1 December 2013

Some truisms regarding the police

Here are a couple of points about the police which tend never change.

The police, even in the most liberal state, are the means by which the state physically forces its will onto human bodies. They may carry out subsidiary functions, such as helping children cross the road, but that does not contradict their main role in society.

Police forces everywhere attract authoritarian personality types and attempt to expand their remit. Everywhere and always the police ask for more powers.

In a healthy liberal democracy (which currently Britain is not), government, legislatures, the courts and public opinion together prevent the otherwise inevitable slide into an authoritarian state riddled with police excesses and corruption.

The police can and should have their institutional say although it is widely known in advance what the police will say. They always want more powers, and if they get them they want more. It is up to the people to say no.

2 October 2013

Electronic Spying: its meaning in Britain

The electronic communications of every political activist and commentator in Britain are probably monitored by the state.

The documents made available to the world in the summer of 2013 by the whistleblower, Philip Snowden, have provided proof that the American NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, have in tandem attempted to harvest every single morsel of electronic communication that they can. To that end, they have inter alia tapped into undersea cables, compelled internet providers to hand over the content of their servers and worked with the commercial providers of encryption to insert so-called backdoors into their software.

Many claim that we knew all this already. I do not believe this is so: we might have believed that the surveillance state had access to our electronic communication, but we did not know the ubiquity of the surveillance, nor the extent to which the US corporations were partners in the programme.

Apologists claim that, even if multiple petabytes of information are seized and stored, over 99.9 percent is of no interest to the security apparatus and is thus as confidential in practice as it would have been if it had never been seized. Yet while it is indeed true that the vast majority of electronic communication is of no interest, the point needs to be made that the state has access to a great deal of information which it should not have access to and in which it is highly interested.

If in the the 1980s I had got up and said that the Metropolitan police had planted over one hundred spies into political and other civil organisations in Britain, spies who would embed themselves into the community with false identities for decades, I would have been described as paranoiac. Yet this kind of infiltration - outdoing the Stasi of the former East Germany - is now a proven fact, with each deployed officer costing around a quarter of million pounds a year.

Let me take another example of the extent of state surveillance of people. Today, everyone who attends a political demonstration or meeting in Britain risks being photographed by so-called Forward Intelligence police and having their names entered into a database of what are termed “domestic political extremists.” No doubt, the thousands of people on these lists are divided into categories: those who merely criticise the regime in Britain in words, those who organise, those who engage in nonviolent direct action of various kinds, and so on.

Philip Snowden, a technician, has been able to tell us what and how electronic communication is intercepted and harvested. We still don’t know how it is processed and what is done with it. But it is more than highly likely that, as the state spends billions on monitoring political activists and commentators, police and security agents will select, identify, categorise and keep all electronic communications among those who are involved in, or comment on, political affairs.

Largely, the political left have resigned themselves to surveillance. We use Facebook and other social media sites and we don’t encrypt our email. Even if the security officers have access to all we say, our online searches, etc. we just shrug our shoulders. Should we?

1 October 2013

The Myth of Marxist Ethics

Marx's achievement was in constructing a new way of understanding and interpreting history, not in the discovering a new ethics.

I would argue that there is no such thing – any more than there is a Newtonian ethics or Freudian ethics.

Marx’s achievement was the discovery of historical materialism: i.e. the development of conceptual tools which help us comprehend human history. And Marx himself was of course the first to undertake such studies within historical materialism. The construction of statements of fact which result from these studies cannot of themselves create ‘ought’ value statements.

Now of course Marx himself was passionately associated with a particular politics: namely that of moving towards a communist society, an ideal which was already formulated in Enlightenment thinking. Yet there is no theoretical originality in this: all Marx did was to take the results of his sociological analysis and argue: if communism is to be achieved then X, Y and Z ought to be done and happily for him what ought to be done was what he thought was actually happening in nineteenth century society. Hence Marxist politics was born, which involved an interesting interrelation between what is and what ought to be done.

Marxist politics has however re-entered historical materialism in one sense: the choice of value-laden terminology to describe factual states of affairs. For instance, the more value neutral concept extraction of surplus value is referred to by the value-laden term exploitation, implying that the extraction of surplus value, a fact of capitalism, is morally wrong.

24 September 2013

The Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz

A short but gripping mystery set in the Vienna of Franz-Jozef

This book (148 pages) first published in Austria in 1921, is still a wonderful short read. Perutz weaves a beautifully written mystery story, set among the well-to-do of pre-First World War Austria. At first, one is put of by the comedy and strangeness of manners of aristocratic society in 1909, but the poetry of the book soon takes over.

The focus of the novel is the explanation for a string of suicides and the accusation that the narrator, a wealthy army officer, is morally responsible for one of them. Towards the middle of the book it is hard to believe that there is a rational explanation, but Perutz provides one in the final chapter.

Despite the magic of the text, I was struck by the emptiness of the narrator of the story, Baron von Yosch. Yet, if the explanation of the suicides is the first 'sting-in-the-tail,' the editor's postscript is the second. The narrator is laid bare. Do not on any account read the last page first.

Three nights of in-bed late night reading will finish this novel of psychological analysis, gruesome ingenuity and metaphysical horrors.

PERUTZ, Leo - The Master of the Day of Judgment, Harvill 1994

23 September 2013

German Federal Elections 2013

Andrea Merkel only continues in office after the September 2013 German federal elections because of disunity among the left of centre.

So Angela Merkel has won the German elections by a landslide – or so the media are telling us. It is indeed true that Merkel’s CDU – along with its Bavarian sister party the CSU – have won just under 42 percent of the vote. But under Germany’s system of proportional representation, they are five seats short of an overall majority.

Merkel’s liberal coalition partner, the FDP, failed to re-enter parliament, and a newly formed right-wing eurosceptic party also just failed to reach the five percent threshold, thus leaving Merkel’s party as the only party of the right in the Bundestag.

The SPD scored a miserable 26 percent of the vote, aping Labour’s 2010 General Election performance. The Left Party picked up just under nine percent, losing a quarter of its percentage vote compared with 2009, but taking third place, and pushing the Greens (8,5%) into fourth.

Yet look at the maths. Merkel has 311 seats in the Bundestag. The SPD, Left Party and the Greens together have 319, and seen like that the left side has actually won, yet the Left Party’s commitment to socialist policies makes them untouchable for the SPD and Greens.

So Merkel will carry on - either with a minority administration or with the SPD as its junior coalition partner.

30 August 2013

The grammatical subject in English sentences.

A grammatical subject can be found in every well formed English sentence.

In a sentence, the subject is the thing (person, object, activity, place, etc.) which the sentence is about. The rest of the sentence tells us about the subject. In the examples below the subject is highlighted.

He ate a sandwich.
Mr Dowel danced.
Yesterday, the young boy gave the elderly woman a piece of chocolate.
Dancing is less popular than it was.

Every sentence in a properly formed English sentence has a subject. But the subject can take several forms.

Builders are at work. (a noun)

Next week she is travelling to Berlin. (a pronoun)

The large car stopped outside our house. (a noun phrase)

Eating is a pleasure. (a gerund)

To read is easier than to write. (an infinitive)

That he had travelled the world was known by everyone. (a clause)

'I love you' is often heard these days. (a citation)

9 August 2013

Exeter University Student Diary 1982

In the academic year 1982-83 one student from Exeter University kept a diary for a month. Read the diary and the explanatory notes written in 2013. Also included are some extracts from the novella, University Years (1984), which used this diary as an important source.

In the academic year 1982-83, I shared a house, 74 Old Tiverton Road, with seven other students from Exeter University, and for one month, October-November, I kept a diary. I never intended my daily comments to be read by anyone else, because my reasons for writing were mostly to sort out my own feelings for my own benefit. Yet, for some reason, the handful of sheets of what had become yellow paper on which the diary was typed remained among my personal papers. In June 2013, I decided to type it up electronically.

I have left the text as it was originally written. Often, I felt tempted to polish the writing and to add clarification here or there, but I have refrained from doing so. I did, however, correct some spelling, punctuation and grammar errors - something today which is so much easier now that we have word processing facilities.

The other changes to the text are minor. I have changed the names some of the people in the diary to preserve their anonymity. Of course, anyone familiar with the inhabitants of 74 Old Tiverton Road in the academic year 1982-83 will be able to substitute in their minds the real names for the ones used in the text. I have not censored the text at all, except for one fifty-word paragraph, which I removed because it consisted only of an offensive comment which contributed nothing to the on-going discussion in the diary.

Admittedly, some of my comments are embarrassing, mostly to me, but sometimes to other people too. I penned comments about others which I would not express in such terms today. Yet, a cleansed and heavily redacted diary would be of little worth. The text is a record of what I chose to write down thirty-one years ago in 1982: it was how I, twenty years old at the time, decided to portray what I understood as the reality around me. I recorded what I regarded as important and as mattering. Today, one either presents the original raw text as a contemporaneous record or one wastes one’s time creating a doctored and inauthentic past.

Our past is not another world; it part of who we are. We are the sum of our past experiences, which include most importantly all the choices and decisions we made day-in day-out. Yet, in relating to the past, people are apt to make two mistakes. The more obvious is to live in the past and become sickened by nostalgia. These people elevate yesteryear into a golden era, leaving them like someone looking out of the back of a moving train: aware of where they've been, but ignorant of where they are or where they are going. They become mentally incapacitated in the “now” where they, by necessity, always must be. Life can never be elsewhere.

Equally mistaken, but much more common, is too see our own past as something that we have used up and no longer need care about, rather like the seat on a bus which we have now vacated and no longer need. In this vein, one friend wrote, on seeing the first couple of entries of the diary, “It’s all in the past, over 30 years ago now: what’s the point in dredging it all up again?” The use of the metaphor “dredge” is significant because it equates remembering with “exposing something that is hidden” as well as the assumption that what one finds is “dirty,” i.e. the drudge on the bottom of the river. The obvious parallel in my friend’s view is between the past and the subconscious. Freud saw mental health in moving the contents of the subconscious into the conscious realm, the light of knowing eliminating the darkness of the forgotten, not locking the past away in favour of polite and innocuous myth. My friend believes in concealing, but against him I say that the more one lives with ignorance - even ignorance of ourselves - the less free one is.

Yet shining light publicly into the cracks of the past illuminates not only the author’s life, thoughts and deeds, but also those of other people. My friend who read the first few entries wrote: “People are likely to see it as an assault on their privacy and their dignity.” For thirty years I held that view, too. But I doubt whether it is any longer correct. The address 74 Old Tiverton Road and the names Brian, Fiona, Maggie, Martin, etc are unlikely to have any meaning to people other than to those people themselves. Now the protagonists are in their fifties and have very different problems and outlooks, and are far more likely to find the diary either irrelevant or of nostalgic interest, even if comments made about them in it are uncomplimentary.

I have added a few notes after the diary entries, so that the text makes more sense to readers. Also, for a couple of diary entries, I have added short extracts from the novella University Years (written in 1984) which provide a fictional colouration of the events under discussion. The diary and the novella extracts are in italics.

Sunday, 10 October 1982

It was a rather empty day today. I have just apologised to Brian for “freaking him out” when he was on mushrooms last night. The talk in Brian’s room (Martin, Brian Chris and I) was not very inspiring.

I do wish Martin would throw out this word “radical.” His whole mental environment appears to be a confrontation between the respectable establishment ideas (subconsciously represented by his parents and the adult world) and the unmasking of reality, i.e. radicalism (the rebellious student). He is so bloody idealistic.

My paper on “Class and Higher Education” which I presented to the standing committee of the Education Alliance Conference was well received. I felt pleased. Martin was supportive. I am able understand Dick and Terry better after the meeting.

NOTE: (1) In retrospect, I think my attack on Martin was hypocritical, because the the views that I attribute to him were also pretty much mine too at the time. (2) Dick was president of the University Guild of Students; Terry was his girlfriend who was living in the house.

