Unlucky roads – Roma in Europe

Oh, Roma, from wherever you have come
With your tents along lucky roads
I too once had a large family
But the black legion murdered them
Come with me, Roma of the world
To where the Romani roads have been opened”

There are no murdering black legions in this case, but the destruction of unauthorised Roma tent camps in France, the 300 euros to begin a new life in somewhere else’s back yard or else be subjected to compulsory deportation, must seem continuous. All over Europe Roma life chances are limited to the extreme and the odds are stacked against their success. The exclusion begins early in life. Tabloids ensure that Europe’s largest ethnic minority, numbering 12 million, remain widely known and disliked – in other words, stereotyped – for delinquency.

French President Sarkozy insists he is not seeking the removal of an entire population (ethnic cleansing) but only those who have not met the conditions to remain (work and accommodation). There’s an election coming and many voters consider the Roma a nuisance, so there are charges of populism. Wondering which other state leaders wouldn’t do similar under these circumstances, I can’t be confident of any. This is not a new thing – France deported 8,313 this year so far, 7,875 last year. And this is not just France but also other European states including Germany, Denmark and Italy. British-born communities here are not exempt from neglect and forced evictions. This is why France can release statements that no European government has condemned its actions. A glance at the European Roma Rights Centre site confirms that France does not deserve to be thought of as particularly hostile to Roma.

Worries about antiziganism in France are well-founded though. The UN Commission on the Elimination of Racism has warned France about prejudiced and discriminatory language and acts. One of its members:

“Our concern is that the removal or return of the Roma has been done on a collective basis rather than examining their individual circumstances so it gives the appearance that a group has been identified rather than individuals.”

‘Appearance’ is an odd word here. Few contextualised quotations are forthcoming in the media, I can’t find the report, the Commission’s site isn’t up to date, and nor is my French. My impression is that expelling its workless, foreign-born Roma, French officials have been citing EU and French law which “expressly allows for restrictions on the right to move freely for reasons of public order, public security and public health”. To account for this, the they have further been attesting that the camps are sources of “crime, prostitution, trafficking and child exploitation”. This way of talking about the camps, particularly in the context of justifying their destruction and the expulsion of their residents, discriminates against Roma because it collectively implicates them in these social problems – absolutely intolerable social problems. Yes, France reserves the right to expel workless and homeless Europeans from Romania and Bulgaria, whatever their ethnic origin. Yes, it reserves the right to destroy unauthorised encampments. But there are doubts that France has been repatriating on a case by case basis as it is legally obliged to. And France has inexcusably accompanied lawful action with racist rhetoric. Hence the world’s eyes on France and the UN Commission’s emphasis on appearance.

In England, travellers are a news staple. In Bedford the encampment close to where I lived (Poets, near the station) was at, alas for nominative determinism, Cut Throat Lane. These days the local paper uses the outrageous headline of ‘Village to be damned‘ to point out that where traveller encampments are house prices fall (surely this reflects on British house buyers; scroll down the following week’s letters page for Ben Foley’s and Cathryn Varney’s excellent responses). The Sun and The Daily Mail are openly racist about Gypsies, and this plays out: a council consulted a village near a proposed site and although 3,500 out of the 8,500 residents responded, the estimable council was obliged to reject all but 400 for discriminatory or racist argument for reasons. The Travellers’ Times reports:

“Among the milder concerns or comments about the traveller sites that Mid-Bedfordshire District Council said it would classify as racist were:

  • The council should be more concerned with taxpayers’ rights than those of travellers;
  • Having travelling families nearby may mean an increase in noise levels;
  • A traveller site may lead to more litter on the village green;
  • Petty crime is rumoured to have increased in some other areas where traveller camps have been placed.

Racism is prejudice because of someone’s racial background. The concerns above define Gypsies and Travellers as non-taxpaying, noisy, dirty and criminal. They are, discriminatory not matter how nicely put and not legitimate planning concerns. Despite an outcry from some local residents, politicians and the media, the logic seems to be spreading.”

