Monday, 17 October 2016

But is it art?

So Bob Dylan became the first musician to win the Nobel prize for literature. If any musician was going to win it, it was Dylan. And he has always thought of himself as a poet, after all the young Mr Zimmerman named himself after one.

I like a fair number of Dylan songs (I'll come to my favourite below) and readers will know I'm interested in lyrics but, notwithstanding that, I find a lot of Dylan's stuff to be hard going and sometimes lyrically opaque. I'm probably too slow witted or not tuned in to the allegories and subtleties. Some of the songs referred to in the media coverage are, to my mind, timeless classics that will be sung as folk songs for centuries, Blowin' In The Wind and The Times They Are A Changin' being the obvious examples. In contrast, amongst the other songs being mentioned, Just Like A Woman  has always struck me as a pleasant song with not much about it and, while I like Lay Lady Lay, I thought it bizarre for it to be mentioned in a discourse on literary merit, as it was on the BBC website.

My favourite Dylan song is Positively 4th Street. You can tell I'm not mainstream Dylan as, out of 8 choices offered in a vote for best Dylan song on the BBC website, my choice was coming in 8th when I voted. Like A Rolling Stone is running first and Mr Tambourine Man (nice song, decent lyric but very marginal as a poem) is 5th. Returning to Positively 4th Street, to my ear it's one of his better tunes and it has the most piercingly acerbic, indeed vituperative lyric of any song I've ever heard. The whole song is full of spleen about some poor bugger who had clearly got to him, ending:
I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is to see you
The song is so strongly expressed I don't think I've ever felt that way about any person I've ever met!

Anyway, I guess I'll just have to dig out my copy of Bob Dylan Greatest Hits and listen to Like A Rolling Stone one more time and try to figure out the nuances, as it seems to me a fairly straightforward put-down, though with some decent imagery.

Anyway, the debate over whether a musician should win the Nobel prize for Literature is now raging. I've got no problem with Dylan winning this award, though of course I prefer Roy Harper as a poet and lyricist. For me Dylan's stuff is poetic, rather than poetry. While not for a moment dismissing him as a balladeer, most of Dylan's songs are ballads  in the sense that they tell a story and have an unequivocal meaning, compared to poems, which often have shades of meaning and so are capable of different interpretations. Indeed, poems usually require interpretation, or rather explanation, for me to get the nuances. Though Dylan conjures up some superb imagery, in my biased opinion I haven't seen a Dylan lyric to compete with the subtlety of Harper's interpretation of emotions, for example in the song Commune, which includes the line "to lust for a moment in love of another". Nor have I heard much evidence that Dylan does humour or even whimsy, unless you count one of his real turkeys, Wiggle Wiggle, dedicated to his then 4 year old daughter, with lines like "wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup".

When I was much younger and "pop" music became more sophisticated (or overblown and pretentious if you must - think prog rock in its pomp), people used to ask "But is it art?" So it will be interesting to see whether any of the current David Bowie, Beatles and other exhibitions, featuring multi-media exhibits that, for me, must be counted as "art", win any of the art prizes. Then we'll know youth culture prevailed, even if those once young are now very old or dead and gone.

Which reminds me of the Dylan lyric "Ah but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now" from the song My Back Pages, though it's the version by Keith Emerson's The Nice that I'm hearing in my head. Indeed, I think Dylan is uniquely important because, not only has he inspired so many other musicians to produce brilliant music of their own but also, of all the artists whose songs have been covered extensively, it is Dylan who has inspired others to produce outstanding cover versions of his songs. Unlike Beatles covers, which rarely add much to the original, they include what became definitive versions of the song: after all how many people think of Dylan's versions of All Along The Watchtower or Mr Tambourine Man?

A unique genius.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Time for this question?