Monday 11 October 1982

I had my first seminar of term today. After a bad start it went better than expected. I was surprised how little depression I felt after listening to Jeff for two hours. 

I messed up my evening by visiting Amanda. She was out at 9pm so I returned at about 10.20pm. She was just about to get into bed. We had a reasonable conversation for about half an hour. As she was having her period, my expectations were not fully met. She was kind enough to give me a wank. As always I was depressed when I departed. In Brian’s room, Martin, Brian, James, Chris and Maggie were lying around. The conversation was better than last night, but not great.

NOTE: (1) Jeff was a idiosyncratic politics lecturer. (2) Amanda is a pseudonym which I used in the original diary. I had very contradictory feeling towards her: on the one hand we were having a sexual relationship, but I felt I couldn't cope with her right-wing Tory view and friends. I treated her rather selfishly, but perhaps she did the same to me.

Tuesday, 12 October 1982

Problems have come to the fore today. I face a dilemma.

I entered Brian’s room in a vacant mood after watching a TV programme. Maggie was sitting on the edge of the bed and Brian was relaxing between Maggie’s legs. I was not surprised, but just taken aback for a moment. The reality causes problems. 

What am I to do? What response should I give? If I treat Maggie as anybody's girl, I would rightly be attacked: if I treat Maggie as “Brian’s girl” I will be accused of a stupid sexism. If I go on playing up to her, they will think I am in the virility race. To behave as if I don’t care is to adopt such a stereotyped position that I would be pleading guilty by my very proclamation of innocence. 

I don’t want this sort of problem right now. Should I withdraw from the much exaggerated and so called “Old Tiverton Road scene” and risk an unwanted isolation? Or do I take opposite road, attempt integration and play on in the most unfavourable climate? All of these questions are difficult to answer. It is like playing a lost chess game; you must lose, but you can chose how.

NOTE: At the start of term Maggie and I had been the first to arrive in the house. I made a pass at her which she rebuffed. By the first week of term, my sexual feelings for her had largely vanished, but when Brian started a relationship with her I felt embarrassed, especially in front of Brian and Maggie. I didn't desire Maggie any longer, but I wanted the problem to go away.

Wednesday, 13 October 1982

This stupid matter is becoming worse. I came back from university in a bad non-talkative mood. Brian is also acting negatively.

How large is the problem? Did I ever have a chance or desire of forming a relationship with Maggie? I think not on both counts. But now Brian “has her” (to be sexist) it is impossible. To engage in anything which could be interpreted as a struggle for Maggie would over amplify her importance and sour my relationship with Brian. I would create a negative atmosphere in the house and there would be no victory to win.

Yet there is still now the more difficult task of integrating into the much exaggerated culture of Brian’s room. Brian, Fiona and Maggie form a heaving bloc to confront. My playing around with Maggie can form a very powerful weapon in the circumstances. But on reflection I don't think that I can afford the emotional energy.

What affects me and draws me into the situation is the sheer self-satisfaction in Brian and Maggie’s eyes which I saw when I burst into Brian’s room last night. That shows real aggression of the most traditional order.

Solutions are difficult to find. but first, I must slowly reintegrate, at a less committed level, into the bedroom culture which is so hegemonic in this house; second, I must build a bridge to Maggie which appears more sensitive but less sexual in orientation. A strong relationship with Martin, Chris and James will bring Brian into line quickly.

All of this is very silly, but stupidity is often the reality. If I do nothing or act in a negative manner, a nail will be driven into the coffin of interpersonal relations in this house.

NOTE: (1) Quite clearly, I feel that my pride has been hurt and it is troubling me a great deal. I obviously deeply regret flirting with and having made a pass at Maggie and am trying hard to extricate myself from the consequences. I am playing politics in the house to bring that about. In the novella University Years there is a fictional account of a bedroom in a student house which serves as the sitting room. (2) There are, in fact, several differences between the fictional room and Brian’s room, though the atmosphere described is similar.

Extract from the novella University Years

Brian’s room was the focal point of the house. It was by far the largest room and well stocked with comforts, ageing a little now as they had been bought at the end of the holidays after Brian had left school when he had slaved away in a woodwork shop. The powerful stereo system next to Brian’s beanbag was separated from the wall by a row of over one thousand records. The unlicensed colour TV stood in another corner where it could be seen from the unnecessarily large bed consisting of several adjacent pieces of foam. Brian knew his bed could sleep three easily. Above the bed on the ceiling was a large mirror into which carefully positioned spotlights shone to illuminate the room and to provide soothing lighting for the endless discussions that his room hosted. 

Posters held on by blue-tack covered the walls. Some depicted startling photography, like the one with the soldier about to depart on the train leaving behind a brave wife and a tearful child. Others were of concerts which Brian had or had not attended, and yet others were political and - apart from the picture of the hungry child with an outstretched hand yanking the emotions – the rest had been provided by Martin who had visited the Soviet Union the previous summer. From the wall Lenin with headmasterly sternness stared down into the room where Helen and Brian had joined their bodies, and where they all, save Martin, smoked dope which was readily available whenever money was. Marx, erudite and distant in his poster, just looked on. 

Brian’s room set the communal atmosphere for the whole house. The portable gas fire humming away warmed the room to give it as cosy an atmosphere as any student house could have. The beanbags and two settees provided ample seating. So popular was Brian’s room that not only was it the living room of the household, but the constant ringing of the doorbell would mean an endless flow of visitors to share that comfort, each bringing drink, drugs and problems. Sometimes they were welcome; sometimes they had to be kicked out.

Thursday, 14 October 1982

The situation has improved drastically today. After a brief reticence Fiona and Maggie were keen to normalise relations, as I expected, Brian Fiona and Maggie had discussed the situation. 

We were all keen to normalise things. I had a very “deep” discussion with Brian in which I mentioned my paranoia, my inability to trust people and my difficulties in relaxing. I made some attempt to tie matters into past history, but this is difficult. 

Reintegration into Brian’s room has been achieved. To some extent I have made my relationship with Maggie slightly less sexual. Fiona, much too middle class and “sensible” has had nothing to do with any of this. 

I lost an important debate at the executive of the Labour Group today: this has annoyed me all day. This evening I went to a ward meeting which went quite well. I ended the evening with a long discussion with Roger Smith.

NOTE: I seem to be slowly achieving what I want. I don’t really know what my paranoia was: I strongly suspect it was a load of nonsense, invented with the intention of allowing Brian to play psychologist with me. The purpose of this would have been to re-open a line of communication with Brian that excluded Maggie. The “Labour Group” in the diary refers to the Association of Labour Students at the University. The “ward meeting” is the local branch of the town Labour Party. Roger Smith was a printer and trade unionist who died young.

Friday 15 October 1982

This is the day of the year when 74 Old Tiverton Road sits in the Amnesty International cage in Princesshay, Exeter. Martin and I sat there for an hour from 12pm to 1am. It was fascinating because we met ex-criminals and drunks. 

Fiona and Maggie followed us. It was quite stupid to put two pretty fair-haired girls in the city centre in the middle of the night in an exposed place. What made matters worse is that they had drunk too much Greek liqueur, which helped to attract a mob. When they finally returned home they were distraught. 

Brian, Chris, Maggie and I stayed up throughout the night. Brian and Maggie were stimulating each other. The only problem was that it is difficult to have a conversation with this sort of thing going in front of you. Is one to become a voyeur? 

I think Brian is not used to his new relationship. It is clearly based on sexual attraction and little else. Screwing, without personal attraction, has emotional costs. Many of the characteristics of this petty little affair brings back memories and reopens debates inside my mind which I thought were closed.

I must pose a central question for Brian to answer. In what way is too much with Maggie similar to excessive eating, drinking, drugs, etc? Perhaps there is a parallel here which had not yet seen? As for Maggie I believe she will have a credibility problem in this house. 

In the long run Brian must confront the legacy of Sue. He must measure the extent of his being which is devoted to sensual pleasure consumption and that which is given to disciplined objectives (after all he is very competitive at heart). Brian is clever enough to know that “growing up” alone won’t solve those problems. I shall be interested to see how he answers, but it will be even more interesting to see how new questions arise in his personal struggle.

NOTE: Erecting a symbolic cage and sitting in around the clock was obviously a publicity stunt by Amnesty International to highlight the incarceration of political prisoners. Students volunteered to sit there during the night. Sue was Brian’s girlfriend who was studying in Germany for an academic year. The problem that is concerning me - and one that I also projecting onto Brian - is about how one should go about getting sex, how sex connects you to another person and how much time should be devoted to it. That was and still is very much a young man’s concern.

Sunday, 17 October 1982

Because of my all-night activities on Friday/Saturday, I am one day behind with my diary. I have done very little today, except, perhaps, prepare for my first General Meeting as secretary.

I have volunteered to readjust the Yondercott Rent Account and pay in some rent cheques tomorrow. That involves a journey into Exeter, so I hope that I get up in time. I am in a new official mood today.

Earlier, I had to see Fiona in her room: she was surprised to have me knocking at the door. When I entered, I did not make my purpose known immediately: she was frightened. So my image is confirmed yet again. 

Brian is with Maggie again, but today I care less than ever. Maggie’s image, which I mention in my last entry, is changing accounting to expectations. 

A real problem is developing. When I wish to relate to Brian, Fiona, Maggie, Chris and James, Martin is inhibiting. And when I wish to discuss a matter with Martin, Brian et al. are inhibiting. I hope this does not prove to be too great a problem.

NOTE: (1) The General meeting for which I am the secretary refers to the association of Labour students at the University. (2) Fiona, a friend of both Brian and Maggie, was a well-adjusted but upfront-emotional person, whose personality contrasted with my introversion. She alleged that at times she felt intimidated by me. (3) The problem with Martin was that I related to him differently (i.e. more honestly) than with the others, and, therefore, it was stressful at times, when we were all together.

Monday, 18 October 1982

Massive disruptions and ruptures have developed inside the Labour Group. We held a heavily attended meeting today where Julian attempted to destroy the Marxist orientation of the Group. Without a fight there is little chance of sense and a correct line prevailing. 

I bought a new jumper today at Marks and Spencer’s for GPB 15.99. I am quite pleased with it as it gives me a new “image” - personal revolution! 

Who invented sexual attraction? Why do we not try to abolish this form of human relation? I feel so much respect for Fiona who is so “respectable” and “responsible” and is to some extent reserved.

In a discussion with Martin the question of Brian’s power arose. Brian is not powerful in an omnipotent way, but only in relation to personal connections - very paternalistic. If Brian is the “father figure”! at 74 Old Tiverton Road, does that make Maggie Mother? Is Fiona a widow or a spinster? And who are the lodgers?

NOTE: (1) In 1982 sixteen pounds was a great deal to spend on a pullover. It was well over half of my weekly spending money. (2) Julian was a public schoolboy prodigy who had gone to Oxford as a teenager. He had a loud mouth; he viewed politics as a source of entertainment.

Tuesday, 19 October 1982

I had a reasonable tutorial on Marxism-Leninism with Maurice Goldsmith. My appetite for work has grown. 

I went to see Amanda again. Conversation and sex were much better, and I feel much closer to her than previously. Yet at the same time I do not want a relationship with her, as there is insufficient empathy in the fields of personal and social thought. Only emotional inadequacy and bitterness could prevail. 

My personal (non-sexual) relationship with Fiona is strengthening. I am pleased because I admire her a great deal; we talked for about five minutes today in Brian’s room. Maggie is improving: her course laugh is attenuating, and my relationship with her is satisfactory at present. I shall not comment on our little “love story” in our house today. 

Martin has still not decided whether to resign from the Labour Group committee or not. I have decided to give the Ideological Committee some initiative. Julian is still an obstacle.

NOTE: (1) Martin and I had taken a third year politics course in Marxism-Leninism. Professor Maurice Goldsmith was the course leader. (2) Though Fiona was classically attractive, and I liked her very much, I never once desired to have sex with her, in part but not wholly, because it was completely off the agenda from her side.

