Sunday, 18 December 2011

Almost an encounter with a fine man : on being near Vaclav Havel

Early in 1990 my wife and I were in New York. We were staying at the Chelsea and one evening returning from a show on Broadway we decided we would go for a drink at the bar of El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant adjacent to the hotel which acts as the Chelsea's unofficial watering hole. As we approached the hotel we noticed  there were many police cars parked outside. My wife counted 22 of them. As we walked  to the entrance of  El Quijote our way was  blocked by policemen. They told us we couldn't go in. We said that we were guests at the hotel. Fortunately the head waiter, who was standing at the doorway,  recognised us and he confirmed to the policemen - I am tempted to write "he told the cops" - that we were guests at the hotel. We made a little more progress towards the bar when a number of  tall and bulky men who were not in uniform blocked our way. Fortunately they looked at the head waiter and he nodded, and they let us by. El Quijote was usually busy at this time but on this evening it was jam packed and buzzing. We asked a man by the bar why it was so busy. "There's some guy called Vaslav or something in." He looked at the woman standing next to him silently questioning her. "It's Vaclav Havel," she said. She nodded toward a table about 10 yards away and there he was sitting smoking a cigarette  with a group of  7 or 8 others.

I learned later that this was not  an official head of state visit to the USA but a private visit which Vaclav Havel had arranged in order to meet his friend Milos Forman and other artists, musicians and playwrights living in New York City who were friends or whom  he admired. This absence of grandiosity confirmed Vaclav Havel's place - he was already someone I admired -  in my pantheon of heroes.  Here was the president of a state - one which was  a symbol  for democracy gained by peaceful means  -  on a private visit not seeking to promote or glorify himself but simply to meet friends and fellow artists. We were told later by Richard, a friend of Stanley the hotel proprietor,  that Vaclav Havel had not asked for the level of security which surrounded his private visit. The New York City and USA authorities had demanded it.

Vaclav Havel, as well as taking a major role in leading the 'velvet revolution' against the communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia,  showed humility, dignity, insight and more than anything respect for the democratic wishes of the people  when the Slovaks and the Czechs decided to take their own avenues  and form separate states.  This is what my late father in law would call "statesmanship."

How different this is from the tawdry, pompous two dimensional front bench prigs in the House of Commons who consider themselves our political leaders and who seek to score cheap  points at "PMQ" - as the prime minister David Cameron now calls it  -  in an attempt to get  their show higher  ratings than the X Factor.

Well, Vaclav Havel, the politician,  you were a dramatist too, but you were sincere, humble and one of us.  You died today, and I didn't quite meet you, or did I ?

Jeremy Millar writes, "a lovely story Charles, not sure if I'm more impressed by the proximity of Havel or how you dropped in 'we stayed at the Chelsea.' I guess you were aware of his love of the Velvet Underground and that is probably why he was at the Chelsea too."

Charles Sharpe responds " I can see what you mean Jeremy but be assured what I've written is utterly about a man, Vaclav Havel.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

A few words from young grandsons

Grandad, I love Bambi.

Dog got wet.

Many years later Mango gets wet

Are you stupid Grandad ?

What are we going to do about this Nana ?

Voices from the back seat of the car.
S to J : J can I have a wee shot of your tractor ?
J to S : No
S : to everyone in general : I think he said "Yes"
Nana, in the front seat of the car : I think he said "No"
S (sotto voce) : I think he said "Yes."

Monday, 12 December 2011

Clegg, coward or ditherer ? : the questions

Why was Nick Clegg initially deafeningly acquiescent about  David Cameron's and  William Hague's failure to negotiate in Brussels ? Why didn't he insist he should be there in Brussels to be at the negotiating table?
Why did it take persuasion from the few remaining sincere Liberal Democrat parliamentarians before he could, over a day later, admit that he was not pleased with Cameron's and henchman Hague's non-negotiating approach ? Why didn't he voice his disagreement at five o'clock in the morning immediately after the Brussels debacle.
If he is genuine in his opposition to the Conservative government's (that's what it is folks) position on the Euro crisis why did he use the excuse that he "would have been a distraction" for his failure to be in the House of Commons today when David Cameron tried to explain away his negligence in Brussels? Why couldn't Mr Clegg be there to face Cameron up front ?

Well maybe because he and his shameful lieutenants are hoping that if they can stay in power for the full term, we  -   the poor suckers who voted for them because they persuaded us they were utterly opposed to the greed mongering City of London worshipping Conservatives  -  will have forgotten about how they deserted us just for the sake of hanging on to the coat tails of power. Have no illusions however, we'll remember.  When the Liberal Democrat party decided to join in this coalition - sorry -  Conservative  government, the notion of conviction politics was dealt a mighty blow.  We may not know hypocrites when we see them but we certainly do recognise them when we see their self-serving action.
Love him as I do all of suffering humanity, in my view Clegg is not now a distraction, he is, in  political terms, a nonentity. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Dundee Courier and Advertiser Shakespeare Scoop

This is a photie taken by the Courier man when Oor Wullie visited Dundee in 1602 to see one of his plays at the Rep. After the performance he said it would not be a good idea for James to go down to England and be the king as it would cause a lot of shennaniggins in the 20th and 21st centuries. He also predicted that Dundee Football Club would win the Scottish League in 1962 and that just shows that even though he was English he must have been a genius because when he said it Dundee Football Club had not even been invented. He did not however predict that Claudio Caniggia would play for us, so he couldn't have been as great a genius as our own bardie Rabbie who predicted that pandas would spend a while in the zoo in Edinburgh 252 years after he was born. Now that's what I call genius.

