Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

REVIEW: Somebody has to make the poison gas.

In C.Spiby, Reviews on July 7, 2014 at 9:22 pm

mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us to the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough.

It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.

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ACADEMIES: TWO FAILURES IN THE FOREST ARE TWO TOO MANY

In R.Richardson on July 7, 2014 at 9:09 pm

by Ruth Richardson

In our last issue we reported that the Forest Academy in Cinderford would be seeking a new sponsor, as the chain which ran it (E-Act) had been required to shed about a third of its schools following poor Ofsted reports.

Now, two months later, comes the news that Lydney’s Dean Academy’s sponsor is to be replaced. Incidentally, when academy status at Whitecross School (as it was then called) was first proposed in 2012  many parents were against it, claiming that consultation had been inadequate.

The sponsor,  Prospects Academic Trust, is to shed six schools in all. In spite of reassurances from the school head that “this change will not impact (sic) on the quality of education that we are providing”, parents are gravely concerned.  One parent commented, “the whole thing seems to have been a colossal waste of energy, money and resources – and all the school has to show for it are some expensive new railings.”

Other parents are worried that the timing of the announcement will adversely affect  children who are about to take all- important exams.

GOVE’S QUALIFICATIONS?

A letter from John Belcher in The Forester points out that the failure of two academy chain providers in a short space of time sets a worrying precedent for other local schools. He also points out that Michael Gove’s qualifications for being Education Minister are that he went to school, attended university and is a right-wing politician. He has no teaching qualification.

NO THANKS, WE’RE BRITISH:

Michael Gove, of course, has a penchant for new directives that cause controversy. One of the latest is that exam boards should no longer include American classics such as To Kill a Mocking Bird  in the syllabus.  Instead, pupils need to study British writer such as Dickens or Austen – and of course Shakespeare. A spokesman for the National Association for the Teaching of English said that “Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens at 16 is just tedious.”

KEEPING AN EYE ON FREE SCHOOLS:

Another innovation from Gove was the promotion of “free schools”. These could be set up by any group who could provide a viable education plan; and such a group would be eligible for state funding.

Now apparently, a confidential document has been prepared which proposes that such free schools should be monitored. Those that are struggling will be given “special fast-track attention” ahead of damaging Ofsted reports.

The document warns that “the political ramifications of any more free schools being judged inadequate are very high and speedy intervention is essential.” Already, out of 38 free schools Ofsted rated that almost a third required improvement or were judged inadequate.

MASSAGING THE FIGURES:

Over recent years there have been a number of depressing reports on how badly our teenagers perform compared with those from other countries. But an article in The Observer was quite enlightening.

The test that is frequently used is the “Programme for International Student Assessment” (PISA) in reading, maths and science. The figures for Shanghai students topped the tables, whilst the UK ranked 26th.

However, Shanghai is the most affluent part of China with a per capita GDP more than double the national average. Moreover, nearly half of Shanghai’s children belong to migrant families and were barred from taking the test.

Although students from 12 provinces took the test, the Government chose only to share Shanghai’s scores. Many Chinese educationalists feel that teaching in the country is far from ideal. There is “a heavy emphasis on rote memorisation… great for test-taking but not for problem-solving and leadership skills.”

So perhaps our teenagers aren’t doing so badly after all.

LEARNING “ON THE JOB”:

A change in the route to becoming a qualified teacher has crept up on most of us unawares.  PGCE courses and B.Ed degrees are fast disappearing.  Instead teachers are increasingly trained “on the job”.

Schemes such as “School Direct” and “Teach First” place graduates in schools and provide support and some out-of-classroom learning for them. There are financial benefits for participating schools and for the students themselves. But are parents not entitled to believe that their child’s education is in the hands of a fully qualified teacher?

RUTH RICHARDSON

“23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism” by Ha-Joon Chang

In John Wilmot, Reviews on July 7, 2014 at 8:55 pm

CAPITALISM UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: a Review by J. Wilmot

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism”, by Ha-Joon Chang. Penguin edition published 2011.

This is a rather strange book. The author was born in South Korea, but is now based at Cambridge University. His brief here is to expose the kind of claims made by ardent supporters of the free market capitalist model, from Adam Smith onwards.

But he’s no Socialist. Indeed, he hardly mentions Socialism – or that other alternative model, the co-operative movement.  He does, though present a critique of the kind of central planning imposed within the Soviet Union which he sees as distorting priorities.  Writing within a capitalist framework, he’s simply there to debunk a range of assertions made by those who go over the top in praise of the system, and perhaps to bring them down to earth. But in his introduction, he writes: “Being critical of  free-market ideology is not the same as being against capitalism.  Despite its problems and limitations, I believe that capitalism is still the best economic system that humanity has invented”.

