Archive for August, 2010

Over the Top

August 31, 2010

This short story is now available at the Spilling Ink Review.

Save Saki’s Soul Kitchen

August 30, 2010

I’ve been lucky enough to come across a few places in a few cities with exceptional company and magical atmosphere. These are bars where people get falling-down drunk and yet there’s never an unkind word or aggressive stance. These are the places Jim Morrison was thinking of when he sang: ‘Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen/Warm my mind in your gentle stove/Turn me out and I’ll wander, baby/Stumbling in the neon groves…’

Saki Bar is a great, lively pub at the point where Rusholme meets Oxford Road. It features excellent music as well as benefit nights for Oxfam and No Borders. An average night encapsulates exactly the kind of vibrant, multicultural leisure the council says it wants to promote. Nevertheless it has revoked Saki’s license.

I don’t see the council has much of a case here. The grounds are noise nuisance, but Saki is on a main road with Oxford Road bars on one side and Rusholme’s restaurants on the other. Face it – there is going to be some late night noise whether Saki’s there or not; you can walk into an Indian place and get a table at midnight, easily. The Evening News reports ‘problems with groups of ‘rowdy’ drinkers gathering on the streets outside in the early hours of the morning.’ Since the smoking ban, that’s been the case with every bar that still has a clientele. If the council is serious about coming down on noise nuisance it should close the corporate drinking barns in the city centre which generate far more aggravation than anywhere in Manchester’s independent bar scene.

Saki’s appeal is up on September 20, and its owners have lodged a petition:

In February 2010, Saki Bar based in Rusholme, Manchester, had its license revoked on the grounds of noise complaints by local residents. It has an appeal against this decision on September 20th 2010.

Saki Bar will be appealing on the grounds that they have done everything asked of them to eradicate the noise complaints. Since this decision and prior to it, they have worked closely with Manchester city council and the local police to make sure the bar is operating in a safe and responsible manner.

The police visit the bar at least every weekend, and have at each point been satisfied that the owners and managers are doing everything possible to resolve this situation.

The soundsystem and noise levels are regularly tested. There are notices across the bar reminding people to leave quietly at the end of the night. Any clubnights or bands that do not comply with this, are not allowed to use the venue again.

In the 2 years that Saki Bar has existed, it has become a very important bar for Manchester’s music scene. It is commonly used by many of the city’s most responsible and passionate music fans. People use the bar because it is very supportive of local music. It has also commonly been used by charity events such as Oxjam.

The effect of losing Saki Bar as a venue would be very damaging to Manchester’s bands and DIY music promoters. They have done everything within their means to address the noise issues and continue their good work. Therefore, we invite anybody that supports this notion and values Saki Bar as a safe and responsible venue to socialise, to sign the petition.

Pray For Us Sinners

August 30, 2010

In his 2000 novel Boiling a Frog, the Scottish crime writer Christopher Brookmyre introduced a villainous PR man who tries to change an entire political culture. Professional spinner Ian Beadie’s exposes of the sex lives of celebrities and politicians aren’t selling any more in the liberal late nineties: trying to push a story about a gay environmentalist, Beadie is told by one editor that ‘It has no bearin’ on his job, Ian, or on this campaign… The suits upstairs are sayin’ this sort of thing is turning off the readers.’ To save his business, Beadie offers his service to the Catholic Church. He wants to make their brand of puritanism more influential so that people in the public eye who break sexual taboos will become big news again.

Asking a priest how many Catholics there are in Scotland, he gets the response: ‘You mean baptised, Catholic-educated, that sort of thing?… probably in the region of 700,000.’ Beadie replies: ‘There you are, then. That’s your figure. Well, actually, 700,000 – might as well say three quarters of a million. And if you’re saying three quarters of a million, might as well round it up to 800,000.’

Let’s recap. On September 16 Britain will receive a head of state who has overseen and facilitated an organisational culture of child rape, breaking several articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Not only will the new government welcome him with open arms, it’s also paying for his visit. At a time when the top government priority is to cut the £156 billion deficit, and when working class families are being hit hardest by slash-and-burn economic policies, we are spending £12 million on the papal visit at the very least. (The figure is dubious: police sources estimate security costs at around £70 million.)

