Civilisation: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson, Allen Lane, London

There is one very important point to which I am in accord with Niall Ferguson, and that is the need for a clear and consistent narrative in the teaching and understanding of history. The current vogue of offering school kids an eclectic patchwork of bite size mouthfuls of history is simply of no value. A few weeks of ‘the Romans’ followed by a few more weeks of 1066 and the Norman Invasion, closely followed by a month of Tudor history and then, inexplicably, a lurch  into the rise of the Nazis, with perhaps a unit of American civil rights thrown in, makes absolutely no sense at all. No, the human story, the most intriguing of all stories, needs to be presented in a coherent, chronological and intelligible manner. On this I agree with Ferguson but then, on much else, we must part company.

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Time For Outrage, Stephane Hessel, Quartet Books, London 2011

Hessel’s hugely popular, multi- million selling pamphlet, ‘Time For Outrage’ has found resonance in today’s fraught times due to his own combative past as resistance fighter against the Nazi regime; as a survivor of Nazi torture and their bestial concentration camps; as one of the original authors of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and as a UN diplomat seeking to put substance into those fine sounding words of that Declaration. Hessel must be a huge embarrassment to today’s authorities because while they, the Bush’s, the Blair’s, The Sarkozy’s and the Cameron’s, pretend to stand for the democratic ideals that helped defeat fascist aggression, Hessel indicts them precisely for having abandoned those very ideals.


As millions of people worldwide now desperately protest against the ravages of global corporatism, including in London today, Hessel’s words shout out like thunder and remind us all of our responsibilities to stand up against social, political and economic oppression in all its myriad forms. How the old Etonians must be squirming in their suits and tails as they busy themselves with yet another Oxbridge Boat-race and yet another foreign adventure in North Africa? They must squirm a little as they contemplate just how far they have taken us from the egalitarian ideals of the welfare state as imagined and demanded by earlier generations after the slaughter of the two world wars.

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The Promise, Channel 4, February 2011

At last, something intelligent on a terrestrial channel. It’s been a long time coming. There was a time, of course, when the BBC and the others regularly produced gems, but the years between these classics just seems to get longer and longer. American HBO is different. They are churning them out in rapid succession. They are arguably light years ahead of the Brits now and the gap seems to be getting wider.


 I never imagined myself pro-offing such a glowing trans Atlantic sentiment but facts are stubborn things. There is simply no comparison between say, the Soprano’s, The Wire, and best of all, In Treatment, with such turgid fare as Downton Abbey and all the rest of the highly predictable English costume dramas. Some of the Dickens and Shakespearean re-enactments can hold the attention but they don’t exactly require much new cerebral effort. As for the contemporary dramatic offerings, most of them are only just a nudge above the weekly soaps.

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No Logo: (10th Anniversary Edition), Naomi Klein, 2010, forth Estate, London

I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to revisit Naomi Klein’s updated edition of the rightly celebrated, No Logo, to see what take she has on the past decade, particularly in light of the Great Recession that we, in the West are still limping through. I was not disappointed. Nothing in her groundbreaking exposure of the dehumanising effects of global corporations and their obsessively fiendish attention to global branding has been rendered obsolete over the past ten years. Rather, this calculating corporate strategy has become more intense, more refined, more poisonous than ever. What is new however, is the manner in which the US government, taking its lead from corporate America, has itself outsourced so much of its core activity, and to cover its tracks, has produced perhaps the most ubiquitous brand on the planet; brand Obama.


I would imagine most citizens across the planet, secretly or otherwise, hoped that the Obama administration would come to represent something progressive for mankind; progressive in terms of fairer world trade, a less aggressively imperial foreign policy, a greener energy agenda and a more socially equitable domestic policy. No one was expecting a socialist paradise but a left turn away from the Friedman, Reaganite-Thatcherite-Bush neo-liberal economic and foreign policy was a general expectation. Naomi Klein ponders, in her new introduction, on what is branding and what is substance, if anything, in the new Obama run United States. Reflecting on the outgoing Bush administration, Klein paints the following sobering picture;

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Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, Nicholas Shaxon, 2011, Bodley Head

This one gets to the very heart of the matter. As they used to say in The Wire, ‘follow the money’, and that is exactly what Shaxon has done, painstakingly and relentlessly. Even, I might add, to the possible detriment to his own and his family’s safety. The fact that large corporations and criminally wealthy individuals have been moving their wealth off-shore to avoid the tax man, and in some cases, the serious fraud squad, is nothing new. They’ve been at it for years. What is new in Shaxton’s book is the exposure of the sheer magnitude of, not only the sums involved, but the Byzantine methods employed to cover their criminal tracks.