Is oor Wullie posin' doon here withoot his pail and dungarees ?
Ye cannae' really tell, cos the photie's cut aff well abin his knees.

Oor Wullie's lookin sae affie auld
Maybe that's because his pow's gone bald.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Love and achievement in foster care : a story from the 1930s

Recently on a professional network to which I belong a question was raised about how well foster carers help the children they look after to be successful at school. The underlying implication which had initiated the discussion  was that for less well educated foster parents the educational achievement of the children they foster was not a principal priority. This being so, it could be concluded, many children in foster care were being disadvantaged. Discussions like these have a high profile these days because of the shift in emphasis in government policy about children since the coalition government came to power in the United Kingdom. There is much more emphasis on children achieving and less on thinking about what children need. This may be a valid stance. I am sure no one - consciously at least -  wishes any child to be disadvantaged or to be left trailing behind life's peleton. I am sure we all desire that all children get all the learning they need to ensure  they develop the capacity to cope well enough with life's vicissitudes.

I tend to go along with AS Neill's view that if parenting adults get the emotional support for a child right then the child's full potential will be freed and educational achievement will naturally follow. This is even more the case for children who are fostered ; children who first and foremost require emotional compensation. The current stress on a child "achieving" may lead to us losing sight of what all children really need and that is a consistent, nurturing and loving relationship with an adult. The latter is in my view overwhelmingly the primary function of foster parents.
Learning from a very wide natural curriculum is clearly necessary for the healthy development of a child but this current emphasis on "achievement" tends to insist that children must achieve in education in those areas which are defined by, and meet the needs of, a minority of powerful adults whose principal intention is that their political and economic interests are served. It may or may not be right that these interests should be served but in the first instance we should insist on aiming to provide all children with a caring, loving environment which allows them to be children, where they are given permission to learn and develop through their own discoveries rather than being enslaved by a curriculum prescribed by a particular political culture. I think foster parents should be freed and supported to provide this environment. I guess I am saying that foster parents should primarily be assessed on their capacity to be consistent, tenacious, tolerant, flexible, sincere, concerned and loving.

Just before the beginning of the second world war the father of a friend of mine saw his father killed by the Gestapo. His mother was taken away from the family home and he and his elder sister never saw her again. The tragedy took place in a central European city and the two siblings were helped to escape from where they lived and were brought to the United Kingdom. At the age of 6, he, and his sister (who was 2 years older than him) were fostered by a family who lived in a city situated in the midlands of England. The foster parents were almost illiterate. There was no history of educational achievement in the foster home and as far as my friend's father could recollect there were no books to be found in the home. The children were sent to a local school and  were soon speaking English. They flourished at this school, as they also did in the secondary school they later attended. The boy  became a distinguished member of the medical profession, and his sister grew up to be an accomplished musician who performed in many of the great concert halls of the world. My friend's father told me that he and his sister were shocked by the material impoverishment of their foster home.  It was barren of things which would provide intellectual stimulus for the young siblings. He often wonders why he and his sister flourished from this unpromising home base and when he does so he comes to the conclusion that it was because of the emotional warmth and the love that their foster parents gave his sister and him.

For the sake of maintaining privacy I have altered details of this story but it remains in essence true. Of course an anecdote does not prove a theory but I think the story demonstrates that together with the children's inherent ability, in this instance, the foster parents' love was enough.

Totnes, 2011

Thursday, 24 November 2011

St.Vincent of the Emasculate Conception : government plans to chop workers' rights

The saint formerly known as St Vincent of Our Two Ladies now claims the title St.Vincent of the "Emasculate" Conception. You'll remember him. He's the Adonis who boasted of his prowess to two attractive incognito newspaper reporters. He's the prophet who two years ago told the then New Labour government (oh! Fates! can you ever explain these latter day sinners because its difficult for us to forgive them?) that it could "cut" bankers' bonuses at a stroke. Now that St Vincent has governmental responsibility for this particular kind of snipping we still await its enactment with bated breath. To be sure, given the determination of our coalition government to make certain the wealthy as well as the reasonably well off are looked after,  there will be no such hesitation over St. Vincent's plans to chop the rights of less well paid workers. Yesterday, November 23rd, 2011, St. Vincent announced his intention to increase employers' powers by making the process for getting rid of staff "simpler and quicker " and without risk of the employer being taken to a tribunal.

No doubt supporters of his own party are impressed by the way St.Vincent has emasculated the concept of what it means to be "liberal" and democratic.

Reference :

Friday, 18 November 2011

Keep on warring for the free world : the fate of Libya and Gaddafi

Anyone seeking the truth about what exactly happened in Libya this year may well wish to read Hugh Roberts' essay "Who said Gaddafi had to go? " published in a recent issue of The London Review of Books.
It's a long read but it offers an opportunity to reflect on the history that lay behind the soundbites emanating from the  mouths of the democratically elected leaders of the free world about the events leading to the regime change in Libya during 2011.

In the following brief excerpt Roberts considers the UK'S, the USA's and France's statements in February 2011  about Gaddafi's acts of "genocide". Some may find it uncomfortable, as I do,  since I can't accept  the concept of any state being  able to "legitimately" kill its own people but there is another point here and it is that powerful states arrogate the power to decide arbitrarily that the people of other states  are expendable and may be slaughtered. 
(The full text of the essay can be found here : Hugh Roberts: Who said Gaddafi had to go? ).

