Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A sad state of affairs

As we approach local elections, there is a lot of talk about how the BNP are going to do ever so well and we'd better make sure we all turn out and vote for a safer pair of hands. Although one of the scare-surveys comes from a respoctable source (JRCT), I can't help feeling its being used as the latest distraction from Westminster. The one about how I didn't support the war so vote for me, not the party, was failing to fool the punters yet again, so they're trying Vote for me or the fascists will come for you and your kids. Even the Tories are getting in on the line, but then they seem to be sharing them these days - there must be a shortage.

How likely is it that either of these parties are actually listening to the concerns on the doorstep? The failure of the mainstream parties to listen - ever - has disenfranchised people so much that they're reverting to their own shock tactics in the hope of penetrating the brick wall of spin and nonsense.

I hate the BNP as much as the next 76 per cent, but if we wake up on May 5 with our councils run by a bunch of racists whose idea of good society involves having us all goose-stepping round our local squares every Sunday, I don't think we'll see much difference. It'll still be the inmates of Westminster with all the power and today's Baghdad-bombing-jail-without-jury-Charles-Clarke-the-lunatic reality will remain as scary as it is today.

As strong messages to the government go, I'm sure we can do better than voting for the BNP. In his references to cockroaches that haven't quite got him locked up as yet, Nick Griffin was using the same ideology that helped prompt nearly a million Rwandan deaths 12 years ago. I still don't believe the majority of the British people would have anything to do with him.

But if voters are using the same scare tactics as the government to try and get noticed, then it's pretty clever. I would join the 90 per cent of voters who told Margaret Hodge they'd be voting BNP. Like a shot. I'd tell her anything if it would wipe the smug expression from her face for just a moment (ah, the old hatred still runs deep!). But what does it say about the state of our politics?

Has anybody organised the revolution yet?

Saturday, April 22, 2006

City scenes

Like most weekends since Christmas, Warhorse the Scooter had to go in to have repairs done on her wheels. I go to Foley's in Fenton, where my father and all our biking forefathers before him have gone, since the beginning of time.

She was going to take a while, so I set off with time to waste. On the bus up to Hanley, vast swathes of old terraces have been demolished, leaving behind toothy stubs of people's memories and exposed Victorian back yards. The big signs (by developers who have finally managed to spell Wedgwood correctly) say the land will be turned into deluxe canalside apartments, but these plans have been around for ages and nobody's quite sure that it will happen or whether anyone wants to live in them anyway.

"Can you ring in about half an hour duck, the lads have just gone off for some snappin''". So I carried on walking. This phrase reminded me of the terrapins that live in Hanley Forest Park lake. They must have been liberated in the post Mutant Hero Turtle era and seem to have survived several winters quite happily, eating ducklings and whatever else they can. Small boys in the area call them "terrypeens" and they are a famous attraction, though hated by the fishermen.

Beyond the lake, the new skating park is packed. Arguably the only good thing the local authority has ever done for the city, everyone under 18 in Stoke is now a skater. Next to it, a half finished adventure playground has been invaded by a family. The parents sit quite happily on a bench watching their tiny charges frolic on equipment still coated in plastic. Towering all around them is a site fence, a segment of which they or someone else has knocked down, with yellow signs saying 'Danger: do not enter'. The skaters have obviously given people a taste for risk. Hopefully they won't sue the council if the youngsters drop onto the gravel on their heads.

I hang around Hanley, managing to get two good lattes on chocolate brown comfy sofas. Five years ago this would have been impossible. For the first one I read the Sun and get very alarmed by its horrifying view of Britain and pornographic descriptions of child pornography. For the second I escape to Baghdad, with Chikitita's moving blog. She could teach the Sun journalists a thing or two about, well, everything.

Checking in at Foley's, Warhorse isn't going to be ready until Monday. Doesn't matter how long I hang around waiting, it isn't to be. I set off home, not able to face another bus. Between towns, I realise that nobody else is walking other than teenagers and ethnic minorities. Groups of women in veils and pairs of men who everyone assumes are asylum seekers but may well be bussed off to various low paid jobs in the early mornings of the week. The rest of Stoke drives cars, it's a kind of segregation. Buses are for old people and those who are trying to navigate a distance too far to walk. So if you can't afford to run a car or pay multiple fares to get across the towns, you're stuck in whatever part of the city you happen to have landed in.

