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Solidarity on Strike Day, 10 July 2014

The media will tell you to regard today’s industrial action as “unprofessional”, “irresponsible”, “extortionate” and – worst of all – “inconvenient”. But remember that the mass media work for the Government, the Government work for their big business and banking chums. It is an inconvenience to them to lose a day’s trade.

They are not concerned if the teaching profession “breaks” because they *want* it to break so that they can sell the schools to their academy-owning business buddies, who don’t seem to think that our children need teachers to teach them.

They are not concerned if the public sector grinds itself into destitution because they don’t want a public sector at all: they want the tax money to go to their own inherited infrastructure and they want the money spent on public services to go to their private business barons to whom they want to sell the public services after brining them to their knees and enslaving them.

For the future of our children: RESIST.

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Of beef and gold

A tale of how one man’s crusade to save the rainforest from humans leads to an unexpected epiphany on the inherent evils of modern Western Capitalism.

I have enjoyed the recent three-part BBC Two documentary series I Bought A Rainforest, in which British wildlife photographer Charlie Hamilton James buys a hundred acres of Amazon rainforest land in Peru to try to protect it. His motives are clear and noble: like many a switched-on person in Europe, he has become aware of the importance of the rainforest as an enormous habitat of the vast majority of the Earth’s flora and fauna species, most of which are still undiscovered, as well as the critically important role played in oxygen production, which benefits all life on the planet and which is being put in jeopardy by the relentless chopping down of huge amounts of trees.

Charlie’s plan is to buy a plot of land and just preserve it in its natural state, by preventing people from carrying out destructive activities on it. The programme starts with him setting off to Peru to close the business transaction then travel to visit his land to survey what he has bought. It isn’t long before he finds a shed with recently-used tools in it, next to a small patch that has been cleared for growing coca plants, used for cocaine production. It seems that Charlie has bought his land from a man called Tito, described as “a local crook”. Worse still, Charlie learns that Tito and his son Elias are still squatting the land and conducting illegal logging activities on it, as well as on the neighbouring National Park land, using Charlie’s patch as a route for transporting the logs.

Charlie is horrified, angered and dismayed at what he has found and soon becomes despondent. After all, what can he do? He is one man who will not be living on the land, how can he hope to be able to stop these unwanted and unlawful activities when the authorities demonstrate that they are unable to do anything? He busies himself with some photography work, marvels at the extraordinary diversity of life in the forest, and expresses some heartfelt misanthropy at the wanton destructiveness of humans, especially rich First Worlders, who are the ultimate customers for the mahogany and the cocaine. At his lowest point he says “Sometimes I think I don’t care very much for people” – this will prove to be the beginning of the pivotal point of his journey.

Charlie really struggles with the apparently pointless and rapacious destruction he sees and I think most British viewers would share the same exasperation; after all, we can choose not to buy cocaine and to select wooden products made of more environmentally friendly timbers. We have choice.

Before he makes any decisions that would impact upon Tito and Elias, he decides to meet some more local people on neighbouring land in an effort to understand why they are doing what they are doing. He spends time with a legal logger, a gold miner and some farmers who are conducting deforestation on a vast scale in order to make way for profitable crops and grazing land for cows, mainly to satisfy the US and Europe’s insatiable craving for cheap beef. He even agrees to ignite some of the forest fires used to clear the land, as he needs to feel what they feel.

The real turning point for Charlie seems to come in the middle of all this, when he spends time with a local shaman, who demonstrates a canny knowledge of modern life in the “developed world”: he speaks of mobile phones, computers, emails, all of which he eschews. He is a man of the forest and understands its ways. He knows which plants have medicinal properties and how to use them. He knows which are poisons and, like any good shaman, he knows which ones will send you on a mighty weird trip.

The shaman guides Charlie through an Ayahuasca ritual. Afterwards Charlie reports having been acutely aware of all the life of the forest around him, all the diversity and richness. This includes the humans, who are also part of the life in the forest. This isn’t just some pseudo-spiritual epiphany though. It seems to help Charlie realise that the people working the land aren’t doing it for huge amounts of money, they are doing what they need to do in order to survive, as any animal and plant life does.

They are all, in fact, the victims of Western Capitalism and its dependence on abundance a of cheap materials. These people can’t make a living in more traditional and less harmful ways because modern commercial laws forbid this as much as the global economic forces to which they are subject render them insufficient.