‘Killing his own people’ is a hand-me-down line from the previous regime change war against Saddam Hussein. In both cases it suggested two things: that the despot was a monster and that he represented nothing in the society he ruled. It is tendentious and dishonest to say simply that Gaddafi was ‘killing his own people’; he was killing those of his people who were rebelling. He was doing in this respect what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion. We are all free to prefer the rebels to the government in any given case. But the relative merits of the two sides aren’t the issue in such situations: the issue is the right of a state to defend itself against violent subversion. That right, once taken for granted as the corollary of sovereignty, is now compromised. Theoretically, it is qualified by certain rules. But, as we have seen, the invocation of rules (e.g. no genocide) can go together with a cynical exaggeration and distortion of the facts by other states. There are in fact no reliable rules. A state may repress a revolt if the permanent veto-holding powers on the Security Council allow it to (e.g. Bahrain, but also Sri Lanka) and not otherwise. And if a state thinks it can take this informal authorisation to defend itself as read because it is on good terms with London, Paris and Washington and is honouring all its agreements with them, as Libya was, it had better beware. Terms can change without warning from one day to the next. The matter is now arbitrary, and arbitrariness is the opposite of law.'

Hugh Roberts, London Review of Books, November 17, 2011

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Freedom's dead on Ludgate Hill

Riot cops and the Lord Mayor's calling
For a show where he'll get his fill
Of folks being jailed as  tents are falling
Freedom's dead on Ludgate Hill.

Acknowledgement to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  "Four Dead in Ohio"
Lyrics and melody by Neil Young, 1970

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Democracy and Marketocracy

When we see two western democracies like Greece and Italy forced to appoint unelected national leaders because the international trading markets have demanded it we may begin to be anxious for democracy. When we see our elected leaders running up and down ever faster while shouting ever louder at financial problems they are powerless to influence, our fears for democracy are further confirmed. Yet the kind of democracy which we have seen develop in Europe and North America over the few centuries when capitalism has grown to predominance has never been an idealistic journey towards the freedom and enfranchisement of humankind. The wealthy and powerful have tried to persuade us that it has, and, by manipulating the media, they have largely succeeded. No, the democracy we have now is a servant of capitalism. This democracy, we are persuaded, is underscored by the 'principle',  "that whatever befalls, it is the market that rules." Democracy of this kind, that is, marketocracy, is intended to achieve the acquiescence of the poor and not quite so poor by keeping them in the thrall of an illusion, or more accurately a delusion, that the vote and its concomitant  'freedom of speech'  has somehow empowered them.  What this does is leave a space for those with power and wealth to continue to become more powerful and more wealthy. 

Received wisdom advises that though there is indeed an unfair distribution of the earth's gifts, we just have to accept it. This argument goes on to say that we are too enmeshed in capitalism to unravel it.  At the same time it is noted that socialism was tried and it failed. It is puzzling for those who have the temerity to suggest that capitalism  has also failed the vast majority of people on our planet to find that their view is considered naive. 

Finding other fairer ways for humankind to live will not be easy but it is not naive to suggest there may be an alternative and surely the gap in the life experiences between rich and poor has become too much for any pure democrat to bear. There is a need to return to purchasing only those things which our labour has earned for us.

So three cheers for those Greek protesters who continue to eschew marketocracy and who would wish to unpick the damage that it has done. These Greeks are bearing gifts which we should on this occasion trust and accept.

© 2011 Charles Sharpe

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

What my Mummy said about the nature of my goodness

During the 1950s when we lived in Clement Park,  my Mummy would often ask me to go for a message down to Tom's, a wee corner shop just by Liff Road School. She'd be wanting a quarter of a pound of tea, or three and half pounds of tatties, or a plain half loaf. Sometimes she'd run out of fags and send me for 10 Woodbines. In those days it was common for young kids to be sent out to get their parents' cigarettes. If all my weekly pocket money was spent,  I'd ask her if she would pay me a penny for doing her messages. A penny could buy me a big gobstopper or four sticks of hard liquorice. Most times she would give me a penny but when she was hard up and didn't agree to paying me, she would win me round with a little aphorism in praise of the nature of my goodness. In loving tones she'd say, "Charlie, some boys will only be good if you give them sixpence, some will be good for a penny, but you, son, are good for nothing."

I puffed out my chest, took the money for the fags and marched proudly down to Tom's.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

St Vincent of our two ladies speaks to us again.

Yesterday, September 19th, 2011, at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Birmingham, St Vincent of our two ladies told us we were at war with money or the lack of it. Perhaps a colleague in his party who still holds sincerely to liberal values will tell him that many of  our community have been waging this battle for much much longer than the time it takes to boast to two pretty girls about a man's power and prowess. The financial crisis, which for as long as he could hold out, St Vincent has blamed entirely on the previous government, has now, according to "his sanctity, the Vincent" segued to one which lots of foreign people have caused. Not to worry though, St. Vincent is going to sort it all out by making sure that the Chief Executive Officers of big private companies will in the future spit out more in taxes than us poor to middling people have already been coughing up for some time. Yes we can really feel assured. This is the same St Vincent (though he was not at the time suffixed by the epithet "of our two ladies") who said before the last general election that the New Labour government could if it wished to do so, "immediately" cut the undue amount of bonuses those pirhana-like money grabbers at the banks were paying themselves. He said that's what he would do if he were in power.  Well folks, it turns out what Vincent, the Sanctified  meant by "immediately" was that he was gambling on the hope that in seven years we will have forgotten about asking the unduly rich to stop awarding themselves untold sums of spondulak  made upon the backs of the labour, as well as the tolerance and patience, of us poor folks. Let's not even mention the rather awkward embarrassment of those who are not just poor but who have nothing at all and who feel they have nothing to lose.