I used to watch Question Time a lot, but found politics got a bit boring for a while. But it's interesting again (not entirely a good thing). I enjoyed what I saw of last night's raucous programme in which Lady Nugee, aka Emily "White Van Man" Thornberry, really got the bird from the Leavers in the audience, having got their goat by suggesting they didn't know what they had been voting for. Members of the audience couldn't wait to correct her, with several people, all notably young - please note Remainers! - making clear that, yes they did know. One young man eloquently said he was perfectly clear that he had voted for leaving the EU, return of sovereignty, control of borders and leaving the single market. Another young man took umbrage at Thornberry's suggestion that Leavers had voted their "neighbour out of a job", saying that leaving the low growth single market and its regulation would be positive for trade.

Judging from the noise there was a representative balance in the audience between Leave and Remain. (Well done BBC, for once).

However, what fascinated me was that, despite the assertions of Lady Nugee and Alex Salmond that voters were lied to and the implication that they would feel fooled, not a single member of the audience who had voted Leave indicated that they were having any second thoughts or regrets. On the contrary, many in the Question Time audience were clearly upset at the suggestion that they were incapable of evaluating the information presented to us in the campaign and seeing it for what it was. Indeed, not one of the many people I know who voted Leave has indicated the slightest bit of what David Cameron called buyer's remorse. Yet, anyway.

So my question is, when will the rearguard Remain campaign accept that people who voted Leave meant it and voted as they would in any election, having weighed the information presented to them, however contentious?

At least until the price rises from the weak pound filter through. As I am unavoidably on a variable duel fuel tariff currently, today I got news of a 25% price rise.....

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


All the companies I worked for, in the public and private sectors, wanted to be considered a "good employer". I wonder what the trade unions would say about an employer in which:

  • Many women working for it are unhappy with the way it has dealt with allegations of harassment, bullying and other complaints 
  • Over half of female officers questioned by researchers have raised bullying or harassment concerns and half of those did not believe the issue was handled well 
  • One in six have submitted formal grievances (three quarters of those were bullying or harassment). In cases supposedly resolved, half were unhappy at the outcome.
What awful employer is this? Well, actually, it's the trade union Unite.

The findings came after a female former Unite employee, Sally Nailard, had a sexual harassment and sexual discrimination related constructive dismissal case against Unite upheld last week. She claimed she had been subjected to a 2 year campaign of lewd and aggressive comments by Unite shop stewards who wanted to force her out of her role as a Unite regional officer at Heathrow.

To be fair to Unite, they presumably realise they have a problem as they commissioned the survey, though maybe they thought it would give them a clean bill of health. They surveyed 88 female officers and almost 70% said they had experienced hostility at work, with nearly 40% saying they had been frightened at some point. Half of those said they had suffered verbal abuse, with almost one in four saying it was of a sexual nature.  A fifth of female Unite officers have taken time off work with stress  in the past 18 Months.

Wow! These stats are horrendous and at least an order of magnitude worse than anything I experienced in 4 decades in industry and business.

Seven in ten said they mainly experienced hostility from members. Unite stresses these are not under their control. No, but I thought they were meant to be, er, "brothers" in old trade union speak? And don't plenty of employees in the public and private sector have to deal with people not under the control of the organisation - like customers, patients, or the general public? Presumably Unite doesn't equip its employees to deal with these situations - or maybe Unite members specialise in being particularly hostile, including to their union officers?

In all organisations the culture is either what it's been for ages or one that has been inculcated by the management. Who would have thought that an organisation run by a bruiser like Len McCluskey would turn out to be ridden with bullying and harassment?

Not exactly a surprise? Actually I am surprised at the horrendous extent of the problems, even though the Labour movement is not exactly the gentlest of environments at the moment. From the tone of this post and my digs at the RMT (10 October and 13 August) it might surprise some to know that I believe in trade unions. Indeed, I was a union member for more than half my career (and a representative for several years) until it became incompatible with management responsibilities. Unions can make a hugely positive contribution to the success of an organisation and therefore its members who are employees there. This tends not to happen when the union thinks it can exert political pressure on the management, or go direct to a public sector "shareholder". In train operating companies the unions see the current franchise management as a temporary presence that they can play for time. In contrast in the private sector there is much more likely to be a shared imperative to satisfy customers and ensure the company flourishes to the benefit of everyone.

