Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Gender focus on BBC pay inequality obscures obscenity of people being paid £500k to read the news in a country where 1 million go to foodbanks

Whilst much has rightly been made of the gender gap in BBC pay, what really outrages the mass of people is the even bigger gap between these salaries and their own. How can it be justifiable in a country that has millions struggling by on the minimum wage, going to food banks just to be fed, to be paying people £500k to read the news. It is obscene.
published in Evening  Standard - 24/7/2017

Sunday, 23 July 2017

A short trip along the coast from Winchelsea Beach to Pett Level

The cycle from Winchelsea Beach in East Sussex to Pett Level is a short but mesmerising journey. A couple of miles in length, on the one side is the sea, jagged rocks rising out of the sand at low tide. On the other side sheep grazing in fields as far as the eye can see.

At Pett, when the tide is at its lowest, the remnants of the old stone age forest can be seen buried in the beach.

On the day of my ride, the sun shone bright amid a blue sky. There were curlews poking around the rocks, the occasional one taking off with that low trajectory flight, heading out to sea before veering in, probably to land in one of the pools at Rye Harbour.

Coming the other way to land was the Oystercatcher, that distinctive black and white pattern progressing low across the sea. An energetic flight, with wings beating, as it cuts across above the surf, the distinctive red beak just visible.

Already, on the beach among the rocks are the imperious looking egrets. A member of the heron family, the all white egret has a regal pose standing amid the many rock pools.

The return journey involved cutting in from the road to join the footpath running parallel through the fields all the way to Winchelsea. Rugged in places the picturesque route has the Royal Military Canal on one side, with lakes and fields on the other.

A kestrel rises from a nearby field, hovers, hunting its prey before making off. A matter of minutes later another kestrel almost replicates the flight of the first – clearly an attraction, a fellow admirer watches through binoculars from the hill opposite.

A cormorant comes whirring across the sky, a lumbering flight, no doubt off to Rye Harbour. Viewing the cormorant landing front on, it quickly becomes clear how much aviation has borrowed from the natural world of bird flight - feet coming down in similar style to wheels on a plane about to land

Three egrets sit in a tree overlooking the canal – they fly off as I approach.

There is though also a reminder of the harsh world of nature, with a dead sheep spread-eagled in the water.

The journey continues past fields of broad beans on the right – no black fly there – how do they do that? Finally, the journey through the fields in the sun ends at the base of the hill near Winchelsea, time to return back to base along the road in the opposite direction. A quick vignette of nature both stunning and harsh in the same instant.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Time to give those kids a chance

The recent success of the England under 20 and under 21 teams has reignited the debate about the development of young players for the national team.

The under 20s won the World Cup, whilst the under 21s reached the semi-final of Euro tournament but the big question now is what happens next.

The young players have returned to their clubs to continue development but how much chance will they be given at the highest level?

Over recent years, it has been noticeable how the number of young players coming through the ranks to take their place in the first teams of Premiership football teams has been dwindling.

Clubs increasingly look for instant success, which most often sees foreign players bought in from Europe. There is no need to develop the player, as has to happen with the youngsters brought through the system  The foreign player can, as it were, be bought off the shelf – the finished product, who can be relied upon to do a good job week in week out.

Managers will claim they are under pressure the whole time to compete, failure means the sack, with owners having high expectation and low patience levels when it comes to success.

The sacking of Southampton manager,  Claude Puel, having secured eight place in the Premier league and a League Cup final appearance in his first season was proof of the high expectations even among what would be considered  middle ranking clubs. Watford are another example, where changing managers appears to be an annual ritual regardless of how things have gone on the pitch.

The fans ofcourse are also fickle, they want success but also like to see the local home grown players coming through to represent the club.

The feelings of the fans on these matters was nicely illustrated a month ago when West Ham co-chairman David Gold tweeted to the effect that it would be unlikely that a home grown teenager would break into the club’s first team anytime soon.

The comment did not go down well among fans of a club that earned much of its name and reputation on bringing through young talent. Hammers fans chests swell with pride, as they talk of “the academy” that brought through the likes of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking, Joe Cole Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampards (father and son) and Jermain Defoe.

What did the comment say to the present crop of promising youngsters at the club? Players like Reece Oxford, Reece Burke, Josh Cullen, Declan Rice, Tony Martinez and Martin Samuelsen. It is also particularly galling for some players, who left the junior ranks of bigger clubs, because they believed there would be a chance at West Ham.

Indeed, West Ham’s once proud record of bringing through young players is becoming a more distant memory than the old Boleyn ground at Upton Park. The last youngster to really make it in the first team and endure was James Tomkins, who made his debut in 2008. He was sold last summer to Crystal Palace. Tomkins came through under the managership of Gianfranco Zola, who was the last West Ham manager to really give kids a chance. Others from that era,like Jack Collinson (retired due to injury), Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth) and Zavon Hines (Southend) have since departed or left football.

Many fans thought things would improve when Slaven Bilic took over as manager from Sam Allardyce, who really had no time for bringing young players through. At the end of Bilic’s first season (2015/16), the youngsters won the Premier League Under 21 cup. Bilic promised that the young players would be around the first team squad or loaned out. Plenty were loaned out but few featured for the first team. Some like Reece Oxford seem to have gone backwards.

Adding to the ire of the fans was a recruitment policy that saw some very average players being bought in from abroad. Some felt that many offered little more than the club’s youngsters, who were being denied a chance.

The West Ham way, which has now become buying in a foreign team to represent the local east London area, is not untypical amongst Premiership football teams, which will regularly field a team of all foreign players. But what does this do for the national team?

A number of times over recent years, England teams have been fielded with players that could not get into their club sides. There have been players, like Sean Wright Phillips, who have been signed by the big clubs, only to then be left on the sideline rather than get the first team action required to develop to the maximum of their abilities. Arguably, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Theo Walcott at Arsenal have suffered a similar fate. Had they remained a little longer at Southampton they may have got more chances, more quickly.