Wednesday, 20 October 1982

I have a cold. I worked today, but did less than I intended. Chris C. came for dinner this evening; only Brian, Chris C. and I were here. We went out for a social drink at a pub which is new experience for Brian and me. I began to understand Chris C’s grass root feelings and his Irish background. He is more of a humanist than a socialist. 

Terry is back from London and Dick was here. Brian was dislocated in his interpersonal power relations which Dick, Terry and friends arrived. 

Brian’s relations with Maggie appears far more tenuous. He remembers, while stoned, that it was peculiar having someone who laughed all the time beside him. Only Chris C. was in the room, apart from me, and he did not understand.

NOTE: (1) Chris C. did not live in the house. He was a political activist in the Labour Group. Though I liked him at this time, he turned out to be completely politically unreliable. (2) It seemed to me at the time that Brian tended to relate only to people he knew well. He disliked strangers, particularly strong-willed ones.

Thursday, 21 October 1982

Martin and I had Bob Witkin’s lecture on Youth Culture today. It was nostalgic, taking me back to my sixth form A-Level sociology course. The lecture was excellent. 

We had a meeting of the Labour Group Executive in Chris C’s room. Julian and Paul were absent, but there was a new face, Celia - the secretary to be. Never before had the meeting been so amicable and constructive. I learnt a great deal today and last night from Chris C’s humane, gentle and essentially justice-oriented approach to politics. It taught me, if nothing else, that the divisions in the Labour Group were not so extreme. Only now that I have finally resigned (as secretary), do I fully realise what an impact I have had on the Group. To a large extent the goals and structure of the organisation have been moulded by me. I believe that I have a cause to feel pleased with myself. 

I went on a walk through the Beacon Hill housing estate this evening. I was hit by the peace and structure of privatised working class life. The experience connected in well with the lecture earlier this morning. While I was walking I passed two girls; they were dressed in tight jeans and carried heavily decorated faces; they must have been around sixteen years old. The interesting thing is that for the first time I felt too old to be decently sexually attracted to them.

I was in a good humour when we made toast this evening.

Friday, 22 October 1982

Friday is my free day; there are no lectures or tutorials. It was my turn to cook. I went into town to do the shopping and lugged it all back. The preparation of the meal, the shopping beforehand, and the washing up afterwards are very tiring.

NOTE: We had an admirable system in the house. There were eight students: every day one student had the job of doing the shopping (stuff for the evening meal plus wholemeal bread and peanut butter), bought with money we all placed in a kitty. That student then cooked the meal, served it and did the washing up. Cooking the evening meal formed the basis for a fictional account of the same such thing in the novella University Years. It should be noted that the fictional account below is just that, i.e. fictional.

Extract from the novella, University Years

The evening meal at 47 Sunview Street was the high point for all the residents of the house. It was the only time during the day when the four friends were together, and all thought about essays and seminars could be forgotten. That night it was Martin’s turn to cook. 

Like most things in the house the cooking arrangements were devised by Brian. Money had to be put into the kitty weekly from which the milk, newspaper and daily evening meal was paid. Brian, Fiona, Maggie and Martin each took turns to buy the daily provisions, cook for the household and clear up. Indeed the solidarity which existed in the house was so complete that not once had any of them defaulted. 

But it was Martin who made the most out of the cooking. Each time that it was his turn, he cooked something different from a variety of cookbooks which he kept along with much else under his bed. The problem for the rest of the household, which they endured with amusement or at least good humour, was that Martin cooked so absurdly slowly. It had been informally agreed that the evening meal would be ready for seven, yet through Martin’s sheer inefficiency at lighting the right gas under the right pan at the right time – or more often by running to the corner shop for this or that – the meal was seldom ready before nine. Maggie, and to a lesser extent Fiona, kept telling him that if he concentrated rather than talk over the television to Brian about politics he would be quicker. 

‘How long do you think it will be?’ Brian asked Martin a little impatiently. 

Brian looked at the large frying pan of vegetables which were cooking slowly. He half wished that the other three would abandon the laudable principle of vegetarianism and meat could be eaten for a change. Right now, though, he was hungry and irritable, not least because he had done very little that afternoon, and had an experiment to write up. 

‘Maybe about forty minutes.’ Martin consulted the pans.

Martin’s reply prompted him to leave for his room. He retreated to be alone with his studies and his thoughts. He activated his expensive stereo system with the music which since his sixth form days he found relaxing and conducive to deep thought. He collapsed onto his mattress which lay on the floor.

Monday, 25 October 1982

We had a successful Labour Group meeting. The speaker from NOLS did not turn up but discussion was fruitful. We must, however, achieve something concrete soon. 

When I arrived home after two two-hour seminars, I went straight to Brian’s room because music was playing. He was not to be found, so I entered Fiona’s room and found her working. She allowed me to make her tea. We had a constructive conversation; I was overjoyed. 

In the evening after the meeting and after seeing Amanda, I sent into Brian’s room. Fiona was there; we had beer and muesli which Brian was kind enough to fetch. What was of interest was that Fiona specifically asked me to sit on the floor, something I have hitherto deliberately refrained from doing. Am I to enter Brian’s bloc? Overall, Fiona’s evaluation of me is improving. This is acknowledged by Brian implicitly by Maggie. I must make an altruistically inspired adaptation to the new demand on me, while at the same time maintaining my character and my system of priorities.

NOTE: NOLS was the National Organisation of Labour Students

Tuesday, 26 October 1982

I had a fruitful seminar with Maurice Goldsmith today; Martin was leading the discussion and did so like preacher in a bible reading group. 

Today, it has occurred to me that Maggie is more isolated than I though. It seems to me that Brian has rejected her. Realistically, there is little to worry about if this is the case because their relationship was not serious. 

(Paragraph redacted) 

Although it is clear that Maggie does not want a relationship with me (which I now don’t want either) she is receptive to anything that looks like me showing a sexual interest in her. I reinforce her image; it is unfair, but I do it.

NOTE: By now I had manoeuvred myself into the situation where it was largely Maggie who was isolated not me. I had no intention of flirting with her.

Wednesday 27 October 1982

I had an emotionally charged encounter with Maggie today. When I arrived back from St. Lukes, I went to see Fiona. She was in, so I volunteered to make her tea. Maggie then arrived. We started talking about my so-called paranoia and then about Maggie’s paranoia about being “looked at.” In the spirit of a verbal game, I isolated Fiona from Maggie by getting Fiona to admit that she was not intimidated when I “looked” at her. Maggie was foolish enough to acknowledge that she hated Brian staring at her. In consequence, I was able to say that it was not I “the starer” who had the problems, but, on the contrary, the person with the problems was Maggie. The logic was too cruel and compelling. It did not matter that the conversation was meant to be light-hearted; a nerve was touched and Maggie stormed out of the room. Although I did not deserve sympathy, Fiona understood of my point of view. Brian almost took my side completely when he mentioned the matter later; Maggie, it seemed, forgot the incident quickly.

Saturday, 29 October 1982

The whole of 74 Old Tiverton Road, except Terry, went to a party at number 63. It was terrible. Martin and Brian, and perhaps some of the others distributed socialist literature for a joke, and in welly-dominated party the reception was not good. There was a complete political, psychological and style of life clash of images. Hilary, whose party it was, was very angry, so much so that I think she is a mental case. 

It is difficult to know what to do at such a party. The females dress like sluts: it is impossible to imagine any relationship with them outside the sexual cattle market. The only other option is to have a boring conversation, above the disgusting music with a drunk. Brian hated the party even more than I did. 

When we got home we jeered at the spectacle; Maggie was hurt. By attacking the party we not only attacked Maggie’s friends, but to some extent Maggie herself.

NOTE: The party formed the basis for a fictional account of such a party in the novella University Years. It should be noted that the fictional account below is just that, i.e. fictional.

Extract from the novella, University Years

It had just got dark the previous night when the three students slammed the door of 47 Sunview Street, and set out on the short walk to Francine’s house. With a continual stream of car headlights dazzling the walkers, they made their way down the Victorian terraced street. Martin and Brian walked ahead of Maggie. 

There would be no doubt where the party was as Francine’s house was shaking from the full volume of a stereo system. A dim red light shone from Hugh’s ground floor room and Brian could see a large number of people through the window, some standing and talking others dancing. A kind of boredom overcame Brian. Again here was another student party where nothing new would happen. There would be a group of lads getting drunk; a few would start a new relationship that night, or more likely a one-night-stand, disappearing into one of the bedrooms; and there would be the permanent queue for the toilet for those who did not want to relieve themselves in the garden. 

They didn’t need to knock because the front door was open. Once inside there was a jam of people in the hall and thick clouds of cigarette smoke. Brian was fed up already as Francine came towards them. 

‘Hi there, hippies,’ she said with artificial joviality. 

Brian was annoyed even more. Martin didn't hear as he had already started a conversation with an ex-private schoolboy who was in the Conservative Club. 

‘Put your coats and valuables into my room. It’s strictly out of bounds for the duration of the party.’ She pointed to a room upstairs. 

Maggie started a conversation with a student whose glasses had thick lenses. He was an accountancy student called Phil, whom Brian found so boring he could hardly think of the boy as human. 

Clutching the leaflets in his left hand, Brian made his way to the kitchen to get a can of beer - perhaps even one of his cans which Francine had so efficiently taken from him in the hall. He wondered when he would meet up with Martin and start handing out the leaflets. 

Brian felt increasingly ill at ease. There was nobody he really wanted to talk to. He meandered aimlessly from one room of the party to another, finally finding himself upstairs in Charlotte’s room. In one corner Maggie was listening to a group of young men talking about the salaries they could earn in the city. She said nothing, but stood and watched the students in their clean jeans and rugby shirts exchange views on their possible future. Brian felt a wave of revulsion towards the group – their clean-shaven faces covered with arrogant and artificial smiles. By what right did these men and their tarted-up girlfriends possess the future? His hands tightened around the leaflets; and he felt angry that nobody had noticed him and his leaflets. 

Brian’s eyes focussed on Martin who having a difficult conversation with a group of Sloane-ranger girls. Brian knew how normally Martin was able to accommodate himself an any social group, and it amused him to see how Martin was failing here. As far as he could hear Martin was extolling the virtues of feminism, but they were virtues falling on deaf ears. Martin could listen and contribute something on nearly every subject under discussion but what he couldn’t cope with – and indeed he had very little experience of coping with – was being laughed at. The girls seemed to be saying, ‘What kind of man are you? If you don’t want to fuck us (and we wouldn’t let you anyway), then you’re a wimp or a queer. All this feminism stuff is not hiding the truth from us.’ And while of course no such words passed their lips, the meta-message was clear enough. In humiliation and desperation Martin extricated himself from the girls and came over to Brian. 

‘Jesus Christ, this party is worse than I imagined.’ He looked to Brian for agreement and support.

Brian was direct. ‘Let’s give out this Labour stuff, and get out of here. Let’s do it.’

Brian took the leaflets in both hands and thumbed through them. Martin extracted his from his pocket and straightened them. They looked at each other as if each student needed the permission of the other and then moved forward to give them out. 

‘Can I give you one of these?’ Their first target was the group of Sloane ranger girls, who had ridiculed Martin only a few minutes earlier. 

‘What’s this?’

One of the girls took it and the other two, rather than take their own copy, huddled round the first girl to have a look. The girl who had taken the leaflet was contemptuous. 

‘Take it away, you silly idiot, we haven’t come here to read your Labour stuff.’ 

Martin refused to take it back. Behind him Brian was about to tackle the group of chaps in rugby shirts. His attempt to hand out the leaflet disrupted the group just as one of its members was about to finish a story of how he’s got pissed one lunchtime while doing work experience in London. 

‘What’s this shit you’re giving me,’ bawled one of the listeners. He looked over the leaflet and Brian with equal disgust. At the other side of the room, Martin became embroiled in an argument and the whole atmosphere in the room was changing. 

Charles had edged his way into the group of chaps and was angry. 

