Saturday, 31 July 2010

Progressive Postings - The Best Of The Blogosphere, Saturday 31st July

Today's blogs that are well worth a read:

Left Foot Forward on how Labour has fallen out of love with Mandy

Herd on 'what are social networks for'

The Bleeding Heart Show on tribalism in politics and music

Hopi Sen makes the case against all of the Labour leadership candidates:

Another exceptional piece by Jon Cruddas in the New Statesman on the politics of England:

And (modestly) Platform 10 on the Tory left:

What Has Happened To Test Match Crowds?

England are in a massively strong position against Pakistan.  It has been a cracking test match so far - showing all the intricacies that make test match cricket such an enthralling spectator sport.

However, as Alan Lee pointed out in an excellent Times column yesterday (behind a pay wall sadly, so no point linking to it) the crowds seem to have dwindled.  This seems extraordinary.  The weather in Nottingham has been splendid.  Pakistan are genuine top tier opponents.  The cricket has been great and the football season hasn't yet started. But still, there have been plenty of empty seats.

This has to be worrying.  Perhaps, as Alan Lee speculated, the Ashes has become such an obsession for England test matches that other series, unfairly, have taken too much of a secondary position.  Maybe cricket hasn't promoted this series with the vigour that it should have done.

There is also, of course, the fact that counties seem to see test match cricket as something of  a cash cow. Prices for test match tickets have rocketed in the past few years, with some tickets costing as much as £100.  At a time when everybody is having to tighten their belts, test match prices are reaching the point where they are too expensive for too many people.

Test match cricket must be careful not to price itself out of the market.  At a time when test matches are losing global interest to 20/20, cricket authorities need to do their best to fill grounds and introduce the joy of a day at a test match to newer, younger audiences.  Selling tickets at premium prices is not a way to encourage 'walk in' supporters or market such a tremendous product.

Hats Off To Joe McElderry

X Factor winner Joe McElderry has 'come out' to the Daily Mirror.  Hats off to Joe for his guts in doing this at such a young age, with a big music career ahead of him.  Hopefully, his example will inspire other young people going through the same issues that Joe is facing.  This is yet another welcome nail in the coffin of bigotry.

What strikes me is the difference in the reaction about Joe McElderry coming out and when Will Young, another ITV talent contest winner came out  in 2002.  Now the reaction to the Joe McElderry news is 'so what' and 'good luck to him'.  Although public reaction to Will Young eight years ago was overwhelmingly positive, there still seemed to be slightly more national hand wringing about the issue than there is today.

That just goes to show how much we have moved on and matured as a society in the past eight years alone.  And the last Government (despite their many mistakes) did an awful lot to make Britain a better, more tolerant country.  We are a nicer, less bigoted, more open country than we were a few decades ago.  And for that we should all be grateful.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Homage To Catalonia - The First Major Spanish Region To Ban Bullfighting

Catalonia has always had a special place in the heart of progressives.  Orwell's 'Homage To Catalonia' is a tremendous read of the bravery of many fighting on the Republican side in the Civil War (in other words, fighting on the side of the democratically elected Government, ejected by Franco's brutal putsch).

Sadly, Orwell's report from the front is also a digest of how the unforgivable non intervention of the British and French Governments during the Civil War (whilst the Nazis and Fascists were arming Franco) left the door open to the Soviets, who showed little respect for the Republican sentiments of the deposed Government.

The Catalans suffered more than most from Franco's brutal tyranny.  Since the fall of Franco, Catalonia has developed a unique identity - marked by the brilliantly successful 1992 Olympics and the continuing dominance of Barcelona's football team.

Today, Catalonia has made a brave and highly praiseworthy step.  It is the second Spanish region (after the Canary Islands in 1991!) to ban the horror of bull fighting.  The Catalan Parliament voted 68 to 55 to ban bullfighting, after a petition with some 180,000 signatures was presented to the Parliament.

