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?

Marie Colvin

Wonderful Storyville documentary about Marie Colvin - “Under the Wire”, on BBC4. Most of its about colvin in Homs, particualrly in the days leading up to her killing, and her sidekick/buddy/cameraman Paul Conroy is compulsive viewing. She wasn’t, often, particularly nice - there’s a vivd scene when new reporters arrive on her patch, and she’s rude to and about them (Eurotrash!). Her friend Lindsey Hilsum is cleaerly different - rational, tough, determined, but also aware of the risks - “I asked about her exit strategy. She didn’t have one.” There’s absolutely no doubting Colvin’s commimtent to the civilians of Homs, and her determined spelling out of the aggression of the Assad forces towards their own population - which is probably what got her killed. So she’s a fascinating character rather than a role model, but documentaries like this are as close as you can get to giving us cushy spectators the feel of what it must be like to be in a war zone without putting ourselves at risk in any way. So, thanks, guys.

Sorting Venezuela

there’s absolutely no doubt that Venezuela’s in a mess. It goes back a while, and the are complex reasons, and some excellent TV documentaries have spelt out why that’s horrendous for huge numbers of people who live there. But none of that’s an excuse for the crude intervention proposed by Trump - and echoed by large parts of Europe. you’d have thought we might have learnt - vietname, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. Intervening ion other countries isn’t a simple matter of saying they got it wrong so the boss man has to go. You need something a lot more sustained, intelligent and long-term if what follows is going to be any better than what went before. But because nobody wants to tell Trump that there are things he doesn’t understand, they troop obediently along, likely to make things worse rather than better.

She Did It!

That’s how the tabloids greeted Mrs. May’s achievement in turning her 230-vote defeat last time into a narrow victory - for what? For going back to Brussels who say there’s nothing to talk about, And then coming back to the Brexit rebels who don;’t like what she’s offering, and reserve the right to rebel again. The woman must be stupid…

Or quite clever, and determined. What if she doesn’t want to solve the problem? What if she wants to wind the clock down, so that it’s her deal or no deal? What if she not only f doesn’t want to solve the problem, but wants to stop anyone else solving it either? We should have had a vote in December. Postponed - two weeks wasted. It will take five minutes to find out how much room there is for negotiation on the backstop, but she’s given herself two weeks. Time is just slipping away…and maybe that’s all part of the plan.

Is anyone going to try to stop, and suggest that this problem need solving?

What next?

So there goes Theresa May’s deal - not with a whimper but with a massive bang. Lost by 230 votes; you can’t get more decisive than that. When she postponed the original vote everyone knew it was only a case of putting off the inevitable, and it would be great to hear exactly what she thinks she gained. But in the meantime, there’s more important stuff to be done. She talks about involving a wider ranger of voices in search of agreement, but in terms of personal skills neither she nor Corbyn is equipped for that. He’s locked in some fantasy where he wins a general election and then persuades the EU to give him what he wants - but he can’t even organise his own cabinet, let alone an international deal. So our fate for the moment is in the hands of Tory and Labour MPs, and for that to have any positive substance, that means collaboration between them. Quite exciting, in a way…even if the history of the last three years doesn’t seem to support much optimism. Maybe the grisly threat of what awaits us if they don’t manage it will actually help to concentrate their minds…let’s hope so.

Poetic Choices

All through 2018 friends kept telling me about a competition (deadline December 31) asking for poems about Brexit - just your sort of thing, they said. And they’re right, of course, except that entry was free, but each entrant was only allowed to submit one poem, so it’s likely to be a very popular lottery. I knew early on which poem I’d be sending it - a lively account of the journey of the big red Brexit bus. I had a version of this from the summer, but it kept changing to take account of the disastrous nature of the negotiations, and the increasing sense that the bus was heading over the cliff.

So, how to end the poem? Often when i performed it around the circuit I ended up with total gloom, and a sharp defiant question:

“ It’s hell on wheels, it’s rock and roll
So tell me - who took back control?”

It’s a tough, angry conclusion, very much of the moment, but for a published anthology that might sound bleak and cynical - and it might also not be accurate about the story that was unfolding. In November there were rumours of MPs getting together across party lines, to try to rule out both a hard Brexit and the prospect of no deal. Grieve’s amendment was passed, and I scribbled my jaunty conclusion, in which the MPs at the back of the bus eat chips and raise two fingers to the whips, because they have finally taken back control. Then I sent off the poem and waited.

