Monthly Archives: June 2009

Bravo To Kevin Rudd


Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd

I’ve been impressed by Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ever since he was elected in 2007. I think he showed calm, reassuring leadership in the wake of the recent catastrophic bush fires. 

Good to see him intervening on equality issues too. His reaction to the recent verbal attacks on Nine Network’s presenter Tracy Grimshaw, made by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay at a cooking event, show a politician who is prepared to challenge prejudice.

Ramsay – for whatever reason I don’t know – had said that Grimshaw is probably a lesbian, needed “to see Simon Cowell’s botox doctor” and had shown his audience a picture of a woman on all fours with the face of a pig. When he had appeared on Grimshaw’s talk show, she had agreed not to question him on his extra-marital affair.

Ramsay obviously thought, being in Australia, he had licence to demean women and use ‘lesbian’ as a term of abuse. He was wrong.

PM Kevin Rudd told a radio interviewer: “I think I can describe his remarks as reflecting a new form of low life. I just drew breath when I saw the sort of stuff which was said about her, I just think that’s off and offensive.”
Bravo, Kevin Rudd. Get back in the kitchen, Gordon Ramsay, and put a lid on it.

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Be An Activist, Not An Apologist

The European elections are unique in British political life in the sense that a) people have no idea who represents them so they vote purely on a party basis, b) they do not see it as an election where the issues count as the European Parliament is (wrongly) assumed to be an obscure body that does not really affect them, and c) people are more willing to cast protest votes because after a) and b), they don’t think it will do any long term harm.
There has been much horror about the apparent success of the BNP. I share that sense of horror. This is a shameful moment for Britain but we now have the chance more than ever, whatever our political persuasion, to scrutinise them to the bone, take them on and expose them for the fascist opportunists they are in reality beneath the natty suits and the softened language.
Let’s focus for a moment on the three major parties. The Conservatives did, to be fair, do well but they did not achieve the same level of support as they did in the local elections. The Liberal Democrats, despite the mildly delusional claims of Nick Clegg, did badly and lost seats. We should not forget that almost half of their supporters are euro-sceptic and this is often exposed in European elections when their federalist views are front and centre.
As we all know, the Labour Party suffered unprecedented losses and fell behind UKIP into third place. The first loss to the Tories in Wales since the khaki election of 1918 and the first nationwide loss in Scotland must leave their supporters desperate and many MPs hastily preparing their CVs, like so many people in this country have done in the last 12 months.
It’s an undeniable mess. The EU elections always create a mess for the three reasons I started this blog with. It also gives the smaller parties a chance to prosper. Even before proportional representation, the Greens won 2.2 million votes and 15 per cent of the vote in 1989 in the dying days of the Thatcher administration.
That doesn’t mean we should take the results lightly. We have seen a record number of UKIP MEPs elected, a motley crew of political golf club bores and barrack room lawyers who lack any coherent vision – with some even saying we should stay in the EU – and of course the BNP representatives.
It’s not a proud moment but let’s avoid this collective self-flagellation that we seem to be indulging in by assigning blame on PR, on the expenses scandal and on the lack of trust in Britain’s main parties. That doesn’t get us anywhere and plays into the hands of extremists if we, the mainstream, seem unable to offer the answers.
We should not simply placate those who voted for the BNP either because they share their racist views or indulged in the most abhorrent form of protest vote. We need to challenge them and to show them that mainstream parties do have the answers rather than any knee-jerk reaction in the form of “tougher” immigration policies.
On a wider level, politicians must not do the predictable and beat themselves or each other up about this set of results. Let’s get on with fixing the expenses system. It’s not difficult. There are plenty of simple solutions out there. Let’s get on with discussing the (improving) economy,  education, the NHS.
Then we can go out there not as apologists but as activists with our heads held high to fight this perceived lack of trust in politicians. It will spread like a cancer if we do not address it aggressively and regularly.
Politicians are decent people, in most cases, and are in political life for the right reasons. The public needs to understand this and politicians should not be afraid to confront the media and the public with this fact if necessary. This can only happen if we have something positive to offer. An alternative to the gutter politics which fuels reactionary voices and cynicism.
If this country is going to get out of this recession it needs optimism that its politicians are on the side of the people and are focused on this challenge. All parties need to take this on board and must offer new ideas, not just on the economy but on other big issues facing our society that people really care about and that we are hearing nothing about at the moment.

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Lambeth Councillor At Lambeth Palace


Primate and Politician

Primate and Politician

Last evening I attended a gathering at Lambeth Palace, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and his wife Jane.

