Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Keep Boris Out !

I have fond memories of going to anti-racist gigs in the 80’s in the Jubilee Gardens with my mates from school ( – did Aswad really play every one of those benefits?).

It may give my age away but I can remember the days before we had a Mayor’s Office in London – those glory days of the old GLC. When Ken Livingston was the council leader. In those dark Thatcher years, the GLC was a local beacon of defiance, and naturally the Tory press demonised them and him in particular as the loony left.

Admittedly with hindsight some of the community groups and campaigns the GLC supported were pretty daft, and undeniably played in to the hands of their opponents. And probably laid the basis for the cronyism and corruption allegations that are haunting Ken to this day. But I firmly believe that the GLC was a GOOD THING – and this of course is why a vindictive Tory government went on to abolish it.

Ken has come a long way since his antecedents as a fellow-traveller of the obscure Trotskyist entrist Socialist Action sect. These days he doesn’t even talk about socialism – he’s an unashamed radical-populist. Which is why he's just about tolerated by the party leadership as New Labour’s prodigal son.

But he has one vital thing going for him. He’s not ludicrous racist Tory toff Boris Johnson. And no amount of stupid bendy buses, lies about the cost of the Olympics, or dodgy dealings with Lee Jasper can outweigh this.

So, in the absence of a proper socialist candidate (sorry but the
front organisations of the Socialist Workers Party, or of the Communist Party of Britain, or Galloway's Islamo-apologists just don’t cut it) - I will be holding my nose and voting Ken for mayor tomorrow.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Fuel and penions

With a petrol tank on my bike the size of a thimble I have my own mini fuel crisis quite regularly. So I filled up a jerry can at the local petrol station for my own emergency supply ‘just in case’.

I then felt kind of guilty about it – like I was a victim of the hysteria that seems to take grip at the mention of ‘fuel strikes’. Contrary to the predictions we haven’t yet seen the breakdown of western civilisation because of the two-day strike of oil workers at the Grangemouth refinery.

This hysteria seems to blind many people to the perfectly reasonable position of the Ineos workers. Think of the issues at stake:

• Big companies expected to take care of their former employees after a lifetime of service with a full salary pension? Outrageous and outdated.

• Thinking that a company making profits in excess of £50million per day, with a chief executive worth £1.3 billion, should be able to afford such a scheme? Ludicrous and unreasonable.

• Workers who work 12hour shifts 365 days a year having a basic wage of £30k pa – rising with overtime to £40k? Over-privileged and outrageous.

• Unions taking limited strike action after prolonged negotiations have broken down? Selfish and irresponsible.

The pension issue is a time bomb for most of us. A whole generation now faces insecurity at the end of their working lives that was unkown to our parents and grandparents. Many have had to come to terms with this and suffer the lesser of two evils with private pensions. Some of us who work in the small business sector have always had to accept it. In the oil industry there is a group of workers who may just be able to use their industrial clout to defend what so many others have lost.

Good luck to them, even if it does mean a bit of inconvenience for motorists (and bikers).

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Support the teachers

You couldn’t pay me enough to be a teacher.

And I’m not adverse to the sound of my voice, and I get quick a kick out of ‘teaching’ whether it’s doing presentations or trying to help instruct martial arts. But the thought of being part social worker, part security guard, part mentor and the responsibility for shaping young minds that goes with being a school teacher, frankly scares me shitless.

Which is why I think they deserve more pay and support their strike today.

I’m not totally soppy about this. With two children in inner London schools and a partner who is a school governor, I know that there are some crap teachers, and it’s still too difficult to get rid of them. But then there are weak individuals in every industry or profession.

However the arguments behind the strike today are really about the status of teaching itself . A lot of people in the private sector - actually most of the people I work with - are totally misinformed about teachers pay (the quoted £35k is at the top level not the average) and the hours (the unpaid overtime and out of hours working is conveniently forgotten).

But even if they weren’t mis-informed, even if teaching really was a cushy over-privileged profession; why shouldn’t it be?

Graduate trainees in city financial institutions regularly start at £35k – who do we really need most? Maybe if we go these priorities right we’d have a more civilised society.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Administrative Professionals

Apparently today is International Administrative Professionals’ Day.

It used to be called Secretary’s Day but it’s been re-branded. It started in the 50’s and I think the idea was a kind of be nice to your secretary day. Fair enough I suppose, secretaries were a pretty hard done by group of workers.

But nowadays they have gone the same way as the hand-loom weavers. It’s difficult to conceive of a time when junior and middle managers were not capable of typing their own letters or answering their own phones.