‘Just put those bloody things away will you. Look… this is our party and we don’t want you mucking it up’ 

‘There’s freedom of speech, isn’t there?’ Brian responded. 

‘Look, don’t be so fucking childish.’ Charles was almost yelling. 

The atmosphere of anger was growing in the room. Maggie was just dumbstruck and stood glued to the spot watching the scene. Martin meanwhile had had his leaflets handed back to him, and had more or less accepted defeat. 

‘Now, stop giving out those things - or get out’ screamed Charles now enjoying his feeling of power in the room. It was his house and he was standing among a group of his friends. 

‘I’ll try the response downstairs,’ said Brian attempting to extricate himself from the situation without losing face. 

‘Like Hell, you will.’ Charles snatched the leaflets from Brian’s hand. ‘Now get out.’

Brian attempted to grab the leaflets back. He failed, but his sudden movement inflamed the situation. He had moved into Charles’ personal space, and Charles not hard and with a half closed hand hit Brian in the face. A flow of blood gushed from Brian’s nose. 

Brian had never been hit before. He felt humiliated but sober, and an inner voice was telling him that the situation was hopeless. Nobody wanted to inflame the situation further – even Charles who was obviously shocked at what he had just done. Martin announced publicly that they were leaving. 

The configuration in the room had changed. Francine had come in and blocked the door to the large number of would-be onlookers who now realised that there was an incident in progress upstairs. Maggie was standing in the middle of the room alone. Her conversation partners, realising that she was Brian’s girlfriend and one of ‘them,’ had left her alone. 

Francine took charge of the situation. 

‘Look, please go Brian and Martin. This is meant to be a party. Chas, give them their leaflets back.’ 

Obediently, Charles handed Brian the now screwed up bunch of leaflets. Brian was still shaken and needed to mop his nose. But now more attention was focussed on Maggie who was standing in the middle of the room crying. It was clear that she was expected to go too, although she wasn't actually being thrown out. The assumption of student house loyalty was strong. 

Maggie moved over to Brian, who refused to look at her. Now Brian, Martin and Maggie were standing in a group apart from everybody else. Maggie knew that she was now fully labelled as one of the ‘left-wing hippies.’ Francine, Hugh and the whole of the accountancy class would now reject her and withdraw any residual sympathy. There would be no acts of charity or companionship offered to her in the future; and these thoughts pumped more and more tears. But as she cried the disgust of the accountancy students increased. 

‘Please go.’ 

Francine repeated herself in a firm but polite voice though it could be seen that she was not as sure of herself as she was pretending. 

The three made their way through the crowd of onlookers at the door, but downstairs the party was continuing as if nothing had happened. Outside a gentle rain had started, and through the drizzle they made their way home. Nobody spoke. Brian was thinking hard about what to say to Fiona.

Sunday, 31 October 1982

Last night everybody except Martin and Terry played an interesting game. We asked questions like, “Who is the person in the room who is most likely to vote Conservative?” Everybody had to write the name of a single person on a slip of paper and give it to Maggie. Maggie and Fiona did not answer any of the questions. Only one question caused an upset. In answer to the question cited above Maggie was unanimously named. She was a little hurt by the incident which underpins the notion that she is sensitive to being thought of as superficial. The incident was unfortunate.

NOTE: At no time do I ever recall wanting to hurt Maggie. However, in the interpersonal politics of the house, I did my utmost to achieve my own interests.

Wednesday, 3 November 1982

NOTE: this is the last entry in the diary and here I try to sum up my feelings about the whole situation.

Events in the house have speeded up; the whole structure of life has changed rapidly. At the centre of the household's affairs, as at the centre of my diary, is the Brian/Maggie question. Both these characters lend themselves to public spectacle. 

Some days ago Brian wrote to Sue explaining and justifying his new-found relationship with Maggie. Essentially, Brian saw this as the thing to do, telling “the truth” while practising “moral liberalism.” This letter crossed in the post with one from Sue explaining her isolation and loneliness in Germany.
Although upsetting for Brian, he placed the problem under his belt. But several days later Rachel, Sue’s close friend, received a letter from Sue not only reiterating her depression, but criticising Brian’s conduct. Rachel exaggerated the content to Brian. 

Yesterday, the process of daily life and constant relationship were shattered. We were all involved to a greater or lesser extent. Brian broke down during the afternoon - the degree of honesty in this I shall leave open. He was comforted by Fiona. Martin was excited and overwhelmed by the matter which was right up his street. By late afternoon everything was approaching boiling point. Brian had sent a telegram to Sue demanding that she clarify the situation. In the event her phone call served only to expose Rachel’s misrepresentation. 

Yet, there was one further complication, Maggie. At 74 she was never fully integrated in the “culture;” her weak personality led her to derive strength from her relationship with Brian. But now it appears that everything is against her: her friend, Fiona, was never keen on the Brian/Maggie relationship; furthermore Fiona was a close friend of Brian and Sue. Maggie has partially rejected (the people at 63 Old Tiverton Road). Poor Maggie was isolated; she responded by taking a weekend at home. 

Brian was quick to reassert himself. While he was clearly to blame for this mess, his crying and winning sympathy from Fiona exempted him from the full weight of criticism. Then Rachel complicated the affair by insisting that either Fiona or she explained matter to (the people at 63 Old Tiverton Road).The idea was daft and could only undermine Maggie still further. But we must remember that the main aim of Rachel is to protect Sue by punishing Brian and Maggie as much as possible; she is a horrible person. 

Like all situations of this sort the answer can only lie in the participants recognising a reality. If a person behaves without contradiction, matters of this kind do not arise. Brian cannot have a traditional relationship with Sue, which involves a whole set of moral imperatives, yet sustain a relationship with Maggie on “ideological grounds to which none of the participants fully subscribe. A human relationship is a Frankenstein phenomenon; it grows out of all control and controls us. 

Traditional ideas enslave Brian as much as they force Maggie towards mental breakdown.
We have not yet generated a student emotional life which sustains us. We are trapped in the old of contradictions: radical and traditional attitudes towards relationships. We are all hypocrites, especially Fiona, Brian and Martin. Brian should solve the contradiction and force the answer on Maggie and Sue, not cry like a little boy who is hurt because he has offended his parents. Fiona and Martin must learn the lesson and stand aside; they can advise but decide. As for Rachel her motives must be understood. 

Yet to some extend the solution is being negated. Brian wants his cake and to eat it and is employing a tactic of surprised innocence. Quite wrongly, the most insecure of us, Maggie, is paying the price. But in my view the most unfortunate thing for everybody is that a price is being paid without an understanding.

NOTE: On that rather depressing note on Wednesday, 3 November 1982, I ended my only ever period of diary writing. All the key figures mentioned in the diary continued living at 74 Old Tiverton Road until the end of the academic year in June 1983.

24 July 2013

Rape: trials can make the situation worse

In dealing with some rape allegation, adversarial trials cannot provide justice.

The rape of adult women without physical violence is usually unprovable beyond reasonable doubt, unless admitted, witnessed, caught on CCTV, or the victim was not compos mentis at the time of the intercourse. Juries in practice ask themselves the questions: Given what we've heard, whom do we believe, and do we want to send this guy to jail? In this way rapists are often let off, and some innocent men are imprisoned.

Many rapes and sexual assaults are unreported. A few that are reported are false allegations. Others are cases for which public criminal trials with long jail sentence hanging over the defendant (or to some degree the accuser, if the allegations are proved to be false) are not appropriate. In particular, I have in mind cases in which what started out as consensual sexual acts between the parties were followed by non-violent non-consensual ones. And when cases of this kind end up in criminal courts, the logic of the situation will force the woman to say that she did not consent to any of the sex, while he, for his part, will say she consented to all of it. Both may lie; and at least one party will be humiliated for life with little justice done.

Would there not be a case for a private judicial arbitration, particularly in cases where accusations of non-violent rape arose out of what had started as consensual sex? The party deemed to have done wrong would apologise, perhaps be required to attend a rape awareness course and and/or pay compensation. Many more women would come forward; and many more men would admit and confront what they had done.


26 June 2013

A very short introduction to Heidegger, by Michael Inwood

A clearly written introduction to the thought of Martin Heidegger

In writing this book Michael Inwood has provided us with a much needed straightforward introduction to the thought of Martin Heidegger.

Inwood’s book begins with a journey through Heidegger’s 1927 masterpiece Being and Time, and ends with a brief examination of some of Heidegger's later work. The balance is probably right.

Though the book is written in a clear and accessible style, in my opinion Inwood presumes too much background knowledge on the part of the beginner. In the first instance, Inwood assumes that the reader is already reasonably versed in the tradition of philosophy that Heidegger reacted against. It is wrong to assume that readers are aware of Aristotle or the modern tradition to which Descartes gave rise. Also lacking is a fully explained up-front appreciation of what Heidegger was trying to do with philosophy, and just how different this approach was from the Cartesian tradition.

Stripped down to simplicities, the Cartesian tradition had dealt with the questions: what do we know? And, how can we be sure about what we know? Heidegger’s analysis in contrast basically answers the question: what is like to be in the world?

Like anyone writing an analysis of a thinker, the author has to create a balance between outlining what the thinker actually said and wrote on the one hand, and, on the other, the author’s own understanding of the key enduring themes of the thinker. In this Inwood probably gets the balance right by often presenting Heidegger’s ideas and then evaluating them.

When I first met the work of Heidegger, my initial reaction was: OK what he is saying describes everyday experience, but so what? What is the generative capacity of the theory in the sense that, say, Marxism was able to initiate a whole intellectual tradition of study and analysis. I would have liked Inwood to have addressed the question of what you can do with Heidegger’s work.

Whatever minor criticisms I may have of the book, it is nonetheless a valuable and well-written introduction to the thought of Martin Heidegger.

INWOOD Michael, Heidegger: A very short introduction, OUP 1997


23 June 2013

The Jeremy Forrest Affair

In June 2013, teacher Jeremy Forrest, who absconded with his fifteen year old pupil to France, was sentenced to five and half years in jail.

As a teacher Jeremy Forrest is a disgrace and should never teach teenagers again: as an adult man he should have said no to the relationship. He didn’t and it happened.

Yet the state did much worse. To Forrest it branded him a paedophile, which he is not, and incarcerated him for a period more suited to a rapist. To the girl it took away her partner (now she is of marriageable age), forced her into anonymity and told her that everything she thought and felt was false and valueless.

The media coverage, the English legal system and the so-called child welfare agencies are a disgrace.

24 May 2013

Marxism & Identity Politics

Identity politics sidelines the common interest of those exploited and oppressed by capitalism.

It is a myth to believe that there ever existed in Britain or elsewhere a fully homogeneous working class. The class has always been divided by ethnicity, religion, geographical identity – and, of course, by sex.

The issue at stake, though, is whether you accentuate the diversity (the so-called identity politics) and then base your politics on building a would-be progressive coalition (women, blacks, Muslims, etc), or whether you emphasise the common interest of those exploited and oppressed by capitalism. I believe the latter to be correct.

Two overarching points resulting from Marxism are so obvious and well known to the intellectual left that they are apt to be forgotten! I shall restate them here: (1) capitalism – in the West at least - has led to such an expansion of the productive forces that it is possible for everyone to live free of poverty and economic anguish, but the capitalist system of ownership and income distribution prevents that, and (2) the fruits of wealth, deployed and enjoyed by capital, are the product of the exploitation of working people.

If ordinary people irrespective of ethnicity knew and internalised those points, then capitalism would be over by lunchtime on Tuesday.


9 May 2013

Sense data: the source of personal knowledge

Sense data allow us to experience objects in the world.

Sense data are the pieces of information which enter the mind when we experience objects in the world. The mind receives the information through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Let us imagine that there is a stone in front of us. The stone itself can never enter the human mind as an object of knowledge. The mind can only sense those properties of the stone, which can be conveyed by the five senses. For example, we can sense the visible attributes of the stone: its shape, colour, etc. or we can feel the texture of the stone. In short, we can experience the properties of the stone, but never have any direct experience of the stone itself.

