Labour and Anti-semitism

I really didn’t want to watch this. I hated the whole hassle about adopting or not adopting various definitions of anti-semitism, and i’m sure that the Israeli lobby exerts a powerful force on such debates, but I didn’t know enough what had been going on in the Labour Party, so I thought I’d educate myself.

Oh boy. To start with what seems definite. The change in Labour Party membership has led to a change in tone, an increased willingness to resort to “Zionist” as a term of abuse. The programme gathered together a series of young Jewish members, and - even more crucially - a succession of young campaigners who were seriously committed to the grinding business of exploring allegations of anti-semitism, and of ensuring that they were thoroughly investigated. As a group, I thought they were admirable and convincing, and I believed their cumulative account of a party leadership that had regularly intervened to stop them doing their job. And who, in the process, imposed pressures on them which led to resignation and mental illness.

But the most depressing aspect of this is the leadership’s response. No, they weren’t coming on the programme.( One innocent lower flunky did appear, but only to insist in the vaguest possible terms about how totally he and Jeremy were opposed to anything nasty). The allegations came from disappointed Blairites, disaffected members who had never fully believed in Jeremy - and Jeremy, as we all know, has always been a beacon of hope and light. He may not be personally anti-semitic, but he is a crap manager of people, and if he’s allowed his immediate entourage to infect party procedures in the way this programme describes, then he deserves everything he gets. Not great news for the rest of us, or for any hopes of an alternative government, but here you go. They never said it would be easy.

Prime Minister material?

Watching the great debate between potential prime ministers, it seemed at the time a crucial moment. Hunt says that he backs Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the US, despite Trump’s insulting personal attacks. which way will Johnson jump? He won’t jump. He’ll bluster, as usual, and later he’ll say he was misrepresented, misunderstood, like he al;ways does, but he won’t bite the bullet and say Trump has got this wrong, and we stand by our diplomats.

So when, next day, Kim Darroch resigns - partly because of Johnson’s failure to back him - there’s a kind of satisfaction in watching Johnson squirm, at seeing him have to confront the consequences of his self-obsessed entitlement. In any normal world, the notion that he might be the best person to be our Prime Minister is patently ridiculous, but this is the asylum and the lunatics are in charge.

Exit Lionesses

So we’ve come to the end of the line. The plucky Lionesses have come to the World Cup,reached the smi-final, but are now going home. and that’s OK. They weren’t the best team, and they have done well, and it has been a pleasure to sit through a number of games of women’s football - which is something I’ve never done before.

Early on, I wasn’t convinced. We seemed to give the ball away so much, not be able to sustain concentration or teamwork, that i couldn’t see us beating any team of any quality. Watching Norway beat Australia, for instance, I though “either of these are a lot better than us.” But then, when it comes to Englan v. Norway, they manage to turn it on. They chase around the field, harass the Norwegians out of possession, and produce some fast, flowing movements which create great goals.

The USA, however, were a step too far. Too tough, too canny, too consistent. when the commentator was cooing about Steph Houghton’s courage in stepping up to take the crucial penalty, you knew we weren’t quite up to it. sod her courage, where’s her common sense? It was a pathetic penalty, and she should have known she wasn’t in the state to take it. If that had been Megan Rapinoe, it wouldn’t have bobbled along the ground. so we’re not the best in the world, but it was fun while it lasted. r

Judi and Me

There’s something about actors of your own age, especially when you both start young and get to be over 70. As a student in 1966 i never dreamed that the smart, tough young woman who leapt off the screen in Talking to a Stranger would end up as an eminent dame, but there you go. It’s been a pleasure to watch most of what she does, and i wish her well in a vague sort of way - which made it all the more poignant to read about her vanishing sight. she’s had to give up driving, because she’s a threat to other people, though the loss of independence is heartbreaking - as it was for my dad, and will be for me, when the time comes. she has to get other people to read her lines to her when she learns them, and that can’t be easy. And as she gets older she has to re-evaluate the past, as we all do. To recognise that Weinstein and spacey seem to have committed serious crimes - but still wanting to hold on to the quality of work that they made possible. It’s true what they say, Judi, life’s a bitch, and then you die. but it’s good to do it in such company.