Reading that article and watching the documentary embedded at the end, you realise that a council’s insight to reject discriminatory arguments is still insufficient for  travellers’ needs, or to alter the perceptions of the settled community. Local and national governments all over Europe have still to find a way out of this zero sum game where a settled community is perceived to lose if a traveller community is given what it needs. Otherwise all that remains is to move Roma on and so compound the exclusion.

Worklessness and enforced segregation affect Roma. Roma migrate in pursuit of a better life; the terms of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s acceptance into the EU allowed for free movement while restricting the right to work. Open roads are not enough to change Roma fortunes.

French Foreign Minister Eric Besson does not acknowledge the minority status of Roma, arguing “Romas are not considered as such but only as citizens of the countries of which they are nationals”. A disregard for ethnicity in favour of nationality can sometimes be inclusive and sometimes discriminatory, depending on what the argument is about. In this case it is wrong to factor out Roma minority status from an assessment of their future. Moreover it is missing from the news that many Roma are technically stateless and unable to access services because (according to a 2004 research paper by the European Roma Information Office for the European Commission) they lack personal documents; it’s not clear whether these Roma born outside France do in fact have Romanian or Bulgarian citizenship, or whether there is some kind of bilateral agreement in place. In the end, the expulsion of Roma by European governments to live as excluded minorities other European countries is a situation which more than any illuminates serious humanitarian problems with the state nationalism I pragmatically support and the borders which define it. Not that the Roma fared better under socialism with its forcible settlement.

How can the fortunes of Roma in Europe be reversed? Where national or local governments enact discriminatory policies, Roma rights will depend on strategic litigation drawing on the anti-discrimination law and sustained by the EU’s Race Equality Directive and Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia. In the longer term the UN Commission is emphasising that improving the situation of the Roma is a pan-European responsibility. A pan-European strategy which supports Roma inclusion needs to remove any financial reason for a country to repatriate its non-native Roma. This needs to reside in policies which support the poor in general.

  • Click on the EU Roma Network’s Resource Centre link to Best Practices and you get “Showing 1-0 out of 0”. That figures. There’s more to look at there though.
  • In 2009 the Council of the European Union consolidated a series of conclusions (which look like what I’d call resolutions) including the following ‘Common Basic Principles’: constructive, pragmatic, non-discriminatory policies; explicit but not exclusive targeting; intercultural approach which involves people in different backgrounds; aiming to integrate Roma in the mainstream of society; awareness of multiple discrimination, particularly gender; sharing of successful policies between member states; use of EU legal, financial and coordination instruments; involvement of regional and local government; involvement of civil society; active participation of Roma.
  • In April 2010 the second European Summit on Roma Inclusion took place.
  • On 15th September there will be an EU seminar on the contribution of EU funds to the integration of the Roma. It is in Hungary, where the far right are waxing. It will be followed by a high level event in October. It references previous events, but does not link to them. I want to strangle the EU’s web site, which is a portent of uncoordination.

After rummaging around in the EU I haven’t found an example of successful pro-Roma pro-settled community policy-making. I know they’re out there somewhere on that EU server.

Structural changes are necessary but not sufficient. There is also prejudice which is far, far more difficult to address. This post includes two examples of government vision which is far more enlightened than the views of ordinary people. Educating about racism is a minefield – for example raising stereotypes for discussion risks disseminating them.

See also:

(Saban Bajramovic, rest in peace.)

I’m still wondering, where is the International Solidarity Movement for Gypsies?

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How to be a top political blogger

I was pleased and more than a little surprised to discover this blog among the Total Politics top green blogs for 2010, at number 14. The ranking, which is controversial because it’s presided over by a leading Conservative blogger, is based on the votes of 2,200 self-selected people, but I’m not sure what the question was.