Except, that in all this I forgot about Mr Clarke's feral underclass which riots and steals and burns down big shops. Well, I declare, that's just unforgivable and very hurtful to those who fleece  us, in supposedly legitimate ways, of the rewards of our efforts.

So we pray to you St.Vincent of our two ladies, please don't tax those who own big houses too much, just make sure that they allow the homeless to live with them in their houses and that they share with them, their food, and the money to buy it. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Dylan's den

Dylan left this shed twixt lunch and eve
and trudged towards Brown's Hotel
to scrounge some money for a drink,
then sup,and give poor Caitlin hell.

She liked the juice with near equal thirst ;
it energised her for other fellas,
while he sank deeper in the jar
for fear of appearing jealous.

An undoubted begging  flirt himself,
life's voyage tossed him fore, then aft,
and he drifted from Caitlin's harbouring arms
to dock beside an historian's better half.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Power tae the lassies : a moment at Waverley Station

This August just past while I was waiting in the queue at the taxi stance in Waverley Station, Edinburgh,  I overheard a conversation between two women who were, I suppose, both of an approximate vintage of 25 years. They talked of their respective partners. As they were about to get into their cab one remarked to the other, "What he's strugglin' tae understand is that I'm no askin' him, I'm tellin' him."

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Dundee's, Scotland's and the world's scariest ever gang

The Lochee Fleet is the stuff of legend.  The memory of the Hulltoon Huns still raises the hairs on the back of the collective neck. Cosmo and the Shimmy even now are thought of in Herculean dimensions but for me there can surely be no doubt which was the most awesome of the gangs around Dundee through the 1960s,70s and 80s.

If from about 1980 to 1990 you drove out of Dundee along the Perth Road and you reached the roundabout where, if you turned right, you headed up the Kingsway,or, if you went straight ahead you were on the dual carriageway towards Perth, well, there, if you were to bear left and head towards Invergowrie, you would see daubed in black paint on the back of a big road sign, the truism, "Even Hitler was scared of the Gowrie Boot Boys".

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

"A short back and sides ?" "No, just give him a trim."

It can surprise you how sometimes things don't change that much. In late May of this year, 2011, I retraced my steps and found J.W. Peters, which is a gentleman's hairdresser's shop at the junction of Lochee High Street and Bright Street. The way most places change so quickly these days I was astonished that there was a barber's shop there, and that it also still bore the name,  J.W.Peters. As I peered into the shop window even the interior looked as it had  over 60 years ago with its wooden screen about five foot high which guarded the privacy of the customer having his hair snipped by the barber's long thin steel scissors and that of the other customers who no doubt were sitting  waiting for their turn. Although so much had remained the same, the barber was different.  I could just catch a glimpse of the top of  his head above the screen as he manoeuvred around a customer. It was the top of the head of a young man with short black hair,and not at all like the head of the man I have always considered the original J.W.Peters who, when I first encountered him in the August 1950, was a tall young man of about 30 years of age with a full head of blonde hair which had a series of natural parallel waves running across his head from one side to the other. This might sound quite exotic but I remember it as a style a number of men favoured in those times.
On a sepia day, so long ago, but still so present in my mind, my Daddy took me into this very barber's shop and we sat together on a long bench to wait while the people who had arrived before us took their turn to have a haircut. Nobody sat in any particular order and so it was a puzzle to me then and remained so for a number of years on subsequent visits how people calculated whose turn it was to be seated at the barber's chair. It seemed to me that an amazing feat of memory was being performed. When it came to my turn to be presented to J.W.Peters, the latter rested a short wooden plank on the arms of his barber's chair in order for me, a very wee boy at the time, to have a platform to sit on which would raise me to an elevation sufficient for J.W.Peters to set about his work. Daddy sat me on the plank and returned to the bench.  J.W. Peters wrapped around me something that appeared to be a white cotton bed sheet and tucked it into my collar. He turned to Daddy and asked, "Short,back and sides?"
" No," Daddy replied, "just give him a trim." I don't recollect much about actually having my haircut but I remember the distinctly sweet, slightly medicinal smelling hair cream which J.W.Peters rubbed into my hair before combing it. I survived all this without undue anxiety. When the ritual was complete,  J.W.Peters turned to Daddy and ascertained whether what he had done to my hair was satisfactory or not. Daddy nodded and I was lifted from the wooden plank and stood on the brown linoleum covered floor. Daddy paid him sixpence.
That was the first haircut I ever had in a barber's shop and though I didn't really know then or indeed don't today with any certainty just what "a trim" was or is, it is what, since then, I have always asked for when I have gone for a haircut. I am sure it is a sanctified phrase in the lingua franca that barbers have spoken over the centuries. Every time I sit in the barber's chair and the sheet has been wrapped around me, I say, "I'll have a trim, please," and without a question asked, the barber proceeds.