Some clubs are better than others at bringing young players through. Southampton have a proud record of giving young talent a chance, which still appears to be the case, with the likes of James Ward Prowse prospering at the club.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has managed to combine developing young talent, like Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier and Deli Ali,  with buying in foreign players, to create a Premiership challenging team.

It is this sort of progressive approach that is needed if those young players who have done so well in the international tournaments are to progress to the top level. They no doubt have the talent but need to be given the chance to succeed.

Not so long ago, fans took a more tolerant attitude if a young player was being given his chance and made a mistake or two – it was all part of the learning process. Eventually, the finished product would take shape and everyone would be happy. Today fans, as well as owners are less forgiving. However, if the young players are to develop, then they must be given that chance.

There clearly is another generation of exciting talent coming through in this country. Players that could one day be part of a successful national team. However, that will only happen if they are given a chance, a chance that must include the possibility of failure now and again.

*Clubs must support their young players - published Morning Star - 20/7/2017

Friday, 7 July 2017

Media have played a major role in creating the post truth world

There has been much said about the post truth society, particularly in the wake of the Brexit vote in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, but surely a lot of the responsibility for this phenomena rests with journalists themselves.

Take the Brexit vote, when two of the leading advocates, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, just happened to be journalists. Ok, they were in the government but neither hesitated to use the channels available via their past profession to advance lies like the £350 million a week that would be going to the NHS if the country left the EU.

Some have argued that neither individual expected to succeed with their campaign to withdraw from the EU but they saw it as a good wheeze. Famously, Johnson wrote the two columns for publication, one for staying and the other for going.

Beyond these individuals there are three other clear examples of the British media contributing to the creation of the post truth world.

The first was the ascent of Nigel Farage and UKIP to a place of significance in the political lexicon.

UKIP were a little known force of no more significance than the British National Party until some media outlets decided to give the party huge exposure. The excuse at the time - when there was an outcry about allowing BNP leader Nick Griffin a pew on the BBC’s Question Time  programme - was that covering UKIP was the more palatable option in terms of covering far right politics.

This view may or may not have been valid but what is for sure is that the publicity given to UKIP but denied the BNP saw the former rise to a position where it could dictate policy on Europe and immigration, whilst the other largely withered and died.

Farage himself was goldust particularly for producers of broadcast mediums. A media star, always ready with the quick soundbite and witty quip. A man from a City background, who pitched himself as a man of the people.  Forever seen in a pub with a pint, the Farage image appealed to the populist discontents. Farage amounted to good box office for the media.

There was precious little effort made for a long time to scrutinise the members of UKIP. Eventually some of the barn pot stories began to emerge, like the individual who blamed bad weather on voting for gay marriage and another who referred to bongo bongo land.

Farage though largely remained untainted. Notably, during the referendum campaign, after declaring there would be violence on the streets if immigration was not curbed,  the response from the BBC interviewer concerned was “want an ice cream Nigel.”

Indeed, the BBC deserves high marks in the post truth stakes when it comes to UKIP. The Corporation gave the party so much air time it was ludicrous. UKIP has appeared on 25% of the flagship weekly Question Time since 2010. The party itself got a regular pew to the exclusion of other parties, like the Greens (7%) and more recently the Liberal Democrats, despite its lack of Parliamentary seats.

The result of this easy run for UKIP was a large contribution being made to the EU referendum debate. Indeed, Farage and his party can take high marks for making immigration such a central issue in securing a leave vote last June. 

The second area where untruths can be said to have abounded has been the coverage of immigration. This debate was increasingly shaped by the right wing tabloids like the Mail, Sun and Express. Any negative story relating to migrants was given full play without any sign of balance the other way. A migrant who committed a crime would be given front page billing, whilst the positive contribution of overseas students to the university system and GDP of the country never appeared.

The lack of any positive news regarding migration in a country looking for scapegoats at austere economic times resulted in a logical conclusion.

The drip drip negativity regarding the immigration debate had its impact with the whole context being set according to the UKIP/Migration Watch agenda that there are too many migrants in the country and that they must be reduced. This negativity provided the key to securing the leave vote in the EU referendum.

Finally, there was the referendum question itself, where a whole number of untruths were put out into the public lexicon and not really challenged. This applied to both sides of the argument. The leave side had things like the £350 million change, whilst remain warned of the immediate dire economic consequences of a leave vote. Both claims make great examples of untruths in the post truth world.

The development of the post truth world has ofcourse also been hugely aided by the development of social media. Courtesy of the likes of Facebook and Twitter, individuals can surround themselves with like minded people, who just provide echo chambers for their own thoughts and prejudices. These prejudices are not challenged but reinforced in such a context.

So we have post truth, a situation where facts don’t matter. If a particular scenario does not fit with the prejudices of an individual then they can be dismissed as untrue. The scenarios that fit with those prejudices become truth.

It is a highly dangerous world, amounting to a mass of people continually putting two and two together but failing to come up with four.

The Brexit vote and triumph of Trump in America are due in the main to the way in which the mass of working people have been made to pay for the banking crisis of 2008. The austerity measures, the lack of pay rises and job insecurity have bred the discontent. But instead of seeing the causes and maybe asking for more from the rich and those who created the crisis in the first place, other scapegoats have been found such as migrants and the EU. It is a worrying world where ignorance almost becomes a badge of honour for many people.

Many in the media at the moment are struggling to try to put truth back on the agenda. In America, the post truth world has reached such a level that the President can cut out a large number of the news media on the basis that they are not telling his truth. Whilst it must be hoped that some sanity returns, the media have a long way to go to get back to a truth based world. What is more before that can happen, some need to hold up their hands and admit to the role they have played in creating the post truth world in the first place. Covering serious issues was seen as a game, entertainment triumphed over information and education functions of media. The result, the host of a reality TV game show is not President in the White House and Britain is set to leave the EU.

