Thursday, November 28, 2013

Talent will out - a small sad for Hannah Barrett being voted off the X-Factor

I had a small sad about Hannah Barrett being voted off The X-Factor last week. I know, the programme itself is manipulative schlock, and if it wasn't for the snark potential we probably wouldn't be watching.

And yet that same programme can give a national platform to a 17 year old from South London with a voice like Nina Simone.

Part of The X-Factor's banalisation of pop music is the idea that simply by singing a song, someone 'makes it their own'. Nonsense. What that really means is emotionally inhabiting a song and technically bending it to your own re-imaginative will. It's an aesthetic as well as a technical judgement. 

And that's Hannah Barrett. 

So, against the odds, The X-Factor has thrown up someone who is not just a great voice, but a potentially great interpreter of songs. This might have contributed to her relatively early exit (quality will quite literally out) but she did hang in long enough to get to the live shows. And hopefully it will mean she can find a set-up sympathetic to her talent.

Can training be punk rock? And what does that mean?

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Can somebody turn off that Somebody Else's Problem Field in Warsaw now?"

An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem.... The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.
 Douglas Adams, The Life, The Universe and Everything
As the climate talks draw to a close today in Warsaw, yet again they've failed to deliver.
As the summit opened, the devastating impacts of super typhoon Hayian slammed into the Philippines, bringing emotional pleas for urgent action from the country's lead negotiator, Yeb SaƱo. 
However, at the summit's close, two weeks of negotiations have once again ended without agreement on the necessary dramatic cuts in carbon pollution.
Friends of the Earth (more information here)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ideas thread: what rock band would you like your local campaign group to be like?

I'll kick this off - if I get my local group off the ground in the new year, I would like us to aim to be like seminal German psychedelic rock band Can.

Wait, come back...

Can were an immensely creative partnership of equals, coming together from different backgrounds in rock, jazz and experimental classical music. And they played for each other, editing their work down painstakingly from long improvised jams into a surprisingly accessible, funky form. 

The example of vocalist Damo Suzuki and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt contributing when they had something to add and simply remaining silent when not on Can tracks is one of the best examples of sublimating the individual ego to group need in music I can think of.

It's simultaneously some of the most passionate music I've ever heard and some of the most enjoyable. Heck, Can even accidentally invented the Happy Mondays. 

Creativity, diversity, equality, accessibility, teamwork, balancing intensity and fun - this is why I like Can. This is why I got into local organising.

Now, your turn in the comments thread please - what rock band would you like your local campaign group to be like?

Or - for the fortunate ones - what rock band IS your local group already like?

What if you looked at your local campaign group as if it were a rock band?

You'd be surprised how many parallels I see between local campaign groups and rock bands.

Wait, come back...

They are both collaborative, social units with shared aims and values. They both engage, in different ways, in performance and interaction with a public. They're both in the business of changing people's minds. And at their best - they both entail a collective surrender of ego to the shared goal. 

I'd be interested in the reflections this metaphor might suggest to you. 

And what rock band does your local group remind you of? Hopefully not Spinal Tap...

But here's one long-form thought to get you started.

Lovely photo of  the fabulous Arboretum via Greg Nate at Wikimedia Commons

Visible and invisible contributions

The relationship between the campaigners/musicians/performers in a group is vitally important. The value of each member should be measured by both their visible and invisible contributions. 

Think about your favourite bands. Think about the one who might not write the songs, but is absolutely crucial to the creative dynamic, or to the social glue of the band, or to the relationship with the fans.

Or, think about your local campaign group. Who's the member who might not be your coordinator or your issue expert in residence, but is the one who invites you all over to dinner in December? Who takes your 'crazy idea' for dressing as giant traffic cones and helps you turn it into something which works? Who makes the newcomers feel welcome?

Given the number of big personalities among musicians and campaigners, who's the one who stops you all killing each other and keeps you working together? 

Cos yep, that's your invisible contribution right there.

And that's why understanding and nurturing the ecology of your local group is so important.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Parliament week special: three proposals for reforming the Mother of Parliaments

When I worked for the Electoral Commission, I used to feel disappointed that we weren't the Democracy Commission. After all, you can have the best designed and implemented rules for elections in the world, but if the problem lies outside the process, then all you're doing is efficiently managing decline.

Now, with some distance and less naivete, I look at the accumulating catastrophe-in-the-making that is British representative democracy, and am grateful we didn't have to carry that burden.

