Prison Ping: Coaching to a Captive Audience

Got an invitation recently to help out with a table tennis coaching session at one of Her Majesty’s maximum-security prisons. I duly accepted the invitation, grabbed my bat and ball and set off down the road. This was to be part of an ongoing project to get the best ping players in the prison up to scratch and ready to take their official Level 1 coaching badge. From there, they would fan out across the prison wings, passing on their newly acquired skills to anyone and everyone that cared to learn. And, as an added bonus, when they had done their time, they would leave prison with a marketable skill which just may help with their reintegration into the outside asylum.  I was arriving about mid-way through the project so I would get a fairly good idea of how it was all going.

 

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The State, Channel 4, 2017, Review

Someone should be congratulated for having the presence of mind to put this four-part drama onto our screens. Islamic State is not, I imagine, the easiest political beast to get one’s head around, and this drama, while far from exhaustive, was a genuine if tentative attempt. The Daily Mail hated it with a passion, so by that measure it must have had something going for it. The drama focused on a handful of British recruits to the IS battle fields somewhere in Syria. The acting from these British Jihadists was woefully wooden - central protagonists that looked and sounded as if they had just stepped off a Holby City set. But the acting was not the key thing here. What the script writers had set out to do was to present something of a human dimension to the Islamic State Jihadists. Not an easy task I admit, given that Islamic State has morphed into something quite barbaric; a cross between an extreme religious death cult with fantasies of establishing a world-wide medieval Islamic caliphate, and a good old modern fascist police state.

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Terrorist, John Updike, Penguin, London 2006

I need to be careful I don’t do a spoiler in this review. There must be still millions of people out there who have not read this magnificent novel and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for them should they find the time and mindfulness to get a hold of a copy. Such efforts would not be wasted. John Updike needs no promotion to those that follow US 20th

century literature. But after the glory days of the Rabbit novels, Mr Updike somewhat faded from view. This post 9/11 offering merely reaffirms Updike as the master novelist the world knew him to be, both in terms of language, plot and theme. It is a sheer joy to read his prose; sparse, taut and invariably authentic. But this is not a literary blog. No, it is the central theme of the novel that interests me most; the social psychology of the would-be terrorist and the environment that nurtured that mindset.

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White Teeth, Zadie Smith, Penguin, London, 2000

I first read this seventeen years ago – back in the day, as they say, when everybody was going crazy over White Teeth and a shining new novelist called Zadie Smith. It was the ultimate millennium novel.  And I, like everybody I knew,  just loved every page of it. It brought us bang up to date on the theme of the day – the search for identity and meaning. It was philosophy and politics and sociology and any other ‘ology’ you might care to name but above all it was damn funny. Blisteringly funny but not of a slap-stick verity. No sir. This was political humour that was both subversive and personal.

After the excitement had died down I just locked the glorious memories of White Teeth in the classic novel section of my cluttered brain, along with ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘God of Small Things’ and got on with my life.  Seventeen years later, looking for some good old-fashioned holiday reading, I dug it out of the shelves, dusted it off and started to enjoy all over again. But I had reservations. Serious reservations. Would it be dated? Would it still be funny? And would it live up to my ideal of an all-time classic novel? I’m happy to announce that on all three fronts I can answer in the affirmative.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy, Penguin, UK 2017

Here we have genius at work. Not just the genius of Roy’s hypnotic prose, but also the genius of how the disparate threads of her story so effortlessly come together as the novel concludes. I’m talking also of Roy’s genius in presenting so many conflicting world views; the view of India’s teeming dispossessed and marginalised masses, of which India’s brutally marginalised transgender community serves as the perfect metaphor for all those suffering a similar fate. Then there is the viewpoint of India’s regimented military personnel – ruthless yet human and even humane all at once. And there is the genius of Roy’s representation the Kashmiri struggle both in its nationalist and cross-border Jihadist incarnations. Muslim, Hindu, Maoist and Sikh; the middle classes and the untouchables, the winners and the losers. All come to life with Roy’s expert imagination, all jostle for our sympathies, all form part of India’s rich but desperate tapestry of life.