Be that as it may, Unite needs to put its own house in order before it is in any position to do its job properly and represent its members effectively.

Source: the Unite internal report has not been published but was leaked and several newspapers and websites including The Sunday Times and The Guardian covered the story. The report is titled Women in Unite and has been under consideration by Unite management for 4 months. I couldn't find any reference to it or indeed Sally Nailard on Unite's website.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Right Mickey Takers (2)

Have things moved on in the Southern rail dispute since my post of 13 August? Not much, but the situation is even more nonsensical.

Southern's Chief Executive says the Union has set "new standards in union militancy" after the RMT called for last ditch talks to avert a 3 day strike this week. I'm not sure he's quite got that standards of ineptitude more like.

Southern had offered a £2,000 bonus for employees to sign up to the new deal, which changes the role of conductors, by Thursday of last week. Bizarrely the RMT chose to reject that offer but then, one day later, after the offer had lapsed, advised its members to sign the new contracts agreeing to the new role of on-board supervisor. Then, over the weekend, the union urged its members to go ahead with the 3 day strike starting tomorrow and called for further talks at ACAS, several previous rounds of which have been fruitless.

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said "Our dispute remains on and the fight for safety continues despite the bullying and threats from Southern. We have a duty to issue our members with clear legal advice that protects their position in the teeth of the threat of mass sackings. That is what we have done." Southern had actually guaranteed jobs till 2021 with no loss of pay or overtime and above inflation pay rises for the next 2 years, though they now intend to serve notice letters to conductors to end their contracts if agreement is not reached within 4 days and is taking legal action to try to stop the strikes. The union mandate for strikes is 6 months old and the dispute has been going on for even longer.

As a reminder this dispute is not about safety (the Rail Accident Investigation Branch say there is no evidence to suggest driver-only operated trains are less safe) and it's clearly not about money, given that Southern seem to be throwing money at the relevant employees. It's about power and the RMT's concern that they will be in a position of less influence in the future.

And some people think that, not only is further trade union reform unnecessary, they would roll back previous reform. After listening to some of the rhetoric at the Tory conference last week, it seems everyone wants to take us back to the 1970s. I can think of some reasons to be nostalgic for the 70s - mainly musical (from Pink Floyd and prog rock to Steely Dan, punk and new wave, what's not to like?) but the economy and industrial relations aren't amongst them. No we don't want to go back there, kids.....

Sources: RMT calls for further talks to avert Southern rail strike, 9 October
Southern Railway taking legal action to stop strikes,, 10 October

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Jamais vu

In my post "Deja vu"  (29 September) I noted that the EU nations are very good at postponing decisions which are necessary for financial stability. Its leaders recognise that there are things they must do but which they don't dare or care to do. Make us a properly functioning union, but not yet, or maybe ever.

To be fair to the mainstream political view in the EU they have recognised the need for freedom of movement to underpin the single market and the euro. But they still don't have the political and financial structures that are needed and the richer nations in the north do not recognise that the price of a one size fits all structure is wealth transfer to the poorer nations in the south. The southern countries are beset by extremely high unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Countries such as Greece complain that it is "austerity" that causes their problems, but it isn't, or at least I am certain that it isn't just that. It is because they can't compete with the German juggernaut. So the German economy benefits without them paying the price of subsidising the poorer countries. This is all very dysfunctional.

In the UK, of course, we have a single market, single currency, functioning central bank and patchy systems for the wealth transfers that are necessary for the parts of the country that cannot flourish under our version of "one size fits all". Yes, you jocks, I mean the Barnett formula.

