Friday, 28 November 2014

The venerable old British tradition of Black Friday

Apparently we have a tradition in this country called Black Friday. Somehow I've managed to live the first 47 years of my life without noticing it, until a couple of days ago when I started getting bombarded with texts and emails about special Black Friday offers. Then today at work nearly everyone I came across mentioned it at some point. I heard a nurse (I work in a Community Hospital) mention it to a little old lady she was pushing along in a wheelchair, who just looked confused and asked 'What's Black Friday?' That little old lady and I seemed to be the only ones who were out of the loop.
I still don't really know what it is (I thought maybe it's like Black History Month, only shorter. And with less history, obviously) but according to my wife it's something to do with Thanksgiving in America. I should have guessed.
I remember a few years ago, the sports presenters on Radio 5 started talking about the Superbowl as if it was something that had always been a big part of our sporting calendar this side of the pond. Then of course there was the subtle introduction of 'trick or treating' into our culture - something that, as a child, I'd only ever heard of via American TV shows. And when exactly was it that everyone started calling films 'movies'?
I'm going to shut up now, before I start complaining about the G.I.s

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Clegg's proposed 'reforms'

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will today set out his plans to restrict the availability of both out-of-work and in-work benefits to recently arrived immigrants from other EU countries. One of his ideas is that no-one will be awarded any benefits unless they have worked in the UK for at least 6 months. Another is to bar immigrants from receiving 'in-work benefits' such as tax credits unless they are working in full time jobs.
If these restrictions are ever brought in, how long will it be, I wonder, before a right wing UK government proposes extending them to UK citizens?

Tuesday, 25 November 2014


Last Friday I attended a training session entitled PREVENT which I believe is compulsory for all 'public facing' public sector workers, ie. those who come into contact with members of the public. The object of the course is to provide public sector workers with the necessary tools to identify those members of the public, with whom they come into contact during the course of their work, who are most susceptible to possible 'radicalisation' by extremist or terrorist organisations.
I was interested to see what the training would involve and I must admit I was (and still am) sceptical and suspicious of the whole idea of getting one section of the public (workers in public sector industries) to effectively spy on other members of the public (their clients).
The training session basically involved watching a series of films about what 'radicalisation' means, how it supposedly takes place, what type of personality profile might be susceptible to the process of radicalisation and what signs to look out for that might indicate that someone is in the process of being radicalised.
After each short film the trainer engaged us in a brief discussion of its contents. The questions thrown out to us for discussion were not of her design. She was reading from course materials prepared in advance by the training designers, presumably some Civil Service department or a private company contracted by the government.
It was made very clear that the threat posed by terrorism was not specifically linked to any one ethnicity or religious group. Examples were given of past atrocities that had been committed by groups other than Islamic fundamentalists - most of them were references to Irish republican terrorism.
A clip was shown from the film 'This is England', in which a young boy whose father had been killed in the Falklands conflict is persuaded to join a far right skinhead gang by the manipulative rhetorical techniques of the gang leader. After watching this clip, we attendees were invited to discuss the factors which had led to the boy being successfully recruited by the gang, eg. his vulnerability due to his recent bereavement, his impressionable age, peer pressure from his friends who were also in the gang, the oratory skills of the gang leader etc.
'What do you notice about the surroundings', the trainer asked us and was evidently pleased when eventually someone mentioned the apparent poverty on display (the scene was set in a room where there was not much furniture, with the occupants sitting around the wall). Apparently poverty is one of the factors that make people vulnerable to radicalisation.
The whole session was predicated on the notion that those who resort to violence in order to achieve their political aims must be psychologically flawed individuals who can potentially be identified in advance, thus enabling us to ensure that they get the help they need in order to be saved from making the wrong decisions that they would otherwise have made. This may be true, but if so, some might argue that we in the 'West' are not in general particularly good at spotting such personality flaws considering some of the leaders we have elected over the last couple of decades.
After the 'This is England' clip, the main part of the session involved a film which was a case study of a young man named Andrew Ibrahim who is now in prison for terrorism related offences (I think for possessing documents likely to be of use to terrorists and for preparing to commit terrorist acts). At one point during the film, the presenter interviewed the mother of Mr Ibrahim and asked her whether there were any signs that might, had they been picked up by the authorities, have enabled her son to have been identified as a potential victim of radicalisation and thus prevented from going down the path of committing terrorist offences. The mother stated that there were signs and that the first of these was the fact that her son had been handing out leaflets at University in protest against the occupation of Iraq by troops from the US led coalition! The presenter pointed out that some people might say there is nothing wrong with this, after all we do have free speech in this country, and the mother replied that that was true but that apparently he had been visibly angry about the issue, and shouting. The presenter agreed that this incident did indeed constitute a sign that might have been picked up as evidence of Mr Ibrahim's future radicalisation.
Apparently then, passionate opposition to UK military intervention abroad is a sign of potential susceptibility to terrorist radicalisation.
All public sector staff are being encouraged to report such signs of potential radicalisation to their appointed anti-radicalisation lead (there is one for every NHS organisation, and presumably for every education department, police service, etc.)