According to Adrian’s foraging (congratulations Adrian for being 8th), according to Wikio Flesh is number 20. Wikio’s ranking is based on the number and weight of links to a blog (other than that the methodology is uncertain, but I have to thank Barkingside21, Weggis, and Bob, and (less, because they’re not listed by Wikio) Mod and Kellie (whom I’ve just submitted to Wikio and who will inevitably nudge me down, selfless creature I am). Update: also submitted The Poor Mouth – and how could I miss out Gordon’s GreenFeed?

But to get things in perspective, my blog has taken a tumble in the grand scheme of things. It’s been a while since the stats got above 3000 readers per month. Its Wikio ranking (general category – I’m not registered there as a political blog) of 724 in November 2009 has fallen to 1398 in August 2010. The pool is bigger and higher quality, for a start. Also work has been more demanding and I’ve also been getting out more, with a consequent drastic decline in the number of posts. Back in the bad old days when my trade union took a piss all over my sleep patterns I was writing 38 posts in a month. This year I haven’t posted 38 in 8 months. And ultimately, I’m too laid back about the ranking to change my behaviour. Long may this harmless self-indulgence endure, because in my case it’s a barometer of security.

But if my frustration and worry develop a sense of potential, and these things become acute enough to engender ambition, I know what I could do to improve my ranking. I’d need to become a political actor as well as member of the chatterati, and use the web-based medium to its fullest extent. Here’s how I’d do it (update: n.b. here’s how I mostly don’t do it):

  • Link frequently to fellow bloggers. Ambitious bloggers treat links as a currency. Unlike the snooty established media, bloggers are likely to link back.
  • Addition: in linking, attend to connections between your readers. Aim to be a node not a hub, so your network remains if you stop blogging tomorrow; act as a sort of socio-political glue.
  • Don’t just write for, or link to, people whose views you share. The most vulnerable ideas are the ones which are taken for granted and left unchallenged.
  • Filter blog i.e. select purposefully from the web and link to the most important things you’ve seen, organised into themes. As well as providing a public service, filter blogging is an acceptable (uningratiating) way to link copiously to fellow bloggers, as mentioned above. It is also more personal than it might at first appear, giving insights into your interests. It’s also a good use of your time. Filter blogging contrasts with original writing; it’s the equivalent of listening – particularly if you provide some contextualisation. Promoting listening on the Web is a good thing to do.
  • Use links as bait – they are a discreet and genteel way to ask a fellow blogger to read your post. Their clicks enhance your ranking. So as well as linking to them, click on your own links to them so that your visit appears in their stats.
  • Never stop posting – if taking a holiday, schedule posts while away.
  • Comment at other places and make the most of your adventures by directing your readers to the online discussions in which you’ve participated.
  • Acknowledge your commenters and treat each contribution as something permanent. Refer to them as works in their own right.
  • Attempt to start conversations.
  • Maintain concern for the events you write about; don’t abandon them as if they were old stories. A long attention span is an article of responsible journalism, and also related to listening. (It’s the most important thing I lack.)

The most open-eyed example I know of these practices is Bob From Brockley. I’m not sure to what extent he’s participating in this rankings game, but he is definitely nurturing a politics on the left and growing a readership is a necessary part of that. More power to him.

To continue:

