Friday, May 30, 2008

Shrinking The Base

Trounced in Crewe, two years off an election it looks almost certain to lose, and down to its lowest poll ratings since records began, you'd struggle to imagine how things could get any worse for Labour. Unless you're a Blairite, that is.

Sally Keeble, the MP for Northampton North, said that middle income, Middle England has moved on since 1997 and needs to know that we have moved too. "The tax system provides the most powerful means of convincing this new electorate we're on their side."

If the result in Crewe proved anything it was that traditional Labour voters can no longer be fobbed off with the owt's better than the Tories line, especially while Labour busies itself buying off middle income earners (what else was the point of the whole 10p fiasco if it wasn't to bung a few hundred quid a year to numpties who play golf, buy The Daily Mail and fake religion to get their kids into good schools?). If Labour's still deluded enough to fight the next election on the premise that its core support has nowhere else to go, it will not only lose in 2010, but likely as not in 2014 too. In fact, the only thing Keeble's right about is that Middle England has moved on: it's gone back home, to the Tories.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Grey Days In Kingussie

Depsite the wind and drizzle, I liked Kingussie. A lot.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Somewhere Over The Border

I'm spending the middle part of my week off in Kingussie, shinty capital of the Scottish Highlands, visiting friends from the Czech Republic (via Paisley). Lucky for me that heavy rain band which left southern England a soggy mess won't be heading very quickly north before sitting over Scotland for the next couple of days.

Oh, hang on a sec...

Monday, May 26, 2008

What Goes Up...

Congratulations to Hull City, soon to be holders of the Premiership's lowest ever points tally (sorry Derby, but you just weren't quite dreadful enough). Best wishes also to Stoke City fans on their one season only tour of Britain's most famous grounds (at least being crap means you get more three o'clock kick-offs). West Bromwich Albion might scrape fourth bottom, but only if Fulham's luck runs out or Roy Keane blows another forty million on Irish accented bric-a-brac - Damien Duff, sold to the gentleman with the dog and the plummeting reputation.

Things are less predictable at the other end of the table. Will Chelsea or Manchester United finish first? Will it be Arsenal in third and Liverpool in fourth or could it be the other way round? And which one of a whole cluster of teams - Portsmouth, Spurs, Villa, Everton and maybe, just maybe Newcastle United - will end up in fifth, twenty points back but with the consolation prize of some Thursday nights out on the continent to look forward to?

Who says the Premier League's boring?

42 Days Is Dead

Or at least that's what Sunny Hundal thinks. Me, I'm still going for a month of minor concessions, smearing opponents for being soft on terror (or just not into empty gimmicks), and a narrow squeak of a vote that keeps Brown on his crash and burn course to 2010.

David Cameron meanwhile will loudly denounce the bill, decry Labour's authoritarian tendencies, present himself as the savior of freedom loving people...then do absolutely nothing to change the law if he ever becomes PM.

Politics, it's such a gag.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

Anyone But Brown

For Gordon Brown the game is almost up. Not just beaten but annihilated in Crewe and Nantwich, the Tories six thousand votes up and winning on a swing of 17.6%. This is not, as the desperate Steve McCabe would like to believe, "a classic mid-term by-election". This is the moment the Conservatives began to look like a government in waiting.

Where did it all go wrong? The election that wasn't? Dithering over Northern Rock? Abolishing the 10p tax band (robbing the poor to pay for the rich)? Or is it just that the dour Scotsman is not very easy to like?

Brown's fast becoming the Ray Harford of British politics: a dull-as-ditchwater number two who just doesn't cut it as the front man. Labour is lost. About the only question left is, should anyone really care?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

I'm Off

To see The Charlatans.

Champions of Europe

Not that I really gave a toss about the result of last night's game, but there was something wonderful about John Terry stepping up to win the cup...and slicing his kick five yards wide.

Couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Database State

Every phone call logged, every email collated. How else do you expect governments to protect national security?

Sledgehammer. Nut. And one more reason why Labour's got to go

Monday, May 19, 2008

Keep Digging

Is this the end of the road for New Labour? Because if the middle classes really are starting to feel the pinch then David Cameron's freewheeling all the way to Downing Street.

For once though, I have some sympathy for Gordon Brown (and yes, I know do all about rising tax burdens and the effect of the 10p band cut on part-time workers): the price of food is on the up all around the world, try blaming the Tories if you don't like British Gas making so much money while your granny freezes, and spare us the whining about the price of petrol when you've just blown two weeks' salary so you can hide your wall behind a telly. All of which is moot, of course - voters blame governments, never themselves.

Jamie Elliott, co-ordinator of Transact, said: “The rise (in enquiries) is huge because of the big increase in middle class debt. He cited the case of a retired bank manager from Haywards Heath with a pension of £40,000 a year who has generated £100,000 of debt across 20 credit cards and loans.