Update: Apparently, Home Secretary Teresa May said in her speech yesterday about proposed increased anti-terrorism measures that the PREVENT programme should be bolstered. A report out today, however, into the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, said the PREVENT programme wasn't working.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Jeremy Hunt increases NHS winter fund

Saw this article today. Apparently there's to be a 75% increase in the NHS winter fund, compared with last year.
There must be a General Election coming up.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Oh! What a Lovely Ad... not

Yesterday at work my colleagues began talking about a new Christmas advert which had apparently just been released by Sainsbury's. Those who had seen it spoke in glowing terms about how very moving they had found it. Apparently it depicts the Christmas truce of 1914 when German and British soldiers came warily out of the trenches and met in no-man's-land to exchange greetings and play football together before being forced back into the trenches by the Generals. One of my colleagus asked me if I wanted to watch the advert on her i-tablet thingy. 'No thanks', I said, 'I don't watch adverts'.
'Neither do I, normally', she replied. 'But this one is different. It's just really... nice.'
I started to explain that in my opinion there is nothing 'nice' about a giant supermarket chain taking advantage of the current surge of emotion around the First World War centenary and remembrance events in order to boost their own profits. But before I had finished my first sentence my colleague cut in and told me, very sharply and in no uncertain terms, that she was not interested in my opinion. Apparently I had not shown the appropriate level of sentiment towards the advert in question and so my colleague felt justified in speaking to me as if I'd just disrespected her mother.
The more I thought about the idea of this commercial, the more offensive I found it. In the past week we have, as a nation, along with many other nations, been paying our respects to those who gave their lives in the wars of this, and the last, century. In particular we have remembered those who fell in World War 1, this being the centenary of the outbreak of that conflagration. And some clever advertising executive, seeing the mood of affection, sorrow and heartfelt gratitude that has swept the country and reached its peak in the past week with the remembrance ceremonies, must have thought to him/herself how great it would be to harness some of that raw emotion and channel it into brand recognition (or rather, positive brand-association) - and, hence, bigger profits - for his/her client and it's shareholders.
Because let's be clear; the purpose of this film is to encourage people to buy more groceries and to buy them at Sainsbury's. If the advert is as slick and we'll made as everyone is saying, it will have cost a fortune to make and Sainsbury's would not be throwing that kind of money away unless they were pretty sure of reaping rewards for their shareholders.
This morning, as on most weekday mornings, I lisened to the James O'Brien show on LBC radio. The presenter had apparently watched the ad last night and been deeply moved. Then this morning he had read an article in the Guardian (probably this one whose author had apparently experienced a similar uneasiness on watching the advert to that which I had on hearing about it. Mr O'Brien disagreed with the artcle and defended Sainsbury's by saying that the advert was promoting a chocolate bar, the proceeds from the sales of which would be donated to the Royal British Legion and not retained by Sainsbury's. Considering he used to work in retail, one would have thought he would understand the concept of a 'loss leader'. Sainsbury's as a brand will benefit enormously by piggy-backing on the depth of public feeling around the tragic events of 1914-18. Nevertheless, caller after caller to the show enthused about the advert and how beautiful and poignant they had found it. One caller even said that, as an employee of Sainsbury's, she was really proud of the advert and of her employer's commitment to 'humanitarianism and human equality'. The presenter repeatedly stated that the advert provided a timely reminder of the futility of war and of the similarity of the combatants on either side. Yet when the Christmas truce incident actually occured, the Generals on both sides forced the soldiers to return to their trenches and continue the fight. The Generals were, of course, only doing the bidding of their bosses, the politicians. And many would argue that the politicians, then as now, were only acting in the interests of their paymasters, the captains of industry and leading capitalists of their day - the early 20th Century equivalents of Sainsbury's and its shareholders.
Most of us, whether we know it or not, have some ancestor or relative who went through the hell of World War One and lost friends, loved ones or even their own lives. To have the memory of their sacrifice cynically exploited to boost the coffers of one of the biggest corporations in the country is frankly, to my mind, an insult.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Michael (a rhymography)