  • Use the social web. Feed to and from other places frequented by your constituents, which these days include Facebook and Twitter.
  • Use the granularity of the web. Syndicate, assume that your feeds will be analysed and feed the entire post, not just a summary.
  • Post early and carefully on events of global interest, before the rest of the media get to them. Be alert on Sundays, high days and holidays.
  • Go out to observe goings-on of interest, and report what you have observed as accurately as possible. Tweet and harvest your tweets. Aggregate other tweets for triangulation with your own account. Reporting is the part of journalism in greatest need of democratisation, where the web has most to offer. One recent illustration is the reportage of the Californian wildfires; as the established media were glued to Beverley Hills, the people beneath their notice in the L.A. suburbs within reach of the flames suddenly woke up to Twitter.
  • Use a three column layout and position your sidebar widgets to communicate your assets: maintain a blogroll; show your blog’s most recent comments above the fold to encourage participation; show a smorgasbord of your most recent posts, publicise your accolades (e.g. Top 25 Green Blog).
  • Help people to read you: write really well; include a search engine; use keywords and categories intuitively if you want to be read as a resource, and consistently if you want to link to yourself as a resource.
  • Politics is about exposure, so blog broadly – in a resourceful rather than populist way. If you have diverse interests and your blog is a journal of your day-to-day endeavours as well as a campaign, Google will bring a diverse readership to stumble upon your other messages. Reviews, recipes, how-to guides, that kind of thing.
  • Title posts intriguingly and with search engines in mind.
  • Do interviews. Important people will consent to be amplified, and their importance will bring you readers. It’s a nice symbiosis. On the other hand, if you obtain the dizzy heights Norm has, you can give right-minded nobodies like me a leg up by interviewing them. Like Bob, Norm is also building on the left.
  • Addition: thinking about Barkingside 21 which is both local and high-ranked, commenting on local government initiatives and local goings-on is a valuable thing to do – not least because politics begins where you live. B21 is good at illustrating the distinction between local and particular.

At this stage I can’t say I’m as relaxed as I thought I was about the contrast between how much I know and how little I’ve enacted. Suddenly it seems like a missed opportunity  to be only ranked the 1398th blog in the land – particularly when there are bastards, arseholes, linguistic disasters and total menaces higher up than me, and hardly any women getting read. After I’ve retired perhaps I could be number one. Maybe I owe it to myself. Hey, maybe I owe it to the whole wide world, like L’Oreal says.

But for now I have some chores to do, the first of which is to go pick slugs off my pepper plants, the second of which is an hour of shorthand, on which I hope to post next. And then just another quick read of the web to confirm that I want to reopen nominations for the green leadership elections.

The Finkler Question

I finished Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker longlisted ‘The Finkler Question’. I hardly read fiction (something I regret) and my other half was surprised that I couldn’t put it down. Truth is I was scouring it for insight about the state of my life, no part of which is untouched by the Middle East conflict. Most recently, I was volunteering in the local woods and somebody involved with the Israel Coalition Against Home Demolitions gave an impromptu lecture – “as a Jew”, you understand – during a tea break. Even in an Essex wood, having just encountered two incidents of arson, we’re to be lectured about Israel? Something is wrong. And that isn’t the half of it.

The Finkler Question is peopled by this type of activist and other characters who react to them. Does the Mann Booker longlisting mean that these activists are noteworthy when in a world of just priorities this novel would only be of niche interest? Or perhaps it speaks differently to different people – like The Independent, Bloomsbury avoids the subject entirely:

The Finkler Question is a scorching story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of the wisdom and humanity of maturity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best.”

Now for me, that review summarises only part of the book I read. I read a very interesting and sparklingly funny novel mainly about British Jews living with an imagined Israel, and about how some purported friends of Jews are not after all good friends to Jews.

Spoiler follows.

Julian Treslove is an unchallenging and patchily reflective secular philosemite. This philosemitism has its origins in a fixation with his Jewish school friend Sam Finkler, a figure of intellectual superiority and insouciant mystique which Treslove imprints as essential Jewishness. Because this philosemitism is so bound up in the part of Finkler’s character which outwits and confounds Treslove, neither Israel, Jewish culture nor Jewish religion contribute to it; it is unaffected by Finkler’s earlier transformation (in reaction to his father) from ardent Zionist to equally ardent anti-Zionist. It is an essentialising infatuation. Through the lens of Treslove’s fascination, innocent queries and – later in life – the jealous self-consolation of a rival, Finkler emerges as a frequently ridiculous figure, but Treslove’s philosemitism endures. The third major character in the book is their former teacher, over three times their age when they met, Czech Jewish emigree Libor Sevcik. Libor and Finkler have been recently widowed, Treslove would like to have been, and the three commune.