* published 14/7/2017 -Tribune - "The media have played a major role in creating the post truth world"

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Jimmy McGovern's "Broken" offers an insight on community, priesthood and a society torn by injustice

Jimmy Mcgovern's "Broken"was a brilliant drama, using Sean Bean's character Michael Kerrigan as the vehicle to look at a number of social problems.
The tone is similar to that of Ken Loach's film, I Daniel Blake, pulling together issues hitting people today in an engaging narrative.
Broken, though, could also be seen as an advert for the Catholic Church and the priesthood, showing both at their best - a supportive community, with an empathetic priest, committed to the fight for social justice. A priest, who is more social worker than police officer to his flock.
The characters are brilliantly drawn, showing both good and ill. If only there were more such communities and priests around.
Sadly, the peculiar nature (terms and conditions of employment) of the priesthood, often draws in the strangest individuals, who certainly have the demons of the Kerrigan character but lack the empathy and thirst for justice. There are some about but too few. 

Surprising, that the Church has not more openly embraced the drama, maybe those in the hierarchy see the Kerrigan character as too challenging, an activist priest getting involved?
 Broken though should be seen as a call to stand up and fight for justice in an increasingly unequal and divided society. A really authentic piece of work from a great writer and dramatist.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Is football still the game of ordinary working people?

The old news reels of football show mainly men, standing often in flat caps, with scarves and sometimes waving rattles.

What a contrast to today, when the football supporters are a mixture of men, women and children, All are all seated, some in luxury boxes, often wearing the latest club shirt, with players names on display.

So how much has the game changed over the past 50 years, can it still be called the working man’s game? If it has changed, is that for the better?

I began attending football matches in the mid-1970s, mainly at West Ham United’s home ground of Upton Park. The game was certainly different in those days. Most people were standing, the majority males, often fathers and sons.

In the early days, as a kid I used to get to the ground a couple of hours before kick-off in order to get down the front, where you were right next to the pitch and no one blocked your view.

There was a good camaraderie but these were also the days of football violence. There could be disruption on the terraces but more often outside. Away fans would run the gauntlet between Upton Park station and the ground – about a half mile stretch. A favourite chant from the home fans was: “You’ll never make the station.” Most did, with the side roads sealed off with police vans and mounted police everywhere.

The violence in my view was over hyped in the media. Some of the scenes I witnessed also made me wonder, such as when a police officer on duty came over and struck up a conversation with an off duty colleague standing nearby. The gist was there had been a great fight and he had missed out.

One of the most dangerous situations I got caught up in was at the 1975 FA Cup final at Wembley. West Ham beat ~Fulham 2-0 but in the crowd there was a surge. We nearly got crushed in the rush and but for a couple of men shouting out that there were kids, we could easily have been trampled.

These were great days for football, the spirit, and the excitement of the pitch side experience and the almost religious devotion of fans to their teams.

The writing though was also on the wall for the various tragedies that occurred over the next decade or so such as Hillsborough, Heysel and Bradford.

The owners of football clubs really did not give a damn about fans. Those that go misty eyed over the good old days, as though football clubs were owned by representatives of the people, who were at one with the fans really are deluded. If the owners couldn’t make money out of fans they weren’t interested. Compared to today, the football grounds were prehistoric.

The lack of concern for the fan was well illustrated in the period that ran up to the Hillsborough tragedy. The football was far more important than the supporters. So when there started to be pitch invasions, the authorities reacted by erecting fences. This put the fans in an almost cage like situation, unable to escape onto the pitch, when there was a trouble. The tragic events that unfolded at Hillsborough were partly the product of this approach.

The big change in football came about in the early 1990s. The pressure for all seater stadium and better conditions for supporters were at least partly fuelled by the perceived hooligan problem and then the tragedies that occurred. However, the game was also changing big time for the players.

It was not until the 1961 that the players union managed to get rid of the maximum wage. Up until that time the players really had not been paid that well at all. Some look back with nostalgia to the days when the players went to matches on the same buses as the fans. These were the days, when football was just a game. But a pretty badly paid game all the same.

The abolition of the maximum wage saw footballer’s wages increase. Fulham’s Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week player. The stars of the 1970s were well paid for their work. The glamour and commercial opportunities started to become available, certainly for the big players like George Best and Bobby Moore. However, what these players earned in the 1970s was small beer compared to the rewards on offer for the likes of David Beckham in the 1990s and the stars of today.

The cry sometimes goes up that football is not what it was because of the money. Money has spoilt the game. There is no doubt some truth in this view. But from another angle, it is possible to argue that a decent share of the increased money has gone to those who directly produce the product, namely the footballers.

The man or woman in the stadium might gasp at the hundreds of thousands a week that a player may earn but at least it is those who play the football who are getting the rewards. The Professional Footballers Association has played a major role in obtaining these increased wages, as it did in organising the strike that got the maximum wage abolished back in 1961. Arguably the PFA is the most successful trade union in the land, when it comes to getting a fair days pay for its members work.

Ofcourse the rising levels of footballers pay is not totally due to the union, the rise of agents has also contributed. The clubs can no longer dictate terms to the player. Some would argue the agents have too much power, being able to unsettle players by fanning interest from other clubs. Equally, they will make demands on clubs to get a better deal for their player. Perhaps the agents do have too much power but at least players are seeing a good reward for their endeavour.

The big jump in wages for footballers really came with the introduction of the Premier League, with accompanying TV money. TV had played a large role in football over many years, with Match of the Day a staple of Saturday night viewing. However, the arrival of Sky as a major TV football promoter totally changed the dynamic.

TV money has been flooding into football for the best part of the past quarter century. The boost offered by the most recent TV deal saw the bottom club in the Premiership last season getting as much as the previous year’s Champions Leicester.

The advent of the Premier League has certainly seen the position of football in the national psyche rise. Football is now often headline news across the media. In the 1960s and 70s, no matter how important the game, football stories always remained on the back pages and at the end of news bulletins. Today, football can dominate front middle and back pages of newspapers and whole news bulletins. Football is big business.

It is the big business element that troubles those who say it’s not what it was.  Clubs owned by foreign billionaires, some of whom seem to be more interested in piling up debt against assets, than pursuing the football ethos of the local area.