When he visits Elias, son of the “local crook” who is illegally logging his land, Charlie meets Elias’ wife and youngest daughter who is disabled due to an accident that occurred when her mother was using an agricultural machine. They need to pay for her medical care, which doesn’t come cheap. Elias’ wife is six months pregnant. If Charlie evicts them from his land they will be destitute. Neither Tito nor Elias are “crooks” at all, they are men having to resort to activities which have been deemed illegal in order to provide for their families.

The gold miner doesn’t want to be doing what he does any more than Charlie doesn’t like it. His method involves using mercury to extract the gold, polluting the land, the water and the people. This has caused his wife to have miscarriages, including one that sadly occurs during the recording. A day’s work yields a lump of gold worth about £150 – not much if you have to pay for workers, materials and equipment. And, as Charlie scathingly observes, most of the gold mined is bought by banks, to hide away forever in vaults, to use to manipulate the value of currencies in consolidation of their own privilege and power.

It is the cattle farmer who gives Charlie his clearest lesson when he says “the land is not precious to me – what is precious is my children; the land will endure, survive – it can look after itself.” I think Charlie realises that to privilege a patch of land based on some mythical belief that it is worth more than the people is morally quite hollow. These people have as much right to live there as the yucca plants, the frogs and the jaguars. If they render it unusable then it is only to the detriment of humans; other life will thrive there.

Charlie comes to an accommodation with Elias: he will pay him a wage to work his land, planting and cultivating trees, some for ever and some to be cropped but properly managed and forested. His final realisation is most telling: “I came here to try to stop ‘the bastards’ and ‘the devils’ from destroying the land, but these are the nicest people I’ve ever met; these aren’t bastards at all – we’re ‘the bastards’.”

Retro-futureshocking today’s youth

KIDS REACT TO OLD COMPUTERS – YouTube.

This charming little YouTube film shows what happens when some of today’s children are given an old computer to play with.  In this case, the device is an Apple II, which would have been on the bleeding edge when it was introduced back in 1977 but, as is pointed out to one of the children, it would take over 850 of them to match the processing power of a modern iPhone.

Apple II computer. Image from what culture.com.
Apple II computer. Image from what culture.com.

The childrens’ reactions are predictable but still charming.  They are aghast at the machine and baffled by it, but they deal with it pretty well.  I think most people today would be stumped by a computer where you had to work it by entering command line instructions.  My first Windows PC still required frequent descent into MS-DOS for some functions, but even then – in 1995 – it was mostly point-and-click.  It’s amusing to watch the kids first look for a mouse (there isn’t one), then struggle to know what to do with the keyboard to get the computer to do anything.

I am reminded of the scene in Star Trek IV The Voyage Home in which Scotty has to use a computer from the mid-80s.  He first attempts to talk to it, then speaks into the mouse when it is handed to him.  Finally, when advised to use the keyboard, he mutters “A keyboard? How quaint!” – but then shows a remarkable dexterity with said long-obsolete peripheral.

The childrens’ responses as they navigate the system are cute.  I especially like the one who plays a game on the green-screen CRT monitor and gripes that “It’s really pixellated!”  No Retina or HD  screens in those days kid – that’s from back in the days when life was all retro.  Another exasperatedly exclaims “I don’t get the 1970s!”

What is slightly unnerving is the response typified by the girl who seems very tech-savvy and cattishly annoyed that there aren’t any apps, and the general sense of horrified disbelief that this computer can’t have apps and doesn’t have any Internet because it was made in the days before the Internet was invented.  The shock here is that there was even a time when the Internet didn’t exist.  (Not strictly accurate, I know: the Internet was built in the 1960s but the World Wide Web, which made the Internet meaningful to the majority, was only invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989).  I am sure that these kids will have learned about times of “yore” and “yesteryear” and “the olden days” in history classes, but these will refer to periods of history which, to them, are probably so ancient as to seem pre-civilised, possibly even pre-human as we know it.  But this – this device which they are told is a computer – doesn’t have Internet?  What does it do then?  What is it for?

Image from WikiPediaI could ask my father this question because he has a computer but is not connected to the Internet.  He doesn’t want to be on the Net, he can’t see that point.  Also recently, George R. R. Martin, author of the book series A Song Of Ice And Fire (more well-known as the TV series Game Of Thrones) shocked the tech world by announcing that he does his writing work on an old PC that runs DOS and WordStar 4 and is not connected to the Internet.  (I don’t know why this is shocking: he’s probably just comfortable with the setup and doesn’t want anyone hacking into his unpublished ideas.  He added that he has another PC that is connected so it’s not like he’s not on the Net at all.)  For these are the things that people used computers for in the pre-WWW days: word processing, spreadsheets, programming; in essence, they were large beefy glorified calculators and typewriters with the ability to retain information and perpetuate themselves.