What is also new in Shaxton’s book is the extent to which the City of London is shown to be at the very heart of a global network of secret tax havens and just how complicit successive British governments have been in this global scam. To put the matter bluntly, all the current talk of austerity budgets and structural deficits pale into total insignificance when compared to the mind-boggling enormity of the financial crime that is being committed right in front of our noses. So all-consuming is the practise of tax avoidance by the global conglomerates, and so well protected are their off shore financial movements, that even if national governments had a will to confront the practice, it is doubtful if they could summon the muscle to win the battle.

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Matthew Syed’s Growing Psychosis

Last year Syed wrote a brilliant piece outlining the elitist nature of the Olympic Games, where many of the sports included were very much the preserve of the wealthy elites in the rich Western countries. What chance for the impoverished African and Asian countries in pistol shooting, fencing or the equestrian events? Zero.

Syed was most emphatic on this point and Sporting Polemics congratulated him accordingly. (See ‘Festival of Elitism’)

This week Syed raised another telling point concerning the mismatched competitions in the early rounds. Is he the only sports journalist in Britain doing any serious thinking about the Olympics? In the article The Times 16/2/11 Syed explains how small and impoverished countries are encouraged by the IOC to send participants for all events, and this results in hopelessly unequal contests, sometimes between aspiring world champions and complete novices. This is superficially a great egalitarian gesture, but in reality is a complete IOC con where honest punters are cajoled into buying tickets for these cheaper early rounds, but all too often get stuck with complete duds. If all these early rounds were free for school children; that would be a genuine IOC response, but we all know that the IOC and its national bodies are all about maximisation of profit. Free tickets for school children simple does not compute.

Syed sums up the matter thus;

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The ‘Clash of Civilisations’

David Cameron, old Etonian, millionaire, Tory leader and now, British Prime Minister, ventured to open up on the vexed question of multiculturalism and in so doing rather made a complete arse of himself. To almost universal condemnation, save for the English Defence League and the rabid Tory right wing, Cameron made assertions that will certainly exacerbate community tensions rather than assuage them. Firstly, he quite dangerously confused and equated the real but relatively insignificant phenomenon of home grown Islamic militancy with that of the far more significant problem of segregated communities and fraying social cohesion. Though there may well be an overlap between alienated Muslim youth and recruitment to militant Islamic groups, to imply that the former automatically leads to the latter is highly incendiary and quite simply wrong. Alienated Muslim youngsters, like all alienated youth the world over, are far more likely to turn to petty crime, alcohol and drug abuse or simply fall prey to debilitating apathy and depression than to turn to acts of jihadist terror. To suggest otherwise is to demonise a religious group and fail to address their alienation.

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A Spot of Tennis While Cairo Burns

Last weekend millions of Brits, egged on by hundreds of sports journalists, turned on their TV sets on Sunday morning to witness a British tennis player win a Grand Slam tennis event after an agonisingly, ingloriously long 75 year wait. It didn’t happen – but it was good fun getting all worked up – especially since both Federer and Nadal had both been knocked out of contention. Only Novak Djokovic stood in the way and Murray had beaten him on their last three encounters. Djokovic cruised home three sets to nil. ‘Murray chocks again’, screamed the Monday headlines and the long suffering British tennis fan just shrugged their shoulders and went back to work.

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China China China

When China was awarded the 2008 Olympics it was considered a landmark in that nation’s extraordinary economic development. That it put on a well organised showpiece Olympics and swept the medals table in the process merely emphasised the growing economic status of the country. In sporting terms China will continue to surge ahead on all fronts simple because sport is state sponsored and sporting success is considered, as it is for all countries but to even a greater extent, a badge of honour and a statement of national virility. In recent weeks Chinese sports stars have excelled in both snooker and tennis, two sports that have traditionally been beyond their sphere of operations. Now there must be considered no sports beyond China’s reach and with their almost militaristic sporting culture and state funded infrastructure, expect China to dominate the London Olympics next year and for many Olympics to come.

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Tottenham Versus West Ham Is No Choice At All.

It’s amazing how easy it is to manipulate people into choosing between two totally unacceptable alternatives. A classic example would be the economic and political choice between Tory cuts and Labour cuts. It’s a clever ploy. By presenting one draconian programme of cuts against a slightly less draconian programme the electorate conveniently forgets who was responsible for the economic mess in the first place. Instead of focusing on the casino capitalists and their off shore tax havens we get sidetracked into debating which austerity programme is the most appropriate for the country. You’ve got to admit, they are clever bastards. That private school education at ten thousand pounds per term turns out to be money well spent after all. With their classical Oxbridge education that daddy bought them, they can spend the rest of their days hoodwinking us peasants while living off the fat of the land.

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Declare War on Murdoch

Remember Glenn Hoddle? He was that towering intellect who, while employed as the National English Football manager, suggested that disabled people were being punished by god for some nasty misdemeanour they had committed in a previous life. What a jerk.

Remember the homophobic taunts Graeme Le Saux had to endure week in week out for the heinous crime of being a little less blokish than the average footballer, a little more cultured, a little more thoughtful. The clinching evidence of this crime – he read The Guardian rather than The Sun.

