Saturday, 24 January 2015

That's How Winning is Done

Manchester City getting booted out of the FA Cup at home by Middlesbrough...Manchester United nearly getting booted out by Cambridge United...Premiership table-toppers Chelsea getting booted out 2-4 at home to Division One Bradford City after being 2-0 up...half the Premier League out of the competition already. All this and side two of The Beatles' Abbey Road. Who really gives a fuck about party political debates on television?

City's unlikely victory, voted the biggest ever FA Cup upset by Match of the Day watchers, comes in the 30th year of the fire disaster at Valley Parade in which 56 people were killed, an event that was as unlikely and ridiculous as City burning down Chelsea yesterday. Since then, for those who don't know or don't care, City's fortunes have mirrored the fluctuating fortunes of the nation. The fall from the Premiership 14 seasons ago was followed by relegation and two or three spells in financial administration. It's been a hand-to-mouth existence. If there was a food bank for football clubs, City would have been queuing for grub.

In 2013 the club, then in Division Two, shocked the footballing world by rolling over Premiership clubs Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa to reach the Capital Cup Final at Wembley where they were torn apart by Swansea. That defeat didn't knock the stuffing out of them. They returned to the stadium that same season to comfortably conquer Northampton Town in the Division Two play-off final. Since then the new team's league form has fluctuated between the abysmal and the admirable.

City's struggle to survive and improve reminds me of Rocky Balboa's speech in the movie Rockie V, when the ageing boxer responds to his angry son with a bit of reluctant truth-telling - one of the highlights of a pretty good film:-

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winnin' is done...Until you start believin' in yourself you ain't gonna have a life.

Doesn't matter if City get knocked out in the next round, the fifth round; they've already gone beyond their own expectations and made a little bit of footballing history, reaffirming the validity of their two uplifting Wembley appearances in 2013.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Shake Me Up, Judy...

Whatever Leon Brittan was like to his friends, family and colleagues, to outsiders like me looking in, via the TV screen, he came across as a smug, smarmy-faced, supercilious git, a Philip Larkin toad. I am willing to concede I am wrong if anybody can can come up with three reasons why he was worthy of admiration as a public man in politics. I thought Michael Heseltine had character until I met him and discovered that he was a smug, smarmy-faced, supercilious git on the inside. He just kept his lack of bottom hidden behind his Fieldmarshal Rommel air and leoline mane.

Meanwhile, the Union Jack flies at half-mast on public buildings occupied by the Government and Buckingham Palace, occupied by the Queen, in honour of Saudi Arabia's erstwhile monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdulziz. He must have been a real friend to those in power in this country; he doesn't appear to have been much of a friend to those without it in his own, the land of Wahabbism and a thousand lashes. Perhaps Saudi oil production policy played a part in pushing down the price of petrol in the West. If it did, well, thanks for that, although it doesn't quite make amends for what OPEC did after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the long-term effect on Britain.

Monday, 19 January 2015

There's No Business Like...

The Home Secretary says anti-semitism must be wiped out. I wonder at the unthinking use of a phrase with genocidal overtones. But then, being a bear of staggeringly little brain, me wondering at things is not an uncommon phenomenon.

I was wondering, for example, at the swiftness with which "Je suis Charlie" in Paris the week before last became, on Sunday in London, "Je suis juif". 

In Sylvia Plath's poem Daddy, the narrator imagines she might be "a bit of a Jew". And in Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar, about the Nazi massacre of Jews, written when the poet was in his twenties, he concludes with what he hopes is a resounding blow: No Jewish blood runs among my blood/ but I am as bitterly and hardly hated/ by every anti-semite/ as if I were a Jew. By this/ I am a Russian.

The hardly is clearly a bit of duff translation; but the sense of the lines is not fatally impaired. Yevtushenko was aiming his fist at anti-semitism in Russia, which has a history of Jew hatred going back to the pogroms of the 19th century and probably beyond. Incidentally without those pogroms, Bob Dylan's antecendents would not have fled Europe for America and we would never have had timeless wonders such as It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), Talkin' World War III Blues, and Desolation Row. It's an ill wind.

I shared a basement flat in Hackney with a chap who was Jewish when I was 22. At his behest I explored the possibility of going to Israel to work on a Kibbutz for a while. That was in the early Seventies, after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 but before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I think I would have been too callow, too shallow, for those unblinking warriors at that time. Over the years I confined my sympathy for Israel to watching the usual movies: Exodus, Raid on Entebbe, Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List.

Not any more, not after the Israeli military's attempt last year to do to Gaza City what the Nazis had done to Warsaw. Jews were culprits then. Now, it appears, they are in their usual historical role of victims once again. And I am wondering at the transformation.