The following poem is not intended as an endorsement of the actions of those portrayed. I deplore violence and this post was motivated by historical, not polemical, interest in Ireland's past.


Many long years ago by the star-speckled light / Of a West Cork sky on an October night / A fine Irish mother gave birth to a son / Who would grow up no stranger to the sound of a gun

His five older sisters took care of him well / While his mother milked cows and churned butter to sell / And as soon as young Michael was able to stand / He'd be off with his father at work on the land

The old man would tell him of days long ago / When brave Irish soldiers resisted the foe / Of brutal repression, of cruel punishments / Of absentee landlords, extortionate rents

Listening to his father with love and with pride / Young Michael knew somehow, deep down inside / (Though for reasons he couldn't yet quite understand) / That some day he'd be called on to fight for his land

At the age of sixteen, with tears in his eyes / To his dearly loved family he said his goodbyes / And like many young Irish folk of his age / He headed for England in search of a wage

He stayed with his sister in old London town / The hub of the Empire, the seat of the Crown / In a GPO office he learned to keep books / (And many young girls there admired his looks)

At weekends he'd gather with other young men / To play Gaelic football and hurling and then / He'd be out on the town, enjoying the craic / A drink and a joke and a slap on the back

The occasional row (rarely coming to blows) / And Michael could often be found with his nose / Deep in a book, for he longed to discover / the ways of the land that he loved like no other

Its language, it's history, its heroes and kings / Its writers and poets, all manner of things / From the terrible famine that ravaged the land / To risings that never quite went off as planned

Then one day after work he's approached by a friend / I'm off to a meeting, would you like to attend? / You mustn't tell anyone, that's understood / But we'd like you to join our secret brotherhood

It's your solemn duty / We hope you'll agree / To work for the day when our land will be free / From rule by the English, their laws and their King / Pretty soon Michael was proudly sworn in

War came to Europe in nineteen-fourteen / 'Twas the bloodiest conflict that had ever been seen / But Michael refused to sign up for the war / There was only one country that he would fight for

So in nineteen-sixteen when conscription was planned / He boarded a ship back to his native land / Where once more he practised the book-keeper's art / This time for Count Plunkett, a wealthy upstart

The house of the Count stood on acres of land / Where an audacious rising was practised and planned / And in Dublin's post office that Easter weekend / Alongside his comrades, their dream to defend

While civilians hid in their homes, out of fright / As the rattle of Mauser-fire filled the spring night / Michael fought, while the smoke and flames rose on the breeze / 'Til the big British guns brought his men to their knees

The shame of surrender, the long year in gaol / But the freedom of Ireland was Mick's holy grail / He refused to be cowed by the pain of his plight / And when he got out he continued the fight

He'd joined a party that was known as Sinn Féin / An Irish republic was their stated aim / They were gaining support from all over the land / in spite of the fact that their meetings were banned

Then one day De Valera, who was Sinn Féin's top man / Was carted away in a police van / And thrown in an English jail to rot / For (alleged) involvement in a German plot

When the Great War was over, with peace in the land / An election for Britain and Ireland was planned / Michael decided to stand for Sinn Féin / He campaigned in South Cork until the day came