 The cruelty of bullfighting is clear.  Vaseline is smeared into the bull's eyes before the fight commences and items are places into the bull's nose to prevent.  Long, sharp lances are then stabbed into the bull's neck and shoulders, before six spears are placed into the bull's neck muscles.  Following a lengthy near torture of up to an hour, the bull is killed with a sword being stabbed through the heart.  This is what some people still describe as 'sport' or 'entertainment':

Of course, whether to keep bullfighting is entire the decision of the various Spanish regions.  We should, though, pay our own 'homage to Catalonia' for playing its part in condemning this barbarous cruelty to the history books.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Hurricane RIP. A Tribute To Alex Higgins

There are sporting figures who quicken the pulse of the spectator every time they step into the arena.  There are heroes with seemingly superhuman talents who are, all too often, exposed by all too human frailties.  Alex Higgins, who sadly died on Saturday certainly falls into both of these categories.

The Hurricane was the epitome of breathtaking, idiosyncratic talent.  He looked like a man who brilliance at the table came easily too.  Not for him the dedicated hours of practice that the likes of Davis, Reardon and Hendry put in.  Higgins was all natural. His style undiluted by coaching and textbooks.  His brilliance beyond dispute.

He brought an edge and an excitement to the game.  At his peak, if the Hurricane was in the right mood then brilliant things could happen on the green baize.  And it was part of his make up that something always certainly happened when he took to the table.  It was his charisma and brilliance, along with the more subdued genius of the likes of Steve Davis, Ray Reardon and Terry Griffiths that made snooker massive.

He was a working class hero in a game that devoured the time of plenty of working class youths (including this one for a few years) and salubrious and not so salubrious snooker halls across the country.  The country took the man to their hearts.  Maybe it was, in part, his emotional vulnerability as well as his genius that people loved about him.  Those unforgettable scenes after he won the World Championship in 1982 helped to make him a real people's champion:

We all know that he had his weaknesses.  He liked to drink to excess.  He liked to gamble, by all accounts, until he had pretty much run out of money to gamble.  Bill Borrows' excellent 'The Hurricane' has plenty of tales of this excess - of a man who was barred from every guest house and hotel in the Greaer Manchester area and forever lived life on the edge.

His last few years were a genuine tragedy to watch.  Emaciated.  Down to 6 stone, having lost his teeth due to the ravages of cancer treatment.  He seemed so far away from the imperious genius who turned on the style at the Crucible all those years ago.

He should be remembered for his brilliance at the snooker table.  As one of the men who turned snooker, for a while, into the biggest television sport in the land.  His genius was undeniable and he is a sad loss to the world of sport.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Lamenting The Decline Of Working Men's Clubs As Trimdon Labour Club Closes Its Doors

Trimdon Labour Club has poured its last pint.  The club where Tony Blair repeatedly turned up when he wanted to connect with traditional working class voters closed yesterday.  It is a shame that Mr Blair couldn't put his hand in his pocket to help the venue that helped him so many times.

The closure of Trimdon Labour Club is just the latest chapter in the sad decline of British working mens' clubs.  In the 1970s, there were over 4,000 working men's clubs.  Now, there are little more than 2,000.  The decline of working mens' clubs creates a shell in the community of towns and villages across the country.  

The Working Men's Clubs organisation is one of the most important organisations in the country. It provides an important glue to help hold our towns and villages together. They provide great community facilities, an excellent social setting, great banter and excellent value drinks. Importantly, for a darts enthusiast such as myself, at the same time as other pubs are ripping their dartboards and pool tables out, the CIU constitution ensures that each club must have a board and a pool table. Ever since my Dad took me to some of the Working Men's Clubs around the Consett and Stanley area for a pint or two, I have been a massive fan of the Working Men's Club movement.

The sad truth is, unless the decline is arrested, working men's clubs will become an increasing rarity.  In an age where politicians talk about cooperatives and community involvement, the working men's clubs, the living breathing embodiments of such ideas, are in steep decline.

There are many factors that have caused the decline of the movement.  Some of these factors are irreversible and societal.  Some are connected with the tragic deindustrialisation of the the 1960s, 70s and 80s that hollowed out too much working class life.  But others can be changed. 