The stone exists irrespective of whether there is a human mind to experience it or not (although there are some philosophers who question that!). The existence of sense data, however, is dependent on the coexistence of both the stone and the human mind. Dreams and hallucinations aside, we cannot experience a particular stone in a time and place unless the stone is actually there. But it is also true that the sense data which the mind works with (e.g. recognising the stone as a stone, separating it from other things, etc) are dependent on the the existence of a human mind.

Sense data thus has two inseparable sources: (i) the raw material provided by the stone and (ii) the pre-existing concepts of the mind which identify, and organise that raw material into something sensible.

Knowledge resulting from sense data - i.e. from our own personal experience - is known as knowledge by acquaintance or primary knowledge. All the other knowledge that we have - for instance the fact that Hitler is dead - is known as secondary knowledge and is conveyed to us indirectly.


2 May 2013

Islamophobia is not a modern day Anti-Semitism

More than once I have heard it said, “Islamophobia is the new Anti-Semitism” It is not: the two phenomena are characterised to a far greater extent by their differences than by their similarities.

What is meant by the two terms? Islamophobia can be defined as political disapproval of Islam; and anti-Semitism as political disapproval of Jews. In political discourse both terms are used pejoratively, i.e. as negative labels to apply to attitudes or behaviour, but for the purpose of this piece of writing, I will use them simply as descriptive concepts.

Disapproval of Islam is opposition to a religion. A religion is a set of alleged facts about how the world is and a system of beliefs about how it ought to be. Opposing Islam is not of itself racist as Muslims may be of any racial background. People labelled as Islamophobic are from both the left and right.

The left criticise Islam because many of it adherents make demands for changes in the rules that govern society. These demands typically entail the subordination of women and imposing restrictions on the freedom of expression. The political right, on the other hand, attack Islam for entirely different reasons: they dislike a separate unintergrated group living in "their" society.

The left and the right differ on another point. The left criticises Islam, not because it is Islam per se, but because its supporters seek to diminish political and social freedom. The left levels the same opposition against against similar illiberal and intolerant social demands by other religions, particularly fundamental Christianity. The right however endorses the demands made on society by the Christian religion, but reject those of Islam.

Anti-Semitism, a movement of Europe's political right, is hostility to Jews on account their ethnic origin. The attack on Jews in the 1930s in Western Europe was not based on the contents of Judaism or any demands that Judaism made on society (the majority of Jews were atheistic, non-observant or had converted to Christianity), but on the "threat" of an "alien" element that had “infiltrated” into society and was “polluting” it from within. Anti-Semitism was a rejection of assimilation by Jews into gentile society.

In other words, the attack by the right on Jews was for successful assimilation into society, while the attack on Islam is for separateness. The common thread in right-wing thinking is dislike of sharing living space with ethnic groups other than their own, whether those groups be assimilated or not.

In conclusion, we can say that apart from notions of hatred, disapproval and/or criticism, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism have nothing in common. To conflate the two is simply wrong.

16 April 2013

Thatcher’s death: Miliband's betrayal

It’s Labour and Ed Miliband's collaboration in the pomp of Thatcher’s funeral that has robbed ordinary people of a voice.

It is obvious that socialists and other progressives want to make their feeling felt about the death of Margaret Thatcher, the Tory Prime Minister who led and symbolised the political programme which did did so much to wreck or worsen the lives of ordinary working people.

Against a British state which is doing everything to aggrandise Thatcher’s memory (plans incidentally drawn up by Gordon Brown in 2008), ordinary people are powerless. Demonstrators resort to tactics which can seem to be puerile and pathetic: they buy the Ding Dong song and chant “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Dead, Dead, Dead." They lack a voice to represent them, and are left shouting from the sidelines - and become merely a bothersome element for the police to mop up.

The main culprit for this humiliation of ordinary people is the ineffectual Labour leader Ed Miliband, who rather than give working people a voice has echoed the establishment narrative on Thatcher. Parliament would never have been recalled to honour Thatcher had the Labour leader not gone along with the proposal, for Cameron would have been foolish to push ahead with a debate with all the opposition benches empty. And in terms of the funeral itself, it is doubtful whether such a pompous military affair could have been envisaged, if backed only by the Tories and the Blairs.

So what Miliband has done is to fail the represent the feelings of the left and centre-left in Britain. He could, at the very minimum, have said something like this:

“I was saddened to hear of the death of Margaret Thatcher. It is a personal loss for her family and friends to whom I convey my condolences. However the political legacy of the recently deceased is not something that Labour can mourn. The funeral arrangements for Margaret Thatcher should be a matter for her relatives, friends and the Conservative Party.”

But of course that is not what he said.

15 April 2013

Finefine mortis Thatcher

13-an de marto 2013, post pli ol jardeko suferante pro demenco, Margaret Thatcher, brita ĉefministro (1979-90) mortis.

Laǔmorale mi opinias, ke ĉiam estas malbona konduto ĝui novaĵo, ke homo mortis. Tamen kiam mi lernis, ke Margaret Thatcher, la ekzĉefiminstro de Britio (1979-90) estis mortita, mi tuj sentis min kontenta. Oni povas kontroli tion, kion oni faris, sed neniam tion, kion oni sentas.

Mi estis deksepjara junulo – kaj lacega pro tio, ke dumnokte mi aǔdis iom post iom per radio la rezultojn de la 1979-a parlamenta elekto. Thatcher kaj siaj konservatuloj gajnis absolutan plimulon de la mandatoj en la Parlamento. Mia patro tristis, sed ankaǔ optimismis, ĉar li esperis, ke eble Thatcher regus nur dum kvin jaroj – en la 70-aj jaroj jam ŝanĝiĝis la registaro triforje. Tamen estis Fred Coombes – estro de la lokala Liberal Party, dum sabota vizito en nia familia domo kiu pravis, kiam li asertis, “Tiuj anusuloj regos dum generacio.”

Sekvis malplibonaĵoj. Ne nur Thatcher kaj siaj posteuloj gajnis tri pluajn parlamentajn elektojn, sed tiom ŝanĝis la socio kaj politiko en Britio, ke thatcherismaj ideoj povas regis per Blair la Labour Party-on post la mezo de la 90-aj jaroj.

Tamen en la fruaj 80-aj jaroj, la noveco de thatcherismo kaj la personeco de Thatcher mem dupartigis la landon. Dum Thatcher demandis de ĉiu, “ĉu li estas unu el ni?” ni demandis la reciprokan demandon, “ĉu li estas unu el ili?” – kaj se jes ni ne amikiĝis kun li. Amikare kaj kulture ni faris kontraǔ-thatcherisman ekziston kaj ĝis la mezo de la 1980-aj jaroj ni posedis Labour Party-on, kiu volus haltigi la unbridan merkatismon kaj la malliberalan politikon.

Tamen Thatcher kaj sia posteuloj venkis nin. Ŝi rompis la molajn gajnojn de la postmilita socialdemokratio en Britio – kaj eĉ sia idearo post 1994 plejparte adoptis la Labour Party-on kaj Blair. Mi malamis Thatcher-on kaj ŝiajn farojn.

27 March 2013

The two errors of Ultra-Leftism

Marxism is a powerful explanatory tool, but it can be abused by its own supporters.

Classical Marxism teaches us the most important lesson in macro-political analysis, a lesson which can be simply stated through the following chain of argument. The ownership of capital (in production, distribution and exchange) is concentrated in a few hands and is used for private enrichment. Those who own capital (plus those who earn high salaries in the service to capital, e.g. some lawyers, accountants, etc) have a vested class interest in the existing state of political and economic affairs; and, on account of their wealth, capital owners and their supporters are in a powerful position to get what they want, both economically and politically.

The macro-analysis of politics centrally concerns power; and, as argued above, power relations are determined by the operation of capitalism Thus, any serious socialist project must focus on capitalism and its political power system. And it is precisely because New Labour embraces, rather than challenges, that system that we stand opposed to Labour on its left flank.

However, in the history of Marxist socialist politics, there have been two recurring errors, and it worth looking at these. We can call them the two errors of ultra-leftism.

First, ultra-leftists argue that those political issues which do not bear on anti-capitalist struggle are irrelevant. So long as capitalism is in existence, they argue, it makes little difference what kind of political, legal and other institutional arrangements exist. Politics, they say, should only be judged by the revolutionary calculus of how capitalism can be overthrown. In an extreme version of this view, reforms benefiting working people under capitalism can even be seen as counter-productive as they ‘patch up’ the system and delay its overthrow.

Second, ultra-leftists tend to believe that the overthrow of capitalism and the existing state and legal system will, of itself, herald in a better world. To that end, all political action is subordinated to this almost magical act of revolution, thus creating a politics which is irrelevant to the vast majority of people, who see such revolutionary politics as both undesirable and unrealistic. The ‘phoenix out of the ashes’ Marxists of this kind seem to me akin to the prophets of a religious cult in which the “promised land” emerges after a period of maximum suffering.

The philosopher, Karl Popper, undertook the task of ‘strengthening’ Marxian propositions with the purpose of rendering them suitable for refutation. The ultra-leftists seem to be helping him along.

21 March 2013

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

A lengthy sequel which attempts to popularise and normalise the Ladover Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

The novel is long, at over three hundred pages, and is a sequel to Potok’s earlier My Name is Asher Lev.

The previous book introduced us to the character of Asher Lev’s and his childhood in the Ladover Hasidic Community in New York, focusing on Asher’s developing skill and interest in art and ending with the young man’s social exclusion from the community and his semi-voluntary exile in France. The sequel tells the story of the return of Asher, now in his mid forties, married with a son and daughter, to New York for his Uncle's funeral and his family’s initially unplanned extended stay in the Community.

The earlier part of the book is the more engaging. Here the focus is on Asher’s family as they enter - or in Asher’s case, re-enter - Ladover community life. Potok describes the reactions of Asher’s wife, Devorah, and his two children who hitherto have been living observant lives in a secular France as they now enter the all-embracing Brooklyn Hasidic community. Conversely, we see the reactions of Asher’s parents, relatives and the wider community to the return of the black sheep, Asher Lev.

The story takes off when we learn that Asher’s uncle has bequeathed his valuable art collection into Asher’s trust, throwing him into conflict with his pious and business-oriented cousins.

The second part of the novel is slow moving. Asher returns to France alone on business and we are introduced to his non-observant Jewish friends and colleagues. At the same time Asher;s wife and family are increasingly drawn into Ladover life in New York. Gradually, we are made to realise that the elderly rabbe, the theological and charismatic leader of the Brooklyn community, intends Asher’s five-year old son to be schooled into becoming the future leader of the community.

Overall the book has a powerful conservative message. Asher, the artist, is rebellious, but remains an observant Hasidic Jew. The ordinary members of the Brooklyn community are portrayed as both highly conservative and of limited intelligence; all insight and progressive intelligence emanate from the eighty-nine year old rebbe, who speaks in mystical riddles to clarify his meaning. Potok, though not himself a Hasidic Jew, seems to want to present what amounts to a segregationist sect, managed by a charismatic leader, as an acceptable and normal state of affairs.

The book keeps one's interest, but only just.

POTOK, Chaim, The Gift of Asher Lev, Fawcett Books 1990.


1 March 2013

The Perversions of Eastleigh

The Eastleigh by-election shows that the British electoral system is becoming increasingly perverse.

The Liberal Democrats retained their seat in the Eastleigh by-election on 28 February 2013 because their diminishing electoral base still received tactical votes from the Left and because the protest and xenophobic rightwing vote (i.e. UKIP) was still slightly less.

The result was:

Liberal Democrat    13,342     32.06%   (-14.44%)
UKIP                       11,571     27.80%   (+24.00%)
Conservative            10,559    25.37%    (-13.93%)
Labour                      4,088       9.82%    (+0.22%)

Interestingly, had AV been in operation, as the Lib Dems wanted, then the Liberals would have picked up most of the transferred Labour vote, and UKIP most of the much higher Tory vote, handing the seat to UKIP.