But my faith in humanity and its future (in the form of these children) was restored at the beautiful light-on moment near the end of the film in which one boy suddenly marvels at how far computers have come so quickly, and that that is down to human ingenuity, intelligence, inspiration and enterprise.  And if that means that some of these kids will take their technology a little less for granted, then that is a thought that means that my cockles are warmed just a little.

 

The House of Lords at the State Opening of Parliament. (Stuff.co.nz)

The Queen’s Hostage

One thing we are very good at here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is pomp and ceremony, especially where matters of State overlap with Royalty and National Tradition. Royal weddings and State funerals are perhaps the most celebrated of these, but yesterday we saw the most fabulous instance of this type of national ceremony, one which happens every year and has happened every year for centuries: the State Opening Of Parliament.

This takes place in the Palace of Westminster in London. The Monarch – currently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – arrives at the Palace, takes her seat upon the Pricipal Throne in the House of Lords, then summons the Members of the House of Commons to attend, and then she reads the Queen’s Speech which sets out what legislative agenda the Government is setting for Parliament to work on over the coming year.

The Yeomen of The Guard conduct their search with lamps.  (The Telegraph)
The Yeomen of The Guard conduct their search with lamps. (The Telegraph)

Throughout the morning, preparations are made for the arrival of the Queen. The Yeoman Of The Guard - the oldest British military corps in existence, which includes a Yeoman Bed Goer and Yeoman Bed Hanger - conduct a security tour of the Palace, for which they receive a glass of port each. The Lifeguards, the Blues and Royals, and the Gentlemen-at-Arms all arrive and take their places lining the corridors of the Palace along which the Queen will walk later, all wearing their finest ceremonial dress, all gleaming brass, shiny leather and horse-plumèd helms.

Getty Images
The Imperial State Crown (Getty Images)

Some of the Crown Jewels arrive from the Tower of London: the Great Sword of State; the Cap of Maintenance, an heraldic item given to monarchs by Popes in pre-Reformation times to symbolise their favour with the Papacy and a symbol of the Monarch’s divinely-appointed status; most importantly, the Imperial State Crown, placed upon the Monarch’s head by the Archbishop of Canterbury at their coronation, further symbolising their divinely-approved office.  It is as though all the tradition imbues these objects with a magical power, the way they are carried through the corridors on their own velvet cushions by highly-liveried ushers. Huge gilded maces carry the sign of Royal potency at various times.

Next come the Heralds, the lords of the College of Arms, all clad in Royal Standard jerkins. These are followed by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who will sit alongside the Queen as her eventual successor (although we are not really supposed to speak of this).

The Palace secured and lined with velvet, gold and guards, Her Majesty herself arrives, this year in the Imperial State Carriage, newly made in Australia. At the moment of her arrival under the Victoria Tower, the Union Flag is lowered and replaced with the Royal Standard. And that is when it is really clear: this is after all a Royal Palace, it belongs to the Queen, and on this day she takes up residence again.

But then something truly remarkable happens. A lone person, clad in black, appears at the end of a long corridor and bellows: “Speeeeeeeeeeeeaaakeeeerrrrrrrrrrrr!

A short procession of people dressed mostly in black and unguarded walks down this corridor to the Central Lobby, at which point a Police officer calls out “hats off strangers!” – anyone wearing a hat must doff so that no face is concealed. This procession consists of the Speaker of the House of Commons, his or her Chaplain, and the Serjeant-at-Arms of the House. They enter the House and the door is closed for private prayers.

Black Rod, with his black rod.  Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers, Black Rod 2009-10. (Daily Mail)
Black Rod, with his black rod. Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers, Black Rod 2009-10. (Daily Mail)

Once the Queen has taken her throne in the Lords, she bids the Members of the Commons to attend her. A man clad in black carrying a long ebony cane over his shoulder makes his way along the corridor from The Lords to the Commons. He has the chilling title of the Gentleman Usher Of The Black Rod. As he approaches the door of the Commons Chamber the Serjeant calls out “It’s Black Rod – shut the door!” And the door is slammed in Black Rod’s face. He then bangs the end of his titular rod three times hard on the door (the strike marks of many successive years are there to see and, presumably, for him to aim at), at which the Serjeant opens it and escorts Black Rod to the Bar of the House. He then passes on the Queen’s wish for the Members “to attend Her Majesty in the Other House”, but does so in slightly different language from the Monarch, this time more as a polite request. At this point Dennis Skinner, the veteran Labour MP for Bolsover, usually retorts with a cutting witty jibe: one year it was “Has Helen Mirren come this time?”; this year it was “The Coalition’s last stand”.