The Truth about Thatcher

No, I really didn’t fancy a five-hour series about Margaret Thatcher, lived through all that, thank you, andlife’ depressing enough. But the good thing about the current catch-up regime is that it allows you to have second thoughts, to be persuaded by rave reviews to overcome initial prejudices, and give something a try which you didn’t originally fancy.

And yes, it was worth it. as with many of these current documentary series, they’ve amassed a ton of first-hand testimony from key participants, and have ditched the omnisicent anchor offering their distinctive take on what happened and why. The downside of that is that there’s rather too much Bernard Ingham, lamenting how her courtiers didn’t have the guts to stand by her - even when she was visibly wandering over the edge.

And that’s the big revelation - the speed at which she lost her crude but powerful political instincts, and slid into mania. Insisting that Tebbitt should become chair of the party (though he and they clearly knew that wasn’t the right job for him) but then seeing succession potential plots in any move by any member of her government - paranoia running riot. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for Tebbit - but i’m not promising that will happen again.

MI5 surveillance

Yet another reason why the paper version of The Guardian is my lifeline to sanity - albeit a disconcerting one. An unobtrusive little article on page 10 begins “MI5 has lost control of its data storage and has been obtaining surveillance warrants on the basis of information it knows is false, the high court heard.”

Oh, fine. Not a big problem, then. Certainly nothing significant enough to surface on the TV news, which likes it stories sexy, snappy and - above all - short. The nittty gritty of how the secret services should operate, and what kinds of control could be exercised over them, are left for the nerdy readers of The Guardian and they, we know, are a shrinking, aging band. so here we go, drifting down the plughole, feebly protesting as we go…

Johnson - or Farage?

Today, I had a moment of truth. There’ve been many times over the past three years when I’ve seen newspaper headlines about Brexit which depressed the daylights out of me. But today was different. Today Nigel Farage was assuring the Sunday papers that “You can’t trust Boris to deliver Brexit.”

Now there’s a thing. For years we’ve been hammered over the head with “the will of the people”, where 17 million sturdy Brits told the government what they wanted. Turns out it wasn’t as simple as that. The votes that matter are the ones that backed Farage. You can’t trust Jonson, so presumably the votes he got don’t really count. So how many of the Brexit votes actually count? How many Brexits are there, when we sit down and work it out?

It was a mess at the time. Farage was hammering immigration, Johnson and Gove pretended to be above such nastiness. But all the votes get lumbered together, because it’s really simple - IN or OUT. But it isn’t simple, as we’ve spent three years discovering. It’s a mirage, and calling the vote in the first place was always a mistake. Add on the foreign influence, the breaking of rules over spending money, use of data, deployment of staff, separation of campaigns…If we want this all to be over, we revoke article 50 and start again. Of course there’d be shouts of protest, but we get those all the time anyway, and nothing else offers anything like a way out. .

Abortion in Alabama

We sort of knew it was coming. As the Trump presidency gradually shifted from being a bad joke to a possibility to a definite fact, so we revisited all the things we thought were established and secure, and realised that now they were at risk. Roe v.Wade, the classic case whose name everybody knows, was the legal rock on which American women relied to know that when the possibility of abortion arose, the choice was theirs. Not any more. there’s a queue of states, lining up to show that they’re part of the transformation, encouraged by a Supreme Court whose composition has been brutally, maybe permanently, changed. With Brett Kavanaugh on board, it’s them who have a choice.