Monday, 27 June 2011

More unsent letters to editors (no.1946) : The Guardian gets it wrong again....

Dear Editor,
the Guardian got it wrong when you advised us to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the last general election - and your continued desperate and failing attempts to rationalise this blunder fools no one. We now have a Conservative government which is propped up by limp and I hope embarrassed Liberal Democrats and which is intent on wiping out any hope those who live in poverty  have of gaining access to opportunities which will improve their situation.

You got it wrong in your cowardly promotion of the bombing of Libya. Certainly by choosing the easiest target you took an expedient rather than a principled course. Otherwise you would have insisted that we in the United Kingdom from our unquestionable democratic moral high ground should not only  assault Libya but also that we should batter to smithereens the leaders of Saudi Arabia,Bahrain, Syria, and China to name but a few. Sadly it is nearer the truth to view the United Kingdom government as a school playground bully who picks on those he knows don't have the power to retaliate.  Yet you at the Guardian have on many previous occasions reminded us that military intervention seldom works and always causes human suffering. So, shame on you now. We all know that what follows from our exercise of force upon Libya will not bring peace or uncorrupted democracy. Look at Iraq. Look at Afghanistan.

And now for your final error : you are in no position to advise the Scots as to whether they should participate in a UK Olympic football team. Given your pitiful advice on the other two much more fearful issues considered in this letter, I respectfully advise that you retreat to your editorial home "tae think again."

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Coronation Day, Dundee, June 2nd, 1953

On Coronation day in 1953 we lived on the Clement Park housing scheme in Lochee and our family were the first and only people in the street who had a television. My Dad (I called him Daddy then) was like that. We also had the first telephone, the first car and the first washing machine. The day dawned cold and grey and it was still like that at about half past ten when it seemed like everyone in our road as well as all our relations poured into our living room to watch the coronation on our brown bakelite nine inch screen Bush television.  Mum (I called her Mummy then) put out cakes and scones. My pal Gerry Laing and I watched the royal carriages rolling down the London streets for about 15 minutes until it got boring. The television screen was tiny and in black and white and the picture was spotty. It wasn't as good as seeing a technicolor picture down at the Rialto. Gerry and I sneaked out of the house and sat on the back steps. The coronation wasn't all that bad. At school we had been given a free mug with a picture of the queen on it but better than that we'd been given a bar of Cadbury's chocolate in a tin box. We'd also got a day off school.
Gerry went around to his house and got an old tennis ball and we decided to play football on the back green. It wasn't great playing football with a tennis ball but it was better than nothing. He was Charlie Tully. I was Billy Steel. It stayed cold and grey for the rest of the day.  

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Is wisdom gobbledygook or gobbledygook wisdom ?

Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right.
Laurens Van der Post, The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958)

What about you Laurens, did you think you were right ? Personally, I like to think I'm right because I know I am often wrong.

"I'm not fooled by that," you reply. "It's easy to see through the poor smokescreen of your false modesty."

All right I am hiding my real intention which is to gain world dominance and I can only achieve this by admitting I'm wrong ; after all who would  believe, never mind follow, someone who always thinks and says  - it is, though I may err, usually a man - "I am always right."

By accepting that I am wrong I am therefore right which makes me quite frightening whether I'm right or wrong.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The brothers' song

Where sandstorm blasts to a leaden sky
Where sunlit days let the dhows sail by
Where voluptuous dates fruit the tree
That's the place for Spike and me !

Where rocky mountains hold scudding cloud
Where rushing rivers sing out loud
Where eagle soars by rocky scree
That's the place for Jed and me.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Lochee Gangster

Throughout the early 1950s a thick set bespectacled man with wavy dark reddish hair wearing an olive green suit and a white open necked shirt would stand just by the Dundee Pasteurised Milk shop at the junction of Bank Street and Lochee High Street. His trousers were kept up around his substantial girth by a wide brown leather belt. As I remember he was a man in his late 20s or early 30s. He always seemed to be there whenever my friends and I went down from Clement Park to the shops to do some messages for our mothers. He never spoke to anyone and he always carried a lit cigarette in his left hand which he would occasionally puff. We always gave him a wide berth. We knew he had a gun hidden under his suit jacket, tucked into his belt. He was the Lochee gangster. How we came to know that is lost in the mists of time. Maybe it was one of those bits of information that 8 or 9 years old boys pass on to the next set of 8 or 9 years old boys.
Anyway he must have been a pretty smart gangster because I know for a fact that between the years of 1950 to 1957, when I lived in Lochee, the police did not catch him for he stood outside the DPM shop day in and day out and was never apprehended.
It seems amazing to me now that we never heard of any bank robberies taking place in Lochee at that time.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The death of Osama bin Laden, part 2 : Nicky Campbell makes a naive observation.

Well, it turns out that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed. It ends up that he did not cower behind his wife when his assassins approached. It comes about that he was shot and not brought to face justice. Experts tell me how naive I am and that I should understand that these incidents can be messily violent and sometimes I just have to accept that's the way it is. I think they tell me this because I don't really know as much as I should about being a member of the human race, but I am learning. I may become wise. I may come to understand that two wrongs make a right. In the meantime the experts have their cynicism and I am left with my weak sarcasm.
On UK BBC Radio 5 yesterday morning (4th May, 2011) a former commander of the USA special services section, the SEALS, I believe they are called, said, while being interviewed by the radio presenter Nicky Campbell, that he did not think it was a good idea that photographs of bin Laden's death should be broadcast since they would be fairly gruesome and he wouldn't want any children of his exposed to these kinds of images. This seems a reasonable argument and in a cheap below the belt response to the former SEAL commander Nicky Campbell observed that bin Laden's 12 years old daughter had witnessed her father being assassinated. That was a naive thing to say Nicky.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The unlinked deaths of Osama bin Laden and Jean Charles de Menezes : acts of democratic justice ?