It can also be argued that the role of the fan has diminished. Television is the dominant force in football because it is putting so much money into it. So it is TV companies who effectively decide when games are played. The fans will accommodate.

The fan tends to be another exploitable commodity. The old tribal loyalty of the supporter remains but in this day and age it is milked by the clubs with the branding exercises, constant kit changes and price rises.

Despite all the billions put into football by TV, the price to go to a game is at a very high level. I often wonder how ordinary working people of the type who attended football in the 1960s and 70s can attend the game today. Admission prices have risen well beyond the cost of living over the past three decades. It is a strange irony that many of those playing the game for £30k plus a week come from the same backgrounds of those on the terraces, who would be lucky to earn such an amount in a year. Yet still the fans keep coming.

Take West Ham. Back in the days when I used to stand on the terraces, the average gate was about 27,000, with the capacity at 39,000. Last season at all seater Upton Park, the ground was at full capacity of 35,000 for most of the season. The move to the new London Stadium saw the capacity go up to 57,000 – season tickets quickly sold out, with all but 5,000 already renewed for next season.

Working people still make up the hard core of those attending football matches. Football though has become a fashionable thing among all the classes. From Princes William and \Harry to former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron everyone has a football team. (Though in the case of Cameron the devotion appeared superficial, given his propensity to forget which team he supported.)

There are more families at football matches these days. Girls are as keen as boys, with female football now really taking off across the world. (The TV companies have seen the potential for another exploitable source in the women’s game.)

Football though has come to reflect the business world. The clubs with the most money, employ the best managers and win the trophies. It was all becoming a bit predictable but then along came Leicester City. Leicester famously won the Premiership in the 2015/16 season, with a relatively cheaply assembled team. There were no huge wages or transfer fees but the players became imbibed with a team ethic and will to win that saw them brush aside all of those mulita billion clubs.

Leicester’s victory was similar to that of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s. Another team of also rans, galvanised to become an unbeatable force. The Leicester victory and those giant killing efforts staged by lower league teams in the FA Cup each year prove that football retains its magic. Whilst most years it is the big money clubs that win everything there remains that possibility of an upset, a giant killing.

Another complaint is that clubs do not bring through their own local players anymore. West Ham were well known for developing home grown talent, a tendency that reached its nadir in 1966 when the club provided three home grown players for England’s World Cup winning team. West Ham were the last club to field an all English team in an FA Cup final back in 1975. Today, though, West Ham have just one home grown player in the side, captain Mark Noble, with vice chairman David Gold recently warning that it would be difficult for youngsters to break into the side in the future. However, other clubs do it, most notably and successfully over recent years have been Tottenham Hotpsur with the likes of Harry Kane, Deli Ali and Kieran Trippier. So where there is a will, home grown players can still break through.

It also has to be said that the standard of football today is much better than in past years. The game is much quicker and the skill content higher. Foreign players have helped raise those standards. In a funny way the arrival of so many foreign players in football again mirrors what has been happening in the wider society. Just as employers in other businesses often can’t find the skills they require in the domestic market or that those skills cost too much, so too with football. Clubs have found they can get higher skilled players for less from abroad. It has been a marked development in football over the past quarter century that has seen the supply of players from the lower and non-leagues to Premiership clubs dry up. The top clubs go abroad for talent.

So overall, football has changed over the past 50 years. It has evolved very much in the way that the society of which it has been a part has done. The neo-liberal market economy that has dominated society resonates in football. The insecure contracts, particularly of those in non-playing roles in football clubs, the foreign players and commodification. Notably, though, the players have done better than many other workers when it comes to securing the fruit of their labours. Football does remain the people’s game, some of the people may be a bit different from those of the post war period but the game is more popular than ever. The sense of community remains, while the entertainment value is high. So certainly football is not what it used to be but who knows it maybe better.  

*published in culturematters - http://www.culturematters.org.uk/index.php/culture/sport/item/2544-football
published in Morning Star - 5/7/2017

Sunday, 25 June 2017

What happened to living simply

Whatever happened to living simply? It was a great idea, championed by Church agencies, encouraging people to live sustainably and tread more lightly on the earth.

I know the idea is a work in progress, with valuable manifestations in the form of things like the live simply awards for parishes but there is still a long way to go.

A recently published book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth, challenges the notion that humanity has made much progress at all toward living simply.

Kingsnorth plots his own journey from long walks in the wilds as a child through being an anti-road protester at places like Twyford Down to where he is today – living with his family in a bungalow, working 2.5 acres in traditional methods.

Kingsnorth has become disillusioned with the environmental movement or what he calls neo-environmentalists. He tracks how the focus of environmentalists has been reduced down to cutting carbon to address climate change or as he succinctly puts it “the business of sustainability.” The argument has become one of windfarms versus wave machines. Other issues like the mass extinction that have been going on over recent decades have been sidelined.

Kingsnorth highlights how consumption remains a false God under this model of development. There is no effort to reduce levels of consumption, simply to consume in a more sustainable way.

He also takes issue with the idea of progress as defined in society today.  He looks at the Palaeolithic period between 30,000 and 9,000 BC, when people were living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. People were taller and healthier even that late 20th century Americans. This well being was due to the healthy lifestyle but they became too good at hunting, killing off the food supply while over producing  people, thereby sowing the seeds of demise.

The next phase of development was agrarian, which was more labour intensive and less healthy and so it goes on. He mentions the green revolution of 1940s to 1970s, which boasts to have fed another billion people. However, the cost was in terms of what the herbicides and pesticides etc did to the environment. There was ofcourse also the need to keep feeding that extra billion and further billions beyond that.

So progress as understood, if not changed, amounts to the steady destruction of the environment.

The way to fight back, in Kingsnorth’s view is the live in a simpler way. He himself has recoiled from the world, moving to the small holding in to Ireland, seeking to live with nature, using the traditional methods like the scythe to cut the grass and make hay.