Which, if you stop and think about it, is really quite ironic.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Late Shows

For one night only something other than bars stayed open late in Newcastle: a gin workshop at the Centre for Life, beer tasting at the Discovery, champagne and chicken-on-a-stick at St James' Park.

We started off at the Castle Keep, where a hunchbacked Richard III was turning Shakespeare's ghost Stone Colde (and taking a long time about it, too). Up on the roof the sun was setting over Elswick; through the camera lens the city looked black and red, with scaffolding poles in one corner.

Next stop was St James' Park and a twenty-minute queue in the late-May cold. As you'd expect from a club that's won fuck all of consequence since 1969, the museum was not exactly overflowing with honours: a collection of trophies and caps won by Terry McDermott as a Liverpool player, gifts from abroad (a nice silver jug from Basle and a ceramic vase from Japan) and an awful child's scrawl of a painting showing Mirandinha mis-kicking a ball in front of the Tyne Bridge (as I remember, a little further out than his usual efforts at goal, but presumably with the same end result). The champagne had run out so I snaffled two bits of not so spicy chicken and spent the rest of the time trying to dump the sticks in a corner.

And then we were off. Up the grubby stairs where Keegan placated the mob after selling Andy Cole, straight ahead at the bust of Bobby Robson, then left in front of the tunnel, Howay the Lads glaring under lights. Inside the door to the home changing room was a whiteboard reminding the players WINNING IS WHY WE'RE HERE and EVERY TEAM HAS A WEAK LINK! On the far wall, above Owen and Viduka, an old clock ticks off the minutes since the Fairs Cup win. The room's massive (twice the size of the away one, which we snuck into on the way back out) with showers that run hot when you raise your right hand and cold when you hold out your left. Jogging down the steps we were out on the pitch (or what was left of it after a week of five-a-side kickarounds). In the muddy centre circle I shrunk Gulliver-like to about six inches tall, while on the Gallowgate penalty spot, lining up a last-minute penalty to win the league, the pitch felt about as big as a Subutteo mat. I walked the touchline to the Leazes snapping shot after shot with my camera, scoring six unanswered goals against Sunderland in my head.

Last stop was the Laing, where nothing much was happening at all. We scribbled love letters to Yoko Ono and sellotaped them to canvas, my brother showed off blades of stolen grass, the clock struck eleven, and we took the metro home before Adam's shoes turned into a glass carriage. Or possibly a pumpkin (which would at least have matched his head).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Never Marry A Woman

Who paints her nails red, has cold feet and curlers or - horror of horrors! - crooked seams in her hose.

Just so you know where you're all going wrong.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Summer Football

Six-on-seven, jacket posts and make-believe crossbars; playing sideways on one half of a cabbage-patch pitch, an up-and-under (and there are plenty of those) from the sea; sliding around in unsuitable footwear; both sides wearing black and white stripes.

Within ten minutes of the start, the seven were two-nil down, and I was at fault for both. Was it lack of match sharpness or am I just shit? It's a tricky one to call.

There Will Be Blood

After So, who do you think's going to win The Apprentice this year? it's the biggest poser left in late-stage, disposable consumer capitalism: should we accept that oil is a dwindling resource and start weaning ourselves off our dependence on the car, or do we eke out every last drop of the stuff, regardless of where we find it? An easy one for West Sussex Council, who are allowing oil exploration in an ancient woodland against the advice of their own environmental officers:

"We granted permission for oil to be drilled for two reasons: one is that there is a national policy in favour of extracting minerals from the earth where we have them; and secondly because we have struck a deal with the company which will actually see the area of woodland improved when they are finished."

There are only two problems with all this as far as I can see. First, nobody's even sure there's any oil there, so the whole arboricidal killing spree could end up a colossal waste of time. And second, how the hell can anyone "replace and enhance" an ANCIENT woodland??

With a car park, probably. And a humungous Tesco's.

The Jardin Majorelle

In Marrakech, not my backyard. Fortunately, I very much doubt there are any oil deposits to be found nearby (unless you count suncream).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Assignment 8.3

I used up most of Sunday afternoon, the pre-Waking the Dead part of Monday evening and a big chunk of tonight on Assignment 8.3, embedding Numeracy in ESOL.

If you think the title sounds boring, try multiplying that by a factor of four and you'll have some - but thankfully only some - idea of what it was like to write the damn thing.

Eight down, two to go.

The Bitter Blues

City are you ok? City are you ok? Are you ok City?
You've been bought by a war criminal.

As sung by Manchester United fans.

It's a common trait among small clubs trapped in a larger neighbour's shadow: the desperate, nothing's-too-trivial need to go one better. Manchester United get bought by a rapacious American capitalist who loads his debts on the club and hikes up prices for the fans; Manchester City find an owner who's wanted by Amnesty International.