It’s at this point that former Catholic Herald editor Peter Stanford complains in a leading national newspaper that Catholics face an ‘assault on their spiritual leader’ and that ‘[t]o stand up publicly and be counted as a Catholic in Britain right now can be to invite a tirade’. Later he quotes the Catholic composer James MacMillan, who has described ‘the current wave of anti-Catholicism as ‘the new antisemitism of the liberal intellectual’. To which Stanford adds: ‘why don’t other Catholics follow MacMillan’s example and speak up more often in their own defence?’ 

We’re used to Islamic bigots hurling the word ‘Islamophobia’ at their critics’ feet to deflect scrutiny from their own vicious ideas. Now the Christian right is playing the victimology game with planted stories about Christians who have supposedly been denied their freedom of religion. Most often these cases turn out to involve people who have abused the authority of public sector positions to evangelise, or bigots who have fallen foul of basic equality legislation. This kind of PR is effective, though. You can’t blame a sectarian for trying.

There’s an interesting point by Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Tablet:

If you developed an interest in British Catholicism by reading the various ‘Catholic’ blogs that have sprung up in recent years, you would conclude that we are in the midst of vicious cultural wars… But when you get to the parishes, nobody seems to be at anyone else’s throat. The idea that there is a crisis is mistaken, though the church should nevertheless be asking itself why there are so many lapsed Catholics.

This made me think of the disconnect between the splenetic ravings of Splintered Sunrise and the Torygraph Catholic bloggers, and the discussions I’ve had with reasonable and intelligent Catholics I’ve known. Similarly, Stanford notes the decline in church attendance, and the slow pace of tickets to September’s papal event among Catholic communities. He could have gone further and acknowledged the anger at the Vatican among many Catholics. Read this piece by a Catholic priest speaking out against Ratzinger:

The biggest protest which will take place in Scotland will be a half empty Bellahouston Park. 300 000 turned up in 1982. This time, 100 000 tickets have been distributed. At least 50 000 have been returned.

Ordinary, working class, educated, ‘aware’ Catholics are boycotting the event in their tens of thousands. (In one parish in Fife the priest put up two notices, one for the Papal Mass, one for the parish picnic. 129 names went up for the picnic, 6 for the Papal Mass.)

As the National Secular Society head Terry Sanderson explained:

We are told that there are a billion Catholics in the world. This may be true in the sense that a billion people have been baptised by Catholic priests. But how many of them actually want to live by the teachings of the present Vatican hierarchy?

Like everyone else – except it seems the old men in Rome – modern Catholics want to live in the modern world. They want to take account of scientific advances and knowledge. They love their church, but they don’t hate homosexuals. They like their priest, but they feel uncomfortable at the Vatican’s unrelenting opposition to contraception.

So, Protest the Pope is not anti-Catholic, it is anti-Pope – this pope.

But to acknowledge this would be to admit that Catholics are as angry about child rape as anyone else and that the accusations of anti-Catholic racism are no more than attempts to divert attention from what are very serious issues.

Stanford does find room for a quote from our old pal Joanna Bogle. ‘Yes, I write passionate things sometimes,’ she says. A trawl through the Bogle archives turns up some real classics. On the question of gay adoption: ‘Golly, some readers of this blog are an odd lot. Some comments – which I have not published – have come in from people who seem to think we should emphatically do nothing to stop the Government forcing Catholic organisations to accept adoption of children by active homosexuals’. On civil partnerships: ‘No Catholic can in good conscience take part in such a ceremony, and a Catholic in public life has the extra responsibility of giving scandal by celebrating the ‘gay lifestyle’, ie active homosexual lifestyle, in this way.’ Not even Bogle’s local library is safe from the gay menace:

Meanwhile, over in the educational section, a large stack of books on Islam and a smaller one of Christianity. Glossy illustrated book, thick with quotes from Hans Kung and Matthew Fox (no, I’m not inventing this, either), big chapter on homosexuality and lesbianism: ‘Reflection – I am a gay Christian….The Church’s teachings are, without doubt, hypocritical….’ section on ‘feminist theology’ and one on ‘liberation theology’, nothing whatever putting the ordinary Christian teaching and message. Some critical material on the Catholic faith and teachings but nothing simply stating facts. This rubbish is published by ‘Heinemann Educational’ and I suppose its’s used as propaganda in schools.

Now, if you get angrier by the thought of two men holding hands than by some men torturing a child, then you’ve got a right to your views, and to argue them in public. But I’m not ready to hear, from this nasty and raucous minority, that it’s those who want the Pope held to account who are on the side of bigotry and prejudice.