He has got rid of much technology from his life like smart phones, television etc. There is a sense of a turning back of ‘progress’ in the conventional sense to reclaim some of the simpler more eco-friendly ways of living. He talks of five points to adopt: withdrawing, preserving life, getting your hands dirty with physical work, recognising nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges to preserve creatures, skills etc   

There is much value in what Kingsnorth suggests. He throws down a challenge to walk the walk as well as talking the talk.

Kingsnorth’s recollections reminded me of the lives of two Christian environmental activists, Ed and Barbara Echlin, who live in East Sussex. They similarly practice what they preach, growing most of their own food, generating energy and not using aircraft for travel. They also campaign vociferously at local, national and international levels for the environment. They are among the growing number of people who live true lives of witness.

The Church has been slow to move on the environmental agenda, despite some excellent leadership in the area from Pope Frances and Pope Benedict before him. It is time for a renewed effort to live more simply in order that others can simply live. This effort needs to go further than a bit of recycling here and there, we need to fundamentally review the way in which we live and change life for the simpler.

*Confessions of a recovering environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth

published by Faber and Faber,  price £14.99
- article published in Universe 23 June 2017

Saturday, 24 June 2017

When will Tablet and other media give Corbyn a fair run?

When will there be some positive coverage in the Tablet of the Corbyn led  Labour Party? The election result was extraordinary, especially given the vitriol directed at Corbyn by the mainstream media and many of his own backbenchers. He had an astonishing campaign, promoting social justice across the land.
Surprise surprise, the social justice message found an audience across the generations but especially amongst, the young, who came out in their millions to vote for something they could believe in. It is extraordinary that as Church we go on endlessly about the social justice teachings but when a leader of the Labour Party talks in similar terms they get derided. Surely, time for a more positive approach?

* published in Tablet - 4/6/2017

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Jeremy Corbyn - zero to hero in seven short weeks

The result of the general election is still sending shock waves through the political system of the UK.
Nothing has been the same since that uncannily accurate exit poll came in at 10 pm on election night. From that point on, it was clear that PM Theresa May had badly misjudged the mood of the country, when she called a general election, having previously denied she would do such a thing.
The calculation seems to have been that the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party was weak and divided. The opportunity was there to strike, secure a 100 plus majority and rule with impunity. How wrong was that calculation?
The most amazing factor of the entire election was the way in which Corbyn grew in stature as May declined. Corbyn was constantly out on the road, talking to the public, debating in the media. Meanwhile, May seemed to be hiding from the public. She refused to debate with the other leaders, whilst claiming she was strong and stable – the person most suited to deal with the EU.
The launching of the manifestos was another crucial point in the campaign. The Labour manifesto was first leaked, then officially launched a week later – a deft way to draw maximum publicity to the content. The manifesto, which promised more funding for the NHS, health and education, went down well with the public. A public tired of austerity for the many, whilst the few went along with business as usual, getting ever richer.
The manifesto though whilst portrayed by some as some sort of outlandish left document was very measured in tone and fully costed. As the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith noted it would only put the UK on the same footing as other European countries in terms of how it was run.
The Conservative manifesto was another disaster, not costed, it seemed to target the very people who usually support the party. The now infamous dementia tax, coupled with a decision to end the triple lock on pensions and restrict winter fuel allowance for the elderly. May was backtracking on the dementia tax within days of the manifesto launch.
The question of the EU exit process, the alleged reason for the election, proved another strong area for Labour. A well nuanced position saw the party promising not to leave the EU without a deal. The position appealed to both remainers and leavers.
The election campaign was punctuated with terror atrocities in Manchester and London. However, even these attacks seemed to work against the Tories.
What appeared like a perfect opportunity to at last look like a“strong and stable” leader turned into another disaster, as police cuts - particularly in Manchester - that the Police Federation had warned against- were trumpeted across the media.
The result of the election was largely due to a very good Labour campaign led by Corbyn, against a truly appalling effort from the Conservatives.
Corbyn’s honesty appealed, especially to young people, who came out in their droves to vote Labour. The commitment of the young was brought home to me by my next door neighbour, whose son made a special trip back from York University for the day to vote in east London.
Labour also managed to mobilise, the thousands of activists who have joined the party since Corbyn became leader, on the streets. The organisation Momentum played an important role here. The energy and idealistic enthusiasm of many of the younger people knocking on doors and attending rallies was infectious.
Corbyn’s Labour also managed to overcome an almost universally hostile media. He continued to make the grown up arguments, whilst there was intense activity on social media to try to circumvent the negative coverage in the mainstream papers like the Sun and Daily Mail. The strategy seemed to work. The result should cause for question in editorial offices across the land – the message, to get out more and maybe talk to your kids.
One of the more amusing elements of the success post-election was to hear those in the Labour Party who have spent so much time over the past 18 months denigrating Corbyn, now having to praise him. As ever Peter Mandelson attempted another spin masterclass, talking in the third person of those who had under rated Corbyn, whilst failing to acknowledge himself to have been foremost amongst them. Meanwhile, the same media commentators who told us that Corbyn had no chance now pen pieces explaining why he won. Penance indeed.
The future now looks bright for Corbyn and Labour. Re-energised, the party can look forward to another general election in the not too distant future. If the momentum can be kept up and divisions in the party avoided, Labour should win next time. The one proviso must be that the Conservatives, with a new leader, surely cannot perform so badly again.
Corbyn needs to keep going – his energy for a man of 68 is truly extraordinary. I have known Corbyn for more than 20 years, often dealing with him on miscarriage of justice cases like the East Ham 2 and Bridgewater Four. Also, on Ireland, where his valiant efforts together with those of the likes of Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell helped lay the way for the peace process.
It is ironic that having attacked Corbyn relentlessly for his role in talking to Sinn Fein that the Tory Party now seeks to get into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party – a party with past close links to Loyalist paramilitaries.
The Labour leader has certainly gone from zero to hero in the space of seven short weeks. Never regarded as a leader, he has grown into the job, stood by his principles, when being pilloried from all sides. Fortunately, for us all, he has remained standing with his message of hope resonating with people across the generations. The challenge now is to keep the pressure on the government, as Brexit negotiations open. As for the man himself, he will probably be reflecting on the aptness of something his former mentor the late Tony Benn said: “First they ignore you, then they say your mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

* published Universe 16/6/2017

Monday, 12 June 2017

Confessions of a recovering environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth

This fascinating book raises some fundamental questions about the relationship between humanity and the environment.