Remember the tens of thousands of football supporters who would throw bananas and make monkey chants every time a Black player touched the ball – even their own Black players in the case of the Chelsea boneheads.

Remember Richard Keys and Andy Grey. They are/were the two Sky TV football commentators who were very recently caught off guard expressing their dinosaur

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Chris Blackhurst in Fantasy Land

Chris Blackhurst, City Editor for the London Evening Standard, produced a pretty fair piece of journalism 20/1/11 when he called on the City of London to end its ‘indifference to the plight of the poor’. The only real flaw in the article, entitled, ‘Why Goldman Must Repay Its Debt to Society’ was its timing. Had it appeared, some 150 years ago, along with similar well meaning pleadings by well meaning Victorian philanthropists like Charles Dickens, it might be regarded as a progressive and even radical piece of journalistic agitation. Instead, coming as it does at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it can only be described as a piece of fantasy fiction.

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The East End’s Fading Olympic Legacy.(Olympic Notes No4

Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow spells out precisely how the promises of an Olympic legacy for the East end of London made by Lord Coe and his team to the IOC will very likely come to nought. The high flying promises are one by one being reneged upon and in their place are the usual corporate demands that are designed to maximise profits for the corporate sponsors. The only surprise is that the likes of Rashanara Ali believed any of the promises in the first place. It is not for nothing that the Olympic Games are now frequently referred to as the Corporate Games.

First up for Ali was the mind numbing statistics for local employment at the Olympic site. In what was promised as a bonanza for local job opportunities, it turns out to be the very opposite. Ali reports,

‘When I asked last year how many local residents from the host boroughs were employed on the Olympic site, I was informed that of the 6,000 onsite jobs created, only 201 were held by residents from Tower Hamlets and 133 from hackney. The host boroughs have invested in making sure the local workforce have the right skills, especially for the construction industry, but many local people feel excluded and are resentful they can’t break through.’

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Libraries Deserve a Sporting Chance.

About a year after the collapse of the Soviet system, which now seems a lifetime ago, domestic matters led me to visit Poland, during which time I had the pleasure of staying with some family relatives on my partners side. I soon learned that the lady of the house had recently been made redundant from her job as a librarian and I naturally enquired as to why that was so. I was duly informed that her library had been closed down as part of the new wave of capitalist austerity measures. Ah I hear you say – how very familiar.

The interesting thing in this little story is not so much the closure of the library – depressing as that is, but the type of library that had been forced to close. It was, it transpired, not a community library as we know them, but in fact a work-place library, which I learned were a common feature of the socialist system in Eastern Europe. With the reintroduction of capitalism, these worker friendly amenities were now considered surplus to requirements. No immediate profits to be made from them so they would have to go. And here we are, some twenty years later and the very same logic is forcing the imminent closures of hundreds of libraries across austerity Britain.

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Full Time; The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino, Paul Kimmage, Simon & Schuster 2000, Dublin

While perusing the selection of sports books in my local charity shop I was faced with the daunting choice of biographies/autobiographies concerning Dennis Wise, Ruud Gullit, Gianfranco Zola and Tony Cascarino. What didn’t strike me then but is glaringly obvious now is that all four have had a substantial Chelsea link, some illustrious others not quite so.

I don’t know what drew me to the Cascarino book over and above the others, all of whom I would imagine have something worthy of reporting from their footballing lives. Perhaps it was the promotional snippets that were provided front and rear of the main text that swung it. Tom Humphries of the Irish Times is quoted as saying; ‘I can only describe it as the best sports book I’ve ever read and among the most courageous ever written.’ Or for even greater hyperbole try this from The Guardian; ‘Compared with the standard-issue footballer’s autobiography, this is Tolstoy. What it says is astonishing.’ And if the potential reader is not yet hooked, Eamon Dunphy of The Times declares; ‘Belongs with the finest sports books ever written.’ I was hooked. I grabbed the dog-eared paperback, paid my 99p and started reading immediately on the bus journey home.

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Pornography Penetrates Sport

Two excellent pieces of journalism appeared in the press today though I suspect few commentators will choose to make a connection. Firstly, The Times 5/1/11 chose to run with a damning front page expose on UK sex gangs where young vulnerable white working class girls in Britain’s northern cities are being lured into prostitution by Asian gangs, principally of Pakistani origin. The hidden agenda to this story being that British authorities have been complicit in a ‘conspiracy of silence’ for fear of being accused of racism. Fortunately for the present and future victims of this ugly piece of domestic human sex trafficking, a prominent member of the Muslim community in Britain has had the courage to speak out, even it transpires, at the risk to his own safety. Plaudits must go to Andrew Norfolk for his thorough investigative journalism and to Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation for having the courage and principle to draw a line. It should be added though, that no one ethnic, religious or national group has a monopoly on sexual abuse and trafficking. This is a global crime damning all cultures and all nationalities.

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