Monday, 31 August 2009

Relics on holiday

Back from holiday in France - the tan is already fading and the prospect of returning to work looms. Now that the days of motorcycle touring - historical blitzkriegs on two wheels - have gone, our family holidays are a compromise. I trade sitting on a beach in the afternoons with a spot of cultural tourism in the mornings. For a staunch ex-Catholic this means that I visit a surprising number of churches - even the dullest market town can usually be relied on to have a a historic church. Here's a fairly typical example:

On one particularly hot day we were in Saint Maximin - the gothic basilica there is built on a much earlier Gallo-Roman church and surprisingly for somewhere that is a place of pilgrimage the church is simple and uncluttered inside. On a hot day with its tall cool walls, the high vaulted ceiling, the light diffracted through the windows, and the waft of incense you can understand how, from the point of view of a sweaty, stinky and simple medieval peasant, a sense of spirituality was easily conjured up.

But before you get carried away with this - go and have a look at the crypt which contains the principal reason for the basilica's existence - the relics of Mary Magdalene.
There's a big cult of Mary Magdalene in Provence, apparently she brought Christianity to the area having been cast adrift in a boat from Palestine along with her brother Lazarus. According to the legend the boat had neither sails nor rudder so it was from any point of view a stroke of luck that she made it there.

It was also quite a stroke of luck that when Charles of Anjou in the 13th Century decided to build a church and a Dominican monastery at Saint Maximin, he should unearth a much earlier chapel containing a sarcophagus with the remains of Mary Magdalen. By a previous legend these relics had been somewhere up north in Burgundy, but conveniently there was an inscription explaining that they had been hidden there from the Saracens. The Saracens had of course raided Southern France and tended to take a dim view of the veneration of old bones thinking it all a bit primitive and barbaric, not to say idolatrous. Anyway, presumably Charles couldn't believe his luck so he built a huge basilica which attracted pilgrims for centuries (and maybe these days Da Vinci code conspiracy nuts). In the process he and the Dominicans* undoubtedly did very well out of the whole thing.

A typical medieval tale really - a bit harder to compute is that apparently to this day every July the grotesque relic is taken out the crypt and paraded around. Maybe those Saracens had a point.

*(As a side note; the old Jewish quarter of the town remains, not far from the basilica, along with a plaque explaining that the Jews lived here until the 15th century under the protection of the Dominicans - given the role of the Dominicans as the storm-troopers of the Holy Inquisition you can guess that this was probably a mafiosi style of 'protection').

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Authenticity / Snobbery

Somebody called me a ‘socialist snob’ the other day. They meant it in jest but there was more than a grain in truth in what they said.

I’m certainly not a snob in the conventional social sense but I will confess to being something of an intellectual snob about ignorance, or more precisely Ignorance. Not just the absence of knowledge but rather the wearing of it as a badge of pride and all the small mindedness and bigotry that goes with it – it’s to be found in all classes.

It could be said that I’m a snob in all my ‘ex-curricula’ interests too. I'd prefer to think of it as a desire for the authentic but it offends me if something that I’m passionate about becomes sold-out - devalued or degraded and ‘popularised’ for commercial reasons. I should know that under capitalism nothing is sacred if a quick buck can be made out of people’s shallowness and their need for cool validated.

So, I get pissed off at McDojos in the martial arts. I get pissed off at the strictly weekends-only RUBsin the bike scene. And I get pissed off that tattoos have become a must-have fashion accessory for certain media-types. Here in Soho now the coffee bars are full of them – guys and girls on fixed wheel push-bikes with ‘ironic geek’ haircuts, messenger bags and Macbooks – they all claim to be some sort of up-and-coming creative but nobody is sure what the fuck they actually do for a living. And they are sporting full sleeve tattoos and the latest craze - neck tattoos. Tossers.

This particular rant was prompted by me finding the blog of Shanghai-Kate one of the original pioneers of the tattooing revival that sets the record straight on ‘Tattoo culture’ as a fashion statement – and the Ed Hardy t-shirts and the Sailor Jerry Rum.

My distaste for disposable pop has also got me called a 'musical fascist' but I'll leave that one for now ...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Madness Of The Mob

I went out at lunchtime to pick up some reading for my annual holiday next week. I generally travel extremely light but at least half my luggage is taken up by having to have something to read. Ironically amongst the second hand books I picked up in the Charing Cross Road was a £3 copy of Charles Mackay’s ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ – a nineteenth century curio of essays about various outbreaks of mass hysteria, including the Crusades, With-hunts and the South Sea Bubble.

Then I got back to work and saw the online bile unleashed at the news that the abusers in the Baby P case – Tracy Connelly and Stephen Barker – had been named.

It is quite likely that at some point in their incarceration they will be attacked as Ian Huntley was by some fellow prisoner - and if this is the case I personally wouldn’t blame whoever does it. But I see no contradiction in having this natural emotional response on the one hand and on the other expecting a more dispassionate and reasoned official attitude from the state and the legal system.

So I am profoundly depressed at the generally fuck-witted reactions to the court order that suppressed the release of the abusers names. Apparently 68,000 digital-vigilantes have signed up to a Facebook page that not only called for the abusers to be named but also for them to be tortured and then hanged.

It’s a cornerstone of our Anglo-Saxon legal system that the identities of the accuser, the accused and the convicted are in the public domain – unless there is good reason why this should be otherwise. Such as in rape cases. Or where witnesses may be intimidated. Or where there’s another trial pending that could be prejudiced and invalidated. Or where the welfare of other innocent parties, such as children could be compromised.