It is made up of a series of articles that Paul Kingsnorth wrote in publications between 2009 and 2016. The result is an account of a man plotting his own path through life, whilst trying to make sense of the world in which he lives.

There is an element of the Damascan conversion, as he moves from the early years of walking with his father in the wilds of Cumbria and Pembrokeshire to the road protests of Twyford Down onto the environmental movement today.

This path leads to a certain disillusion with much of that movement, which he sees as being consumption obsessed, not seeking to make basic change in the way of life but instead just looking to make it more sustainable.

He criticises the lack of concern over the mass extinction of species that has gone on over recent decades, when the focus of environmentalists has been reduced down to cutting carbon to address climate change or as he succinctly puts it “the business of sustainability.” The argument has become one of wind farms versus wave machines, with no effort being made to address the question of consumption.

Voracious consumption can go on in this world of what he calls the neo-environmentalists, it just has to be done sustainably. So rather than look to a more simple way of living with nature, humanity seeks to bring everyone up to the consuming levels of the west - which will require the colonisation of other planets.

Kingsnorth looks at the idea of progress, which he concludes has brought humanity to the point of self-destruction today.

He looks at the Palaeolithic period between 30,000 and 9,000 BC, when people were living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. People were taller and healthier even that late 20th century Americans. This well being was due to the healthy lifesyle but they became too good at hunting, killing off the food supply while over producing  people, thereby sowing the seeds of demise.

The next phase of development was agrarian, which was more labour intensive and less healthy and so it goes on. He mentions the green revolution of 1940s to 1970s, which boasts to have fed another billion people. However, the cost was in terms of what the herbicides and pesticides etc did to the environment. There was ofcourse also the need to keep feeding that extra billion and further billions beyond that.

The progress question is a troubling one that does go rather unresolved in the book.

Kingsnorth provides all sorts of interesting vignets, like a chapter on the impact of the Norman conquest, which led to the concentration of land ownership in the hands of very few (mainly the crown) that continues to this day.

There is also some interesting wrestling with the idea of nature, a greater being and spirituality. Non-religious, Kingsnorth is captivated by the idea of the sacredness of the natural world. He describes a visit to the Grotte de Niaux cave deep in the mountain, where he finds the paintings of bison, going right back to the Palaeolithic times. He then contrasts the wonderment of what he saw in the cave to the activities of the de-extinction people today, who seek to try to bring back species like the woolly mammoth. Kingsnorth sees the latter activity of humans taking over the God role, deciding what lives or dies. The author suggests that one of the problems today is that humans see themselves as master over nature, rather than co-workers in the great plan.

Taking in the wide span covered in Kingsnorth’s work could leave the reader with a feeling of hopelessness. But he does offer ways to fight back. He himself has recoiled from the world, moved to Ireland and bought a bungalow with 2.5 acres. He now seeks to live with nature, using the traditional methods like the scythe to cut the grass and make hay. There is a vivid description of the creation of a compost toilet.

He has got rid of much technology from his life like smart phones, television etc. There is a sense of a turning back of ‘progress’ in the conventional sense to reclaim some of the simpler more eco-friendly ways of living. He talks of five points to adopt: withdrawing, preserving non human life, getting your hands dirty with physical work, recognising nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges to preserve creatures, skills etc   

 Kingsnorth succeeds in bringing together a number of separate essays into one embracing narrative. He covers much ground, asking some questions that need deeper answers. But there are fundamental questions for the environmental movement today, as well as the politicians who in many cases it would seem are simply managing natural decline, ironically, often in the name of progress. The hope in the book comes from the power of one, the power within us all to combat the destructive human machine by to a degree turning back to simpler times and life coping methods. Everyone can in some way make a difference changing their lifestyle to a more compatible complimentary way of living. 

- published by Faber and Faber, £14.99

published Morning Star - 19/6/2017

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Anti-terror legislation has not prevented terrorism, it has resulted in the iimprisonment of innocent people and the alienation of communities

It seems to be an accepted part of the populist narrative that every piece of anti terror legislation passed in the past 40 years actually prevented terrorism, so anyone like Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against such measures, was is someway soft on terrorism. This is a complete fiction, legislation like the Prevention of Terrorism Act did little to prevent terrorism but did result in the imprisonment of innocent people, like the Guildford Four and the alienation of communities (first the Irish, more recently Muslims).
Give up your liberties in exchange for security has been the cry of dictators down the ages, the same applies today. Making a bonfire of our liberties does nothing to prevent terrorism, in fact it marks a capitulation to the terrorists who want to destroy our democratic way of life.

*published Evening Standard 7/6/2017

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Political discourse on immigration is economically illiterate

How extraordinary to see the validity of any party’s position on immigration being set according to how much they can reduce the numbers by.

This country has an ageing population, migrants virtually run many of the vital services, like the NHS and education, yet apparently – post Brexit -we don’t want them. Migration contributes billions to the exchequer, without which vital services could not be funded.

Immigration will reduce when the economy declines and the jobs are not available. A ridiculous position that Theresa May seems to prefer to that of a buoyant open economy with migrants. Even former Chancellor George Osborne has described the Tories position on immigration as economically illiterate.

Maybe the questions on immigration should not be premised on cutting numbers but as to whether the politicians concerned want to make people poorer. If the answer is no, then it follows , don’t cut immigration.

Published Evening Standard - 6/6/2017

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Transitional season for West Ham, who must do better to attain top six status

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic deserves credit for securing an 11th place finish amid a number of ongoing difficulties over the past season.

Bilic himself has spoken about the “obstacles” of this season, when West Ham failed to improve on the 7th position attained in the final iconic season at the old Upton Park ground.

Indeed, the move to the London Stadium proved to be an ongoing headache for much of the season. The team took time to settle in the new environment, with many of the supporters unhappy. There were stewarding problems and some incidents at the early games.