Treslove’s strange inner life seems, among the characters of the book, to escape general notice. He isn’t after all the archetypal everyman character his work as professional look-alike suggests. He has a gloomy penchant for women who look terminally ill whom he invariably bores into hating him. He shows no interest in the two sons he accidentally fathered, keeps creating figments of Jewishness where Jewishness doesn’t exist, and from the beginning we learn that he is also extremely fearful of personal accident.

In the briefest unguarded moment Treslove is mugged. For the next few days he has nosebleeds and undergoes a deep change. His attacker had uttered a phrase he resolves (after days of skewed meditation) was “You Jew”. Formerly his admiration of Jews was vicarious and empty of personal aspiration. Now, as victim of an antisemitic attack, he experiences not the appropriate response of empathy but a dramatic and welcome change of identity, a sort of reverse trauma: he begins to think of himself as a Jew. The Jewish identity which steals upon Treslove consists of jollity, good sex and burgeoning energy. As Finkler’s and Libor’s fortunes and spirits decline, Treslove’s seem buoyant. He begins a relationship with Hephzibah, a Jewish woman who doesn’t look terminally ill, on whom he dotes in the same vein as his former girlfriends but is well-received.

Hephzibah is somebody who “dissolves Jewish differences”. Her Jewish sensibilities are British and early 21st century (not anti-Zionist, not centrally pro-Israel). She smells of the orient and cooks with intensity. All this, when they become acquainted, warms Finkler. Imagining that Hephzibah and Finkler have an exclusive Jewish affinity, Treslove’s besottment with Jewishness, devoid of spiritual, religious, or cultural content, consisting entirely of affected yiddish phrases, and notwithstanding his keen awareness of antisemitism, arrives at its inevitable destination of jealousy and suspicion.

Meanwhile he and all of the other characters are becoming aware of the encroachment of anti-Zionism, in the name of Palestinian rights, from the background into the foreground. Finkler is principle personality in an anti-Zionist group he has named ASHamed Jews, “which might or might not, depending on how others felt, be shortened now or in the future to ASH, the peculiar felicity of which, in the circumstances, he was sure it wasn’t necessary for him to point out.” Jacobson’s satirical account of the characters and exploits of ASHamed Jews is closest to life, and recalls the narcissistic silliness of the activists in Tariq Ali’s Redemption.

“The logic that made it impossible for those who had never been Zionists to call themselves ASHamed Zionists did not extend to Jews who had never been Jews. To be an ASHamed Jew did not require that you had been knowingly Jewish all your life. Indeed, one among them only found out he was Jewish at all in the course of making a television programme in which he was confronted on camera with who he really was. In the final frame of the film he was disclosed weeping before a memorial in Auschwitz to dead ancestors who until that moment he had never known he’d had. ‘It could explain where I get my comic genius from,’ he told an interviewer for a newspaper, though by then he had renegotiated his new allegiance. Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting ‘We are all Hezbollah’ outside the Israeli Embassy on the following Saturday.”

ASHamed Jews marginalises itself with its inbuilt silliness and internecine fighting. Its threat to British Jewish life is a small part of a constellation of other antisemitic events, related and unrelated to Israel, which eat away at the morale of British Jews, most of which are counterparts of actual instances in British current affairs.

Finkler’s son enacts the ideological foundations of ASHamed anti-Zionism with antisemitic effect. Treslove’s son Alfredo is exposed to Holocaust denial in the company of British men in keffiyot. The great grandson of Libor’s friend is blinded in London by an Algerian shouting “Death to all Jews”. An orthodox Jewish child is surrounded by a mob of jeering, jabbing children, only saved by Treslove and a dog walker. There is the inept and category-defying act of wrapping the doors of Hephzibah’s not-yet-open Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture in bacon. Video blogger Alvin Poliakov attempts to restore his foreskin with “a system of weights he has devised using cpper jewellery, keys from a children’s xylophone, and a pair of small brass candlesticks”. Hephzibah begins to dread the opening of the museum, assessing that the mood is wrong for learning about the positive contribution its Jews have made to British life.

