Friday, January 30, 2015

Particle physics, politics and our breakfast at our shelter....

So the morning I hd a conversation that at times I struggled to keep up. It was with a particle physicist, a man who is mid-way through a PhD and who has been involved in developing and building proton beam machines for use in cancer treatments (little wonder I was getting lost!)

We were actually talking about CERN and the large hadron collider and what it might reveal when it starts up again in the spring, having undergone a refit. Some of this conversation ran away from me as well!

I was having this chat over breakfast in our winter night shelter, for this guy is a guest of ours, one of the growing number of homeless in my apparently prosperous bit of London. He is not a drug user or alcoholic (he drinks less than I do); he is not the victim of a break down of relationship that's left an angry, wounded partner in the family home. It's unclear what he's the victim of. Yes, he is vulnerable to depression, but this seems to be a consequence rather than cause of his current situation.

He is looking for work, a job that would use his skills. But he is constantly being told that he is too well qualified. In a country that desperately needs investment in the kind of ground-breaking medical technology he has been involved in developing, it seems that society would rather pay him to be idle or push him into some useless zero-hours contract job.

If you remember the Aysha King story last summer, the little boy taken to Prague to have proton beam therapy, my friend's story is even more maddening. He has been working on such technology in South Africa but not here.

It's a small story that illustrates the insanity of our current way of running things. He's homeless because there's a chronic shortage of affordable homes across the country, but certainly in London. He finds himself in a system that doesn't understand his skills and therefore can't find room for them and yet which, at the same time, bemoans the fact that we are lagging our competitors in cutting edge technology; that we are apparently unable to turn pure science into innovation and hence economic growth.

We fell into our conversation because we shared the experience of having studied at Manchester University. Back in 1977-78 I was part of a social science research council funded MSc programme that had been founded a decade earlier to answer the question 'why can't Britain innovate?' It struck me that I was having the same conversation with my guest as we had had in our seminar rooms almost forty years ago; and nothing has changed.

I left feeling sad and mad at the waste of so promising and so clever a man languishing in our shelter because he has neither a job or a home.

New government, anyone? Fresh thinking on how we organise ourselves, about how we utilise all the skills and talents of all our people to create a better society for all of us?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

register to be part of a momentous year

I've been sent a copy of Andy Flannagan's new book Those who show up by the lovely people at Muddy Pearl, who are publishing it. I've promised to blog a few thoughts as I work my way through it.

But I thought I'd preface those comments by saying how important it is that people register to vote in the forthcoming general election. This particularly applies to people younger than me who might not see anything on a ballot paper worth getting out of bed for. I have to say I sympathise with them.

And I'm not writing this because Andy's book is yet another appeal to people get involved in the political process by voting. Indeed, he kicks off by suggesting that the book will be urging its readers to consider putting their names on the ballot paper so others can vote for them. I'll return to this when I've read beyond pxii.

But I do want to return to the issue of registering to vote. This is probably the most important election for a generation. It will determine the shape of our country for many years to come.

I have just returned from having coffee with a bright, energetic, capable friend who has given the best part of 20 years to working in local government in a bid to improve the lives of ordinary people. He is severely disillusioned and between jobs. In one sense he is an example of someone who has been broken on the wheel of a malfunctioning political system. But his passion for the process is undimmed; his desire to see justice and equity at the heart of decision-making at all levels in the country fires everything he is and does.

I'm sure there are lots of people like him all over the country. All of us need to be registered to vote in May and get out - and encourage our friends to get out - and cast our vote. We cannot have another government that is elected by 30% of the 60% or so who turn out. On any way of doing maths that is an underwhelming minority. The current government wants to change strike ballots to mean that workers can only withdraw their labour if more than 50% of their workplace votes in favour. This from a government with a mandate of considerably less than 40% of the electorate. Pots and kettles, hey?

Such things make people cynical. But what we need to do is seize the debate back from the cynics and start talking about the kind of society we want to live in, what we want to see our taxes used for (as no party if offering to abolish taxation, we'll be paying it anyway, so it might as well be for something we support!). Our debates, however, shouldn't begin with what things cost; they should begin with whether they are desirable and how they would work and how they would benefit ordinary people. We can cost things later.

And yes, some cynics will respond by saying that this will result in all sorts of uncosted pledges being made. Well, maybe. Both major parties already have a list of uncosted pledges up their sleeves, so let's add to them. If we do, we will see the quality of the conversation rising. The election will become a genuine battle of ideas rather than a race to the lowest common denominator, where parties  pledge the lowest spending for the maximum benefit of that party's natural constituency.

When that happens, it's little wonder people are cynical. So, let's hear ideas being debated, visions of the world we want to live in being sung to the rafters. And let's turn up at meetings, urging those on the platform to take our ideas seriously, debate with us, respond to our ideas, argue with them; and let's do this courteously and kindly, recognising the humanity of our opponents and the common good that we are all working to achieve.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

day 19 and the year's first great album emerges

Well, let's hope it's the harbinger of a vintage year for music, for three week's into January we have the first storming release of the year. Two year's after the King is Dead, the Decembrerists have returned with What a terrible world. What a beautiful world, 14 wonderful, lyrically playful songs.

Colin Molloy's song writing is on cracking form here. He opens with a witty reflection on stardom and fandom which contains the great lines: 'we're aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in the last video, but with fame came a mounting claim for the evermore...So when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe Shampoo, you know we did it for you.' Eat your heart out Taylor Swift!

