Blog Archive

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Death of two Left Wing Icons, The Rich and The Poor, The Rain Stops and the Sun Shines, Some Superb Films, the Great EU Debate.

Last month two left-wing British icons died within a couple of days of each other.  Tony Benn was one of those extreme left wingers who was just always there, pipe in mouth, fascinating people with his extraordinary powers of oratory.  People used to come away from his talks bowled over with his speech but mostly disagreeing intensely with the content!  He spent 50 years in politics, losing a vote to become deputy leader of the Labour party by 49.6% to 50.4%.  Despite that he is widely regarded to have played a key role in keeping the Labour party out of government for 18 years by pushing it well to the left and thereby motivating others to create the Liberal Democrat Party (the right of the party) and assisting Thatcher’s rise to power.  So perhaps we have more to be grateful to him for than we might think.  His father was a Lord so when he died and passed the title to Sir Anthony Wedgewood Benn (Tony’s full name) he was forced to resign as an MP as it was not legal to sit in both houses.  He successfully campaigned for the right to renounce your peerage (as you do) and was promptly re-elected as an MP.  He served in government for a long period with various ministerial posts and as Chairman of the Labour Party.  He retired as an MP in 2001, famously explaining that he was leaving the House ‘in order to spend more time on politics’. He spent the last 13 years touring the country making speeches, attending interviews, appearing on chat shows and generally showing us what a politician who believed passionately looked like, a man who was not prepared to compromise his beliefs in order to get power.  Despite his extreme views (he was against capitalism, wanted Britain out of the EU, out of NATO, and so on) he was widely admired and loved because of his genuine passion, his honesty and his good nature.  People who disagreed strongly with is views were still happy to be his friend or to be in his presence.  He will be missed.  His legacy also includes a huge archive of memoirs and tape recordings; he recorded everything he did and I expect history will thank him for this.  The second left-wing icon to die last month was Bob Crowe, leader of the RMT union, one of the largest remaining Unions.  He had been a member of the communist party and a great admirer of Arthur Scargill.  He was also anti-EU.  Crowe was an East Londoner, and involved in union politics from an early age.  As RMT leader, he was frequently criticised for taking a 6 figure salary/pension but living in a council house.  I heard an interview with him on Radio 4 the day before he died (it was recorded over a meal and he sounded well) and when challenged on this point he justified it by saying he was the only person in his street paying tax as all the others were on benefits (?!). He Led the Union during a number of clashes, most recently with Boris Johnson who wishes to modernise the tube and do away with many of the ticket offices (everyone uses Oyster Cards these days).  He called his members out on strike just a month or so ago to try to retain the staffed ticket office and there were virtually no tube services for 48 hours crippling London and inconveniencing millions of ordinary people.  I won’t miss him.

Tony Benn

The Rich mix with the Poor: four well know TV personalities spent a week with some of the poorest families in the UK. Theo Pathetis from Dragons’ Den, Rachel ‘my brother run’s London’ Johnson, a fat lady from Eastenders and a rich kid from Made in Chelsea all gave up a week to get some good TV exposure and to help some people less fortunate than themselves.  I was surprised by both how little money was left for food (a pound or so a day for most of them) and by the relatively pleasant properties that most of them lived in.  The basic problem for all of them was that for one reason or another (frequently poor health) the adults were no longer able to work and although the benefits payments should have covered their basic requirements, the debts that these families had from a series of earlier loans meant that basically they could not afford to live (i.e. eat).  In many cases the interest rates they were paying doorstep lenders were in the order of 15,000% APR. One gentleman had to pay the electricity company about half of his benefits cheque each week (due to debt) and then fill up his meter with a lot of what remained.  He then had about a pound or so for food every day.  This is seriously shocking to watch, but we can’t expect the state to bail people out when they go on a spending spree they can’t afford as in that case everyone would be out spending regardless of the consequences.  It is sad to watch these poor people who have got themselves into these terrible situations.  To be fair, the rich stars did appear to provide some real help.  Pathetis persuaded one man to declare himself bankrupt to wipe out his debts and then start again clean.  It was his only way out but he had been too proud to go that route.  The Made in Chelsea guy found local food banks and soup kitchens that made a real difference to that family and helped the father get back into society.  Always hard to determine how real this was and how set-up and edited to make for better TV but I am sure either way the issues were real and there are people out there who do need help.  And while the state provides basic financial help the support these families need is counselling on how to get out of debt, how to live within your means, the importance of saving a bit for a rainy day and so on.  I think the really eye-opening sequence for me was when Rachel Johnson decided to make her family a decent meal (rather than the crap most of them eat most of the time) using the money available from benefits after debt payments and heating bills etc.  They went to the supermarket bought vegetables and some minced meat all for a few pounds (for a meal for four or five) but they were nine pence short.  So she went out into the street to ask passers-by for 9 pence.  A lady gave her the nine pence but my point is that if someone asked me in 2014 in the UK for 9p I would just assume they were nuts.  Yet for that family it made the difference between a proper meal and some cheap junk.  It has given me much to think about and I no longer regard my loose coppers that used to irritate me in the same way.