Clubs are suffering because they cannot afford to pay the extortionate fees of BSkyB, so are losing the football and cricket watching crowds to the pub chains.
The smoking ban was introduced completely ignoring the views of the working men's club movement.  As the new General Secretary says the 'no compromise' approach adopted by last Government has left elderly and infirm CIU members standing outside in the cold. Surely we can reach a compromise where working men's clubs are enabled to have 'smoking rooms' if their members desire?

I'm proud of my CIU membership. The decline of working men's clubs is another example of how, all too often, working class communities have been ignored and marginalised.  Hopefully, the working men's club movement can play a reinvigorated role in reinvigorated communities in coming years.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Saluting Merle Haggard - The Poet Of The Common Man

There was a great BBC documentary on BBC4 last week about the mighty Merle Haggard.  You can still find it on iPlayer here:

Greats like Keith Richards, John Fogerty and Kris Kristofferson (who I'm looking forward to seeing this Wednesday) were paying tribute to a man rightly described as a 'Poet Of the Common Man'.  People like the Byrds and the mighty Gram Parsons were also hugely inspired by Haggard in the 1960s.

One contributor described Haggard as a man who spoke for those people who drove trucks, dug up roads and poured coffee for customers in diners.  Relentlessly blue collar, with one of the greatest songwriting oeuvres of them all and a life story that is authentic and dramatic as you can get.

Haggard early life was straight out of Steinbeck - the child of poor farmers from Oklahoma, who made their way to California, as per the Joads in the Grapes of Wrath, in search of promised riches and in an escape from the poverty.  Of course, what they found, as did the Judds, was even more extreme poverty and a time when the Government didn't help the poorest in society.  Haggard sings about the poverty that affected his family beautifully and hauntingly in 'Hungry Eyes.  The lyrics are almost as powerful as music gets:

A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labour camp 
Stand out in this memory I revived; 
Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands 
And tried to feed my mama's hungry eyes.

He dreamed of something better, and my mama's faith was strong
And us kids were just to young to realize
That another class of people put us somewhere just below;
One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.

A young Haggard ended up in prison.  Haggard said in the documentary that the justice system is weighed heavily against poor people in the US and he was one of the poor people who fell through the tracks.  He fell through the tracks in a big way - ending up in San Quentin.  His time in prison certainly delivered plenty of memorable songs - one of the most moving was 'Sing Me Back Home', about a fellow inmate being taken to death row.

After seeing Johnny Cash perform in San Quentin, Haggard decided that he was going straight and becoming a singer.  He brought to the world of music an earthiness and a beauty in his lyrics that is seldom matched.  Unceasingly singing from the worldview of the working man, he sums up blue collar uncertainties in a way that few other artists can manage.  Check out 'If We Make It Through December':

His influence on the counter culture was minimised when he wrote 'Okie From Muskogee'.  A song many have taken as deeply ironic (Haggard claims it was written about his father's generation) but which the Nixon and Reagan right took to their hearts.  Kristofferson famously said that it was a tragedy that Haggard was best known for the only bad song he had ever written.

If the right in US politics wanted to use Haggard as a poster boy, they would have been deeply disappointed.  His attacks on George W Bush and the War in Iraq were unstinting.  Haggard was critical of the Iraq War and critical of the erosion of freedom under Bush, as Chris Willman makes clear in the excellent Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music.  Haggard wrote one of the most thoughtful songs to come out of the entire Iraq disaster, with 'Rebuild America First':

Like many greats, Haggard is a mountain of contradictions.  Composing songs of genius and forever running from his demons.  We should all, though, be saluting this 'Poet Of The Common Man'.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

What Might Have Been For Sunderland and England If They Had Made Clough Manager

What might have been.  Four of the most important words in the lexicon of sport, or politics, or any other walk of life you might want to mention.

They are the four words that and England fan or Sunderland fan might utter after hearing the name Brian Clough.

Up until Kevin Phillips came along, he was our top all time goal scorer.  He scored 61 goals in 54 appearances before his career was cut short by injury.  He coached Sunderland's youth team and said that he learned so much about managing from his manager at Sunderland, Alan Brown.  