I know this is a by-election, but the general point should still be made. Britain now has a complex multi-party system and the single seat constituencies, with no proportional top-ups, increasingly leads to perverse results.


A short tale of failed love


There is a right, fundamental to a free person, to which I wish to lay claim: the right not to suffer in silence. Each of us, man or woman, young or old, by virtue of being human has the ability to suffer.

My suffering is the most poetic of life, lost love. I am sitting here at my desk pen in hand now feeing a distinct pain because I have lost a relationship which I valued. For anyone who feels pain, there is suffering and that suffering saturates the whole of the body of the sufferer. And for those who suffer there is a need to create a voice to represent that suffering to a wider audience.


I had been a teacher in the small town for less than a year when I was first told about Sabina. I thought very little of it. Hans, one of the students in my evening class, had an elder sister called Sabina who would be teaching at my school the following year. It seemed to me that everyone in the town was related to someone else somehow.

I first met her outside the bank in the main street. The graduation photographs of students and teachers from my school were displayed in the window of the bank. I had stopped to examine my own picture.

‘Hello, Mr Otto,’ I turned around.

Hans, my student, walked up to me with a young woman at his side.

‘I’d like to introduce my sister, Sabina. She’ll be teaching at our school next year’

I formally returned the greeting and said that I looked forward to having her as colleague. She smiled; I shook hands with Hans; and we walked off in opposite directions.

Looking back now at that first meeting, I have few impressions. She was young, twenty-two, ten years younger than I was then. Her flowing fair hair, alluring blue eyes and attractive smile were what I remember. A long coat, more suited to a late middle-aged woman, hid the rest of her body. We parted and I didn’t see her again for six months.

Not long after the start of term there was a party for the whole staff of the school. I can’t remember why now. I was talking to Sabina. It was late. Most of the other teachers had left except for some male technology teachers who were getting increasingly drunk.

‘Sabina, do you want to come back to my flat.’


So she came.


Six months later spring had not yet started; it was cold outside. I was waiting for her to return with her brother from her father’s. It was Sunday evening. What did she tell me? She’d be back between four and seven. I look though a window as a car parks outside. No, it’s not her. Why is she late? Perhaps she’s gone to her flat instead? The car’s broken down? They’re not coming back till tomorrow. I really want to talk to her this evening and it’s getting late now. Perhaps I’ll drive round to her flat just to see if she’s there.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s not her. It’s a friend. At least I’ve got someone to talk to. It’ll calm my serves. If she comes now, she’ll come with Hans, so I won’t have the opportunity to talk to her alone anyway.

They’re here; they’re just late. She says she had a good time but there’s something the matter. I can’t talk about it. No privacy. Can I clear up my things? No time for a bath or to change clothes. Hans is pushing for her to go back to the flat. Can I suggest that she stays here? No, I don’t want a row with her in front of Hans. Anyway all their luggage is in the car, and I’m not tired. So I’ll go; I’ll sleep at her place, at the flat she shares with her brother.

At their flat I don’t want to talk to Hans now. If I want to be with her, we’ll have to go to bed in her tiny room. It’s late anyway. Christ, she’s cold with me. Have I done something to hurt her? No, it’s her father; he said something. I tell her I love her; she tells me that I’ll leave her. Yes, she wants to hurt me. She denies it. She is kinder, but still cold. I suggest we go to sleep.

The alarm clock rings. Do we have breakfast together? No, she’s still asleep. The other clock rings. No, she wants to sleep longer. I get up and get dressed. I kiss her; there’s no response. I feel hurt. I leave the flat. When will I see her? I don’t know. We haven’t been alone or intimate since last Thursday night. I’m lonely. Do I have the strength to go on? Of course I do. Do I love her? Yes, I do. I want to get nearer to her. But now I’m on my own and my strength comes from inside me. The morning is bright and cold. We have moved apart, just a little. I hope it’s only temporary.


Sabina was the perfect little girl, but when she was three years old her brother Hans was born and she became jealous. Mother father and granny all loved little Hans, and if Sabina did anything to hurt her little brother, she was punished. In time she learnt to win love by giving love to her little brother. Soon she loved him more than anybody else.

Sabina’s home was a theatre of conflict. Her mother remained the passive and dutiful daughter of grandmother. Sabina’s father resented the intrusion into his family unit. He was denied love and respect, so took to drink and stayed away from the family home more and more. His periodic return to the family dwelling signalled a night of raised voices with Sabina’s mother.

The little girl lay in bed terrified. She became her mother in each fight. She loved her mother, but hated her weakness. One day she told her father to stop hurting her mother. Her efforts were not rewarded; she was taken into the bedroom and spanked.

Just after Sabina had started school her father left; so apart from the little Hans, she lived in a community of women. Adult men were strong, violent sometimes, and a complete mystery. She longed to know men. It was not to be, however, as mother and grandmother – now themselves denied any other meaning in their lives – would live through Sabina. She would be the model schoolgirl untouched by male treachery. Her sexual longings for her father and men were to be frustrated and punished.

When Sabina went to university she sampled unparalleled sexual freedom. Nothing restricted the good-looking Sabina except the suppressed guilt instilled by mother and grandmother. She started relationships with older men, but they did not last. She found that she loved her father, but only at a distance; as men came close to her, she was haunted by her mother’s fear of her father. Sabina, failing to see into her own subconscious, moved from one older man to another, hoping to find one who would not generate that fear, but always without success.

The one man she loved without fear was, of course, little Hans. But he too soon grew older and began to resemble her father. Hans started drinking and smoking, and Sabina concluded that she had lost her little Hans to whom she had devoted her life through protecting him from her father’s influence. Her love was incestuous; she had to find another Hans to love, a ‘Hans’ who was so weak that he would not grow into her father. Thus as Sabina grew older and stronger, her search shifted from the older man who would protect her to the younger whom she could protect. She no longer wanted a father; she wanted a son.


Dear Sabina,

I am writing to you because I don’t want to suffer in silence. I love you, but I have lost you. It hurts a lot, Sabina. I get pains like knives cutting through my stomach. I dream about you; I can’t stop thinking about our separation. At heart I am a sentimental person who has not fallen in love very often. I can’t believe that the eight months we spent together are over. I can’t forget all the plans we made together. Why did you destroy everything? You’ve hurt me very deeply, but I love you with all my heart. I can’t help it.


One night she called at my flat. In such a small town our paths overlap, and complete separation would not be possible even if we both wanted it. We talked. I told her that I wanted her back, though by now our separation had continued for too long to make that seriously possible. I told her about my pain and that I still loved her.

Suddenly my doorbell rang. I was annoyed by the interruption. I went to answer it. In the shadows of the night in front of me on a bike with a back-turned baseball cap was a boy who looked about fifteen.

‘I’m looking for Sabina.’ I let him in.

Was he really her new boyfriend the one who understood her? I’m introduced to him. He is in fact eighteen. Something is funny. In my head I had created an image of a mature looking young man, who was confident in himself and who reached out in his personality to exceed his age. Instead, a young, nervous and insecure boy sat there fumbling as he picked up the tea which I had made him.


Sometimes life can descend into metatheatre, by which I mean we in our lives are propelled to act in a performance with neither plot nor audience.I am a thirty-three. My life has recently been taken over my mental agony. I love a twenty-three year old woman, and we enjoyed an intense eight-month affair together. She was beautiful, interesting, clever – and as I recall so well now – very skilled in bed. I wanted to keep her forever, but I lost her.

When she started an affair with another man I started to suffer. I couldn’t sleep well at night; I woke up after dreaming about her, only to find in the cold light of morning that she was with me no longer. I became distracted at work and would gaze into space thinking only of her. I romanticised her flat, her bed and all the places we had gone together. I bored my very tolerant friends by pouring out my feeling of pain.

All of us have the right to love. Love is not magical even though it is very pleasant to romanticise it in metaphor. Love is the human need to attach oneself to another mentally and physically. Mentally, we need recognition from the other that we are special, needed and important. Physically we need human sexual contact to take control of the other and to bring that other person, whom we have elevated into a part extension of ourselves, into our domain. With Sabina I failed..

12 February 2013


Abstraction is a necessary process in human thought.

Abstraction literally means “from-pulling.” The human mind pulls information from a source. Let us take an example:

I am in a room looking at a table, which has some cheese on it. My mind is directed towards the cheese on the table and is picking up the visual sense data. Of course, the mental representation in my head contains far more information than the simple fact that the cheese is on the table: for instance, I know that the table is round not rectangular. Yet, using some principle of selection, plus pre-existing concepts in my mind (cheese, on-ness, table), I can abstract that single piece of information, namely, the cheese is on the table. And using linguistic terms which correspond to the concepts in my mind, I can form the proposition: “The cheese is on the table.”

The proposition, “The cheese is on the table.” is an abstraction from a perception. It is, by necessity, quite different from its source, even if it is dependent on its source for its existence and truth value. Let us look at three points:

1. The abstraction is based on the exclusion of information (e.g. the table is round). The decision of what to include in the proposition depends on a principle external to both the observation and statement.

2. The abstraction relies on concepts (e.g. cheese,on-ness, table), which are external to the observation.

3. The statement, “The cheese is on the table.” can be understood but not accurately visualised by a listener or reader. He knows what the proposition means, but he cannot visualise a table without knowing its shape, colour, etc.

Secondary abstraction

Secondary abstraction involves the extraction of information from one statement and the creation of another. A simple example would be: “The Gouda cheese is on the round table” and deriving “The cheese is on the table.”

7 February 2013

Conversations with Stalin by Milovan Djilas

Milovan Djilas gave us a clear-sighted assessment of the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.

Conversations with Stalin, originally published in English in 1961, is a wonderful piece of literary memoir and political analysis, which is still valuable reading over a half century after its appearance.

Milovan Djilas (1911-1995) was one of the four high-ranking communist leaders of the Yugoslav Communist Party, whose partisans overthrew the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. At the end of the Second World War the establishment of a communist state in Yugoslavia did not wholly fit with Stalin’s plans for two main reasons. First Stalin feared that the early appearance of communist states in eastern Europe would unsettle the West and risked sparking a conflict; and second, Stalin feared the development of centres of communist power, which remained outside his control.

Starting from a naive and idealistic appreciation of Stalin, Djilas recounts his several visits to the Soviet Union to negotiate with Stalin and the Soviet government. He tells of his exhilaration as his plane flies over Soviet territory for the first time, then recounts his experiences and how his initial enthusiasm is dimmed by an accumulation of events.

Of most interest are his vivid accounts of meetings with Stalin and his foreign minister and sidekick Molotov. Djilas describes the aura of submissiveness and adoration that surrounds the old man, along with Stalin’s theatrical explosions of outrage (e.g. when Djilas complains about the behaviour of the Red Army in northern Yugoslavia) and his indulgence of his guests at alcohol-saturated dinner parties.

The book concludes with a brief assessment of Stalin, his crimes and achievements, and pointing out how Stalin’s legacy continued to affect his successors.

For writing this memoir, Djilas was imprisoned in Yugoslavia for betraying state secrets, though the only secret of substance communicated in the book is, in effect, Stalin’s offer that Yugoslavia could “swallow up” Albania in exchange for political and economic subservience to Moscow.

DJILAS, Milovan, Conversation with Stalin, Pelican 1969

1 February 2013

ROSTEN, Leo - The Joys of Yiddish

Penguin 1968

This is definitely a book to have on the bedside table and to dip into from time to time rather than something to read from beginning to end. The combination of language instruction, cultural etymology and humour sustain the interest.

Rosten's claim that Yiddish is a language which is better than any other at expressing the emotions must remain suspect. Is it really the case that Swedes or Greeks are less able to bend and inflect their languages to express what they really feel? Nonetheless, it is possible that Rosten is right in arguing that Yiddish has a disproportionally large vocabulary to express types of human behaviour.