The sight of Home Secretary Teresa May and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles - our Eric, as he was when he was leader of Bradford Council between 1988-90 - sombrely standing behind "Je suis juif" placards, caused me to remember a cynical observation attributed to former Israel Foreign Minister Ebba Eban: "There's no business like Shoah business."

Saturday, 10 January 2015

In the Hour of Trial

This afternoon I came across the proof copy of a booklet in pale blue paper covers called Be Careful with Muhammad! written in 1989 by Shabbir Akhtar, at that time a Bradford University academic. Here are the first and final paragraphs, the alpha and omega of Dr Akhtar's 136-page cleverly argued apologia for Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah against Salman Rushdie and his novel The Satanic Verses.

 'Say what you like about God - but be careful with Muhammad!' is an old slogan of Western caution about Islam, but one which we might well take seriously in the wake of the controversy arounding the publication of The Satanic Verses. The missionaries and other Christians who preached the Gospel in Islamic lands often found Muslims to be obstinate in their religious convictions and protective about their Prophet. While Muslims tended to accept some forms of satire or parody of the divine ways, they rarely tolerated insults to Muhammad and his family. Belief in God was common to Jews, Christians and Muslims. But endorsement of Muhammad's prophethood was the distinguishing feature of the Muslim outlook. It was the responsibility of Muslims, therefore, to guard the honour of their prophet, the Arabian mesenger who had brought them guidance from God...

...Certainly, the sword is useless without the pen. Even if the British government and people score a victory over their Muslim citizens, through threats or the use of naked force, the moral victory belongs to those who stand up for what is right and just, not fearing the reproach of the powerful but unjust. It is here that faith properly tests and tries men and women. Faith is as faith does - in the hour of trial. The human task, the human obligation, is toplead for and, if necessary, fight for what is right and just. Victory is, for the Muslim conscience, by the grace of God - our Lord and their Lord.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie?

I agree with the bloggist Your Freedom and Ours: the killings at the office of Charlier Hebdo on January 7 were not "senseless". Like the hacking up of soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London in May 2013 and the murder of 52 people on the tubes and buses of London in July 2005, the killings in Paris were rational acts calculated to shock and terrify.

But to what hoped for end? None of the attacks, none of the murders, carried out against writers, cartoonists or film-makers since the ceremonial immolation of The Satanic Verses by Muslim men in Bradford in February 1989, appears to have deterred the spirit of satire. Provincial publications may have become more timorous in criticising Islamofascism with its penchant for honour killings, human trafficking, drug-running, sexual grooming and the occasional burst of terrorism, but bolder spirits in the free capitals of the world have not.

No, the well-armed, protectively clothed and shod trio who killed and wounded more than 20 people with their automatic assault rifles, probably had another objective. At a guess I'd say they were hoping to provoke a backlash against French Muslims to demonstrate that it is the West that's at war with Islam and that it always has been.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and before that the Crusades...Pick whatever age you like and it will kill. For the French this goes back to the Algerian war of independence followed by the internicene war with the OAS and the dozen or more attempts to assassinate President de Gaulle. And that pre-dates the Munich Olympic Games massacre of 1972 when Black September Palestinians kidnapped Israeli athletes to use them as bargaining chips for the release of jailed Palestinians. It all went wrong and 11 Israelies were killed.

You could argue the conflict with Islam back to the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel defeated Egypt and Jordan and occupied the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Sinai Desert - the latter territory subsequently handed back to Egypt after President Sadat and Menachem Begin allowed President Jimmy Carter to broker a peace deal at Camp David. Why stop there? Why not go back 20 years before Moshe Dayan and his Horatio Nelson heroics on land and in the air, back to 1948 when Israel was created? Come to that, why not go back to the source of the trouble, when Moses led the bickering tribes of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land?

Depending on how fundamental you want to get about this, you could even go back to Genesis and Adam and Eve, taking the 'doomed before the beginning of time' line that Samuel Beckett's character Hamm uses against the hapless Clov in Endgame.  

You don't need history to understand that if you provoke somebody enough one day they are going to hit back in a way you didn't expect. Things get trickier when vengeance is sought retrospectively,  as was the case in Northern Ireland when the war boiled over. What's going on now is not a war against free speech as such but, as we saw in London in 2005 and in the United States four years before that, a war against the West for wrongs, real and imagined, done in the past. For the armed and militant wing of Islam, the jihadis, this is pay back time. If I am exaggerating perhaps somebody will explain why this country has been in a state of high security alert for months?

But for the hundreds out there dedicated to killing us, there are thousands who don't feel like that. We have to remember this. The closer you are to events the worse the worse they appear. Take the book burning in Bradford in 1989. At the time it seemed like a threat to set fire to the whole civilised world of cultural discourse. The reality was somewhat different. The would-be fire-lighters happily agreed to bring forward the moment of ignition to accomodate the photographer from the local paper sent to cover the event because he had to be away somewhere else on another job at the time they had orginally designated for The Satanic Verses to go up in smoke.