Actually I’m pretty sure these skills were easy enough to acquire - but having someone else do these things for you was a status symbol. Laptop, email voicemail and open plan offices have thankfully made much of this corporate petty bollocks obsolete.

In fact I don’t know anybody who has a secretary. Of course there are some executives who live in the management stratosphere who have PA’s. (People like Sur-alun-sugar the nation’s favourite fat cat bastard). I guess PA’s can fill some kind of practical function in being gatekeepers for their bosses – managing access and running the appointment diary - they get to know all the corporate skeletons in the cupboards. But they’re not really secretaries at all, they're a kind of middle manager - and possibly a backdoor way by which women have been able to by-pass the corporate glass ceiling.

So who is an ‘Administrative Professional’ these days ? The only people who would use that title are probably jobs-worth petty bureaucrats who think that they aren’t working class because they get to wear a polyester tie, and have a BTEC in business studies.

Although actually Generation X-ers in clerical McJobs are the real equivalent of the down-trodden secretaries of the past. So rather than 'Sending a bunches of flowers to your secretary-day' it might be more appropriate to have 'Mourn the loss of proper jobs in manufacturing-day'.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008


‘It’s political correctness gone mad’ tends to be a clarion call for the small minded whenever their bigotry is challenged.

But it does seem apt when train drivers’ union ASLEF picket the premier of black comedy ‘Three And Out’. The storyline is apparently about a tube driver who having two suicides throw themselves under his train seeks out a third to get the compensation and compassionate leave.

I’ve not seen it so I can’t vouch for whether it’s funny or not. Mackenzie Cook was superb as Gareth in The Office, rather less so in ‘Sex Lives Of The Potato Men’. Ultimately as a black comedy, the funniness criteria is the only one that really matters.

Picketing the film because it touches your own sensitivities tends to make you look like a humourless twat. Maybe the shop workers union USDAW should have picketed ‘Are You Being Served’, or the bus workers could have done the same for ‘On The Buses’. But the only real offensive aspects of these series were that they were complete shit.

With local elections in London where public transport features as a massive issue, and when tube workers are demonized as the enemy within, it’s probably rather bad tactics too.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Teenage kicks

Channel 4’s Skins finished last night, with all the characters if not killed off, certainly dispersed for ever. I know I’m not the demographic that’s supposed to be watching it, but I think it’s genius – ridiculous and poignant at the same time.

I’m also pretty sure that a lot of the cultural references are wasted on me. But substitute Special Brew for the pills, 80’s metal for the trance, and obviously all the fashion, and essentially it’s me and my friends aged 18.

It captures that brief window when everything seems possible, it’s all still to be discovered and the whole world centres around your friends – a kind of intensity that will never come again. The human tragedy is probably that we forget so quickly how it is to feel that way - and lose something in the process.

Which is why it should be compulsory viewing for every 40-something, especially if they are a parent. And it’s bloody funny too.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Trade unions - initials & names

My trade union (Unite) has spoken out about bullying in the workplace – of clergymen by their parishioners. I’m a bit taken aback by this. As an ex-Catholic I can’t really think of clergymen as a part of the labour movement. And I was amazed to find that I am now in the same union as them.

I joined the print industry in the days of the closed shop and of jealousy and rivalry between the unions. In my naïve enthusiasm I initially joined the wrong union - SOGAT (Society Of Graphic Allied Trades). Trying to move to the correct one for my actual area of work, the NGA (National Graphical Association) was ludicrously difficult and achieved with only slightly less hassle than re-partition after a civil war.

But even when this was done I found that we didn’t really consider ourselves part of the NGA at all. We had merged only a few years before and still thought of ourselves as SLADE (the gloriously named Society of Lithographic Artists, Engravers & Process Workers). Not to be confused with the ex-ASLP (Amalgamated Society of Lithographic Printers) and definitely not with ex-NATSOPA (National Society of Operative Printers & Assistants).

All of which convinced me that craft unions were basically bollocks. Whilst everyone was arguing about differentials and giving archaic craft designations to new technologies, employers like Murdoch were busting the unions. And a new generation of people were coming in to the industry from design and IT backgrounds who the craft unions wouldn’t let in and who didn’t see the point of joining anyway.

For a too short time we had what had always made sense; a single (more or less) union for the printing / graphics industry - the GPMU (Graphic Paper & Media Union). But it was too late and financial pressures meant that we got swallowed up in a series of mergers with super-unions. Accordingly we traded initials and acronyms for vague and silly names – firstly Amicus and now Unite. Meanwhile fewer and fewer people see the relevance of being in a union – in fact the main benefits of memberships are cited as legal support, insurance and financial services.