Hmm. Well, we’ll have to agree to differ on that point won’t we?

THE FREE MARKET: DOES IT  EXIST?

His opening gambit is a scrutiny of the monetarists’ much vaunted “free market”. Only when markets are free can the economy flourish, they would claim.

But the author asserts that there’s no such thing as a “free market” (certainly not in latter-day capitalism). For example, there is always some level of control over the economy by governments.  And there are restrictions on the use of child labour in what’s euphemistically called the developed world.  There are controls over what we can buy or sell – such as drugs that are deemed to be harmful. We have environmental controls over such things as creating pollution (OK not as many as there should be) – and all these are accepted by those who espouse the “free market”.

Of course it’s been the task of such “freemarket” supporters as Thatcher (and now the dynamic duo of Cameron and Osborne) to reduce such regulations and legal restrictions to the minimum. But there’s a limit to what even they could manage. And financial regulations (such as fixing bank interest rates) are constantly being imposed in order to influence the direction of the economy.

A SHAREHOLDING SOCIETY?

The days when any big firm could be owned by a single individual are, of course, long since over. We’re now in the age of the public limited company, or “plc” for short. In other words a company is ostensibly owned by its shareholders.

Anyone of course can buy shares. Indeed, Thatcher actively encouraged it when she flogged off such public utilities as British Gas. And a host of others. But in practice shares are usually held in large blocks, often by those who buy or sell simply to make short-term profit.

The orthodox view is that as shareholders own companies, they should be run specifically in their interests. It’s an assertion that Ha-Joon Chang is critical of.

Shareholders, he argues, are the “stakeholders” who are likely to have the least interest in the long-term future of the company they’ve invested in.  Their interest is in making a swift buck. Thus they favour strategies based on making higher short-term profits rather than the long-term interests of the company.

After all, if the company’s not making a swift buck, the shareholder can pull out his/her shares and invest the cash elsewhere. As the writer says “running the company for the shareholders often reduces its long-term growth potential.”

He suggests that this state of affairs came about with the growth of  the public limited company, particularly in the 19th Century. The word “limited”, he says, stands for “limited liability”.  Rather than a businessman risking his home and everything he owns including the clothes he stands up in, he merely stands to lose the value of his shares in the company.

But of course, as a mere shareholder, you don’t want this to happen. You don’t have the long-term interests of the company at heart so at any sign of risk, you sell your shares and take your money elsewhere.

MANAGEMENT:

Now we’ve seen the emergence of a powerful managerial class, who (at least in theory) guide the company, and are rewarded for its success with high salaries and whacking great bonuses. Indeed, its been the emergence of the bonus culture that’s marked capitalism in recent decades. Provided that they keep making the profits, they are the masters now.  And, because the power of the shareholders is so dissipated, even if management doesn’t deliver the goods, it’s often difficult to get rid of it.

There is, of course, much more in this book, indeed too much to cover in a relatively short review. Just to dip in, for example, his argument that, contrary to popular belief, the invention of the washing machine changed the world more than the development of the internet.

He suggests that the development of the internet and the changes in information technology have been over-rated. But the development of household technology such as the washing machine and vacuum cleaner transformed the home – and in middle class homes it did away with the need for servants, thus practically eliminating a whole social class.

As for the internet, he claims that this is merely a continuation of earlier forms of communication – such as the telegraph and telephone. Before these were put in place it would take weeks or months to deliver a message across the Atlantic. But with the telegraph it shrunk dramatically to minutes and then seconds.  Can the internet beat that?

There are a whole lot of other points he makes about the disparity in wealth distribution (particularly between rich and poor nations), the notion that if rich people get even richer we all benefit through the “trickle down” effect,  and ends up with his own conclusions on how to rebuild the world economy.

WHAT TO DO:

These could possibly be summed up by saying “yes” to capitalism, but a resounding “no” to unrestrained free market capitalism.  He makes a number of points on how to reform the system. For example, financial innovations should be tried and tested before being put into practice (though he doesn’t spell out the criteria to be used).

We should aim for a system that brings out the best in people rather than the worst. Material self-interest is not enough. Perhaps “social need not greed” could be a motto here. After all, the NHS when it was first founded was capable of bringing out the best in people (and hopefully still is).