If Osama bin Laden actually carried out the heinous terrorist acts of which he was generally accused, or if he actively promoted and supported their carrying out, then he should have been brought to justice. He should have gone on trial to answer the charges. I have always been told this is the democratic way.
However if he died as a consequence of violently resisting his arrest then those servicemen involved in his "capture" - surely it was not his "assassination", that's not the democratic way - may have had no alternative but to defend their own lives by firing back at their armed assailants.
I suppose this is why in 2005 the entirely innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes had to be killed by police on a Saturday morning in the carriage of an underground train following the horrendous 7th July terrorist attacks in London. The difference between the two killings was that de Menezes hadn't ever been accused of being a terrorist, had never supported or committed an act of terrorism, hadn't got a weapon and didn't violently resist arrest.
So is that the price we all have to pay sometimes for the honour of living the democratic way ?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Breaking of the Clock

Yes, I did paint grannie’s washing a nasty glossy green,
I did tear off the loose wallpaper where I thought it unseen
I stole the biscuits from the barrel in the press
And I sold the ragman Dad’s best suit as well as your pink dress,
But I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t break the clock.
No, I had nothing, NOTHING to do with the clock.

Yes, I was in Dad’s study from ten til quarter to,
And I do prance around a lot like a monkey caged in a zoo,
And I haven’t always owned up when you’ve thought it really mattered,
But I didn’t break the clock.
Even if you say I did, I didn’t break the clock.

You’re right, it’d be so ridiculous to blame it on Dad,
He never, ever breaks things, what would we think if he had ?
And Mum didn’t do it and she’d never lie.
She insists she tells the truth so much and I don’t ask why.
But I didn’t break the clock.
Reason, bludgeon, torment, sneer – I didn’t break the clock.

Look, if it makes you happy, I’ll say I threw it down.
May I go to bed now or do I still have to sit around
Until you wring it out of me, just what took me so long
To say that I did it and that you couldn’t possibly be wrong ?
Well, does it really matter ? I’ve said I smashed, bashed, thrashed your stupid clock.
Someone must be happy that I’ve said I broke the clock.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Unsent letters to editors (no.1945) : The Guardian doesn't get it

Dear Editor,
your luke warm, "two cheers" response to the TUC protest which is so evident in today's (28.3.11)Guardian editorial "After the March" as well as in the copy of your reporters and commentators, demonstrates that like the rest of the relatively wealthy, chattering classes, which you now seem to represent, the Guardian newspaper just does not get what is happening to people in the UK. The not so wealthy, the getting poorer, the poor, the soon to be unemployed, the unemployed, children, young people, disabled people, ill people and retired people are genuinely and justifiably fearful about their future,
At the same time your newspaper in its superficially balanced editorials tries to rationalise its decision to advise it readers to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the last general election. I am sad to say I was persuaded by your advice. Like the majority of people in this country I did not vote for a coalition government to carry out a vicious and vindictive assault on the services to fellow citizens in this country - real palpable suffering individuals - who do not have very much. If what has happened since last May is democracy, then democracy stinks.
I am not a member of a trade union but I would like to thank the TUC for organising Saturday's impressive and moving event and I still hope that the Guardian as well as the rest of the media will respond to Saturday's protest as sympathetically and as doggedly as it has done recently for protests in other countries.
Yours faithfully,
Charles Sharpe

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Anarchy is OK

Our media seems to think that an anarchist is anyone who, when in attendance at an event which has previously been announced as a peaceful protest march or rally, is : throwing stones or cans of paint,setting off flares, wielding sticks, wearing masks and damaging property.
Let's put the record straight. A true anarchist is far more likely to be a pacifist than a terrorist. Anarchists might not even care to join a protest event but if they did they would almost certainly be peaceful and quiet. An anarchist believes that we can all get along quite peacefully as a community without the undue influence of political figures who gain power through ownership of property. Now some might think that this is an unrealistic ideal and against human nature as they understand it but creating an anarchic community is intended to be a morally good aspiration.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Born in the DRI

Born in the DRI, Eh wus born in the DRI

On October 1st back in forty fev
Eh fell fae Ma-ie's womb n' cam oot alev

Eh wus born in the DRI, born in the DRI

Eh lived in Lochee, went tae Liff Road Schale
got the dux medal but Eh wus gonnae fail

Cos eh wus born in the DRI, a red hot baby fae the DRI

In '57 Pa took us tae Coventry
naebody unnerstood me n' Eh lost meh way

Cos Eh was born in the DRI
Eh wus a red hot baby fae the DRI

Eh, born in the DRI, born in the DRI

Dundee Royal Infirmary 1798 to 1998

Thursday, 17 March 2011

To Have and Have Not : more thoughts about poverty and wealth

It's difficult to know what to do about poverty. For me there is something morally wrong about believing it can be right for one person to earn, say, ten times more than another person.