There was a time when Brian Clough, a born and bred North Easterner and manager of true and rare genius, would have done anything to manage Sunderland.  Needless to say, we didn't appoint him when we should have done and he went on to win the European Cup with both Derby and Nottingham Forest.  The board members who were so memorably lampooned by another Sunderland great, Len Shackleton, thought him too much of a risk.  In the years after Clough and Sunderland parted company, Sunderland's history has been that of one trophy and too much under achievement with glimmers of daylight.  Thanks to Niall Quinn and Steve Bruce, the future looks brighter now.  But, if Brian Clough had become Sunderland manager when he should have done.  What might have been...

And then there is England.  Since 1966, we haven't beaten a top flight footballing nation in a knock out round of the World Cup.  Of course, Clough was interviewed for the England job in 1977 but the job went to Ron Greenwood and the years of hurt were condemned to continue for much longer.  The people who ran the England football team wanted somebody safe.  They turned down genius and they got failure.  As Clough said about not getting the England job:

"I'm sure the England selectors thought if they took me on and gave me the job, I'd want to run the show. They were shrewd because that's exactly what I would have done"

What might have been?  The question again comes to mind from tonight's evening of programmes on BBC2.  Always an impossible question to answer.  But, surely Sunderland and England would have both had a much more successful time if their boards had the courage to have appointed Brian Clough a few decades ago.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Durham Miners' Gala Remains A Very Special Event

I was at the Durham Miners' Gala on Saturday.  It remains a very special event.  For those who haven't been, all of the local pit villages march through the centre of Durham and towards the 'racecourse' with banners and brass bands.

Around 50,000 ordinary, working class people from the North East of England and further afield gathered in Durham for the Durham Miners' Gala or 'The Big Meeting'. It is a great symbol of working class communities pulling together and the pride of our communities in our industrial heritage.  It is a great celebration of the glory of a great industrial past.  Although some people turn up for the left wing politics being served up, most people are there as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our forefathers and the great industrial tradition of our area.

When I was  growing up in Consett, the Gala was always a massive event and remains the biggest event of its kind in Europe.  The brass bands, the remarkable banners, the folk songs and speeches and even the cathedral service are all reminders of the working class history, sacrifice and ideas. It is an event deeply entrenched in North Eastern working class culture and as far away from the rarefied atmosphere of North London coffee shops as can be imagined.

On the same day as this massive celebration of working class history, culture and identity, the candidates for the Labour Party leadership were gathered for a hustings in Southampton!!

It wasn't always that way. The photo above shows Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson arriving at a Gala in the 1970s. Every Labour leader until Tony Blair  attended and often addressed the Gala. Indeed, many of the banners carry images of the likes of Keir Hardie and Clem Attlee. It seems extraordinary that the Labour leadership candidates didn't speak to such a totemic, historic event, at a time when they are talking about re-engaging with ordinary working people.

Politicicians like talking about community.  I doubt that they will find many better examples of communities  pulling together in celebration and through the most severe adversity than the pit villages of the North East of England.  Politicians like talking about re-engaging with ordinary people but it is the sad truth that the Miners' Gala too often represents people who have been ignored and taken for granted by all parties for too long.  All too often, political events and hustings are regimentally organised affairs - open only to political hacks.  The cut and thrust of the open political meeting sometimes seems to be a thing of the past.

Herbert Morrison famously said that we shouldn't join the European Coal and Steel Community because "the Durham miners wouldn't wear it".  It is a shame that contestants for the Labour leadership and politicians from all parties aren't giving the same level of respect to the descendants of the people who were shown such reverence by Morrisson, Bevin and Attlee.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Team Ethic Has Been Triumphant In This World Cup

At the start of the World Cup, this was a tournament marketed around the superstars.  Rooney, Torres, Messi, Ronaldo.  And how did they do?  Spain would probably have been better off without a clearly unfit Torres. He does still have two matches to make his mark on the tournament though.  Messi didn't quite transfer his club form to the tournament (particularly on Saturday against Germany); Ronaldo was pretty much anonymous before Portugal were ejected by Spain; and the less said about Rooney's performance the better.

Although the likes of Muller, Forlan, Villa and Sneijder have really made their mark on this tournament, what has really made its mark on this tournament is the effectiveness of teams that are greater than the sum of their parts.  The teams who have performed well in this tournament are composed of players not accustomed to and conditioned by failure.  Successful teams in the 2010 World Cup have not been the teams composed of clashing egos.