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Dunkirk: Another Mindless Brexit Film, Review, 2017

The acting was wooden, the script banal, character development non-existent and the two hours of mindless patriotism quite sickening. Leaving aside some clever camera work, this film has very little to recommend it. It was, in fact, no better than the originals (1942 &1958), both produced as morale-boosting pieces of propaganda. This latest offering on the Dunkirk story also comes across as a piece of cinematic propaganda but the question then arises; propaganda for what?

Separating fact from fiction is never easy in history and in the final instance all history can only ever be a collection of subjective assessments. Every nation loves to tell itself its own warm and comforting stories and we should never forget also that it is the winners who tend to write history.

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Soul of the Nation, Exhibition Tate Modern, 2017

Enjoyed this exhibition, if enjoyment is the right word. More like an awkward mixture of nostalgia and anger. Nostalgia for an era that, from a relatively safe distance, was a magically heroic time. With all those iconic black leather coats, cool shades and defiant Afros, what youthful man or woman with half-formed ideals of equality and justice would not be inspired.  And then there were the guns. By any means necessary. Afro-Americans defiantly standing up to the racists – those in uniform, those in white hoods and those just in everyday clothes. Yes, the nostalgia was definitely kicking in but so too was the anger. Here we were, seventy years on and still the police brutality. Still the racist murders. Still the extremes of poverty between Black America and the white middle classes. Endemic poverty that living under eight years of a Black president could not even shift.

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The Handmaids Tale, TV Drama, Channel 4, 2017

Based closely on Margaret Atwood’s haunting 1985 novel, this TV series is compulsive viewing and, given the recent political climate in the USA, should be compulsory viewing for all citizens – east and west. Fascism can take many forms; religious cult, national fantasy, international utopia, but in all its varied forms it represents at base, capitalism in crisis. This has been largely misunderstood even by the most well-meaning critics of brutal authoritarian regimes. Mankind has created many such regimes in its ten-thousand-year history of ‘civilisation’ but these should not all be carelessly confused with fascism.  Fascism is a particular and precise form of capitalism but capitalism it still is. Feudal or slave-owning dictatorships were always and everywhere brutal in the extreme but they were not fascist dictatorships. They could not be because fascism is a product of capital in crisis and capital is a relatively modern historical economic phenomenon. This may seem to some as a particularly pedantic point of definition but without it the cause of fascism cannot be understood let alone combatted.

 

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The Men Who Stare at Goats, 2009, Film Review

Apparently based on a piece of non-fiction research into US Army Psychological Special Ops, this quiet little gem, which had escaped my attention until now, is broadly speaking a comedy. But not of the slapstick variety. More in keeping with the Dr Strangelove/ Catch 22 genre, though in places you might say it borrows something from the irreverency of the US TV series Mash. Is it funny? Well, like all attempted comedy, it really is a subjective call. But perhaps a more apposite question is rather; is comedy a fitting genre to tackle the untold pain and suffering unleashed on Iraq and elsewhere by the US military-industrial complex and its corporate vultures?

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Monument for Margaret Thatcher

They’ve been talking about a statue for Mrs Thatcher

Remember her – they called her both the Iron Lady and the school milk snatcher

Remember her – she said this lady isn’t for turning

Hold on a moment, is that the sickening smell of something burning?

 

She’s the one who said there is no such thing as Society.

‘Just balance the books, hard work and sobriety’

Remember her – she ordered the destruction of the Belgrano as it was turning

Just a second, is that the sickening smell of conscript sailors burning?

 

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Jeremy Corbyn and the Tory Press: ‘I welcome their hatred’.