Libor, stricken by the death of his wife, articulates the historical awareness of the Holocaust generation, as well as escapism and a paralysing, impotent fatalism. Finkler’s wife, Tyler, a convert to Judaism, has the most trenchantly contemptuous insights about the Jewish content of her husband’s anti-Zionism, and contrasts with Treslove’s gropings. On Finkler’s domination of ASHamed Jews in the media, “‘They’ll soon realise their mistake,’ Tyler had prophesied. ‘With a greedy bastard like you around, they’ll soon discover how hard it is to get their own share of shame.'” Tyler is at first Jacobson’s main vehicle of argument against anti-Zionism but is dead by the time the book begins.

In the later parts of the novel, Finkler becomes unbearably uncomfortable. He is puffed up, but as a professional thinker, even at “the show-business end of philosophy” he has a public stake in his powers of reason. He also has integrity, and Jacobson perhaps allows himself some wish-fulfilment with the development of Finkler’s thinking about Israel and his willingness to contest some forms of anti-Zionism. That thinking doesn’t lead, here, to Zionism or a pro-Israel position, but to his reasoned dissociation from ASHamed Jews and – a less reasoned response to kinship – a reconciliation with his own Jewishness.

Other reviews:

contains no culture, religion or spirituality.

Green Man 2010

Gripes, praise, music and photos.

Update: Green Man TV. I remember now. It was brilliant.

At times this year Green Man felt like a rally for people so similar-minded that there was no need to say anything substantially political. Josie Long pretty much summed up my experience of the comedy and literature stage when she observed that all a stand-up comedian had to do to get their audience on side was to say they hate the Conservatives. Truly, out of my admittedly small sample, it’s all we got. Including from her, nice woman she is. And I won my bet that no fucker we heard pronouncing on the state of the nation would go anywhere near the Liberal Democrats. All the bad feeling was reserved for the Conservatives. It was if there was no coalition. The reason is that Green Man reads The Guardian and The Guardian laid foundations for this government everybody shapelessly and aimlessly hates, by telling us to vote Liberal Democrat.

Maybe I was doing something else at the times when the criticism of the Conservatives became trenchant and argued. What Josie Long said suggests it never did, though. All I saw were performers acting like they were the last remnant of some ancient British tribe consoling themselves in a valley surrounded by Daily Mail-reading Roman garrisons. And if there were any Conservatives or Daily Mail readers at Green Man’s literature and comedy stage, they won’t be returning in 2011 because they were assumed absent and lampooned. That pissed me off to an almost unspeakable extent – because in fact we are the ones who lost the political battle. Now we have to start again, and if politics isn’t changing minds, it’s nothing.

In a cranky conversation I started, a good friend told me that somebody who didn’t know me would assume I was right wing. True, there’s a kind of left – the kind that makes me homeless and others neo-conservative in protest – that I want to see wither. When Billy Bragg sings about power in a union, I think about how my institution’s student and staff unions swung militantly behind a campaign for funded scholarships for (only) Palestinian students, and yet allowed our nursery to close. And when he gets us to sing, with regards to African states, ‘just drop the debt and it will be alright’, I think it’s only responsible to consider the ramifications, same as I would for my, your, everybody’s household’s £90k debt, which nobody is proposing we drop. Only talking and singing about that – or that in general – is going to rekindle any home fires on the left (listening to Mike Skinner on the way home I wistfully imagined him getting into politics – sadly or maybe happily it’s skinner by name…).

But mostly Green Man is about music. For me there were two electrifying stand-out sets. Steve Mason was amazing and the atmosphere was amazing – here’s something he played, recorded here during his Beta Band days (and I was at that gig).

Local heroes (Essex, that is) These New Puritans were mindblowing. Imagine these live in the dark:

Then on Sunday I’d stamped off to the tent in bout of near-tears at being denied advertised vegan cake after queuing (it was that time of day, there been some smoking and a lot of rum), returned to find Matt and Rachel in actual tears after The Tallest Man on Earth had huddled with his friends on the Far Out stage to perform Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’.