You might be surprised that I am championing the Barnett formula and freedom of movement. Well, I'm not a fan of the Barnett formula as it discriminates in favour of Scotland compared with Wales and the poorer English regions, but the principle of wealth transfers is recognised here. And, if you want to have a single market and currency, I recognise that freedom of movement has to go with it. So yes, I agree that, for the EU to conceivably work properly, freedom of movement is essential. But so are many other things that they haven't got in place. And, if they had, that club is definitely not one I would want to be in. But the EU is a million miles from making it work at the moment and we are facing difficulties while we are in the EU as a result.

One of the difficulties is that our economy is a magnet for low earners, particularly in Eastern Europe. The availability of low cost labour has helped the UK economy but it has been unhelpful for low earners among the indigenous population, depressing wages. When freedom of movement was first conceived in the EU it was a smaller entity, comprised of Western European countries without large differences in living standards. They went for expansion and the single currency when perhaps it should have been one or the other.

I note that Jeremy Corbyn claimed in his conference speech to have the answer to the problem of wage disparity across the EU and its impact on what was his party's traditional core support, the lower paid British working class. On planet Corbyn  this is fixed by achieving "a degree of equality of work conditions and wages across Europe". As Poland's national income per head is 60% of ours and Bulgaria's is 40% this ain't going to happen on any sensible timescale. Unless, of course, Jeremy plans to rapidly reduce our level to theirs. I can perfectly well believe that's what he would do, though I even I might be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt over whether he actually intends that. Unlike John McDonnell, who probably does.

You will have all realised that I called this post "jamais vu" because Corbyn and the Eurocrats have something in common: they can't see, won't see and so will never see the right answers to these problems.

Friday, 30 September 2016

I have become a Europhile

Although I voted "Remain" I've long been a Eurosceptic, albeit one who thought the EU might be able to resolve its problems and that we would probably be better off in, with all its frustrations and bureaucracy, than out. Post referendum, I've become convinced that we have to leave and make the best of it. But today I'm ditching Euroscepticism totally and I'm fully behind Europe. Indeed, today I feel totally European.

But then I would as Britain is at the heart of Europe, at least this weekend, with 7 British players in  Darren Clarke's 12 man Ryder Cup team.

So it's "Go Team Europe". Normal service will be resumed on Monday.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Big bullies

Crikey, Jake Humphrey's colleagues in the media turned on him for saying that Sam Allardyce was brought down by a combination of "greed, naivety and our poisonous press". Humphrey retracted that tweet, then rephrased his next effort, saying the press had been "ruthless".

The Daily Telegraph, full of self righteousness, is maintaining that its sting was part of its fight against corruption. Given that the worst thing Allardyce said from this point of view was that the rules on 3rd party ownership could be "circumvented", I'm really struggling to see that this amounts to corruption at any serious level.

In practice Allardyce was damaged goods and had to go because otherwise this story would have kept coming up. Just as the chap I heard on a phone-in saying Glen Hoddle was the only sensible candidate didn't seem to realise that his fruitcake remarks about karma would just keep being regurgitated if he was reappointed, whatever you think of him as a coach.

But, as Allardyce said, it was entrapment and pretty shabby too. I think Humphrey got it right and the bullying that followed - for that's what it was - proved his point; the press can be poisonous. Poor Jake stepped outside the established groupthink and, perhaps acting as naively as Allardyce, told everyone on Twitter.

Having repeated the News of the World's fake sheikh sting but without the robes, the Telegraph obviously aspires to take over the mantle of the defunct Sunday redtop rather than undertake serious investigative journalism on topics of real importance.

Like how corrupt UEFA is, frigging the club coefficents by taking account of ancient historical success to ensure that, from 2018, clubs which used to be good but aren't any longer, like AC Milan, can get a ticket to the group stage for the foreseeable future while also changing the financial distribution to keep teams like Bayern Munich competitive in Europe even though the German league has been turned into a boring perpetual one horse race and is theefore commercially unattractive. Golly, Leicester have got them terrified....