Dennis Skinner MP.  (BBC)
Dennis Skinner MP. (BBC)

With a ripple of mirth from Skinner’s remark, the MPs then rise and file out of the Commons Chamber, starting in pairs with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and make their way to the Lords Chamber. Once assembled, the Queen is presented with and reads out a speech outlining what Bills the Government plans to pass through Parliament over the coming year. This is the crucial point: the Queen arrives in all her State pomp and displays of military power, then requests that her Commons attend, for her to read a Speech that they have written, for it is them who actually make the laws of this country.

All of the pomp can look ridiculous, wasteful and unnecessary, and indeed perhaps we do not need it. But it does serve a purpose and is no “ceremony of innocence”: it shows that the Monarchy still exists, that all authority in this country comes from it, that all the military swear allegiance to it – but it itself has no power, all real power being in the hands of the Commons, who only attend the Queen by their agreement to her request. The ritual of Black Rod reminds us that the Monarch has not been permitted to enter the Commons Chamber since Charles I walked in and arrested a group of MPs, sparking off the English Civil War. It is all a symbol of how our democracy and government have come about, a reminder of the sometimes tumultuous history of power, who has assumed and wielded it and on whose behalf.  Staid it may now be, but it also shows the precariousness of the status quo.

The presence of the Yeoman dates back to the Gunpowder Plot against King James I, so nearly successful. They search the Palace cellars to ensure there are no explosives or concealed traitors. All the heavy military presence stems from the fact that the Monarch is not welcome in the Palace and, despite it being hers, she is only allowed in it with common assent, and so she feels threatened, even if only ceremonially. Another feature of this is that when the Queen leaves Buckingham Palace, her household demands an MP be kept at the Palace as the “Queen’s Hostage”, as a ransom against her life: “one of ours for her.” One MP who had fulfilled this role one year described how he had been kitted out in top hat and tails, driven there in a state car, and once there is allowed to roam freely in the Palace and do what he pleases. But, he said, he was constantly aware that he was under guard and not allowed to leave, and it was made reassuringly clear to him by the guard that should anything happen to the Queen, he would be dispatched swiftly. “I don’t think he was joking either”, he added with a nervous smile.

Image from BBC
Image from BBC

 

Letters never sent

So … I’ve relaunched the blog – albeit without much fanfare – having looked back over the last year, had a good think, decided to carry on with it, selected a new WordPress theme after trying a few out, invested in some new blogging and writing software – ready to go with some new posts.

Except I’m not because I can’t write anything. I’m suffering from classic writer’s block. I have an idea, it seems good so I make some notes, I ruminate on it for a while, I start planning a draft, I might even write a draft or part of one. But when the moment comes to sit at the computer or iPad to type, the blank page and the blinking cursor get right up in my grill and stare me down.

I will distract myself with iTunes, Facebook, Twitter, even to the extent of doing some admin or housekeeping – I always used to joke to myself that the house was never in as good a condition as when I was a postgraduate student and I had an essay to write. It’s analogous to what astronomers call “averted vision” – the phenomenon whereby the location of some peoples’ blind spots in their eyeballs means that they can’t look at points of light (such as stars and planets) directly, they have to look slightly to one side. I have this. You get used to it but the frustration is that you can never look directly at what it is you are trying to see. Similarly with writing, I can do anything but what I’m supposed to be doing; if at any moment I start concentrating on one of my distractions, I have to stop and move on to another, selected almost at random.

Blog posts need to be written “when the energy is up”, to borrow a phrase from Brian Eno. The internet is rapidly ephemeral and you have to catch the moment quickly, subjects become passé so quickly. What I have also observed of myself is that if I don’t write the article quickly, I lose interest in very soon. This hgiven rise to an anxiety: if I can’t be bothered to write it, then why should I expect anyone else to be bothered to read it? But does this then mean that the articles I did post were actually rubbish but were the “lucky ones” that kept my attention long enough to write them!