For silly talent, dancing, and bouncy youth, Darwin Deez.

For distracting me from being bored during their songs with smoke, confetti, mic cams and zorbing, The Flaming Lips. It looked like this:

More photos. Yes of course it rained – the rain was heavy, and light, and prolonged. We all came prepared and nobody minded. Billy Bragg informed us it was pissing down at V. In between showers I got this (from inside my hood):

They say Green Man, with its natural amphitheatre and cloud-wreathed mountain backdrop, is the most scenic music festival:

The other lovely thing about Green Man is how many parents feel comfortable about bringing their children.

It’s fun, recommend it. Our friend got laid.

More comprehensive reviews:

Con-Dem’s got no bottle / Axe milk!

David “the pinch” Willetts was right to favour axing free milk for under-fives. It costs us £60m and is an anachronistic way of trying to get calcium into badly-tended kids, with its own undesirable health side effects. And as a universal benefit to rich and poor alike at a time of structural deficit, there’s no case for keeping it.

Except PR. Cameron decided to squander £60m on continuing this wasteful scheme because his reputation is too fragile to withstand being compared to Margaret Thatcher. I’m not confident the man will last.

Health spending is axed, milk is kept – makes no sense. Anne Milton’s ‘Healthy Start’ vouchers were a far better idea.

I am vegan, so it wouldn’t do for me to stop without making the following uncontroversial statements of fact so few people want to know about:

  • Milk is for calves and its benefits for humans are overstated; what benefits there are are not particular to milk.
  • Milk is a cruel food; the cows forced into supplying this cheapo milk are unlikely to see much grass, likely to be permanently on antibiotics, forced to calf each year and then have their babies taken away from them so we can have it all. And when they stop being able to calve, it’s curtains. An intelligent, feeling, social creature, used up and thrown away, needlessly.
  • Milk is an environmentally degrading food – 990 litres of water for each litre of milk. The greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation for their food (the largest portion of the world’s soy crop); transporting the food round the world; cold storage for the milk; moving the milk (whose main constituent is water) from dairy farm to fridge; the packaging.

I think we should find alternatives to milk for all these reasons. My hunch is that the children will thank us later.

Bonus links for those curious about the state of play (which seems to be a depressing zero sum game):

  • Food Climate Research Network at the University of Surrey – seriously engaging with climate change, don’t care about animal welfare.
  • Food Ethics Council – good on human welfare, but search for ‘sentience’ and you get a single hit
  • Stephen Walsh’s book Plant-Based Nutrition and Health – information on vegan nourishment.
  • The Vegan Society – good on cruelty, but not yet credible as a decision-making resource. It’s not acceptable to have undated web pages giving nutrition advice.

10:10 update, some photos

As you may or may not remember, I signed up to the 10:10 campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here is an update.

I repaired a pair of knickers that had gone in the gusset. About to darn my coat, which is worn through at the hip (like everything else which comes into prolonged contact with my hip on the shoulder bag side – the bag is also wearing through).

Between my friend’s hen weekend and her wedding my camera (compact and modestly-priced little Samsung NV3) started to grind and switch itself off when I tried to take a photo. So I sent it to my local Samsung-approved service contractors in Letchworth, who got it back to me repaired on the day before the wedding. Clean, mend and recalibration cost £65 including a £25 assessment fee. I’m happy – only whoever tested it left their battery in. So I hope my reconditioned camera outlasts its current battery so I have a chance to use this one.

Some photos follow, documenting the happy arrival of rain after a worryingly long period of no rain.

Picnic today in Crystal Palace Park shortly before precipitation:

Shortly afterwards during precipitation

Crystal Park Palace

On our way back – Matt on Throgmorton Street, City of London.