Fortunately, things have settled down, with the team managing to win seven home games in the league, whilst drawing four others. Things should be better next season.

On the field there were the problems with French talisman Dimitri Payet, who went rapidly from hero to zero with fans. From the moment the Frenchman decided he was going on strike, manager Bilic decided he had to leave the club.

The owners had wanted to make Payet stew in the reserves but the player was clearly causing such disharmony it was better to get rid of him. Indeed, Bilic managed the situation well, using the discontent to galvanise the rest of the squad. This saw a revival in fortunes over Christmas and New Year with siginficant back to back home wins over Burnley and Hull then another victory away to Swansea.

The problems for Bilic though did not just reside with the change of ground.The club did not recruit well last summer. The signing of striker Simone Zaza on loan, with a view to a permanent move, proved a disaster. The loan was cut short in January.

Others like Havard Nordtvelt and Sofiane Feghouli took time to find their feet. Record signing Andre Ayew was injured in the first game against Chelsea and did not really start showing what he can really do till the latter part of the season.
However, the most confusing thing was the failure of the club to recruit a right back, as well as forward cover. Making matters worse, for some reason, the versatile James Tomkins, who could be relied on at full back or centre back, was sold to Crystal Palace for £12 million.

Striker Enner Valencia was also loaned to Everton for the season – another strange move, as those brought in to play in his role clearly were not better than the Ecuadorian.

The strange thing was that with a jump in gate revenues from the 35,000 attendances at the old Boleyn ground to 57,000 at the London Stadium, the club did not splash out on players. When the sale of Payet for £25 million is put into the mix, West Ham only paid out around £15 million on new players over the season. What the salaries were for some of the free transfers is another question ofcourse.

Among the successes was 21 year old Edimilson Fernandes, an £8 million buy from Swiss club FC Sion, who looks a real find.

On the plus side, West Ham do have the makings of a really good team, if they can hang onto their best players. Michail Antonio was outstanding, finishing top scorer, despite having his season cut short in April. Manuel Lanzini has stepped up to take on Payet’s creative mantle and could even eclipse the Frenchman in time. Cheikou Kouyate continues to improve and together with Pedro Obiang should provide a strong midfield duo next year. At the back Winston Reid remains one of the best defenders in the Premier League, while full backs Aaron Creswell and Sam Byram could become a formidable pair. Given the addition of a few quaility players up front and at the back and West Ham can move on to become a top six side.

It would though have been good to see more from the youngsters coming up through the West Ham ranks. There were limited opportunities for the likes of Reece Oxford– not helped by the early exit from the Europa League.

The latter part of the season saw the team at its most consistent, losing just once in the last seven games. The highlight of the season for fans was the victory over Spurs, which effectively secured West Ham’s Premier league status, whilst ending the north Londoners title hopes. Other notable displays over the season included the victories over Swansea and Crystal Palace at home – the latter with Andy Carrolls spectacular overhead kick to score.

Matters were not made easier for Bilic over the closing months of the season with seeming constant stories in the media about his demise. Those stories must have come from somewhere. Whilst hindsight is a wonderful thing, West Ham were never in the relegation dogfight, yet there were some who seemed to want to make out that they were.

The manager has to now plan for the next season. He has notably retained his dignity, whilst making comment about obstacles that have been in the way this past season. He has also said that moving to a big stadium does not immediately make for a big club – the transition is a gradual process that takes place over time.

The fans seem happy with Bilic. Though, from the owners angle, they no doubt look to teams like West Brom and Bournemouth, where the manager has had less resources than Bilic and wonder whether things should not have been better.

However, if they want  success then the owners need to keep faith in Bilic and dig deep in their pockets this summer. They have the resources, with the increased gate and TV money.
Bilic is popular internationally and can attract top talent. If handled properly, West Ham can move onto the next stage and really challenge for a top six place.  So a difficult season but looking forward, the future at the London Stadium looks bright.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Bishop of Brentwood Alan Williams makes Migrant mass call for practical action to help refugees

Bishop of Brentwood Alan Williams called on people to “open their hearts but also look to do something practical and tangible for refugees.”

Delivering the homily at the 12th migrant mass being celebrated at St Anthony of Padua in Forest Gate, East London, Bishop Williams described child migrants as the most vulnerable group.

He called for refugees to be welcomed as a gift to parishes.

The bishop also recalled how helping refugees is not always a popular activity. He illustrated the point with a story about a charity he was involved with in central London, which was given a cash contribution by a bank, on the condition that the gift was anonymous.

There were prayers calling for legislators to enact “new policies that do justice for our country and those who would immigrate here.”

There was also a call for those “who fan the flames of fear and discrimination against the undocumented maybe touched with divine compassion.”

A joint collaboration between the diocese of Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood, it was the first time in the 12 years of the migrant mass that the celebration had been held in the Brentwood diocese.

More than 1500 people crammed into St Anthony of Padua Church, with banners representing the Keralan Catholic Chaplaincy, the Goan Chaplaincy UK and the Slovak Catholic Association forming part of the opening procession.

Community organization Citizens UK contributed to the celebration, telling how they have helped settle 1,000 unaccompanied child refugees over the past year under the Dubs Amendment. The day before Citizens UK had brought three young Syrian orphans to live with their grandparents in Winchester.

If you have a spare room and are interested in hosting a refugee see: http://www.refugeesathome.org

Read about Citizens UK refugee resettlement programme here: http://www.citizensuk.org/save_lives_by_helping_resettle_refugees

Friday, 19 May 2017

Why is the growing ethnic diversity of the pew not reflected on the altar?

One of the most striking features of the annual migrant mass tomorrow will be the contrast in ethnic diversity between the people in the pew and the clergy on the altar.

The pews are awash with the many races that make up the universal Catholic Church, a panorama of multi-cultural diversity. On the altar, there is a uniformity of whiteness, with priests drawn in the main from the continent of Europe. The distinction is striking and instructive.