By their hundreds and thousands the people came out / To support independence, there was no room for doubt / So Sinn Féin decided, with so clear a mandate / That Irish MPs should decide Ireland's fate

We won't go London to take up our seats / As a national assembly in Dublin we'll meet / So with public support from Rosslare to the Foyle / They shunned Westminster's halls and they formed the first Dáil

For a national government it might seem strange / But their meetings in secret they had to arrange / The locations were usually chosen by Mick / For he knew who to trust and which places to pick

This was the cat and mouse game that they played / Always alert for the next police raid / And as head of finance Mick worked many a long hour / Raising the cash they would need to take power

De Valera, in prison, soon thought of a way / With the help of the Chaplain to shorten his stay / He'd 'borrowed' the key from the robe of the latter / (Whom his friends had distracted with 'spiritual' chatter)

Using wax from church candles 'Dev' made an imprint / Which he sent back to Ireland, where Mick took the hint / A copy was made of the Lincoln Gaol key / And Mick boarded a ferry to cross the cold sea

Under cover of darkness Mick cut through the wire fence / Then clambered through into the courtyard, from whence / He crept stealthily up to the door of the gaol / He had only one chance, he knew he must not fail

Imagine the cursing, the swearing, the shock / When Mick's carefully cut key simply broke in the lock / But Dev too had a key (smuggled in in a cake) / He inserted it - thankfully it didn't break

So away down the street the escapee was led / Disguised as a woman, a wig on his head / Then off in a taxi to Liverpool's port / And back home to Ireland without being caught

Now, at this point Dev felt the need for a pause / He went off to drum up support for the cause / While the 'Chief' was away across the Atlantic / The fight with the British was left to young Mick

Dublin Castle was the place / That the Dublin police force used as their base/ And the G Division (who worked undercover) / Were the boys whose job it was to discover

Every bit of information / About Mick and his rebel operation / Their shady network did comprise / Of double-agents, informants and spies

To find out just how much they knew / Mick paid a visit to British HQ / A friend on the inside showed him around / He was horrified at what he found

The Brits had files on all his men / Mick had a realisation then / The 'intelligence war' would be the key / To an Irish republican victory

Back at base Mick gave the nod / To his best group of men (they were known as 'the Squad') / And in the Castle post next morning / Was received a letter (by way of a warning)

Written, it was clear, in Michael's hand / It said that an early demise was planned / For any 'G Man' who did not stay away / From the business of the IRA

I'm afraid that this warning they chose to ignore / And for each one there soon came a knock at the door / Or a tap on the shoulder while out in the street / The crack of a gunshot then hurrying feet

In the crowd the assassins would soon disappear / As the streets were increasingly haunted by fear / The British hit back with their own murder gangs / Known as the 'Auxies' and the 'Black and Tans'

A new Special Branch group known as the Cairo Gang / Were sent in by the British as part of their plan / To destroy Michael's network and his power to fight / - Mick's 'Squad' took the lot of them out in one night

Next day in their anger a convoy of Tans / Headed to Croke Park where five-thousand fans / Were hoping the afternoon match would be good / - The Tans shot fourteen of them dead where they stood

Such a dark time for Ireland (and Britain as well) / As the streets and the fields became bloody as Hell / As police trucks were ambushed in town after town / The Tans plundered Cork City then burned the place down

In nineteen-twenty on Christmas Eve night / De Valera returned to take charge of the fight / And for the first time in his rebel career / Michael went out and drank far too much beer

Into the bar came a British patrol / To capture some 'shinners' their primary goal / One asked for Mick's papers then told him to stand / Compared him to a photo he held in his hand

Though Mick and his comrades would all soon be dead / Unless he held his nerve and maintained a cool head / He smiled and he joked and he played the buffoon / 'Til the squaddies gave up and they left the saloon

DeValera was eager to take charge again / He began hatching plans for Mick and his men / And the Chief was less than overjoyed / With the fighting methods Mick had employed

There's no honour in fighting an underground war / Of this point DeValera was sure / No need to keep our troops concealed / We'll meet the British in the field

A full-scale daylight attack was planned / Mick tried to make Dev understand / He didn't have the men to spare / For open, conventional warfare

(Work in progress)