On Friday March 7th 2014 the rain stopped and the sun came out.  The wettest winter on record appeared to have come to an end at last.  For most of us the in UK, it was just tediously wet, raining almost every day since December after a wet Autumn.  The lawns are sodden, the roads are in a terrible state (potholes damaging our cars all over the place) grey skies and general dampness.  For a while Oxford looked more like Oxford-on-Sea as with the Thames bursting out and all the flood plains full it actually looked as if we were surrounded first by lakes, and then as all the lakes joined together it looked like we were on the coast with the ring road becoming an elevated causeway over the sea.  But for a few people including some of our friends, the situation is far more severe with flooded villages, houses and larger areas in some parts of the country.  I expect we will see this more regularly with the change in the climate we are experiencing.  But for the last three weeks, the mild wet weather has become mild and sunny, with plenty of cool mornings and warm afternoons with the temperatures reaching 20 degrees.  One warm Sunday we went to Avebury in Wiltshire which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like its more famous brother Stonehenge down the road, it originated back in 6000BC.  You can still see (and touch) a bunch of rocks that were placed there all those years ago.  There is a pretty little village and some beautiful walks around the stone circles and a National Trust museum.  About a mile away is Silbury Hill which dates back to 2500BC.  Silbury Hill is a man made hill about 40m high and wide.  It was built at a time when there were no tools so most of the earth would have been carried by hand over a 200+ year period.  Its use is unclear.  It is a beautiful site to behold, calming, curious and impressive.  This historic site near the beautiful town of Marlborough in Wiltshire is in a delightful country setting in a lovely part of the country.  As you walk around these huge ancient boulders you realise how far we have come in the last 5,000 years.  And as our development gets faster and faster, it is refreshing to take a step right back in time to see how our ancestors lived.  Particularly on a nice sunny day!
Silbury Hill 2500BC

Every now and then, a superb batch of films seem to be produced.  I talked about 12 Years A Slave in an earlier blog and last month we went to see another superb film: Gravity (in 3D) and I can see why it won all those Oscars.  Apollo 13 on steroids! I must say that watching it in 3D in a first class cinema, it is a remarkable film. And to think there were only a couple of actors for most of it!  And Kate Blanchet in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmin.  Not so sure about the film itself, but Blanchet deserved her Oscar without the slightest doubt.  So a great batch of films and acting in these films all recently released and all winning Oscars at last month’s awards. We also caught up with a film from a year or two ago: About Time is Richard Curtis’ last film (unless he changes his mind).  It is not a great film but it is a good film, well acted and worth spending two hours watching if you haven’t got much else to do.  What it taught me is that you should live each day as if you can’t live it again (which you can’t) and get the most from it.  Instead of getting irritated by other people or things, try to find a positive angle and enjoy it.  Not only will you make other people’s days better, but your own will be improved.  Which makes me think back to my attempt to make a daily random act of kindness; verdict to date: must try harder!