Such anxiety is preventing me from writing now. I have had a number of ideas that seemed good at the time but are now languishing as drafts. These letters-never-sent (another borrowing, this time from REM) include:

  • a personal obituary to Tony Benn, where I compare and contrast his career to that of Margaret Thatcher, them being the only two politicians to have been given the honour of lying in state in the Palace of Westminster prior to their funerals;
  • an obituary to Colin Pillinger called “a very English spaceman”;
  • an article called “your child is not special”;
  • an appreciative review of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a return to form for the series that had lost it’s way with the preceding instalment.

All of these were conceived, agonised over, drafted … and then died, miscarried.

I don’t know where I’m going with this post so I’ll finish it here.

I have been looking for the ideal time to formally relaunch the blog but am now thinking that such a moment belongs to myth. The more I try to focus on it the more elusive it seems, like trying to remember a memory on waking up or trying to catch a mote of ash in a drink. But any good shopkeeper or pub landlord (and goodness knows we British are good at those things) will tell you that there is no point trying to make your shop be in perfect order when you have customers waiting outside and it is opening time. So here it is.

Welcome to The Ashy Pint – reimagined, revisioned, repurposed, rebuilt and redecorated!

I’ve tried out a few themes and have settled on Twenty Thirteen for now.

I’ve revised the About page and will be adding an Autobiography: this is a personal blog so it seems only fair that readers should have a sense of where I’m coming from. I will also add a digest of articles on the blog that I think are of special interest.

I have launched a companion site – The Widening Gyre – on Tumblr. More about that later.

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Ayrton Senna da Silva 1960-1994

Senna died at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola on 1 May 1994. Today BBC Formula 1 commemorated the twentieth anniversary. I don’t recall those days of F1, they were before my time; but I don’t mind admitting that I was watching the tribute today through tears and I’m typing this with a lump in my throat. It’s the spirit of the true warrior, the full heart of a real man, the powerful goodness of a fully realised and dedicated human being.

After his body had been removed from the car they found an Austrian flag folded up inside. Senna had been going to wave it at the end of the race in tribute to the young Roland Ratzenberger who had died in qualifying the day before.

If trees could sing …

This is What it Sounds Like When You Put Tree Rings on a Record Player – Expanded Consciousness.

The title is misleading: this is not what it sounds like when you put a slice of tree on a record player.  That would just destroy your stylus needle.  What this is, however, is very ingenious and beautiful when you strip away the hippy bollocks.

This is the work of a chap called Bartholomäus Traubeck.  What he has done is take create a stylus using a PlayStation Eye camera and a stepper motor, plus some software jiggery-pokery within Ableton to translate the images of the grooves in  a tree’s ring system into sonic form which sounds like music because it is rendered as piano sounds.  The results are very arresting and eerily beautiful.  I like the idea that different trees produce different sounding “musics”.

Let’s be clear here: trees do not create music.  Even the musical effects of the sound of wind in their branches is a product of the human mind’s extraordinary capacity to recognise and shape forms in its own experience.  It is entirely subjective.  But the sounds created here are indeed lovely, much in the way that other aleatory systems – such as aeolian harps – create surprising and charming “music”.

The Firefighters

Remember the firefighters this May Day. Remember them and their courage as they face extreme danger and heat to rescue peoples’ loved ones. Remember the firefighters when the Government-sponsored media try to tell you that they are not worth their pensions.

Remember it further when the Government-sponsored media try to tell you again that public sector workers are not worth pay increases to try to bring them more in line with the bloated cost of living. Our so-called “gold plated” pensions are not free to us; we pay a substantial percentage of our income into our pension funds like anyone else, the main difference is that our incomes are lower than the equivalent private sector jobs because of an historical agreement to accept lower pay in return for a more secure future in the form of our pensions, in order to maintain a stable workforce.

The Government’s “Austerity” programme has led to an increase of employees on Workfare or Modern Apprenticeship contracts. These workers are automatically enrolled onto the Workplace Pension scheme under the cynical expectation that they will immediately opt out because they cannot afford a pension of any form, thus saving the employer even more money.

When David Cameron said “We are all in it together” he meant the people he was addressing at The Lord Mayor’s Banquet, where he spoke to them from a gilded (that is “gold plated”) lectern, dressed in white tie. Most of us will never see “white tie”, let alone have cause to wear it. Yes, they are “all in it together” – all in it to have caused the crisis and to figure out how to profit further from it. Whatever other “it” Cameron might have been referring to, he certainly isn’t in the same “it” as most of the rest of us.

Remember the firefighters. Join a rally in your area on May Day.