Rosten probably also makes the mistake of exaggerating the extent to which Yiddish has penetrated the English language, or British English at least. Words like kosher, glitch, schmuck may have made it, but the vast majority are not even understandable. (Some, though, are identical or similar to German and can be understood that way)

Before Zamenhof published Esperanto in 1887, he had worked out a simplified version of Yiddish written in the Latin alphabet which he intended to be used as a lingua franca. Had that language taken off, had the Holocaust not happened and had Israel not adopted modern Hebrew as its state language, the role Yiddish plays today might be so much greater.


9 January 2013

Uniform at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s

School Uniform at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s was less strict and more of a dress code than what is required today.

Aged ten in 1972, I can remember talking to friends in a classroom during my last year at Chestnut Avenue Junior School and being rather pleased at the idea of having to wear Woolmer Hill school uniform the following year. At that time, there was no school uniform at our junior school - though it was introduced soon after I left - and I hated being dressed in short trousers at my mother’s insistence. At Woolmer Hill the uniform prescribed long trousers. That made me happy.

When I started at Woolmer Hill in September 1973, my worry was not the obligation to wear the uniform, but a fear of standing out, or, worse still, getting into trouble, because some part of it was wrong. In the early summer of 1973 there was an induction meeting at Woolmer Hill for future pupils and their parents, at which my mother was handed a list of prescribed clothing. The requirements were clear and the only incomprehensible remark concerned the instructions about shoes, which were to be “not too pointed, please.” I had ordinary black lace-up shoes, so worried whether these would be deemed "too pointed," but the issue never arose.

The uniform for boys was the standard fare for secondary schools in the 1970s: dark coloured shoes, grey or black trousers and socks with a grey or black jumper and a white or grey shirt. In summary, providing it was dark and drab, it was acceptable; and in reality the uniform was more akin to a strict dress code. A further request, though on account of its cost one never made compulsory, was for a black blazer which carried the school emblem, a sinister design which featured a red cross flanked by an outline of two blue trees. Of its meaning or origin I know nothing, but it is still the emblem of the school today. And then for boys was the compulsory school tie, consisting of several bands of colours, including red, but was mostly of darker colours. The exact design I can no longer remember.

At no time did I ever feel pride in this uniform; wearing it was a fact of life, not a chosen form of identification. During my first two years at Woolmer Hill, I wore it all, including the blazer, without thinking about it or questioning it. What was there to question? Yes, it showed I was going to Woolmer Hill School, as indeed I was; it also granted me a degree of anonymity in the crowd of pupils and I was content with that, too. Nobody among us asked the question: why are we required to dress in uniform drabness? It was just accepted that we were.

Enforcement, to be fair, was erratic and usually light, if only because the uniform rule was accepted almost universally. No boy turned up in a pink jumper, not primarily because the rules existed and would be enforced against him, but because nobody wanted to do that. In the 1970s the easier way for boys to rebel in matters of appearance, if one wanted to, was to grow long hair.

Girls’ School Uniform

Although I didn’t think of it until my later years at Woolmer Hill, girls suffered more anxiety on account of school uniform than the boys. The girls’ uniform consisted of the same dark colours, except that they were not required to wear a tie, and until 1974 were forbidden to wear trousers. Jewellery and cosmetics were forbidden, and I imagine that rules existed and were periodically enforced about skirt lengths. Among most males clothing has a lower weight in constituting self-identity than it does among females. Thus the requirement to wear school uniform caused boys less anxiety than it did for girls. And that became apparent in issues of enforcement.

For the boys, the majority of infractions concerned not so much the item of clothing per se, but the manner in which it was worn: shirt buttons undone, the tails of shirts hanging loose or ties skew-wiff. None of these infractions resulted from anything other than pure laziness, so orders to rectify the situation caused little embarrassment. Girls, by contrast, often fell foul of the rules because they had made a conscious decision to present themselves in a particular way and their choice came under attack from the teachers who were enforcing the rules. One only had to see the face of a girl getting a public dressing down about her clothing and appearance to see the pain.

In my first year, two incidents occurred at Woolmer Hill, which had a profound effect on me, and both concerned girls’ clothing. The first took place in the morning assembly, at which rows of children daily sat on the floor as Headmaster Anning held forth over the assembled body. Two final year girls - and I remember for some reason that they were twins - were on the stage in front of us all. Anning was letting rip about some traces of makeup they had on. Of his diatribe I can remember nothing except his words of mockery and humiliation, “And don’t you look pretty now?” as at least one of the girls was reduced to tears, and, presumably, the makeup had started to run on her face. What struck me most was not only a personal feeling of fear at witnessing such cruelty, but the realisation that Anning’s behaviour was in my eyes illegitimate; and even at the age of eleven, I started to question the morality of his governance of the school. And as my respect for Anning started to ebb away, so a fundamental prop in the moral and ethical basis of Woolmer Hill School became dislodged in my head. My eleven year old sense of right and wrong, forced me to question the institution, first slightly at the edges and later more fundamentally, and has ended up four decades later with me writing this essay.

The second event did not shock so much as demonstrate that in the 1970s a small degree of power could shift away from Anning’s power structure to the the body of pupils. The winter of 1973-74 saw the coal miners on strike, energy shortages and a three-day week for many workers, though not for us school children. However, we were affected by reduced heating in the school. As a result of cold classrooms a movement of opinion developed among the final year pupils - I was then in my first year - that the temperature justified girls wearing trousers to school, and when this request was not granted a number of pupils marched out of school in protest.

At the time, I was unaware of what was happening, but a special assembly was called to check who had left school. Strangely, this meeting in the main hall was presided over not by Headmaster Anning but by his deputy, Mrs Hollingdale. The purpose of the meeting was not only to determine who the walkout protesters were, so they could be identified and perhaps punished, but to justify the decisions of school management. Hollingdale stressed in the assembly how extra heating had been provided in the domestic science (i.e. cooking) room, but the most interesting part of the meeting was an announcement that henceforth girls could wear grey trousers to school. It was that climbdown which was seemingly the reason that Mrs Hollingdale, rather than Headmaster Anning, had presided over the special assembly.

Throughout my time at Woolmer Hill School, I never witnessed again such a pupil-led, clear-sighted and concerted campaign for a reasonable progressive purpose, let alone one which was fully successful. Apparently, the protesters had made their way into the centre of Haslemere and there at a loss of what to do next had been directed to the Citizen's Advice Bureau in the Town Hall to talk to the elderly widow, Mrs Lowe, who managed the office. Yet that was enough to firmly take the issue out of the confines of the closed institutional setting of Woolmer Hill School, and it was also seemingly enough to win the campaign.

Questioning School Uniform

Gradually, as I progressed through the school into my fourth and fifth years, my teenage mind did start to question this enforcement of the uniform drabness, which was imposed upon our bodies. The argument that uniform promoted equality among pupils was clearly nonsense, as the types of materials of which our uniforms were made were relatively expensive, and therefore the children of richer parents stood out clearly. You might be in trouble with teachers because of the shade of colour of your jumper, but never because it was too worn or a little torn. Nor was the uniform practical: if you rolled in the dust and dirt - and as eleven year olds we did just that - blazers are not the best for daily cleaning in the washing machine.

So what then was the purpose of the uniform? It wasn’t functionally necessary, like walking on the right-hand side of corridors; the school would have operated just as well with pupils dressed in jeans and tee-shirts. The underlying reason was psychological, to institutionalise and regiment pupils into a drab conformity. Language and thinking were controlled in other ways in the school, but the physical body of the young person was neither chained nor drugged, but dressed in monochrome. The expression of identity through clothing was forbidden.

But by the mid-teenage years attitudes to school uniform became a barometer of more general attitudes to authority in school and indirectly to the systems of authority existing outside Woolmer Hill. Among pupils three approaches to the rules regarding the compulsory wearing of school uniform can be singled out: identification, rejection and manipulation.

At the beginning of my final year I remember a conversation with James P., a quiet boy with whom I rarely spoke. When I expressed the view that I didn’t see any reason for school uniform at all, he shot back with “”Ah, yes, but that would mean people coming to school in jeans.” In response to my retort of “So what?” he had no reply, but looked at me as if I had doubted that two and two made four. His was an extreme case: his parents had forbidden him watching Monty Python on the grounds that it gave children a distorted view of life, a restriction on his TV viewing rights which he related with pride. In other words, his family, with him in full compliance, seemed to think that life should be as it is: and even thinking about how it could be otherwise was undesirable.

If acceptance of school uniform was the norm, it did not mean that when there was an opportunity not to wear it, most pupils only grudgingly wore something else. When a temporary dispensation was announced, the majority attitude was akin to that of the loyal, rule-obeying office worker who lets his hair down at the Christmas office party, breaking every office taboo, only to return to the normal routines the following day.

One such dispensation was granted in my third year in the hot summer of 1976, when our geography teacher, Mrs Christopher, decided to take the class on a walk along a disused railway line on the pretext of examining the minerals and flora. Though normally a school coach outing did require us to wear uniform, the fact that we might have been scrambling through brambles and undergrowth meant that on that warm summer’s day - and the summer of 1976 was then the hottest on record - we were free to dress as we wished. Instead of the uniform grey, a collection of kids waited for their coach in the Woolmer Hill School car park, dressed casually and in every colour. We each looked round at one another, as if we were meeting our classmates for the first time, curious to see how he or she was dressed. I wore an orange shirt and blue silky jeans. And when Brian B. uttered some unprovoked fatuous remark about my clothing, Jacqui B., much to my surprise and delight, quipped that at least what I was wearing looked better than his choice. For the first time, I had selected my own clothes, felt good in them and had received positive feedback from a girl in the class, who usually only displayed her razor tongue to her male classmates.

Just as we were about to depart, Headmaster Anning arrived to inspect us. He pointed at several people and angrily objected to their clothing. What annoyed him most was the his temporary loss of control of the pupil’s bodies and appearance; even for one day a free choice in clothing for teenageers was a threat to his authoritarian world view. Yet, that day, he could not win: our non-wearing of school uniform was a result of a school decision. He realised that, gave up berating us and stormed off.

Woolmer Hill pupils wore their own clothes to wander the disused railway line, but the following day we were back at school in our uniforms. But what of those who sought to reject uniform for no other reason than to oppose the values of the school? Just as the existence of school uniform was part of the landscape of school life, so were the petty practices of teenage rebellion. Nobody rebelled by taking off clothes and running around naked: that simply wasn’t done. But overtly breaching school uniform and rules was regarded as part of the game for a minority.

For boys being deliberately slovenly was an instrument of pointless protest: the tie skew-wiff, the shirt hanging out, the shoe-laces undone, or the conspicuous non-wearing of a tie. Short of open defiance these delicts could be defeated by an order from a teacher to remedy the situation on the spot. If rebellion were desired, much more effective was to follow the fashion of the early 1970s and grow long hair and break the rule of having it hanging over the collar. Hair could not be cut on the spot and as the length of the male pupils’ hair grew across the school, so the orders to get it cut both multiplied and were defied. Dissidents had to work hard - and put up with the inconvenience of long hair - to get sent home for this reason. It was even possible to cheek Anning on the issue, as I heard one boy telling Anning after being ordered to have his hair cut that “his mother was still trying to get an appointment with the stylist.” On that occasion even Anning though demonstrating mock outrage could not fail but to be amused.

Only on one occasion was I pulled up on account of my hair. I had been sent to Headmaster Anning for scribbling notes during a technical drawing lesson and had to listen to the standard threatening lecture. At end, as I was dismissed from the room, I received the order, “And get your hair cut!” I can’t remember whether I complied, perhaps I didn’t relying on the likelihood that Anning would have forgotten all about it by the time our paths next crossed. I never desired my hair very long, and so it was normally never an issue at school, but was more of a problem at home with my mother stopping my pocket money over my absolute refusal to order “short-back-and-sides” at the hairdresser.