Bogle at her glorious best

Lay Me Down, Lay Me Down

August 22, 2010

This weekend I have been reading Louise Wener’s Britpop memoir Different for Girls (review at 3:AM) and a Robert Herrick collection. In his introduction to the latter, Douglas Brooks-Davies portrays Herrick as a gregarious, hard-drinking priest, his sensual style well out of step in seventeenth-century Puritan England. I was struck by the closing lines of ‘To His Saviour’s Sepulchre: His Devotion’: to me, this is a courageous attempt at getting a handle on death, and being able to die without fear despite the possibility that there is nothing after death. It makes me think of falling into a happy sleep after two hundred pages of a novel and a full bottle of red wine.

Ravish’d I am! and down I lie
Confused in this brave ecstasy.
Here let me rest; and let me have
This for my heaven that was Thy grave:
And, coveting no higher sphere,
I’ll my eternity spend here.

Worth a Thousand Words

August 21, 2010

This, according to How Big Really?, is how Pakistan’s floods would look if they covered the UK:


The Illusion of Realism

August 19, 2010

Recently Time published a special issue on Afghanistan that highlighted the human cost of the Taliban. Its front cover displayed a picture of a woman who’d had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban for running from domestic violence. The response was predictable even by the standards of an intellectual discourse that gets more predictable by the day. The academic Priyamvada Gopal began her response with the classic and chilling words ‘Misogynic violence is unacceptable. But…’ before dismissing the Time article as ‘bedtime stories’.

‘The system,’ James Fergusson wrote, ‘is hard and brutal, but it works.’ He reminded Guardian readers that ‘we have no right to be shrill and it will do no good to dictate’ and also that it ‘might help if we understood the Taliban better.’ Commenting on the murder of Bibi Sanubar, killed by the Taliban for being pregnant, he argues that her execution was an anomaly and the proper punishment by the Afghan courts would be a mere stoning. Social change in Afghanistan must be gradual and Fergusson is ‘certain, after 14 years of encounters with the Taliban, that they are not beyond redemption.’ Give them another 14 years of dominating the country and perhaps things may improve. Perhaps.

It’s fair to say that the war in its ninth year does not enjoy universal public support. Conservatives were gung-ho at first but began to flag when it became apparent that we weren’t going to be home by Christmas 2001. Like sometime Shiraz commenter Laban, they don’t see the point of risking the bones of a single Lancashire grenadier just so that little Nooria can go to school. The antiwar left has the same contempt for the human rights of Afghans but conceals it with sub-Chomsky rhetoric – and let’s not forget that some antiwar activists actually support the Taliban.

The great powers are now talking deal with the Taliban. It’s likely that the war will end in the same kind of imperial carve up which would have disgusted radicals of earlier generations, but won’t raise a fucking eyebrow today. 

Opponents of the war, whether they are Pashtun experts or keyboard pacifists, tend to speak in terms of realism and as if they are intimate with the Afghan national psyche. NATO’s few supporters are increasingly portrayed as naive and wild eyed idealists trying to impose new-fangled Enlightenment concepts on a land they barely know. If they talk about Afghans at all, the antiwar consensus takers say that they will be best served under a deal with the Taliban.

Via Norm, Washington director of Human Rights Watch Tom Malinowski punctures the illusion of realism and explains how a deal with the fascists would not only be grotesquely immoral but catastrophic in geopolitical terms. Read the whole thing.

The Taliban is not just another warlord militia fighting for a piece of the action; it is an ideological movement whose leaders believe they were right to plunge Afghanistan into darkness when they ruled in the 1990s. In many parts of the country where they hold sway, they continue to kill women who go to school, work or participate in the political process, as well as the men who support them. If a Taliban provincial shadow governor with such a history were made the real governor of a province, the ‘night letters’ the Taliban now delivers to threaten women would become daytime edicts.

Perhaps that should not be enough to determine America’s strategy for ending the war. But before resigning ourselves to compromising our principles for peace, we must ask: Would such a trade-off bring the security it promises? This is where the realist argument collapses.