The Church ofcourse is not the only institution that fails to reflect the diversity of people on the ground amongst its representatives. Take Parliament, where there are just 41 Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) MPs, some 76 short of the number required to reflect the diversity of the population.  Business is even worse, with less than 2% of the directors of FTSE 150 companies being drawn from a BAME background.

Public institutions, though, including the Church, have recognised the need for more diversity amongst their leaders. This was acknowledged with the publication of Lord William Macpherson’s report (1999), which defined institutional racism as being “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.” At the time, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales welcomed the definition, urging “Catholic organisations and institutions to look again at how they could better serve minority ethnic communities in our society.” However, 18 years on, progress appears to have been very slow, certainly in terms of the clergy.   

A survey of the diocese of England and Wales by the Catholic Communications Network found many unaware of the number of BAME priests. And, where the figures were available, BAME representation tended to reflect migrant priests coming from abroad, rather than those who have come from the communities in the UK.

So, Arundel and Brighton diocese has four Polish parish priests plus another three as part of the Polish Chaplaincy and three Italian priests (two as part of the Italian Chaplaincy). There were also a Dutch, a Russian, an Indian and a Nigerian priest serving.

Of the 96 priests in Leeds diocese, six are from a BAME background – two from India, three from Africa and one Yorkshire born of mixed race.

Southwark diocese confirmed 23% of its priests were black, with another 10% from the Indian subcontinent.

The Middlesbrough diocese has “no BME priests actually incardinated into the diocese but does have four priests from abroad - three from Nigeria and one from India.”

One of the most surprising responses came from Brentwood, which includes East London - one of the most diverse areas in the country. A spokesperson for Brentwood diocese said: “I’m afraid I don’t have a record of whether a priest is black or from an ethnic minority – the main concern is whether he can offer Mass, hear confessions, etc., etc. and save souls. We could do a survey, but it would take time.  

So why the lack of progress in terms of BAME representation amongst the clergy?

Father Howard James, the first black Britain of Caribbean descent to be ordained a priest back in 1991, does not believe a lot has changed in the intervening years.

Father James doesn't think BAME men are drawn to the priesthood because they do not see members of their community as priests. “Sometimes as priests we are aloof from our people and we don’t encourage. Our Catholic community is not always welcoming and many of our black men see more welcoming family understanding in other faiths that they don’t see in the Catholic or even Christian faith,” said Father James, who recalled in his own case that it was involvement in Catholic youth movement in Jamaica and a number of youth groups in the UK, that his faith grew and encouraged toward the priesthood. “So that when the notion of priesthood came into my head and heart I was not scared or afraid to put myself forward,” said Father James, who believes that the schools are the place to start. “The Catholic sixth forms would be a place to look. I would also suggest fourth and fifth forms as places to look. We should encourage, especially in Catholic schools.”

Professor of religion and public policy at Birmingham University Francis Davis believes the schools are key but also emphasised that a strategy needed to be put in place to address the problems. “We know from every other institution that if there is not a strategy put in place to deal with the obstacles that those (BAME) communities face, then individuals don’t come through from those communities,” said Davis, who contrasts the lack of priority placed on the ethnic background of clergy with the approach of the Catholic Education Service, which chronicles in much detail the ethnic background of pupils.

The CES boasted in its 2016 census that: “Catholic schools in both primary and secondary phases are considerably more ethnically diverse than national school figures.”

Davis believes the fact that there are a high level of BAME pupils in Catholic schools but they do not then go onto become priests indicates a failing of formation and nurture on the part of the Church. “The fact that they are not going on to seminaries, indicates that they do not feel included,” said Davis

Oldham based priest Phil Summer believes that BAME people still feel alienated, not seeing the Church as an institution of their community. “We need to recognise identity much more in church, so when people walk in they don’t feel it is some sort of European establishment,” said Father Summer, who also believes this feeling resonates in the seminaries “If a young African Caribbean man was to put himself forward to become a priest, the institutional life of our seminaries would be such a culture shock as to make him feel as if he didn’t belong.”

This view though is refuted by Father John Oakley, rector of St Mary’s college, Oscott, who reports rising numbers of BAME  applicants. Of 63 students at St Marys, 16 come from a BAME background (six Africans, six Filipinos and four Indians). “There are signs that students are coming from the home communities,” said Father Oakley.

The late chair of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice Haynes Baptiste complained about the lack of a black bishop and the negative signal that this sent out to BAME people. He certainly had a point. Father Summer, though, is ambivalent about a BAME bishop, believing it could be a good or bad thing. He recalls some BAME bishops appointed in the Anglican Church having a tendency to denigrate their own background. On the other hand, he says probably the most prominent black Archbishop John Sentamu of York has done great work. “He has remained true to himself, a man of gravitas, who brings something different to the Anglican community,” said Father Summer.   

A BAME bishop would certainly give the communities someone to relate to, in a way that senior appointments in any public services have a similar effect.

The question as to why the diversity of the pew and school is not reflected in the clergy is an agenda that the CARJ has been attempting to address since it was established back in 1983.

“The persistent shortage of BAME priests in the Catholic Church in England and Wales over recent decades, and the reiterated call for this problem to be addressed, might prompt those in positions of responsibility, at all levels of the Church (eg parents, teachers, volunteers, priests, bishops, etc) – to look again at this important question,” said Richard Zipfel, a CARJ trustee. “Raising such a question, however, should not become a judgmental exercise or an effort to cast blame.  Rather, it should remain rooted in a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of our Catholic community and the wider community that we seek to serve.”

For the present there is still much to be done if the ethnic gap between altar and pew is to be bridged. The suggestion that the Church is institutionally racist is unproven, though most would agree that it has not progressed as quickly as it might since the Macpherson report was published at the turn of the century. What though does still need to happen, if the altar is ever to really ethnically reflect the membership of the pews, is for some definite structures and practices to be put in place that will lead to BAME priests coming forward. Simply waiting for something to happen, ensures only that the status quo is maintained and the white concentration of the present clergy perpetuated.  

*published - Tablet - 20/5/2017