There’s always been a hysterical tone about this debate, because the odds are so high, but there’s something seriously unpleasant about this procession of men lining up to address the microphone, confident that their view reflects those of God, the Founding Fathers, and any other male authority figure you care to name. The consequence, of course, will not be queues of smiling babes claiming the life that their criminal mothers sought to deny them, but a massive growth in illegal abortions, pressure, mental illness and general misery. Will Trump really make all that much difference? Oh yes. Yes indeed.

Birmingham Primaries

So many depressing stories just at the moment, but one of the worst is the sustained protests outside primary schools in Birmingham. so, which side are you going to pick? Muslim parents angry that their wishes are being ignored, or teachers trying to deliver a positive programme of health education to which they are required to be committed? It’s a tough situation, but nobody can seriously believe that it’s in the interests of seven year olds to have chanting crowds and placards outside the school gates every day. There’s serious beliefs involved, but there’s also some very nasty manipulation, and teachers getting nothing like the support that they need. Having watched over the years, I can’t help feeling we’re paying the price for decades of politicians looking for the easy vote, encouraging parents - and religious parents in particular - to believe that they can have the schools which suit them and their beliefs, and the teachers are stroppy incompetents who will just have to get into line. Now, just when we need a strong defence of the status of professionals, the value of experts doing complicated work, nobody knows or cares why that matters.

European Drama

A week ago, I did a post about the glories of BT sport. How little I knew. whatever we saw last week was just the hors ‘d’oeuvres, a preamble to this week’s main course, although sadly I almost missed it all. Teusday I went to a poetry reading, organised by a friend, support a good cause…As I sadi to a fellow fan, if Liverpool had lost 1-0 last week, it woul’ld have been a harder decision. I thought they might score a few goals. I never dreamed they’d keep a cl;ean sheet. Messi? Suarez?

Wednesday night I was at home, so I could watch tottenham try to overtake Ajax. after 45 minutes it was embarrassing. Ajax held on to the ball, passed their way out of trouble, Spurs huffed and puffed, but couldn’t put anything together and never looked like threatening to reduce the lead. So I closed down the upstairs computer, and went down to be sociable, and watch a documentary about Brexit. (which was, as it happens, less than ordinary). Then I watch the ten o’clock news, and find out that Lucas Moura has scored a second half hat-trick. The European Cup final will be Liverpool v. Spurs.

Luckily, in these days of catch up, you never actually miss anything, and it’s easy to relive it, even if not the same as seeing it live - see last week. Two totally different games, different kiinds of triumph, and in both cases it was really close - Barcelon and Ajax both had chances to make the pressure even worse. But you have to hand it to them - for keeping going, for believing, for giving everything for the fans…Just amazing. and it’s quite possible to celebrate that without turning it into some kind of jingoistic faith that England rules the waves.

BT Sport

God knows there have been times when I could happily have consigned the entire BT operation into a deep volcano - but not this week. This week I’ve watched, in full, Tottenham v. Ajax, Barcelona v. Liverpool, and Arsenal v. Valencia - and it’s been sheer joy. in the old days it would have been very condensed highlights on BBC or ITV, but now, in retirement leisure, I can squander the whole evening to watch the drama unfold in real time, and over these three particular matches that’s been a delight. That way, you can watch the drama of how teams and managers change what they’re doing - how Tottenham start as total no-hopers, utterly outclassed, and then - by tactical changes and sheer effort - make themselves competitive again. Arsenal, very similar, give away a crumby early goal and seem about to throw it all away, again, until somehow they don’t, and produce fast, stylish attacks which lead to goals and - eventually - an almost healthy result. And then there’s Barcelona. the electric surprise of that opening goal, a breakaway in a tough, tense opening which suddenly changes the whole picture. and massive effort from Liverpool;, fighting their way back into contention, before lucky bounces and ricochets give Barcelona a second, and then - the magic of Messi - an unbelievable third. there is no justice. 3-0 as a scoreline for this game is scandalous. But you have to watch it in full to really grasp that truth. so, despite the adverts and the endless self-congratulatory promotion, thank you, BT sport.