I’m pretty sure I’d be hard pressed to find a fellow member of Unite any more who had a clue what my job was or what companies like mine do. That’s a pretty good acid test.
Industry based unions made sense but I’m not sure that super-unions do – there seem to inevitably become lobbying groups rather than workplace-based.

And I wish the clergymen would just bugger off and form their own
ARSE (Association of Religious & Spiritual Employees).

Friday, 11 April 2008

Ink & Iron

With a taste of Spring in the air I fancied a ride up to Birmingham on Sunday to the annual Ink & Iron show at the NEC. Custom bikes, tattoos and a ride in (short spells) of sun – what’s not to like?

So I was thoroughly pissed-off to find that the show has been canceled at short notice. Apparently the West Midlands police have advised that they couldn’t guarantee public safety. This of course is in the context of the supposed escalation of the ‘biker war’ between the Hells Angels MC and the Outlaws MC. Allegedly.

With the murder of Gerry Tobin last August, and the attack at Birmingham airport in January there is clearly some serious shit brewing. But I have no insights into these events to offer - and neither I suspect does anybody else outside the two clubs, whatever the self-appointed experts are saying in the tabloids.

The clubs are effectively a closed world that has nothing at all to do with ordinary bikers. And whatever you might think about their antics, no outsiders have been involved in any of these incidents – the general biking public are not at risk.

What this is about is a massive over reaction on the police’s part, fueled by media hysteria. Remember we are not talking about suicide bombers walking into the NEC – a small but visible police presence at the event would be enough to assure that any business the clubs might want to conduct is done elsewhere. But obviously a simple stewarding operation at an event that merely affects a minority sub-culture is not a priority.

Imagine the outcry if a football match was canceled on similar grounds.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Put that light out

I was surprised to learn that like so much of the Olympics, the whole torch carrying thing was a modern intervention. Apparently it was first used at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Fantastic, you really couldn't make this stuff up ...

I'm a bit slow off the blocks on this one - but just how marvelous were those scenes from London and Paris as the Olympic torch was assailed by demonstrators ?

It's not often that protesters face a win-win situation. But here it is for once. If the torch is extinguished it's a propaganda coup and if the authorities crack the protesters' heads - then the image that goes around the world is that of the repression of legitimate protest.

Hopefully by the time the torch eventually gets to Beijing the the credibility of the Chinese government will have taken a bit more of a battering at each city it passes through.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Bike DIY

Motorcycle Storehouse, the mail order supplier of all things custom and performance for Harleys has a slogan: 'A biker's work is never done'. It certainly isn't when you are a complusive tinkereer like me.

I've experienced what is euphemistically known as the oil blow-by phenomenon. This is a peverse peculiarity of Harley Evolution engines that vent the oil breather into the air filter. The idea is that oil is sucked into the carb and burnt off. Only it doesn't work - there's more oil mist than the carb can handle so it just collects in the oil filter and then drops onto the engine casing or your boot and scares the shit out of you that you have an oil leak. It gets worse if you have a performance air filter. And worse again if you have the 1200cc re-bore. I've got both - so I thought I'd better do something about it.

So I picked up an oil breather kit from Ebay. This weekend I'd thought I would fit it.Last night I took the air filter off. Or tried to, but I stopped as I realised that I was fast rounding off the original recessed breather bolts that held it on. A quick trip to Halfords before it shut to see if I could get a better socket was a non-starter. Asking for an imperial rather than a metric tool is guaranteed to get a blank stare. Trying to explain that I wanted a six point rather than a twelve point socket (that's what had done the damage) was even more so. Next morning I took the tube to Buck & Ryan the mecca of obscure tools in Holborn, and got the 9/16" deep walled six point socket I wanted. Except it still couldn't get a grip on the fucking bolts.

I took a deep breath and phoned the nice man at the local bike shop. He took one of his own sockets and put it onto a lathe to get rid of the lip at the end so as to get better purchase on the damaged bolts. Happily this worked. I returned home expecting to now finish the job in about half an hour. But instead I found that the breather kit wouldn't actually fit with the air filter. The plastic backing plate required drilling new mounting holes, sealing up old mounting holes, and recutting away some of the moulding. Thankfully my other half's jewellery making Dremell came to the rescue for that. The coast should have been clear to now fit the bloody thing - except the bolts supplied were too big and wouldn't fit the new mounting arrangement. So back to Halfords for some smaller (metric but sod it) bolts to hold it all together. Finally I got the fucking thing on - the best part of 24 hours after starting an half hour job.