The same argument, after all, was made by Pakistan when it negotiated its 2008 settlement with the Taliban, giving it control of Swat Valley in exchange for pledges to recognize the writ of the central government and let women work without fear. The Taliban broke those promises; Pakistanis were horrified by images of women being whipped and schools being torched. Within months, the Pakistani army launched a massive military operation to retake what it had given away.

Much the same happened when Colombia ceded territory to the FARC insurgent group in 1999 (the FARC continued its kidnappings and killings, and war resumed); when Angola brought the UNITA party of brutal warlord Jonas Savimbi into its government in 1994 (the deal collapsed, and UNITA went back to fighting); when the international community helped broker a peace deal in Sierra Leone in 1999 that gave Foday Sankoh’s vicious rebel group a share of power (Sankoh’s forces continued to conduct attacks until a British intervention restored order). Each time we were shocked to learn that abusive, predatory movements, when given power, continue to behave in abusive, predatory ways.

The same is likely to happen in Afghanistan if those Taliban leaders who have committed the worst atrocities are given control over the communities they terrorized. Images of abuses against women are likely to be broadcast around the world, raising the painful question of whether this is what foreign and Afghan troops sacrificed for. There could be retribution against perceived U.S. and government collaborators, and people fleeing areas where insurgents are given power. Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities (who together constitute a majority) are especially fearful of a deal that increases the Taliban’s influence; many Afghans believe that a hasty process could lead to a broader civil war.

None of these appalling consequences would speed a U.S. withdrawal. Quite the opposite. And it is not realism, but a leap of faith born of desperation, to think they could be avoided simply by requiring ‘reconciling’ Taliban forces to renounce violence and support Afghanistan’s constitution.

Some suspect that talking about women’s rights is a pretext for keeping the United States in Afghanistan forever (ironically, the part of President Obama’s constituency that would normally be most concerned about defending women in Afghanistan is also the part most wary of the U.S. commitment there). But whether one believes in Gen. David Petraeus’s strategy of counterinsurgency for as long as it takes, or a more limited counterterrorism mission with fewer troops, there is no need for hasty deals that give the Taliban a share of power.

For if you try to settle the conflict in a way that sacrifices human rights in the name of peace, you will end up with neither.

A Posse of Guardian Angels

August 18, 2010

This short story has just been published on And Figs Might Leaf. Thanks to Nina-Marie Gardner, who inspired the title of this story in recent email correspondence.

In Of All Places

August 18, 2010

A serious and thought-provoking column has appeared in the pages of the Manchester Evening News, presumably by accident.

You might have walked past it, paying little attention to the Victorian red-brick façade, with its chiselled old ‘Street Children’s Mission’ sign. If you’re lucky, you’ve never needed to venture inside.

Yet, for 140 years, families from across Manchester and Salford have made a steady – albeit unnoticed – stream to The Wood Street Mission’s door. Families who can’t afford to buy even the most basic clothes for their children.

Once inside, these mums and dads – many of which cannot even afford a pair of shoes for their children – receive free bags of second-hand clothes the rest of us have chucked away.

It’s poverty – right here in Manchester city centre. Hidden down a side street, maybe, but right under our noses.

Now we can no longer choose to ignore it after the shocking reality has been laid bare by the State Of The Wards study into life in Manchester’s 32 neighbourhoods.

The study highlights an unforgivably gaping divide between the richest and poorest in our city. It shows that, thanks to deprivation, a child born in the poorest area of Harpurhey can expect to live 13 years less than a child born in leafy Didsbury.

While we proudly show off our shiny city centre department stores to the rest of the country, there are children less than a mile away living in houses who have no furniture and no clothes.

I suppose it is exactly this kind of charity that David Cameron would like to see more of with his ‘big society’ plans. Nice work, Dave, piggybacking on the dedication of such local schemes without having to put in any effort in yourself.

Read the whole thing.

Another reason I recommend Helen Tither’s piece is that she’s managed to piss off a significant chunk of the MEN readership, who vent their displeasure with loads of ill-informed comments about how the real victims are the Didsbury high earners forced to subsidise the underclass through punitive taxation.

I do sometimes wonder if I’m the only working man in this city who doesn’t balance a chip on the shoulder all the way to the office.

All in the Game

August 17, 2010

My review of Alex McBride’s Defending the Guilty: Truth and Lies in the Criminal Courtroom is now available at 3:AM.