Throgmorton Street, City of London

Outside the Hayward Gallery, London South Bank Centre:

From the Hayward Gallery

Academy schools – robbing peter to pay paul

There’s a recording of a pre-election panel convened by The Observer to debate free schools which is worth a listen (aside: despite the BBC’s decision to go with the needlessly sensationalist and machismo-ridden debate format when some kind of parallel thinking exercise would have been far more informative, here). Academy schools, aka free schools, are another incarnation of a Labour policy, the difference being now that the Lib-Con coalition is pushing them as part of its schools revolution.

Shortly after the Lib-Con coalition formed, the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove wrote to the best schools inviting them to apply to become academies, subsequently overstated the take-up by about 800%, and then railroaded his Academies Bill through Parliament (317 in favour, 225 against) using emergency procedures developed to counter terrorism. The Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee had concerns (and where were the Liberal so-called-Democrats while Gove was hanging democratic process out to dry?). Caroline Lucas’ amendments, including one about the National Curriculum which would have conferred some protection against ideologues, fell.

The Lib-Cons surmise (I surmise) that if enough schools opt out of Local Authorities, it’s cheaper to pay unemployment benefit for former Council employees than pay their wages and pension contributions. The rhetoric, though, is about ending local government interference – “it’s our money and we should say how we spend it” sort of thing. But it’s not “their” money – hey, we’re the Big Society. That’s our collective money and if local government is pissing it up the wall on inefficient contracts, then that’s our collective problem.The outcome of academy schools will be a two-tier system, when what we need is an excellent comprehensive system and equal opportunities for all children where they live. And local government interference, such as it is, has always been far, far surpassed by central government interference, and there’s no proposal to limit that. And, strongly supporting a comprehensive system funded by central taxation, I favour that involvement for the same reasons I like local government representatives I can vote down, and schools’ boards of governors which are accountable to them and to parents, and the same reasons I worry about private companies, charities and unelected bodies with long-term contracts.

As of May 2010 there were 203 academies. They haven’t been rigorously evaluated, tend to be run by companies with legal obligations to shareholders (Institute of Education professor Stephen Ball‘s 2007 book Education Plc looks worth reading). And although they can fail, it’s the successful ones we hear about from the politicians proposing the scheme. One threat academies pose is lowering standards for “educational providers” and exacerbating inequality of wage through outsourcing. Another threat is the sharp-elbowed and better-off, as Seumas Milne puts it, prising money out of public funds that are supposed to be redistributing wealth, while the remaining schools in local authority control sink.

And if Toby Young the climate change skeptic and Peter Vardy the creationist are any indication, these schools will attract people hoping to inculcate ideologies. 300 expressions of interest came from faith schools – and I thought about the King Fahd School (now ironically the King Fahad Academy – though not the kind we’re talking about).

They will certainly attract diversifying omni-coms looking to make 10% or something like that on their contracts. This makes me very despondent because where local council members and workers are inefficient or otherwise fail to operate with the public spirit and solicitude we should expect from a bunch of people in custody, not to mention receipt, of their neighbourhoods’ tax take, it’s that that needs to change, not the ‘public’ part. If there’s 10% to be saved then it belongs back in the schools, not in some company’s profit.

Given the middle classes tend to be the most knowing, confident and organised, we should be falling over ourselves to keep them (as stakeholders in the schools where the poor kids, with their – often – less knowing, confident and organised parents, go. Educators have difficulties getting poor kids through school – always have, always will. If we’re stuck with social stratification, then the wealthier parents are to be cherished and encouraged to throw in their lot with everybody else. Because it’s the right thing to do. Instead the Conservocrats encourage them to split off.

Despite government claims of interest from over 1100 schools, only 153 schools have applied, and those may change their mind between beginning their consultation exercises and signing the agreement. Good. Hopefully the others are sticking with their local authorities on principle, rather than because they’re waiting for better information.

However, many expressions of interest came from teachers in inner-city areas. Councils have got to facilitate these people’s ideas for innovation. Require efficiency and individualisation from our Councils, yes. Good local schools, yes. Academy schools, no.

The Anti-Academies Alliance have more (in disappointingly self-indulgent tone).