Instead, the successful teams have been teams with team ethics and team spirits.  They have been untainted by past failure and by crushing ego.  I wouldn't go as far as John Barnes' suggestion that everything will be OK if we give multi billionaire footballers copies of 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' and 'In Place Of Fear' .

However, we do need to inject the team ethic into England teams and grow an England team that is a real unit and more than a collection of talented (albeit overhyped) individuals.  We need to grow an academy system that produces a talented new generation of footballers - looking at the German and Dutch success in particular.  Building an England team devoid of oversized egos, who will work for each other and play as a unit must be Capello's goal for the next two years.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Greatest Music Festival In The World

Last weekend, the Glastonbury Festival undoubtedly held on to its crown as, in the words of Ray Davies, "the greatest music festival in the world."  There is nothing else quite like it.  Five days of sunshine and fabulous music meant that everybody left Worthy Farm with a smile on their face.  Having been back in the big city for a few days now, I thought that today was a great time to look back on the high points of the Festival and the handful of things that could change next year.

High Points

The Sheer Diversity

Which other music festival would mean that you could watch the legend Willie Nelson, followed by the brilliant Snoop Dogg, followed by Vampire Weekend, followed by Dizzee Rascal on the same stage, one after the other, on the same day?  Which other music festival could give you the option of over 20 different stages all showing top class acts?  The joy of Glastonbury is that there is something for every music lover.  It is endlessly relevant but, at the same time, not a thoughtless slave to musical fashion.  Every kind of contemporary music gets a look in.  And that is before you mention the comedy, the poetry and the politics.  And the diversity of performers is matched by the diversity of the people who show up.  I saw people aged from 16 to 70.  All loving it.  All enjoying the same festival.  This all adds up to an event with a unique and impossible to replicate vibe.

The New Discoveries

Whilst seeing the big acts on the big stages is one of the big joys of Glastonbury, so is discovering lesser known acts on the smaller stages.  This year, I discovered the first class "English folk troubadour" Frank Turner.  Loudon Wainwright III was a classy performer, way much more than my previous perception of him as merely being father of Rufus and the man who wrote Johnny Cash's 'The Man Who Couldn't Cry'.  The John Peel tent threw up some stars as ever and looks like it has propelled Mumford and Sons towards superstar status.

The Secret Show

Every year, whispers head around the site about who the 'special guests' on the Park Stage might be.  This year the special guests certainly didn't disappoint.  Could it be The Strokes (whose lead singer Julian Casablancas played an awesome show in the John Peel on Sunday), people were saying?  Or Dylan?  When Thom Yorke walked out, soon to be joined by Jonny Greenwood, there was near universal delight.  When they closed their set with Karma Police and Street Spirit there was one of those special unifying moments.  Almost everybody I spoke to after the gig felt that they had witnessed something very special.  They were right.

The less said the better about Saturday's secret show by Biffy Clyro.

The Weather

I'm pretty used to trudging around a muddy Glastonbury wearing wellies and realising that it will take about an hour to get from one stage to another.  This year couldn't have been more different.  The sun shone and kept on shining.  Not a spot of rain.  You could sit wherever you wanted.  OK - it may have been a bit knackering by the end, but it certainly beats the mud and the rain.

Could Anything Have Been Done Better?

The Deckchairs

People seemed determined to sit in deckchairs, in the middle of the crowd, on the main stages.  It's pretty selfish, gets in people's way and is totally unnecessary.

The Flares

Sure, flares (by which I mean flames rather than trousers) look great on TV but I saw too many people walk into the flares that people had put into the ground.  Pretty dangerous, surely?

Q Daily

Q Daily is Glastonbury's daily newspaper.  It seems to have become a cross between the Sun and Heat magazine.  All trivia.  Surely it would be better used saying where all the hotly tipped bands were playing etc?


A real disappointment.  They really didn't hold the crowd as people gradually walked away.  Great on record and a good visual spectacle but more of an ego trip than the kind of Glasto headliner that captures the imagination.
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