Reaching Burslem, there are shops with flats above that look far too small for human habitation. The only reason they haven't been cleared yet is that nobody has ever got round to it, but I hope they won't. They are relics from a town in which rich and poor lived side by side, or the very rich lived as far as Cobridge or up the hill in Newcastle, and they came together to produce pottery and go to church.

Cars being the first ambition of everyone in Stoke, the second is bigger cars. Most people own their houses, which don't go up in value very much, so you might as well buy a better car. Since, by my measurements, the terraces I pass are as wide as a Metro, this means many people own cars which are longer than their houses are wide. They must be very proud.

Friday, April 07, 2006

There's not enough time to vent irritation in full - here's a start

Most of us can just watch while our leaders do nothing, some are lucky enough to be able to use their position of influence to encourage failure to protect.

In focusing on the wars being played out, Paul "Khartoum have a point" Moorcroft avoids referring to the massive humanitarian crisis in Darfur and now Chad. Help is unable to get to people because it is too insecure and too big an area for the current troops to provide protection.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, raped and displaced. These are people who play no part in any conflict.

The whole point of intervention is not to bring a third party to the fighting, but to protect civilians. Only a large force of international peacekeepers can adequately achieve this. Fiddling around with racial or tribal definitions to say it isn't genocide is as stupid as the racism endemic in Sudanese society itself, but Moorcroft misses the point again. Hutus and Tutsis are all black, they all *look the same*. Western Jews don't look terribly different from the rest of us, unless you feel like emphasising difference to incite militias to kill and rape large amounts of people. Since September, genocide stopped being the point - the international community took on a responsibility to protect civilians if their own government could not.

This parallel with Iraq is deliberately unhelpful. Bush and Blair were wrong in that adventure, but you imply they are the only ones to want action. Millions of people around the world want to see protection for the people of Darfur. Of course a 'white, western force' would be innapropriate, but they would be joining the current AU force, which has included many Rwandans. Bush shouldn't be making the decision, it should be the UN, but force needs to come from countries who have the expertise and equipment to boost what the AU are already providing.

The world commuity have a responsibility to protect the people of Darfur immediately. Immediately, as in 2003. The International Crisis Group has made sensible recommendations about what should be done.

Simply, it should be 'whatever it takes' to protect, feed and heal people. Toppling the Sudan government does not need to be on the agenda here. But they should be held responsible if their continuing refusal to allow humanitarian oversight allows more people to die, whether by airstrike or starvation. Civil war is still used to distract and deny the genocide in Rwanda and this and other prevarications allow Moorcroft to support Khartoum's arguments to keep out.

After telling people all the reasons why 'we' shouldn't be involved, he quite rightly says that AU and Islamic troops should be strengthened. At least we can agree on this, but conveniently enough it will save us a lot of money and once again the West will be seen to do nothing while Africa and the Muslim world try harder. Given the strength of feeling in the West, this differentiation is ridiculous. This needs to be a cooperative effort.

With most of your arguments, you've probably convinced a whole lot of readers and policy-makers that we should sit this one out till its bitter end. May you be judged for it.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Spring comes to England!

A pastoral post

It is light enough for my commute through 188 miles of England and back to be very enjoyable. An Observer report I just read claimed that 20 per cent of start or finish in the UK, an amazing statistic considering our size (the report wasn't clear on the source of this figure or whether it was a projection) that if true shows how wealthy many Britons are, relatively speaking. We are colonising the world, though more quietly than we used to.

The English tend to forget the extent of beauty in their own country. I blame cars, for I've never appreciated our countryside as much until I could see it more clearly from train and scooter.

The break from Watford into open country is sudden and spectacular. From the train, the sky looks huge with miles of open fields where lambs are starting to roam and even gambol. The train regularly slows down and the countryside is broken up by towns, skyscrapers, a power station next to a golf course, farmhouses and chicken homes.

The canal frequently stretches alongside the railway along with old industrial buildings. A reminder of the visionaries who, in earlier centuries, carved Britain into a centre of industry with efficient transport lines to take pottery and people from the North to London in a flash.

Arnold Bennett saved his newspaper for the boring, ugly section after Rugby, but for me its extent of tracks represent the point when, if I have a table to myself and room to stretch, I can shake off the stress of the day and watch the sun go down.