.

12 July 2006

LORD LEVY ARRESTED

Well, what are they going to do about this? I think it's the fabled tipping point. Blair cannot go on.

6 July 2006

FITBA DAFT - 5

Well, what about that? Italy-France is rather a good prospect. Come on you blues, as they say in Ipswich. But I'm going for the balder team. Who have Italy to compare with Zizou when it comes to out-and-out slapheads?

1 July 2006

FITBA DAFT - 4

OK, so all my bets were wrong, and England turned out at last OK – a battling Scotland-style performance against Portugal, who cheated as if they were England in disguise. Rooney should not have been sent off, and when he was it turned into a scrap in which England acquitted themselves well. I was almost proud to be British again. But you needed a Gordon Strachan or a John Wark to turn it round. Or a Duncan Ferguson.

18 June 2006

MARKING - 1

I teach a History of Journalism course. Best so far from the exams:
John Spargo's expose ... of child labour in the sweetshops.

16 June 2006

FITBA DAFT - 3

Manchester United 2-0 Scunthorpe United.

They didn't score until the 83rd minute, and they were lucky not to have gone down 1-0 in the 44th. What a load of rubbish. Let's hope the Parsnips turn them over 6-0.

13 June 2006

GOOD NEWS

Google reports:

Your search – "put the muselman to the sword"– did not match any documents.

11 June 2006

FITBA DAFT – 2

All right, I know I said no more posts for a fortnight. But England were such a giant heap of steaming ordure today (for reasons I spelt out earlier) that I can't resist it. They would have been tonked 5-0 by either the Argies or Ivory Coast on today's performances and would struggle against Trinidad and Tobago.

My original scenario has, however, been falsified by events, so here's another (taking into account England 1-0 Paraguay and Sweden 0-0 Trinidad):
Sweden 4-0 Paraguay
England 0-0 Trinidad
Paraguay 0-2 Trinidad
England 1-1 Sweden


Final group table:
Sweden p3 w1 d2 l0 pts5 gd4
Trinidad p3 w1 d2 l0 pts5 gd2
England p3 w1 d2 l0 pts5 gd1
Paraguay p3 w0 d0 l0 pts0 gd-7

6 June 2006

AND THERE WE WERE, ABOUT TO STORM THE BARRICADES

So the university lecturers' pay dispute has been settled, it seems. Damn. We were just about to get into postponing exam boards. Now I've got to mark all those bloody exams in double-quick time. No posts for a fortnight, even jokey ones on football or femdom ;-)