I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn has ever publicly uttered these words but he may well have thought them on numerous occasions. In fact, it was FDR way back in the 1930’s, who is reported to have coined this phrase in response to the vitriolic attacks on him for daring to confront the US capitalists with his New Deal. Corbyn’s Labour manifesto is a sort of British New Deal and the owners of both British and foreign Capital hate it with a passion. And the corporate owners of the British Tory press are virtually foaming at the mouth with their own never ceasing vitriolic attacks. Even the so-called liberal media, the BBC, Channel 4 and the Guardian and Independent newspapers can barely disguise their contempt. And the least said about Jeremy Paxman the better.

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Ping Brighton: Making a Statement, Taking a Stand

Brighton Table Tennis Club has won the beautiful accolade of being the first table tennis club in the country to be nominated a ‘Club of Sanctuary’. That is no small achievement. In fact, in these dark days of growing xenophobia and insularity, this accolade shines like a golden beacon. If like me, you believe that we only pass this way once, it seems incumbent on each one of us to make a stand at least once or twice in one’s life – to take a stand against the general flow of things, to stand up and be counted when all around you are cowering in the shadows. This is precisely what Brighton Table Tennis Club have done. They’ve taken a stand and a to hell with the bigots and the small minded. They have proudly declared that their club is a welcoming sanctuary for refugees, asylum seekers and all those that have been cast aside as ‘the other’.

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The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes, Vintage, London, 2012

In many respects, this little offering from Julian Barnes might be considered a ‘something and nothing’ type of novel. Of course, the novel and the subsequent film interpretation were both exquisitely delivered. But with the pressing issues of the day bearing down on humanity – extreme poverty, extreme and growing inequality, extreme, possibly existential environmental destruction – just to mention a few, you might think that our Mr Barnes might have something a little more pertinent, a little more contemporary to busy himself with. But no. Our worthy Mr Barnes chooses to explore the life of a late middle aged, middle class Englishman who has some unfinished romantic business to unravel. Scintillating stuff. On first reading it certainly seems a tad indulgent to say the least. And yet, give yourself a little time to ponder this work and you can’t help but conclude that Barnes might just have something rather important to say about the human condition.

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Homeland, Series 6, Channel 4,

The interplay between the so called real world and the world of TV is a strange place. If you want a  realistic appraisal of what the United States is actually like, you could do a lot worse than to watch its leading TV series. In this I specifically include The Wire, The Sopranos, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy and Homeland. Add to these some excellent documentaries like 13th

and you will get an immediate snapshot of the violence, endemic racism and institutional corruption that underpins nearly all of American society. Strip aside some of the more lurid and fanciful scripts and you have the USA in a nutshell. A thoroughly nasty piece of work.

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UK Sport in the Dock

It simply isn’t good enough for UK Sport to put all the blame for the allegations of sexism, bullying, cheating and general boorish behaviour currently emerging at British Cycling solely onto the shoulders of cycling’s governing body. Certainly, like all national sports administrations, British Cycling has questions to answer when it comes to all round good governance. But it is UK Sport that have the most to answer. Any national sports strategy and associated funding policy that is skewered obsessively towards international medals is guaranteed to create a dysfunctional and socially regressive climate in the upper echelons of British sport. British Cycling, once the golden girl and boy of British sport has inevitably succumbed to the insane pressures piled on them from UK Sport and their political masters in Whitehall and Westminster. Whilst those pressures persist, we can expect many more examples to emerge of bullying and general dysfunction, not just in cycling but across the entire sporting spectrum.    

 

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Ping Philosophy

Pick up a bat if you see it

Have a quick game if you feel it

Take on the world if you dare it

If the ball comes your way then just ping it

 

If you’re feeling anxious and alienated just ping it

If you’re saddened by the state of the world just swing it

If you feel your youth slipping away then just wing it

Because Ping England’s in town so just sing and be in it.

 

Ping at the park and Ping at the school

Ping in the office – up to 11 as a rule

Ping on your way home with your bat as your tool

Play with your mates or any old fool.

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