In the capitalist system which imbues and it seems subsumes our lives, those who take and have the power - financial, cultural, social, political and military power - directly or indirectly award themselves inordinate material wealth and pay inordinately little to those whose labour provides  them with their wealth.

It might be said that if such a state of affairs is morally repugnant, our thoughts should lead to setting up and putting into practice a pure form of socialism where all have an equal share in the material wealth. Yet previous attempts to create socialist communities have invariably failed because those who have taken on political or leadership roles in these communities could not resist the descent towards the accumulation of more and more material wealth as well as more political power. There is, it seems, an inevitability towards a retreat to a "have and have not" community.

It may be asked, "Shouldn't democracy sort out all this fiscal inequality?"
Well the evidence is clear for all to see. It hasn't so far. There may still remain starry-eyed idealists - and I'm one - who still harbour thoughts that the right kind of democracy might deliver a human global community free of poverty. If so we need to find it because our current models of democracy don't address the issue of poverty with any sense
of there being a determined commitment to end the abject deprivation many of our fellow human beings suffer.

Capitalists say that attempts to institute socialism have failed because people who are educated and who learn more sophisticated skills want to earn more than those who have not learnt skills and more than those who they judge as less skilled. This argument also demands that those who take on more "responsibility" will only do so if they are rewarded for it but surely for all fair-minded people these unwritten laws should only be exercised between reasonable limits.

A difficulty which persists in freeing others from poverty is that we seem impelled to acquire material wealth and power in order to ensure our own survival and the survival of our children. In a world where we can see the debilitating consequences that poverty has for others our primitive evolutionary fears may result in us taking more than our own share. At the same time however, human beings have persuaded themselves that they are rational organisms who have also strived to develop codes of morality which insist on fair treatment for everyone. Our religions and our social cultures underpin the moral demand that we should take a care for each other and yet it appears that as capitialism and its concomitant and predominant financial and military power increase their tight grip on our human community,the hoped for essential goodness of our human community is squeezed out. It may be argued that this tendency has been accelerated by new channels of communication which in their tendency to take us away from being in the physical presence of each other, have led us to lose our emotional and physical sensitivity,to become increasingly narcissistic,to strive to be ahead of others and to adopt the attitude,"the de'il tak the hindmost."

It has also been suggested that these new channels of communication can be seen as the most democratic development since human communities were first formed. Their capacity to allow the rapid expression of mass opinion has influenced governments to change policy much more swiftly than the threat of the ballot box and indeed they have in some countires directly led to the downfall of oppressive regimes. If this kind of mass expression can be persuaded to direct its interest towards ending poverty, what might be achieved?

But here is the rub. In recent times even the power of mass expression through the internet and over the mobile 'phone has failed to achieve the wishes of the majority in the face of military power and personal wealth. This is currently the case in Libya where the holding of the oil wealth by a very few, finances military power which may, the way things are, prevail over any burgeoning of democracy. In the case of Bahrain the people's cry for true democracy and regime change are ignored by the Bahraini governing royal family and its militarily powerful Saudi Arabian cousins because they do not wish to share their immense wealth and they have the military punch to make sure they don't need to. These autocrats are also bolstered by hypocritical western "democratic" governments like those of the United Kingdom and the United States of America who fear any disturbance in the area will threaten their short-term to medium term need for oil. What really lies behind this hypocrisy is the selfish determination of a world wide wealthy minority to keep its hold on wealth and power. If this power dynamic remains what hope is there for those people whose poverty disenfranchises them from the hope of a life worth living. What hope for their children ?

It's difficult to know how we can end poverty but I still think we should try.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Dundee Football Club has yet another "famous eleven"

Last weekend I emerged frae my Devon midden in auld Angleterre and took a wee jaunt up Scotland way tae Dundee. I arrived in the rain,sleet and snow at Tay Bridge station, strode up to the Nethergate and then strolled along to, and through, the Wellgate and puffing and panting climbed the steps and managed to struggle up the Hilltoon until I arrived at Dens Park to watch Dundee Football Club defeat Queen of the South 2-1 and break a club record,which until Saturday had been the property of the greatest of all Dundee sides,the 1961-2 team. The new famous eleven took the record by remaining undefeated in the league for 20 games. This current side is neither metaphorically nor literally in the same league as the great 1961-2 side whom many well respected opinions still describe as the most stylishly accomplished club team the UK has ever produced. However this current side have had to play at the same time as going through all the insecurities involved in being employed by a football club which is in administration. They have seen a good number of their fellow players being made redundant. There are now only about 14 or 15 players in the first team squad because the financial and regulatory restrictions administration puts upon a club, do not allow it to sign new players. The quietly impressive manager, Barry Smith,doesn't often use substitutes during a match - he used only the starting eleven on Saturday - because of the limited resources available to him, but this means the players, who make up quite a skilled group, all know each other very well and work hard together. If the club had not been deducted 25 league points as a consequence of administration, the team would now be well ahead at the top of the league preparing for promotion to the Scottish Premier League. Instead they are now in a heroic struggle to avoid relegation to a lower league. No wonder then that at the end of last weekend's victory Dens Park was rocking and we were also singing "Naa naa naa nana naa nana naa naa Du- undee" to the tune of Hey Jude !