If the Islamic Republic of Iran had come out of the eight-year war with Iraq better than it did the ageing and unwell Ayatollah Khomeini would have had no need to issue a fatwah against poor old Salman Rushdie, to rally Muslims worldwide. It was a ploy to stir up opinion, to stick a finger in the eye of the West for the support given to Saddam Hussein, whom the West would later seek and destroy. The ploy worked, radicalising a generation of Muslims in Bradford in the same way that I remember the Black Power of black Muslims in the United States radicalising black teenagers in my corner of East London in the early 1970s.

Rather than go into panic mode the French should treat the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a criminal act and send the police after the criminals. It won't satisfy the lust for vengeance in some quarters; but that's a desire best resisted. Attacking Muslim shops, schools or places of worship, apart from being wrong, would play into the hands of the men with the agenda, the provocateurs who want division, chaos and bloodshed. I'm not talking about Muslims who are seriously pissed off with recent Western military adventures; I'm thinking of the ideological strategists in the shadows who use the disaffected as pawns in a much bigger game. Bob Dylan wrote a great song on this theme in the early 1960s: Only a Pawn in Their Game.

Rather than make a bravura gesture (from a safe distance) and declare in solidarity with the silent demonstrators in Paris, "Je suis Charlie", I would prefer to say instead "I am Jimmy".

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Learning from the Past...

The spate of migration across the Mediterranean and the shocked-and-surprised reaction to them by people anxious about being swamped by dusky-skinned foreigners reminds me of something that happened 35 years ago when I was a new reporter in Bradford.

Ragged sail-boats full of people fleeing Indo-China were turning up all over the place. They came from South Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia/Kampuchea seeking refuge from wars and unsympathetic political regimes. The West looked on as the Chinese and the Vietnamese army of General Giap combined to batter Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge into submission. The Khmer Rouge were fundamentalist Maoists - an earlier version of Islamic State - who tried to obliterate history and more than a million people by sending Cambodia back to an imagined state of ideological purity. The West, which was prepared to make heart-rending movies such as The Killing Fields, suddenly found it was expected to help hundreds of thousands of orientals. We tried to back out by declaring them economic refugees. A few were. Many weren't.

I don't recall feeling especially sympathetic at the time. It was just a case of more foreigners from far away seeking shelter from the storm which hadn't troubled my life. Politicians, of course, cannot and should not think like that even if they feel antipathetic to dealing with problems not directly of their own making. The poor and the distressed will always be with us and, as a rule, we no longer believe in letting them sink or swim - if the sharks don't get them first. Thirty-five years ago the world did something, even if at the time the accusation was that it wasn't enough.

This summary from the History Learning site is a sobering reminder:-

No one can be sure how many people took the decision to flee, nor are there any definitive casualty figures. However, the number who attempted to flee has been put as high as 1.5 million. Estimates for deaths vary from 50,000 to 200,000 (Australian Immigration Ministry). The primary cause of death was drowning though many refugees were attacked by pirates and murdered or sold into slavery and prostitution. Some countries in the region, such as Malaya, turned the boat people away even if they did manage to land. Boats carrying the refugees were deliberately sunk offshore by those in them to stop the authorities towing them back out to sea. Many of these refugees ended up settling in the United States and Europe. The United States accepted 823,000 refugees; Britain accepted 19,000; France accepted 96,000; Australia and Canada accepted 137,000 each. 

Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies, has been telling me periodically over the past two or three years that globalisation has failed millions of people. When they move en masse, he said, it usually means they are desperate.The situation has been made much worse by IS and the Taliban. They are the dragon's teeth, the Spartoi, that sprang up in the wake the West's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Greek mythology Cadmus threw a jewel in the midst of these armed warriors and they killed each other to get at it. Is there a contemporary Cadmus in the wings?  

Meanwhile, global organisations such as the UN and the EU should rouse themselves. They could make a start by looking back at the Vietnamese Boat People problem which seemed insuperable at the time.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

An Everyday Story...part two

And lo, it came to pass in The Archers, that Jill Archer, Mother of the Nation, took aside her son David and told him: 'I'm not going to Northumberland'. No matter what happens to Brookfield Farm Jill Archer is staying in Ambridge. Tony Archer, hospitalised by a raging bull, was so shocked-and-surprised-and-delighted by the news that he started talking again - albeit to his mother the long-suffering, sanctimonious Peggy.

Will the road go through after all? Will Brookfield be flogged to developers for £7m? Will David Archer do the right thing and tell Ruth to bugger off to tend to her mother? Roll on 2015. Roll on New Year's Day when War and Peace, Tolstoy's everyday story of Russian folk (and Napoleon Bonaparte), is being broadcast by BBC Radio over ten hours on the same day from 9am. That's the sort of thing to get Joe and Eddie Grundy out of bed.