The oil breather kit was only about £35. The new socket was £5 (plus as I'm a tool fetishist I also brought several other sockets also at £5 just in case). I gave the nice man at the bike shop £20 for his trouble and ruining one of his sockets. The new bolts from Halfords came in some ridiculous multi-part blister that cost £10. And the tube fare was another £5 or so. In total about £50 worth of buggering about in addition to the cost of the original part.

From long experinece that's a fairly typical bit of bike DIY.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Stupid but smug

To protect our kids apparently anyone with an e.mail address such as will find themselves banished forever from social networking sites.

That’s pretty much the drift of the governments’ proposals to tackle convicted predatory abusers who contact children online. Oh yes - and if they give a false email address when they register with the police on their release, then they face five years imprisonment.

Have the fuck-wits who came up with this ever actually used the internet – do they have the slightest idea how easy it is to get an email address ?

It’s the same kind of thinking behind the debate about taking cannabis up to Class B status. People living in some kind of unworldly cocoon can feel sanctimonious and smug in making glib and hollow proposals that will have no impact on real problems, to the applause of an ignorant baying mob.

Welcome to dumbed down Britain.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Finest Hour ?

It’s the 90th birthday of the Royal Air Force.

Inevitably there will be talk of ‘the few’ and of Spitfires and Hurricanes. Rightly so - the achievement of the Battle of Britain pilots was a heroic and vital contribution to the war against Nazism.

But it’s worth remembering that the origins of the RAF do not lie in its ‘finest hour.’In fact they're downright ugly, and chillingly close to the new world order.

The emergence of a separate air force, as opposed to the Flying Corps of the army or the Air Service of the navy, lay in the theories of a new type of warfare that emerged at the end of the First World War.
The Italian theorist Douhet and the visionary HG Wells predicted a form of strategic bombing that would target cities and civilian populations. Wars would end swiftly and decisively, rather than in the attritional slog of the trenches.

The theories were adopted by Trenchard, the founder of the RAF and were summed up with the slogan ‘the bomber will always get through’. Inter-service politics played a part too – if the RAF was to concentrate purely on battlefield ground targets, reconnaissance and dominance of the airspace over the trenches, it might just as well stay a part of the army.

After the First World War the British armed services reverted to their peacetime role of policing the empire. Ironically two of the trouble spots were Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the North West Frontier (Afghanistan). And the newly formed RAF formed a cost effective alternative to traditional troops on the ground. In the 1920’s it was estimated that it would take 105,000 British and Indian troops to conventionally police the revolt in Iraq. With the presence of the RAF it was actually achieved with a force of only 14,000. This was made possible by a campaign of terror bombing – the punitive incendiary bombing of villages that harboured insurgents and the use of chemical weapons – mustard gas was dropped on Kurdish and Shia rebels.

Arthur “Bomber’ Harris the architect of Dresden and Hamburg’s destruction was a squadron leader in Iraq. And Winston Churchill was an early advocate of these new efficient methods:“I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes to spread a lively terror”.

None of this need diminish the memory of aircrew, including some of my own family, who gave their lives in 1939-45. But in these times it does seem appropriate to remember exactly how we got to have an air force.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Cool or pseud ?

There’s a row going on over at The Guardian on-line about one of their columnists singing the praise of the Moleskine notebook. Of course the Guardian’s art, design and architecture blog is a pretty easy target if you want to take the piss out of people who wear black roll-necks (I have several by the way). Fair enough up to a point.

But I like Moleskine diaries. I also like Converse Chuck T’s. And Apple Macs. And Harley Dvaidsons. And Jack Daniels. Maybe this just makes me a sad wanker because, as comments on the blog make clear, there are always cheaper, better 'value', utilitarian versions available of just about any iconic item you can think of. Usually from Tesco.

But the trouble with that argument is that if you take it to its logical conclusion you deny the existence of quality. (Quality that is in the abstract sense of the word as Pirsig uses it in ‘Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance'). A world without it would be a totally grey dis-utopia. With no design or art.

Of course it’s highly personal and we all apply a concept of quality only to those things that matter to us personally. So for me, yes when it comes to bikes it’s a Harley, a BMW, a Guzzi or a Triumph rather than a better performing or better value Japanese clone. But when it comes to clothes – who gives a shit ? – it’s £10 M&S jeans rather than £100 on the designer equivalent. Go figure. It’s a matter of taste.