It was a very friendly gathering, under the vaulted wooden roof of the Guard Room, and the watchful gaze of portraits of some of Dr Williams’ 103 predecessors. I was given a very warm welcome, first by staff, then by Jane Williams and then by the Most Reverend Father in God, by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England and Metropolitan – or Rowan for short. 

I had never met him before, and found him a warm and inquiring man, skilled at putting his guests at ease and clearly interested in the borough where the Palace stands. I will be following up our conversation – Peter Bottomley MP was desperate to cut in – with a letter. 

Of the other guests there this evening it was good to see Muslims, Jews and Catholics and people of other faiths (and none) invited together with Anglicans. As a politician (and atheist), I had an interesting discussion with an Anglican and a Catholic about the role of Bishops in an elected Upper House. The Church of England seems to be agnostic (ha!) about the need to reform the Lords, but obviously wants to protect the right of the Lords Spiritual to sit in the House. I was arguing for a wholly elected Upper House, and floated the idea of a number of places being reserved for elected faith representatives (by which I meant people from various levels of the various faiths standing for election, not just C of E Bishops). The answer from the Catholic was that people who had failed to get selected as party candidates would then put themselves forward as faith candidates. I fear the discussion reached a smiling deadlock at this point.


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In Defence Of Dr Watson


Holmes and Watson

Holmes and Watson

I was distracted from wading through the prevailing sludge around MPs’ expenses this morning by inadvertently clicking in the wrong place on the Guardian website. Up popped a poll to find ‘your favourite fictional characters in association with Nintendo DS’. Ah, the culture-defining partnership for our times – the Guardian and Nintendo. I look forward to their first literary awards.

Anyway, the categories and contenders are these:

Most romantic heroine

Anne Elliot (Persuasion, Jane Austen)

Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte)

Tess D’Urberville (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy)

Becky Sharpe (Vanity Fair, William Thackeray)

Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare)

Most romantic hero

Orsino (Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare)

Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte)

Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)

The Black Knight (Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott)

Gabriel Oak (Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy)

Most evil villain

Iago (Othello, William Shakespeare)

The Queen of Hearts (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens)

Count Fosco (The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins)

Magua (Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper)

Most irritating character

Hamlet (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)

Beth March (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

Dr Watson (Adventures/Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Emma Woodhouse (Emma, Jane Austen)

Lemuel Gulliver (Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift)

Best performance by an animal

Black Beauty (Black Beauty, Anna Sewell)

Buck (The Call of the Wild, Jack London)

Moby Dick (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)

The Bear (A Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare)

Jip (David Copperfield, Charles Dickens)

Make of these what you will. It seems a very random shortlist to me. Of the 5 categories and 25 characters, all of the books or plays they are drawn from are from the UK or US. Where is the rest of the world’s literature? And why is it all from before the twentieth century? (I suppose Dr Watson counts as twentieth century as the last Sherlock Holmes story was published in 1927).

Talking of Dr Watson, why on earth is he in the category of most irritating character? Admittedly he was more of a Times, Telegraph or Morning Post man and never mentions reading the Manchester Guardian as it was then called, but that’s no reason to victimise the poor fellow. He liked games, from rugby to billiards, so I dare say he might have got on quite well with a Nintendo. 

To defend the good doctor, this is the man of whom Sherlock Holmes said (in The Hound of the Baskervilles) “it is at the hour of action that I turn to you”, and also “there is a delightful freshness about you, Watson … some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

A sturdy companion then, and certainly not irritating. Let’s not forget that it was Watson who narrated the vast majority of the Holmes stories, putting up with the Great Detective’s many peculiarities along the way.

As the unassuming Watson says in The Adventure of the Creeping Man, “I was a whetstone for his mind … if I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his flame-like intuitions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance.”

I suspect that the partially read people at the Guardian and Nintendo are basing their views of John H Watson on Nigel Bruce’s film portrayal of the character alongside Basil Rathbone. Bruce spluttered and blustered his dufferish way through 14 Holmes films (plus a cameo with Rathbone in the 1943 comedy Crazy House) and a long-running radio series. He is, more than anyone, responsible for the enduring (and to me irritating) stereotype of Dr Watson as a buffoon.

Anyway, back to the poll. Along the narrow lines of the Guardian/Nintendo picks, in the villains category, where are Dracula, Richard III or indeed, the Napoleon of Crime – Professor Moriarty? And in the animals category, where are Toad, Badger, Mole or Ratty?  I’m not sure the bear from Winter’s Tale really counts as it’s only mentioned in Shakespeare’s bizarre stage direction ‘exit, pursued by a bear’. One of the few examples in theatre of a grand entrance being immediately followed by a grand exit, but not exactly of a character. 

There are plenty of other examples I could think of for every category but I have a meeting to go to. Any ideas?

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