In fact it was precisaly because of these last two very credible reasons that the court order to suppress the identities was issued in the first place. These criteria no longer apply – the other trial has now taken place and new foster homes have been found for Baby P’s siblings. So the order has been lifted - and rightly so, but not because a howling mob whipped themselves up into a cathartic frenzy of public self-righteousness.

Some time in the future there will be a discussion as to whether a ‘Mary Bell solution’ should be applied if and when the abusers are deemed fit for release. Unsurprisingly, not knowing enough about the case, I don’t have an answer to that one. But reading about the sober way in which that case was handled back in the 60's I can only depressingly observe that as a society our propensity for ignorance and hysteria seems to be increasing.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Great Train Robbery. Great Computer Hack.

In between the self-righteous cries that Ronnie Briggs should rot in prison and the claims that he was a diamond geezer, lies an inconvenient truth – in our society political expedience trumps ‘justice’ every time – and the powers-that-be simply don’t like to be made to look daft.

When the train robbers were sentenced in 1964 their biggest crime, apart from having literally committed the biggest crime (to that date) of nicking £2.6million, was of making the state and establishment look stupid. This was the end of the Macmillan era and the establishment was feeling a bit threatened on all fronts by cheeky chappies who didn't know their place. So the train robbers all got 25-30 year sentences – by the way the average rape sentence is under 12 years.

(And just for the record, despite the outraged voices from the Daily Mail: The train driver, Jack Mills, who had undeniably been attacked in the robbery, was still alive at the time of the sentencing and didn’t die until four years later - from leukemia not as a result of his injuries).

And when in an extraordinary move a few weeks ago Home Secretary Jack Straw over-ruled the parole board’s recommendation that Biggs be released, the decision was again not based on the individual rights and wrongs of the case but on a desire to be seen to be tough on crime and a fear off offending Middle-England.

There’s a surprisingly similarity with the present Gary McKinnon case: The extraordinary no-questions asked extradition arrangement with the US (that is not even reciprocal) has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with proving the UK’s reliability as an ally in the war against terror.

That - and McKinnon being a UFO obsessed computer nerd who has managed to embarrass the scary and shadowy great minds of the Pentagon by hacking into their IT network. So he will now face a 60 year sentence in the ‘states.

The bankruptcy of justice is even clearer here than it was in 1963– there really are no victims to this ‘crime’ and the perpetrator is not even a ‘lovable villain' but a vulnerable individual with Asperger’s syndrome.

Still - as always embarrassed authority must have a whipping boy.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

An everyday incident

I am wary of men who describe themselves as Feminists. I don’t have any problem with being supportive of an issue that isn’t strictly your own; but there’s something akin to those white liberal Muswell Hill-ites who claim that they identify with immigrants and asylum seekers because their maternal grandmother came to this country as a refugee after the Russian Revolution.

I’m also not comfortable about agonising and intellectualising over what people think rather than what they do. I had all that as a kid with the Catholic thought-police, and there is something about ‘sexual politics’ which is rather similar.

But then again every now and then you see something, a small everyday thing, that makes you stop and just think ‘what the fuck ?’ Take this morning:

I am sat on my bike stopped at a pedestrian crossing. Alongside me a white van pulls up with two blokes in it. Now I don’t make any claims to be a looker myself, but even so I can safely say these fellas are not in good shape. Late middle age, overweight and generally ugly as fuck. A young woman crosses the road in front of us. She is conventionally attractive – blond, tanned, petite but curvy and wearing a short skirt. So ugly blokes in van give a couple of toots on the horn, leer out of the window and shout wahey. The woman looks nervous and/or embarrassed and speeds up her pace. Then the moment has gone.

What exactly just happened there ? Did ugly blokes think that somehow the woman was going to have a road-to-Damascus moment and suddenly say “I never realised it until you sounded your horn but I now know that I am strangely attracted to ugly middle aged blokes’. Or were the ugly blokes just trying desperately to re-assert their heterosexuality to each other or themselves ?

I don’t know - and that way lies psycho-babble. But I do know that they made me cringe. See - maybe I’m a Feminist after all.

Monday, 3 August 2009

In defence of newspapers

The best that can be said of any British newspaper is that it is ‘slightly better than the others’. This can certainly be said of The Observer who most recently notoriously disappeared up its own liberal arse in arguing that the invasion of Iraq was a progressive thing. But I am still saddened to see that the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper is now rumoured to be closing .

Partly this is sentimental because ink runs in my blood; both my dad and grand-dad having worked at various times on Fleet Street. But also because the decline of newspaper buying and reading is another symptom of dumbing-down.

I am not talking here about the poor or the uneducated, the people who have been most by-passed and un-represented by the political system in recent times. I am talking about those who are literate and educated and who most mornings on the way to work will happily fork out for an over-priced coffee but insist on reading only free-sheets like Metro, London Lite and The London Paper. Vacuous celebrity gossip, soap updates and a reactionary digest of the news for the hard-of-thinking that make OK Magazine look like the London Review Of Books.

I have the excuse that it’s difficult to read a newspaper on the way to work when you commute on a motorcycle. But whenever I take a train, and every weekend I almost feel an obligation to read a newspaper. In fact taking an hour to mull over the papers on Saturday and Sunday is as close as I come to a weekly ritual observance ... and a pleasure too.

I acknowledge that the print media is not primarily where I get the news anymore: at home it’s the radio and the TV, at work it’s the internet. But whether it’s reading the analysis or the features, or even if it’s just getting increasing pissed-off with the lifestyle columnists at least I’m taking a small amount of time to look beyond my immediate environment and engage with the wider world. No other media does this in quite the same way.