We need, he says, to end the belief that “people are always paid what they deserve”.  They’re not.  And we should emphasise the need to manufacture more. The notion of a “post-industrial knowledge economy” is a myth.

We must get away from “short-termism” and aim for a longer view of social, technological and financial development. And contrary to the views of politicians today, we need more active government, not less, prepared to regulate markets and restrict the greed of those doing well in an unequal, divisive society.

And lastly, we need to give sympathetic help to third world countries, particularly those that have suffered the ravages of free market policies imposed by such bodies as the IMF and World Bank.

JOHN WILMOT

MODERN TIMES: The Dinosaur column

In Dinosaur on July 7, 2014 at 8:32 pm

dinosaurAsda is as Asda does 

I have a confession to make.  Once upon a time, I used to shop at Asda.

Yes, I admit it.  But back then it wasn’t owned by that predatory American giant, Walmart.  It seemed to me to be a fairly harmless Leeds-based chain of stores with their own little quirks. Back then, the store which I frequented was in an old textile mill, up north. It filled several floors, and amongst its other goods, it stocked ex-bankrupt stock consisting of, well, whatever it could get its hands on, including crockery. I still have the plates and dishes I bought there many years ago.

Times change, of course, and so did Asda. In July 1999, it became a subsidiary of Walmart, and today is a wholly-owned division of the USA-based supermarket group.  Indeed, after the original takeover all its delivery lorries were re-labelled with the words “Asda: part of the Walmart family”.

Then it went further than that.  A number of Asda-Walmart “supercentres” were opened. They were huge. I mean big enough to hold a couple of airships with room to spare.

But about six years’ ago, the name “Walmart” mysteriously vanished from their signage. Instead they reverted to being merely “Asda supercentres”.  I’m not sure why – but could it be that the US bosses were planning to complete their takeover by gradually replacing the name “Asda” with that of “Walmart” – but then it dawned on them that Walmart over here was about as popular as cold porridge made from bird dropping? Or, being American, was there some confusion over how the word “centre” should be spelled?

Whatever, our council seems intent on foisting an edge of town Asda on the good people of Cinderford.  It seems that there’s a some deluded belief that this will be good for the town. But the notion that eager shoppers will flock in to Asda, and then whilst they’re about it, carry on to sample other shops in the town. Let’s face it – is that in any way likely? Dream on!

Not just a bookshop:

I was saddened to read in the local paper that Doug MacLean, owner of the Forest Bookshop in Coleford, is putting it up for sale.

This bookshop has become something of a local institution. It was opened 37 years ago, and since then thousands have flocked through its doors. It has been able to order and supply nearly any book that customers wanted (provided that it was still in print), and also ran its own book launches for those volumes with a local interest.

The last time I was able to attend an event at the bookshop was to hear about the life of A.A. Purcell, one time MP for the Forest of Dean back in the 1920s. The talk was given by Kevin Morgan who wrote his biography, Bolshevism, Syndicalism and the General Strike.  The bookshop was packed.

Sadly that’s not always the case, and now Doug has decided it’s time to hang up his bookselling boots. He’s getting on in years, he says (aren’t we all?!), but hopes he can sell it as a going concern. Whether that’s possible remains to be seen. There are fewer and fewer independent bookshops around these days, and it needs someone dedicated enough to take on the responsibility. Here’s hoping!

Call for an ambulance?

It’s a trend that those who watch the weekly hospital soap, Casualty may not have noticed. Here the ambulances are all bone fide NHS vehicles, with fully-trained paramedics in control.

But it’s now been revealed that about half the ambulance journeys made are likely to be in private vehicles – and the number is increasing. To put put it crudely, the service is being rapidly privatised.

It’s been reported that many of these private providers may also be running other services such as buses or car parks. Plenty of “on the job” training there then! The ambulance crews may, or may not, have paramedic training  – and few checks are done on their background.

As well as hospitals, such companies are also providing transport for care homes. It seems that the NHS today simply doesn’t have enough ambulances to cope with demand.

It’s tempting to ask, why? But meanwhile, maybe someone like S4C could step into the breach? It could convert some of its prison transport vehicles for the purpose. But already many folk are worried about the trend, including the Care Quality Commission. And this covert privatisation is now beginning to spread to our neck of the woods.

Dinosaur

TIME FOR A CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT – AND A CHANGE IN DIRECTION!