Gravity Poster

Well the clear winner in the “Should we stay in the EU?” debate between Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage of the Monster Raving Looney Party UK Independence Party was: LBC.  It was thanks to the London Broadcasting Company – a radio station – that the live debate took place.  The other two party leaders (Cameron and Miiliband) refused to participate as they had too much to lose.  LBC is much better known now as it was also broadcast live on Sky.  The LBC presenter Nick Ferrari did a good job of keeping what could have been a much livelier debate under control.  The immediate polls after the first debate showed that Farage had won but that is perhaps a gut expression around feelings for the EU and the UK economy rather than a desire to pull out of the EU immediately.  We need to remember that the popular press has spent years maybe decades lampooning various EU policies such as ‘In a win for weirdly shaped vegetables across Europe, the majority of EU states voted to repeal laws which banned "free of abnormal curvature" in cucumbers and bananas five years ago.’  There are far more serious ones such as the difficulty the UK courts had in deporting Abu Qatada for example (and he is bananas).  In most cases, the EU has appealed or changed the legislation largely as a result of popular outcry and that is how democracy should work.  Unfortunately the way this is portrayed in the popular press can make the EU look pretty crazy.  So headlines such as: EU bans bent bananas, Water does not hydrate you, Popular British snack "Bombay Mix" had to change its name to "Mumbai Mix", Prunes are not laxatives, Barmaids cannot show their cleavage when serving customers, Turnips cannot be labelled "Swedes", except in one place, Corgis are banned, Diabetics are banned from driving, Eggs cannot be sold by the dozen, European sports teams have to have the European flag on their uniforms, are common whereas headlines such as ‘No War in Europe for 50 years thanks to EU’ are as rare as rocking horse poo.  Farage plays up all of these nonsense stories and stokes fears that ’29 million Romanians are going to come to the UK and take our jobs and benefits money’.  Clegg corrected him citing the fact that there aren’t even 29 million Romanians in Romania so Farage is talking nonsense.  But the damage is done.  Farage then went on about how over 75% of legislation passed in the House is now EU law and Clegg responded to say according to the House of Commons Library, the figure is 7%.  The challenge we face here is summed up nicely by The Economist: “It was bound to be a one-sided fight: an anxious-looking technocrat debating a poorly understood subject with a brash people-pleaser. Unsurprisingly, then, when pollsters from YouGov asked whether Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage had won a broadcast duel on Europe on March 26th, the Europhile deputy prime minister lagged the leader of the populist, anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) by 57% to 36%.”  Part 2 of the debate is next week.  I find all this deeply disturbing as the best future for the UK is to embrace Europe and to reform the EU where necessary, for us to become a leading light in the world’s largest economy.  As a team, we have real clout in the world.  The Chinese, the Americans will listen.  As little UK they will just laugh at us.  In fact the Chinese don’t like us very much which is not too surprising when you look at what we did over there in our colonial past.  I have some very good British friends who have lived for the last five years as expatriates in a wealthy and highly civilised Asian country.  Unfortunately another British man living there recently made some very insulting comments to the locals and has now fled the country.  Shortly after that my friends started to find they couldn’t get served in restaurants and the buses would no longer stop for them at bus stops.  This is what it is like to experience discrimination.  It is not a nice feeling and I know there are people in the UK who have experienced this regularly all of their lives.  Nigel Farage is stirring up negative feelings and passions and will make our country a nasty place to live.  I know that the few Romanians already here – most of them working hard and paying in more than they are taking out – are starting to experience this sort of discrimination more often.  This does not make me proud as I have always seen the British as a welcoming good mannered people and Farage is quite possibly going to change this.  I am going to finish with a quote from Chris Huhne in yesterday's Guardian: "UKIP is the polar opposite of the Lib Dems. The well-educated can afford to embrace change, because those who learn can do so again.  They are confident and capable. Globalisation is not a threat but an opportunity.  Immigration provides cleaners not competition. By contrast, UKIP's supporters are old, fearful and anxious.  The party's appeal is laced with nostalgia for a past in which jobs were secure, teenagers were respectful and smokers never died of cancer. It's a vision of a better yesterday".

Farage & Clegg in EU debate

‘’Comme il est difficile d'être simple" Vincent Van Gogh
‘’How difficult it is to be simple’’ 

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