But hey, who cares as long as you get half a new team and a few good results? Nobody. Until it all starts going wrong, that is.


Heaven Knows We're Miserable Now

It's not terrorism, job insecurities, the fear of crime (if you live in London, statistically you now have a one in ten chance of being stabbed to death while doing your weekly shop), house prices, the soaring cost of living or the hectic pace of everyday life to blame for the modern British malaise: according to a new parliamentary report it's loss of faith that's at the root of all our ills.

All you need is God? Try telling that to Rand Abdel-Qader.

UPDATE: You know your argument's in trouble when Silvio Berlusconi agrees with you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Overheard In An ESOL Classroom

Student A: Who's the man in that picture?
Student B: It's Gordon Brown. Don't you know? He's famous, like Blair.
Student C: No, no, he's not famous - he's failing.

Things must be grimmer than I thought.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Not A Single Day More

Britain's senior prosecutor calls it "unnecessary", the man who judged the Iraq war legal says he "can't support it" - now even Labour's favourite policeman has backtracked on his support for the government's plan to detain terror suspects for 42 days without charge. No wonder Jacqui Smith is spitting blood.

It could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for our increasingly beleaguered prime minister. When driving full pelt at a wall, it usually pays to slam on the brakes.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

ID Cards Wide Open To Fraud

Your biometric data, sold to the cheapest bidder:

"Using the private sector to provide biometric enrolment will give applicants a choice of competing services which should maximise convenience and drive down price."

The question is, convenience for who?

UPDATE: Not for the less well-off, that's for sure.

Losing The Plot

Twenty-six points behind in the polls, personal approval ratings of minus fifty-five percent and ex-Cabinet colleagues calling you "annoying, bewildering and prickly". Things really couldn't get much worse for Gordon Brown.

The danger for Labour is that, no matter how many times they shuffle the pack, voters want change above anything else - the that-lot-couldn't-be-any-worse-than-this-lot mentality which saw Middle England temporarily defect to Labour in droves in 1997. While ministers talk of landing blows on the Tories, there's some evidence to suggest the public have already seen through David Cameron - and prefer him to Brown nonetheless.

The next big barometer will be in Crewe and Nantwich, where Tamsin Dunwoody defends her mother's 7,000 majority against the millionaire heir to Timpson's Shoes. If the Tories win there (and they're odds-on favourites, with Labour's toff jibes falling flat and Dunwoody tarred as a Brown loyalist), Number 10 can start packing up their boxes and preparing for Opposition.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Nothing Changes

Writing in The Independent, David Cameron claims the Tories, not Labour, are now the party of progress:

A painful reality is dawning on Labour MPs: in its longest unbroken period in office, Labour has done little to advance progressive ideals. A government that promised social justice and economic efficiency has in fact delivered neither, to the dismay of the Labour Party. Instead, it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today.

If the word progressive now refers to change per se then he may well be right: there are many in Cameron's party who would like to strip back union rights, scrap the minimum wage, privatize health care, dramatically reduce immigration and pull out of the EU. It's difficult to argue with his assessment of Labour either (though he's deluded if he thinks they're a centre-left government; our last chance of that died with John Smith) - if anything, social inequality has widened in the past eleven years, and Brown's reputation for economic efficiency was built on the fortune of a worldwide boom only now coming to an end (and biting back hard).

Nevertheless, the self-anointment of the Conservatives as the champions of progressive ideals is either cynically disingenuous or just plain desperate. If Labour does very little for the poor, the Tories would do nothing at all (despite making capital out of the 10p tax band, Cameron refuses to say whether he'd reinstate it - mainly because he wouldn't). Labour may be slavish to the interests of big business, but they do at least throw the occasional sop to the masses.

A painful reality? For most of us, that'll be the day after David Cameron wins the next election.

UPDATE: Quoting the other heir presumptive, Rossinisbird points out the poor are no longer poor, just less well-off. Very goodthinkwise.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Short Memories

Two days left until The Most Exciting Last Day Finish Ever and Alex Ferguson's in an angry mood: "All we've got is Wigan players saying, 'We want to beat Man United'. That's fine. There's no problem with that because we are a big club. And then you hear about Bolton players out celebrating all week and that amazes me, the change in attitude."

Any connection between Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and the Alex Ferguson whose Manchester United team meekly surrendered at home to West Ham this time last year, after seven or so days of title-winning celebrations, is entirely, wholly and purely coincidental.

Still, it would be funny...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Million Miles Away

As in Newcastle United from the top four of the Premier League. Seems fairly obvious to me: with only one game left, we're as close to Liverpool in fourth as we are to Derby County, the worst team in the history of the whole entire league.