In Editorial on July 7, 2014 at 8:22 pm

CLARION EDITORIAL COMMENT

We now have “fixed term” parliaments – a wheeze introduced by Cameron and co. after the last election. Which means that we’ll all be going to the polls to elect a new government  in less than a year’s time. If that doesn’t concentrate the minds of Clarion readers then surely nothing will.

The vast majority of our readers will surely be hoping that the Tories (and their sidekicks in the Liberal Democrats) will tumble to defeat. Those who read The Clarion embrace a range of left-wing views – and that’s how it should be.  But many accept that when it comes to the polls, the only practical alternative is a Labour government  – and a number will be working to try to ensure that Labour wins – not just in the Forest of Dean or in neighbouring constituencies across the Wye Valley, but  throughout the country.

QUESTION:

But we also need to ask the question, what kind of policies will Labour be putting to the voters when the election campaign really gets under way?  Is the electorate going to be faced  with an  election manifesto for change – or will we have to accept a watered down compromise that’s prepared to accept the basic tenets of the ConDem approach whilst merely tweaking it here and there to make it more palatable?

If so, we’ve been here before – when “New  Labour” was elected back in 1997. Those of us who met in the Miners’ Hall to hear the results cheered as Tory seats tumbled – and in the early hours  of the morning the news came through that Diana Organ had won the Forest of Dean for Labour.  It was a heady moment – only tempered by the gradual realisation that when it came down to the basics, the underlying philosophy of Thatcherism would remain in place. Under Blair the erosion of the role of the public sector continued. Changes to the structure of the NHS paved the way for Cameron’s Health and Social Care Act. Many former gains  in education were put into reverse (making it easier for the likes of  Michael Gove to ride roughshod over our children’s future).

FINAL BETRAYAL:

All this of course took place long before Blair’s final betrayal, when he chose to back Bush over the invasion of Iraq. This, more than anything, tarnished his reputation in the eyes of Labour loyalists. Today there’s a knee-jerk reaction within the party to Blair and all that he was associated with. That’s not surprising, but this alone is not enough. What is needed is a bold break with everything that “New Labour” stood for; and a return to the kind of values that once typified Labour, and ensured that its roots were strong and well nourished.

The trouble is that within the Parliamentary Labour Party at least, “New Labour” hasn’t gone away.  There are still those who adhere stubbornly to the kind of policies and approach practised under Blair during those frustrating years between 1997 and 2009.  The election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party did promise a change in direction. Indeed, there was a change in the rhetoric from the leadership – and of course we should welcome such promises as those to repeal the iniquitous “bedroom tax” and the Health and Social Care Act – as well as bringing education back under local authority control and the promise of a living wage for all.

But in other policy areas we’ve had to put up with either slogans (“One Nation Labour” sounds good, but in itself it doesn’t mean a lot) or vague statements that may be aspirational but at the very least need clarifying.  There has as yet been no document that spells out Labour’s electoral policies, so we can’t even pick over the bones of that.

CAUTION – OR CHANGE?

We’re told that within the Parliamentary Labour Party there are divisions between those who favour a “cautious” electoral strategy (in other words, one that doesn’t promise too much) and those who advocate one based on radical change – though even here, there may be differences over what we’re being radical about.

Certainly a timidity of approach won’t get Labour very far.  A point which seems to have been reflected in the patchy results for Labour in the local elections. True, gains were made but by no means on the scale one might expect.  There needs to be a firm declaration that Labour will reverse the run down of the public sector. A pledge to re-create a National Health Service that’s fit for the needs of ordinary people – and an education policy based on creating a structure in which our children can be happy, confident, and can grow into the kind of citizens of tomorrow that our society needs. And above all, Labour should be prepared to support those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, rather than insulting and deriding them.

SAY NO TO RACISM:

As well as that, Labour should refuse to pander to the racist under-belly of those who support the likes of UKIP and those on the right wing of the Tory Party.  Indeed, we need a sustained attack on the bigotry of those who peddle such views is needed. Racism has never been part of the labour movement.

The Clarion is realistic enough to acknowledge that we may not be able to recreate the “spirit of 1945” at this stage. Certainly not in its entirety, more’s the pity. Too much has changed, including society’s priorities.  But Labour should, now more than ever, be in business to break the underlying philosophy of Thatcherism which for too long has ruled politics. “New Labour” was a child of Thatcher, whether we like it or not – just as Cameron and his cronies are the grandchildren.

It’s no wonder that so many voters believe that the mainstream political parties are “all the same”.  We may well argue that this belief is wrong – but a political consensus certainly exists. Isn’t it time that it was broken?