It's uphill from there, every song putting a smile on the listener's face and a spring in their step.

Great stuff. And the title is a seminar in itself. So, grab a beer and crank up the turntable...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Two albums that I missed

As I was flicking through a play list just after Christmas, I realised that in my post-infection state, I had left out two of 2014's overlooked masterpieces. So my festive 15 is swelling to 17 (maths never was my strong suit!)

In the car, I found School of Language's second outing Old Fears. School of Language is the side project of the other Field Music maestro, David Brewis. Like his brother, Peter (are they twins?), him of the wonderful Frozen by Sight (who were magnificent at St Giles on the Friday before Christmas), David is full of great tunes, wonderful hooks, quirky time signatures and intriguing lyrical invention. This second School of Language album (of whom the only member is David Brewis) is very different from the first but equally wonderful.

And then, I forgot to include the Pearlfishers Open up Your Colouring Book. This is a ravishing aural treat, 16 songs by Glasgow's David Scott. Again, he writes great pop tunes, pens absorbing lyrics and wraps it all up in wonderful arrangements. He is a hidden treasure who should be getting much more acclaim than he does. The album, was launched without trace in April, greeted by barely a murmur in the music press. There's no justice! It follows hard on the heels of 2007's sublime Up with the Larks, one of my all time favourite albums and a regular soundtrack to long car journeys in the sunshine. If you have not spent an hour with the Pearlfishers, please do because you'll feel so much better for it.

These are both worthy additions to your playlists/CD/album collections

Sunday, December 14, 2014

a festive fifteen...

It's that time of year when I traditionally tell everyone what new music I've been listening to this year. I do it more as a reminder to myself of what I've spent my money on than an example of exemplary musical taste. But some of you might be interested.

So, in no particular order (except my top 5), here are the albums I enjoyed enough to buy this year.

Robert Plant and the Shape Shifters Lullaby and Ceaseless Road; unexpected from the Led Zep vocalist.

the Hold Steady Teeth Dreams: good, honest, quirky American rock - though I have no idea where they come from!

Nick Mulvey's gorgeous First Mind.

Kate Tempest Everybody Down in which she showed herself to be as adept at rap as she is at poetry for the page.

Deacon Blue's A New House - not as good as 2012's The Hipsters but still a cut above the average.

David Gray's Mutineers not one I expected to like but did, possibly because production was by Lamb's Andy Barlow who bought an unexpected vibe to Gray's usual oeuvre.

Duologue Never Get Lost, their follow-up to the outstanding Song and Dance which delivers a very pleasing electronic groove.

Elbow produced their best record since Leaders of the Free World in the lovely, moving The Take Off and Landing of Everything.

Paul Smith (of Maximo Park) and Peter Brewis (of Field Music) collaborated on the quirky, gorgeous travelogue that is Frozen By Sight (really looking forward to seeing them at St Giles Church on 19 December - our Christmas treat).

U2 Songs of Innocence. Ok, I know there was a lot of fuss about it being delivered free to everyone with an iTunes account; yes, it was a tad gauche but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth especially when it turned out to be the best U2 album for quite a long time. Bono and the Edge produced some of their best lyrics and the band set them to some great melodies. Not having to pay for it was a lovely bonus!

And so to my top 5 (I loved the other 10 but these stood out for various reasons):

Jackson Browne Standing in the Breach in which the old trooper and songsmith to the revolution produced a set of ten songs that not only engage with all the important issues of the day in an intelligent and provocative way, but also offered a back catalogue of Browne's many musical styles. Great stuff.

Damon Albarn Everyday Robots the first solo album from the Blur front man. A minimalist, staccato feast of great tunes and affecting lyrics in which he pondered his history and our lives splendidly.

Lamb Backspace Unwind: a barnstorming return by the trip hop pioneers. Andy Barlow's production is quite wonderful and Lou Rhodes' voice has never sounded better - if there's a better female singer around, I've yet to hear her.

Bill Mallonee Winnowing in which the veteran singer-songwriter produces yet another career defining set of songs - just as he did last year and the year before. His ear for melody and his turn of phrase show no signs of dimming on a set of songs that probe faith in a post-everything world. Quite stunning.

Ben Watt Hendra: this probably edges my album of the year. A fabulous collection of songs reflecting on aging, memory, loss of parents and making sense of the world around us. Barely a note out of place in the second solo outing of one half of Everything but the Girl. He also produced a great biography of his parents, Romany and Tom - one of my books of the year.

Each would make a great stocking filler for a loved one or a sneaky seasonal treat for yourself.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

I have a piece in the Baptist Times

After the longest bout of illness I can remember having since being a child, I am slowly returning to work and was delighted to see in my in-box today a note from Paul Hobson saying a piece I'd written about Paul and poverty has been published in the Baptist Times.

You can read it here. I hope you enjoy it and find it stimulating. You can, of course, comment about it here or on the BT site.

Friday, October 31, 2014

What is the government's moral duty?

In an article laced with dodgy statistics on the progress of spending cuts so far, not to mention the effects of tax cuts in this parliament, the prime minister suggests that governments have a moral duty to lower taxes.

Is that right?

I would have thought that governments have a moral duty to ensure that taxation is fairly levied so that the government's primary moral duty to support the weakest and most vulnerable in our society has sufficient funds.

That would suggest that a government's moral duty is to progressively tax everyone to ensure that it has enough money for the services for which it is responsible and a measure of redistribution (always a feature of the tax system).

Such would be view of both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who, last time I looked, were not people of the extreme left.