That Old ACE in the Hole

August 14, 2010

In Dave’s Big Society there’s no room for dead wood and Cameron’s rightwing supporters have returned to an old dream: getting rid of the Arts Council. In this debate you have to admit that the devil has the best lines. Here’s Tim Worstall:

For that is what taxation comes down to in the end. If you don’t pay they will chase you, if they catch you they will jail you and if you run away from there then they will try and shoot you. So, as PJ O’Rourke didn’t quite point out, the acid test of whether something should be tax funded comes down to whether people should be shot for declining to fund it.

Which brings us to the Arts Council. Now I am a philistine, yes, but even I can see the value of an organisation which provides indoor work with no heavy lifting for the dimmer members of the upper middle classes. I just don’t see that people should be threatened with being shot for refusing to fund it. Therefore it should not be tax funded and that’s another half a billion quid off our collective backs.

Susan Hill goes into more detail:

There is absolutely no justification for using your tax money or mine to pay the small publishers of esoteric poetry or unreadable short stories to print books that sit in piles on warehouse shelves because nobody wants to buy them or to fork out for small arty magazines to which fifty people subscribe. There is none for subsidising ethnic minority street theatre, feminist rap, poets in pubs, political graffiti or any other so-called ‘Art’ in which only the participants and a few hangers-on are interested. The non-jobs in the Arts should all go too. Arts Advisers, Regional Arts Development Officers, Literature enablers, Political Correctness and Equal Rights in the arts enforcers.. get rid of them.

The threat of arts cuts has provoked a counterblast from bourgeois leftist writers arguing that the arts must be publicly funded because of their Improving Nature and Value that Cannot be Measured in Mere Gold. Conservatives may be right to suggest an unspoken additional motive of concern for the financial and professional interests of bourgeois leftists.

I have mixed feelings about the whole argument. The fact is, it’s not disputed by serious people that some art should be subsidised. Even Susan Hill is happy to fund the great orchestras. Free admission to museums and art galleries is undoubtedly a good thing and should also stay. And although Hill dismisses the ‘drop in the ocean’ argument, it remains true: why obsess over taking back £520 million from the arts when we could shut down the tax havens for an estimated £4 billion in revenue?

When it comes to Arts Council funding of the written word though, Hill is very persuasive:

Poets and writers in residence can go too, mainly because these  jobs invariably go to those who cannot make a proper living by selling their work in the marketplace. People in prison, psychiatric and other hospitals and children in schools deserve to have the very best practitioners visit them and teach them, the best musicians, painters, writers, poets, not the fourth rate, which is what they generally get because those are the people who cling onto the public sector arts jobs. With the money saved on dozens of ACE careerists we might be able to afford to send the best out there – the world class concert pianists, the best actors in the greatest plays, to have the greatest writers and painters both show their work and encourage and teach. Why not the Hockneys and the Heaneys?  How inspiring they would be to young people in inner cities and long-term prisoners. It is beyond patronising to assume they deserve only the fourth rate PC also-rans.

The campaign to save the UK film council was worth supporting because it has brought great British film to an international audience – think Bend It Like Beckham, In the Loop, Gosford Park. Now it’s been axed the UK industry is likely to return to its mean of shitty East End gangster films and Michael Winner productions. But I cannot point to a great British novel and say: ‘This would never have been published if it weren’t for Arts Council England’.

Here’s why. A sensible arts administration would operate on a grant policy that would give a certain amount of cash to a novelist who can prove that s/he has talent and is serious about writing. This could be assessed through the standard three chapters/synopsis submission policy that most agents use. A panel of writers and editors could approve or deny grants. ACE doesn’t do this. As far as I know it still has the market based policy of only funding novelists with professional buy-in.

In my experience ACE funding of poetry isn’t much better. I have been going to live arts events in Manchester for six years. I very quickly discovered that most of the ACE funded spoken word nights consisted of bland, dull and immature acts who had jumped the hoops and ticked the boxes to hold forth in sterile, smokeless venues. If you are a serious poetry fan in this city you go to the universities, or to the fantastic, vibrant spoken word nights elsewhere in the city. None of these have a hope in hell of getting an ACE grant but manage to put on excellent nights with little or no support. On rare occasions a pint glass will be passed around for donations towards venue hire and travel costs. I advise you to give generously.

For me it comes down to this. If the Arts Council can be reformed so that it actually funds and develops good art in this country then it should stay. Currently it doesn’t so it shouldn’t.