The news got grimmer and grimmer. May delayed a vote she knew she would lose. Detailed preparations for no deal were put in place. Grayling dispatched lorries around the south-east, as a rehearsal for the chaos to come. Maybe I was kidding myself. But then, today, news that the rumours are true. A cross-party group, led again by Dominic Grieve, has put together a motion refusing financial support for no-deal preparations, and the speaker has allowed this amendment to be put, and a majority of MPs have voted it through. Maybe somewhere a poetry judge is looking at my poem, wondering “How on earth did he know this would happen?” We can but hope.

The Stansted Fifteen

Just got an offer I’ve had to refuse, and it breaks my heart. There’s a protest in Wiolverhampton on Tuesday night, against the trial of the Stansted Fifteen, and they’re asking for interested poets. Yes, a poet of sorts. Yes, very interested - but sadly committed elsewhere. But I have sent them a poem, because this is a cause very close to my heart.

Migrants being forcibly deported, dragged on a plan and dumped in various parts of Africa. Some of them have been trafficked, some of them have appeals pending, but none of that makes any difference to the specialists in Hostile Environment. So I’m delighted that protestors have immobilised this plane - specially chartered by the Home Office, and prevented the removal of these people. They’re tried under an anti-terrorist law, passed in response to Lockerbie - some time back. In the interim, the only person charged u nder it was the pilot of a helicopter who tried to crash it into a control tower. On the spectrum of serious risk, this protest falls a long way short of that, but the powers that be are going out of their way to ensure that these naughty children are to be taught a lesson. And the judge clearly got the message, instructing the jury to ignore any stuff about human rights, and just focus on whether or not they affected the business of the airport.

So there’s two big things to be noisy about here - the forced deportations, and the right to protest. I shan’t be there on Tuesday, but I’ll be cheering them on.. And you can find th poem I sent them elsewhere on this website, in Poems from the News.

Piss-up in a Brewery

Oh dear. It just keeps getting worse. No, says May, the vote will definitely go ahead. Her loyal cabinet trawl the airwaves, insisting she won’t back down. At the very last minute, she backs down. the blood-curdling masses of the ERG challenger her leadership, demand a vote. They lose, by 117-200. Rees-Mogg insists that if that’s the margin of victory, she should go to the queen and hand in her notice. If he’d won by 200-117, is that what he’d have done? Not a chance. short-term egotists the lot of them, with not a glimmer of how they look to us, or - even more embarassing - the world as a whole. And it would be wonderful to pretend that Labour were any more united, imaginative, or aware. Sadly, I can’t do it…

Taking back control?

for once, a sniff of good news. Well, good news for me, and remainers. For passionate Brexiteers, not so much. three commons defeats for May, and - I think - the most crucial is Grieve’s, giving Parliament the decisive voice about no deal. so if there’s no parliamentary majority for a hard Brexit, and there is a Parliamentary majority against no deal, what we’ll get is either something Norway-ish, or a second referendum. Right? You just don’t know these days, but this does feel like progress. Yes, it’s a shambles, and the continuing uncertainty is a pain for anyone conducting serious business, but nobody conducting serious business can be cheered by these negotiations, or the deal that’s come out of them. I can see the rage that will follow - “So what were we voting for?” - but the phrasing of the question was so inept, the nature of the campaign so negative and divisive, that it’s hard to call anything “the will of the people” - especially with the bacjground mutters of illegal approaches and demographic change. It was a mess, and if MPs are finally resolved not to mortgage our future for a mess, I for one am mildly relieved.

Beware of Politics

Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on poverty, has looked at how the UK operates and says that it’s a disgrace, callous and mean-spirited. Amber Rudd, restored to the cabinet and in charge of DWP, is eager to demonstrate her loyalty and brands Alston’s report “political”. Maybe she means “moral” - because that’s the main basis for his disapproval. than again, Rudd could be right. Because the really deadly thing Alston did was to listen, very carefully, to people at the sharp end. You can see snatches of news reports where he’s doing it. He’s not grandstanding or interrupting, he’s encouraging people to talk. What was their experience? How had they been treated? He puts that together with the figures, and comes up with a pretty damning picture. Rudd insists that she’s not dogmatic, is perfectly willing o listen to expert critics who phrase their criticisms in a way she approves - but what she won’t do is pay serious attention to the people on the receiving end. that’s the beauty and the power of Alston;’s approach, which is why this government sees it as such a threat.