Ukraine Comic tops the poll

Ok, so the US has a game show ghost; why shouldn’t Ukraine have a comedian? It’s really hard to know how to take this news, and it’s not made more hopeful by the fact that this young guy, superficially entertaining and ttractive, is dependent on the backing of a serious oligarch. “I promise I won’t mess it up” he says, as though good intentions were all that’s required. does he have any notion of what he’s taking on, and of how much is currently threatening Ukraine?

But it could be worse. He’s not a Putin puppet, that’s for sure. Putin didn’t congratulate him on his election, and he did go out of his way to stress that his victory showed other ex-Russian federation states that anything was possible. I don’t suppose that went down well in Moscow. And however much you disapprove of the razz-ma-tazz and jokey superficiality of the atmosphere, at least there’s an unpredictable spontaneity about proceedings which will look very strange - and maybe quite appealing - to any Russians who get to follow what’s happening. No, it’s not a happy ending, and yes, he could well get pushed around, but it’s not just Russian business as usual, and the Ukrainians deserve something chirpy to boost their spirits. It’s not as though the West have given them much to cheer about over the last five years.

"They're all out for themselves..."

It’s so dangerous, this cynicism about politicians. When you see it in its extreme form, with Putin or Trump, you know you have to resist that black indulgence, of sinking into dismissing the whole tribe, because that is exactly what those bastards want.

On the other hand, the long-running Brexit fiasco doesn’t offer much ground for hope. Having followed the twists and turns every night for months, it was a cleansing break to be away in Portugal for ten days, reading no papers, watching no TV news, and coming back on April 12 to find that no, the April 10 deadline didn’t still apply, and we had another extension. But the chances of either the Tory party or the Labour party coming out of this with anything like an answer seem very remote, and I don’t share Jeremy Corbyn’s blind faith that an election will be the solution. Given the poisonous atmosphere, and the ludicrous first-past-the-post system, I don’t see why we should end up with anything more hopeful than we;ve got. I really do want to believe that somebody up there knows what they’re doing, but God, they make it hard.

In Praise of Referees

Ever since my knees got worse and I stopped venturing out of the house to go for a walk, I’ve watched a lot more sport. Soon after my double knee replacement I signed up to BT sport, and have never regretted it. I get the European football, regular premiership rugby, and this weekend the quarter-finals of the rugby European Cup. and look, the nice kind people at BT sport arrange the matches so that they don’t clash - if I want to, and this weekend I do, I can sit and watch all four. They’ve been rivetting, but with true dramatic skill they made sure that they saved the best for last. Toulouse had their fly-half sent off for a high tackle after twenty minutes, but still hung on to beat Racing 92 by a single point, after some breathtaking rugby and thousands of twists and turns which might easily have gone the other way.

and at the heart of all this was Luke Pearce, who likes like a well-behaved sixth former, but is consistently clear, appolite and apparently lacking in ego - he just wants to get the decisions right. and he does. He makes good use of the TMO, he isn’t stampeded into rash decisions which might please a volatile and partisan crowd, and in the opinion of people who know (Brian O’Driscoll, Lawrence Dallaglio) he gets them all right. He talks to his touch judges in English, but to the French plays in French, and all in all is just a brilliant example of how to be English abroad. Politicians please note.

The Cleaners

Not sure if there’s anything on TV? Just go to BBC iplayer, look up Storyville, and then watch anything they’ve got. I’ve seen some wonderful stuff on there over the last year, and really can’t remember watching anything of theirs that I regretted. This was deeply topical - a look at The Cleaners, the people who police social media, to decide which posts and images should stay up, and which should be taken down. Not exactly ideal working conditions. They sit in a booth, flicking through images, saying “ignore…ignore…delete….ignore…delete…” with a target of 25,000 images a day. some of them have high ideals, about the need for the work they do and the social service they’re performing, but over the course of the documentary it’s very clear that there’s a huge cost - just watching this stuff - the pornography, the violent images of terrorism - is really depressing, quite apart from the pressure of having to make thousands of decisions against the clock. and these are not relaxed intellectuals sitting in California laying down the rules. They’re shift workers in Manila; if they weren’t doing this they’d be sifting rubbish from the piles of garbage that litter the outskirts of town, and the documentary makes clear that these alternative occupations are nothing like as different as we might like to think. not pleasant, not simple, but necessary viewing.