Between acceptance and rejection, there was a third position, manipulation. And it was approach which I adopted. From the age of fourteen or so, when the issue of school uniform first became a live issue in my mind, I could not accept uniform without question in the way that a majority of my circle of friends did. I did not oppose dress codes for school, but the requirement to wear grey insulted the dignity of the individual in my eyes. And yet, I shared little in common with those who wished to rebel for the sake of rebellion. The requirement to wear uniform irritated me, but it never summoned up the moral outrage that, for instance, the existence of corporal punishment induced. Moreover, I did not wish to get into unnecessary arguments with my teachers, most of whom I either liked or at least felt neutral about. But most strongly of all, the behaviour of anti-school elements had little appeal. I had no need to align myself with their disorder, rudeness, slovenliness and in extreme cases vandalism and violence. Often, even though I would usually refrain from showing it, my sympathy lay with the teachers enforcing rules, rather than those selfishly and mindlessly breaking them.

I had to decide for myself what I wanted to achieve, and I had two main objectives. The first was to avoid wearing a tie. Then as now, I found ties flopping around in front of my chest a nuisance and I have never liked the constriction around my neck of a buttoned up collar. In the summer months there was never a problem, as boys were permitted not to wear ties; the difficulty arose during the rest of the year. The obvious avoidance strategy was to wear a high-necked jumper,as there were no rules about this. Even so, I remember an incident in my first or second year, when Gavin W. was stopped by Mrs Christopher and had the neck of his jumper playfully pulled down to check he was wearing a tie, as indeed he was.

I had little problem with wearing the tie, as the high-necked jumper allowed me to undo the top button, and the jumper stopped the tie from flopping around. But in my fourth year, I went one stage further by wearing a black polo-neck pullover which removed the need to have a tie completely, though I carried one in my bag in case a problem should ever arise. But it never did.

My second objective was not to be easily recognised in public to be wearing Woolmer Hill school uniform on my way to and from school. In this, I was helped by my height more than anything else; I always appeared older than I actually was. Ties of course in practice could be taken off when leaving the school, but the plain white or grey long-sleeved cotton shirts tended to give us away. My polo-necked jumper hid my shirt - and though in practice I could have worn any kind of shirt under my jumper, in fact, I always wore a sleeved shirt in line with school uniform rules. At no time - until one incident in my final year - did I ever receive any complaints about my clothes; I neither sought conflict, nor was any imposed upon me. And I could live with the comprises of my own making.

The Hollingdale Reforms

In the summer of 1977 Headmaster Anning retired from the school, after more than two decades at the helm. His replacement was his deputy, Mrs Hollingdale, who heralded in a raft of changes, which were humanistic and practical, rather than liberal in intent. My final year, my fifth, at the school was under her headship, which both in its retention of the old order and in its reforms had to contend with the ghostly shadow of Anning’s regime.

One area that was subject to immediate reform was school uniform; and the changes were significant. The black, grey and white axis was expanded to include dark blue for jumpers, skirts, shirts and trousers, though how dark the blue should be was never defined, though jeans were still strictly prohibited. Oddly, scarlet jumpers were also permitted, though few pupils, myself included, opted to wear one. But the end result, save for the tie rule for boys, was that school uniform had in reality given way to a dress code.

I chose to make only one modification to my clothing in the new regime. I abandoned my black polo necks, for a blue high neck jumper. And though it was more light blue than dark, I was never pulled up on the shade of colour. The jumper also broke the the rules in another way in that it had a narrow darker blue band of colour around the neck and wrists. Clothes with patterns were not permitted. I gave up wearing a tie under my jumper, and I was more or less content with my attire. In fact, I can recall an autumn day in 1977, sitting on my desk in my registration classroom in the Upper School Building and being distinctly satisfied with who I was and what I was wearing.

Only twice in my final year did I run into any kind of problems with my clothing. The enforcer of petty rules among the fifth formers had fallen to the ex-military teacher, Mr Jimpson. This petty-minded authoritarian seemed not to have any specific teaching subject, but taught everything, mainly to lower sets and under-performers. But he mostly enjoyed the enforcement of school rules. He seemed to crave respect and in return for that granted dispensations in return, but to do those deals he had to find faults, so was always lurking, watching and prowling in corridors. Neither being taught by him, nor usually one of the people violating school rules, I was able to keep him at arms’ length. Unfortunately, following a short but intense run-in with him on one specific issue, he had me in his sights and one day found fault with my trousers. I cannot remember the reason, because I invariably wore black trousers in line with the rules, but he insisted that, had it not been exam revision time - and in reality the exams were weeks ahead, - I would have been sent home to change. I summed up what I had to do quickly: I apologised, agreed that he was right and wore another pair of black trousers for the next few days.The problem went away.

The second problem was more silly. I felt very attached to my light blue jumper, but by the spring it had simply started to fall apart. My elbows were coming through the sleeves and a close friend, Jill, presented me with a pair of black leather patches to place over them. I didn’t know whether elbow patches violated school uniform rules or not, but that aside it was nearly impossible to sow them on as the knitted wool around the holes was fraying. Despite several comments - this time not only from Mr Jimpson, but from other teachers and usually in myrth - I kept my jumper in one piece until the summer term when ties no longer had to be worn.

In my last year at Woolmer Hill school, matters of school uniform affected me little. I would have preferred to have worn slightly more casual clothes at times (e.g. jeans) and not to have to worry about covering my neck up in the winter months, but I could live the situation. Then came June 1978 after which I never had to wear uniform again: the sixth-form college that I would be attending from September had no uniform, and its dress code was so liberal I never even heard about it. And I recall that September morning in 1978 walking to Haslemere train station on my way to college for the first time wearing clothes of my own choice. School uniform was behind me.

School uniform in 2013

In my other essays about Woolmer Hill in the mid 1970s it has not been possible to make any form of comparison with the school of then with the one of today. However in matters of school uniform it proved easy to look up the current school uniform requirements on the net and attempt a comparison. Of course, the caveat has to be added that irrespective of what Woolmer Hill School management tells parents on their website, the reality on the ground may differ from the published rules, but a survey of the current school uniform regulations and a comparison with the past is still interesting.

Even the briefest glance at the current rules which are published online shows that the dress requirements of today are in most cases far more restrictive than what was permitted in the 1970s. Let us look at the situation for boys: blazers have become compulsory (one wonders if this is enforced during heat waves!), shirts may only be white (we could also choose grey and later blue); jumpers must be dark blue (we could choose black and grey). The situation for footwear has not changed, black or grey socks with black shoes. Ties must still be worn (there is no indication of a dispensation for the summer months) but the requirement to wear a tie is still only imposed on boys.

The requirements for girls are even harsher and more ridiculous. Girls must wear blazers, which was something very rare in the 1970s. Under these, as for boys, they should wear a dark blue jumper and under that “open neck blouses” - the colour isn’t specified in the published online regulations, but I am sure this is merely an oversight. The colour of underwear under the blouse is also prescribed: it must be white. Socks must be black or white (not grey), and not be higher than the ankle. Shoes must be black, have low heels and not be trainers. Tights must be black or transparent. On their bottom half, girls, other than those in their first year, must “wear (a) plain black skirt either pleated with a yoke, or A-line or straight with a pleat, a maximum of 17 cms below or above the knee, or black, tailored trousers.” Particularly prohibited are skirts held up with elastic and decorated belts. Navigating and enforcing this gamut of humiliating and idiotic rules is, of course, an utter waste of time and energy. But in the years ahead things are set to worsen.

First year girls, and later all female pupils in the school, will wear a blue a pleated skirt inscribed with the institution’s initials and only obtainable from one designated supplier. Two points should be made about this blue pleated skirt. First, it overturns the victory won by pupils in 1974 for the right of girls to wear trousers to school. Admittedly in 2013 there aren’t power cuts in schools, but wearing a skirt with tights on cold winter days is far from comfortable. Second, the skirt, seemingly with deliberate intent, is unfashionable and ugly; it is a vindictive attempt to undermine the dignity of young women. Yet, according the Woolmer Hill website:

"From September 2012 we are introducing a new school skirt, which is a dark blue pleated design with the school initials embroidered on the left hand side. This skirt can be only be purchased from our supplier, Clova. All female year 7 pupils should wear this from September 2012, with the rest of the school converting to the skirt in September 2013. We are sure you will be in favour of this improvement, which our pupils can wear with pride."

Why is it an “improvement” indeed? And why should female pupils wear this ugly garment with pride? Surely a person prides what he or she does voluntarily: pride might lead someone deciding to wear a garment, but not vice versa.

Makeup and jewellery remain forbidden in 2013 as they were in the 1970s, and perhaps not without good reason. The current dispensation, though, permitting a pierced ear stud is a small gain: for I am sure ear studs would have invoked censure four decades ago. Long hair, according to the rules, is to be tied back, but whether that differs from the 1970s I cannot recall. But what is significant, and represents a real step forward, is that the rules pertaining to jewellery and long hair do not seem to be gender specific, and thus appear to apply as much to boys as to girls.

But ear studs and hair aside, school uniform at Woolmer Hill today, at least on paper, is more tightly restricted than it was in the mid 1970s and the trend is for the situation to deteriorate.

School uniform and the forward march of illiberalism

The trend regarding school uniform in the mid 1970s was towards greater liberalisation: the successful campaign in 1974 for girls to be permitted to wear trousers to school and the Hollingdale reforms in 1977 were, whatever their stated intentions, moves in that direction. In 2013 the freedom of choice open to pupils in what they wear at school is smaller than what we enjoyed and is set, for girls at least, to narrow further. Why?

One contributory factor, though not the main reason, relates to income. In the 1970s spending on school clothes, particularly for families with several children, consumed a larger share of household income than in 2013. It would simply not have been possible to compel families to provide their school children with blazers, let alone a range of clothing from designated suppliers, which tends to be even more expensive. Undoubtedly, family income hindered the imposition of school uniforms, but money hardly accounted for the weakening of uniform rules in the 1970s.

The 1970s were the high tide of movement of protest for individual rights in post-war Britain. Young people constituted a higher proportion of the population in the 1960s and 1970s than in the 2010s, and even if standards of living were on average lower than today, unemployment was low and the level of income security was much higher. A whole generation rebelled against rigid social conformities. The struggle by liberals and youth against the status quo was accompanied by trade union and working class pressure for economic change. The overall result was that traditional authority in Britain was under siege and slipping.

By contrast, the period from election of the Thatcher government in 1979 until now has seen an on-going re-imposition of authority from above over what had become in the 1970s a rebellious nation. Changes of government in the last three decades have made little difference to that process. Instilling social discipline and promoting docility was as much the currency of New Labour as it was and has been of the Tories. Of course, the clock has not been wound back to the closed rigid society of the 1950s, which Headmaster Anning might have seen as a kind of model Various taboos of the immediate post-war period, such as homosexuality, have been abandoned, and gay and lesbian people have now rightly been accepted into society. And in communication, the internet has enabled hitherto unthinkable levels of information and opinion to flow between citizens, even if the high tide of that freedom has now passed. Nevertheless, the left-leaning liberal cultural rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s is not something that resonates greatly in the youth of Middle England towns such as Haslemere, today.

The internal life of British school has reflected and epitomised that conservative development; they have thus become both more illiberal and more culturally diverse at the same time. Often liberalism and diversity are wrongly conflated in some people’s minds, but in fact they are entirely different. Let me take an example to illustrate that point. If in the 1970s a Muslim girl had arrived at Woolmer Hill, school uniform rules would have prevented her wearing a veil, but today it is highly likely in Britain’s more culturally diverse society that Woolmer Hill would adapt its rules to accommodate these religious norms - and might even insist on the veil if the parents desired it to be worn but the girl did not. But if a non-Muslim girl decided to don a veil purely for private reasons, there would be no question of her being allowed to do so. In other words, society can become more diverse, less liberal and enforce diversity in an illiberal way. As a thumb-nail sketch that is what is happening in England today, and that is what seems to have happened at Woolmer Hill School.