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Votes for prisoners : the meaning of prison and its influence on the wellbeing of politicians

There was a time when there was a debate as to what made individual human beings turn out the way they had. Was the cause genetic or environmental ? Was the influencing factor nature or nurture ? Well nowadays, psychologists and neuroscientists seem to agree that both elements go along in tandem. The same kind of "either/or" debate has also long been carried out about the meaning and purpose of prison. Should prison be a punishment or a process of rehabilitation ? Some might take the view that the analogy with the synergy of nature and nurture does not hold. They would argue that we can punish without rehabilitation. Yet, just as nature unmollified by environmental factors leads to unhealthy personal development, is it at all healthy for a society if punishment is not accompanied by a process of rehabilitation ? What kind of society would lock someone up and do nothing until a prisoner's sentence came to an end ?
In trying to answer this question we should perhaps accept that in the first instance prison is a method used by our society to punish a wrongdoer. Whether this punishment or indeed any kind of punishment is an effective way of dealing with wrongdoing is another debate.
We should also acknowledge that a punishment may give some comfort to victims of crime and to their relatives, though this may not be universally so.
We can be sure prison is a punishment. Just think of how it would feel to be kept in a place where you cannot live with the people you love, cannot do the simple things like take a walk in the town or in the country, go to meet the people you want to meet. On the other hand imagine what would have happened to your inner self if you had spent so much time in a prison that living there carried less threat to you than the thought of being free? Do we need to punish a prisoner more ? Should we only give them an experience of punishment and if we do what kind of person will come out when his or her sentence is over ?
It should not be considered extreme to suggest that prisoners need the right kind of nurture : being encouraged not only to respect others but also to respect themselves. This can be done by giving them dignity.
Prison should give its occupants a feeling that life is worthwhile and that in accepting their sentence - that is their loss of liberty - they are being punished enough. Opportunities should be provided to help them grow as human beings. They should have a chance to study, to work productively, and be given opportunities to feel that they have not been abandoned and that they do have a part to play in the community that all humans share, no matter what their predicament. This includes the right to vote. It is extremely worrying that our political leaders, for, one imagines, populist reasons fed by what is most base in our nature, are aghast at the notion of allowing prisoners the right to vote, to the extent that they feel physically sick just thinking about it, or even more timidly they equivocate and say, "Well yes, maybe we can allow these ones to vote, but not those."

The right to vote should be given to all prisoners. It would be the action of a civilised society. One which does not condone criminal action or leave it unpunished, but one which demonstrates the lengths it will go to ensure that the generous action is predominant over the selfish one. In the generous action may be seen the seed of rehabilitation for prisoners and hope for us all.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Being truly British and liberally muscular


"Multi-culturalism hasn't worked. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism."
David Cameron, Munich, September 1938, oops sorry, February, 2011

I need some help. I am apparently unaware of what it is I don't understand about the prime minister insisting I cannot be counted as truly British unless I am a liberally muscular member of the Conservative Party and a former public sector worker who recognises the vital national need for me to be out of a job so that deprived banking executives can have some more cream.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Just like Charlie Sharpe's blues (2010)

Down south it looked okay to me
Til “New Labour” cuckoo'd the Tory hutch,
Lured from our housing schemes
Into the profiteer’s clutch.
And now the Liberal Democrats
Have been seduced by the moneyed man’s touch :
I’m going back to Dundee city
I do believe I’ve seen too much.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Damocles descended : the sentencing of Edward Woollard

On January 11th, 2011 Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC handed down a "deterrent sentence" to Edward Woollard and sent him to prison for 2 years and 8 months. 18 years old Edward had acted dangerously by putting the lives of others at risk during  a protest in London about a government decision to increase  student tuition fees. On November 10th, 2010 Edward threw a metal fire extinguisher from the roof of the Conservative Party’s headquarters building at Millbank in London. The extinguisher narrowly missed falling on policemen and other protesters who were on the pavement and street below. The sentence the judge meted out to Edward was intended as a warning to others who might do something like this in the future.
Edward’s impulsive and dangerous deed was outrageous but in essence it was impelled by the same overwhelming excitement which has induced innumerable young people to carry out potentially dangerous acts when for the first time they have become a part of the drama of what they believe is righteous protest. Peaceful protest is a right. Protest is also a part of the adolescent process so necessary for human development. Many of us, however old we are now, may at some time in our lives have experienced the feelings Edward was having that day, but we were lucky enough not to have our impulsive, foolish and at times dangerous acts discovered. Equally some of us may have been discovered but were fortunate enough to be responded to by thoughtful adults who forgave our trespasses with a stern warning and gave us the opportunity to reflect on just how stupid our actions were. For most of us this response worked.
That’s why it is difficult to understand Judge Rivlin’s harsh, not to say vindictive sentencing of Edward Woollard. Edward, it is generally agreed, has previously been of good character. He is not a hardened criminal. He is not even an experienced activist. This was the first protest he had attended. After the offence was committed Edward accepted the advice of his mother to give himself up to the police immediately. Since the event he has consistently expressed contrition for his act. Judge Rivlin says he took this into consideration but it does not seem to have engendered judicial moderation. For the next 16 months at least Edward will spend time firstly in a Young Offenders’ secure unit and subsequently in an adult prison. Will this help him ? Will making an example of Edward stop other young people doing thoughtless and at times dangerous things ?
It is difficult not to conclude that Judge Rivlin’s decision has shown that the political and financial powers will be defended at all costs. If you threaten them or act to question their legitimacy you will not deal with the scales of justice you will feel the sword of Damocles descended.