Which is probably why I'm taking reports that a "furious" Mike Ashley's called the Turnaround Kid to a showdown meeting in Tombstone with a dollop of salt the size of a Tesco Value pizza (only half your daily guideline amount in each square inch). Let's face it, the papers have been busting for another Keegan Out angle ever since we stopped letting opposing teams score every time they got the ball within fifty yards of goal. On the subject of which, if the players really are "unimpressed by the implied slight on their abilities," I can think of fifty-odd thousand people who'd be more than happy to spell out their opinion a little more forcefully.

For half the team, the word ability itself is stretching things.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Duck and Cover

Now Iraq, Afghanistan and international terrorism are all done and dusted, John Bolton wants to bomb Iran: “This is a case where the use of military force against a training camp to show the Iranians we’re not going to tolerate this is really the most prudent thing to do.”

It's one approach, certainly, but not half as prudent as flying Bolton to Iran, strapping him down to a lump of metal (or failing that Dick Cheney), and dropping him smack on top of a trainee insurgent, preferably from the greatest height possible. The best bit is, if we kept splattering terrorists with neo-cons until there was not a single one left we could solve the problems of the Middle East at the cost of no innocent lives WHATSOEVER!

Not to mention the cost savings.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A Long, Long Way From Anywhere

Beaten but unbowed, we might even have had a point if Owen could kick a ball with his left foot. All in all, a vast improvement on life under the monotone self-apologist (don't worry Sam, the Leicester job's yours any day now) but still miles and miles from where we need to be. What happens next is up to Mike Ashley: without serious cash in the summer the best Keegan can do is to stop us going backwards.

Growing On, Planting Out

Tulips. On sale in November, ready in May.

The second radish of the year. The first made a pathetic accompaniment to a plate of couscous and cucumber.

Slow growing parsnips. In a greenhouse propagator since the beginning of March; planted out in compost drills (clay soil fiddles with the roots, causing the vegetables to fork in the ground) and covered with daffodil-bag netting to keep off the birds. Ready after the first frosts (mid-July in Jarrow).

Looping Back

The last leg back to Marrakech, a three-and-a-bit hour train ride south east from Casablanca. Hot and dehydrated from the late night before, I gave up on Emerson after half a chapter and sat for the rest of the journey propped up on my elbows staring out of the window through a sign that said second class in Arabic and French (nothing like a reminder of your status in life). Finally, at twelve o'clock, the scrub land turned to building sites, the building sites to salmon-coloured blocks of flats, blocks of flats to railway station platforms.

In the souks I felt I was back again in Sicily, the same on the brink feeling - over there, as DH Lawrence once said from his hill in Taormina, you're just one short hop from Africa; in Morocco you're the same distance away from getting back out of it: high walls and slanting alleys, scooter engines over your shoulder, cafes on the square, orange-clogged drains and the whiff of Medievalism...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

We're FC United, We're Going Up

Who can rob your houses, violate your gran, sell crack cocaine from an ice cream van? The Scousers can, the Scousers can.

"Mother! You've just headbutted his best mate's wife."

I spent the best part of the weekend on the piss in Bury, watching FC United of Manchester go up to the Unibond Premier...only three leagues off the league itself.

Like all the best promotion parties the celebrations ended at two o'clock in the morning with a headbutt from a granny and a punch-up between the team's star player and a group of fans against the side of a BT phone box.

Watch out Whitby Town!

Friday, May 02, 2008

Going, Going...Gone

Down 310 seats and squeezed into third by the Liberals with its lowest share of the vote in 40 years, it's no wonder George Osborne called last night "a truly shocking night for Labour". No surprise either that the biggest losses came in the party's traditional heartlands: Labour's gone beyond just ignoring its core voters, nowadays it often seems to be actively working against them (Iraq, the 10p tax debacle, detention without trial, alcohol duty, the rich getting richer while the rest see their disposable incomes fall).

If, as seems increasingly likely, Boris Johnson wins in London, then Gordon Brown should be a very worried man - and hopefully a very contrite one too.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Chilling out at the Hassan II Mosque.

The Train to Casablanca

We left the hotel at eight o'clock, German-style, with bread and croissants from breakfast stuffed in a bag for lunch. At the station a middle-aged couple were arguing on the tracks, their suitcases blocking the path. A window had been smashed in the second carriage down.

The train filled up at the first stop and my legs were crushed against the wall. Afterwards, each station saw a new set of faces walking up and down the corridor, peering in through dirty glass. I sat by the window looking out at pockmarked countryside, studded with trees and, wherever people lived nearby, strewn with litter. Sheep grazed by plastic bags and water bottle heaps; children played in the dust; men wandered slowly with shovels on their backs. Behind them all were the Middle Atlas, blurry mountains mingling with the sky.

I turned away and started to read. In three hours we had reached Rabat. Thirty minutes later we arrived in Casablanca.

The Workers United

Happy May Day!