Man U Miracle

I’m not a fan of Manchester United. Their slogan “We’re not arrogant. Just better” is a neat summary of why they’re hard to love, but just now and again they blow your mind. I remember performing a poem about their last-minute European cup win back in the late nineties, and then last night they did it again.

They’re playing PSG, who deservedly beat them 2-0 at home in the first leg. Journalists handily provide the evidence that this has happened on 106 occasions, without the losing team ever overcoming that disadvantage. So Man U, of course, go and do it. They don’t have much possession, they don’t play good football or produce creative moves, but they do win.

and you can see the solskjaer brain, actually at work. Start off with two strikers, pressing defenders, pressuring them into mistakes - and getting two goals as a result. Then sit back and defend that, 5-4-1 with very little positive going on. Last ten minutes, all out attack, throw on a third striker, and some squeak a highly dubious penalty out of VAR. It’s genius.

Shamima Begum

When Shamima Begum and her friends left the country to join Isis I wrote a sonnet about her, focussing on the press conference where her family appeared holding her teddy bear, saying “she’s our baby, and we want her back.” It seemed like a bad idea at the time, when whatever else she was she clearly wasn’t a baby, and was planning on doing some pretty drastic growing up.

And she has. she’s lost her husband and her children, and wants to come back home with her new baby. enter Sajid Javid, high class chancer, very skilled at watching the tabloids to see which way he ought to jump. Maybe sound hawkish, and say she can’t come back? Threaten to cancel her citizenship - “just like that”? But he’s not an incompetent TV magician. He’s a government minister and he’s supposed to apply the law. where does it say he can rub out someone’s nationality, just because he doesn’t like their political choices? She may be a contradiction, and she may have committed crimes - though she’s innocent until proved guilty. But she is British, and she’s allowed to come back home.

Can-kicking, Olympic style

The rest of Europe looks on in disbelief. When you look at how much time has been squandered on meaningless posturing. it’s incredible that we approach the deadline for the UK leaving Europe watching Theresa May regullarly postponing votps she fear she might lose. the only thing she’s worried about is trying to win tory and DUP votes. Other parties, the country, business confidence - who cares? none of it seems to be taken seriously, if only she can create the illusion that something will change on the backstop. the EU are desperate to try to get us to be serious, but there’s no chance, really. We are heading for the dark, and our electoral system offers no rescue of any kind.

Universal Credit

Universal Credit, you will not be surprised to hear, is a disaster. It’s been looking that way since at least 2014, and as it’s “rolled out” (wonderful phrase) so the faults keep appearing in brighter, bolder colours. You’ve got to communicate with the office, but not by going in - by ringing up. Often, the lines are jammed. If they are, you’ll get stultifying music, for hours on end - so much kinder just to have total silence. You’ve got to go online, even if you don’t have a computer. You’ve got to look for jobs, even if there aren’t any (and in this particular part of Hartlepool, that’s largely true. And if you’re totally illiterate some fool at the DWP is likely to suggest that you become an IT consultant. Presenting the most vulnerable people on TV is a tough, elusive art, but this programme - Skint Britain - managed it better than most, with warmth and a sense of humour (like The Mighty Recar) but also a gathering rage about the clumsiness of the plans that have been devised to support these people - though ‘support’ is’t the right word. “Make them realise how worthless they are” perhaps? and all in the service of Ian Duncan smith’s nineteenth century view of “Work good, benefits bad.”

Surely we can do better than this?