Any Government that seizes and drains the chalice of reform is unlikely to please the Establishment, since the only thing decision-makers seem to agree on is the Churchillian idea that our democracy - however flawed - is the least worst option. Hence their approach of inaction, crisis management and the occasional tinkering at the edges when it comes to Parliament.

Legitimacy - not as strong as you might think it is

While such an attitude might suffice for the good times, I believe we will need a more robust approach going forward. As we approach the end of a century of universal suffrage in this country, the possible social, economic, political (and of course environmental) troubles ahead mean that we cannot afford to be complacent about the future of democracy.

And even a brief examination of the patient suggests that the legitimacy of the current system is a more fragile affair than we might think:
None of this to say is that good work is not being done under (or in spite of) the current structures. But their status in the country is decreasing and is unlikely to increase unless something is done. 

Three modest proposals

Cards on the table - I think what we need is a root and branch re-invigoration of democracy in this country from the grassroots right to the very top. But, I'm realistic enough to know that we have to start somewhere and if the all-in-one-go approach was feasible we'd all be living in a Power Enquiry wonderland.

So, here are three comparatively easy steps we could in theory take now which I think would strengthen the status and legitimacy of Parliament (and, by extension, representative democracy)

1. Pass a statutory deadline for abolishing the Lords in its current form. 

Sorting out the Lords is the Westminster equivalent of redecorating the spare room. Everyone agrees it needs doing, but it's somehow never the most urgent item on the to-do list, and no-one can agree what colour it needs painting.

Putting a five year deadline on it and requiring a national debate on its future should concentrate everyone's minds wonderfully. And just over a century after it was first considered, we might finally have a fully democratic Parliament in some form.

2. A review to take Parliament out of the playground

I'm all for the marketplace of ideas, but the adversarial, creakingly old-fashioned nature of debate in Parliament tends more towards exaggerated ritual conflict than the best ideas rising to the top. Small wonder that the people struggle to connect with national politics, and feel that the most important issues of the day rarely get the discussions by our representatives (never mind the outcomes) that they deserve.

If Parliament is serious about good governance and legitimacy, then it needs to take a long hard look at itself (with help from outsiders) and ask whether its playground antics do it and the country a disservice. 

Let's not just have a review, but a commitment to act on it too.

Seriously, MP's, when a bunch of scruffs living in tents outside St Pauls last year can have more sensible, respectful discussions than you, listen to each other more, and take decisions commanding more support, doesn't that suggest you have a problem? 

3. MP's, be our representatives, not local troubleshooters

The thing about MP's is that their role is in national governance. So, why do they spend so much time on local issues outside their jurisdiction when we have these wonderful things called councils and councillors who are responsible for them?

There's a long answer, taking in the emasculation of local government over the past few decades, low levels of political education and an understandable tendency for MP's to prioritise the voter in front of them, and concluding that what we really need is (bingo) to fix grassroots democracy. 

For a more expert opinion, see this handy post from politics professor Lord Norton of Louth.

But today, we're talking short answers, and the short answer is that it's stupid, its counterproductive to good national governance, and MP's could stop it tomorrow by just referring such matters back to the councillors.

More time on their core role means better scrutiny and hopefully better law. It also means more time to engage with constituents on national issues of importance, or local issues where decisions are taken nationally (a whole other problem, but one I'll leave to another time). 

It could and should also mean more time spent on making what goes on in the Commons more relevant to the people.

Which, if we're playing the long game rather than the long grass game, should be priority number one for the Mother of Parliaments.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why ground-rules needn't be dull, dull, dull

With thanks to Charlie from The Management Centre for letting me snap these glorious technicolour ground-rules on my phone.

Can you guess what each symbol means?

To me, this emphasises the point that in good training even the admin is fun.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Time to get Tim into the training groove

I had a light-bulb moment the other day - I realised that I was passionate about training and mentoring. I love bringing people together to help them share skills, become better campaigners, better organisers, basically just empower people to be better at getting what they want.

I do quite a bit of formal and informal training at work, but recently I've decided I want to do more in my spare time to keep in practice. To get into flow whenever I need without having to agonise too much about it.

The first Campaign Organisers weekend at the end of the month is a great focus for beginning this shift. I'll be helping to facilitate a whole lot of training at this event and I want to use it to build up momentum, to sling-shot into 2014 ready to do more than ever before.

So, what does that mean? Where do I start? Well, by

  • Compiling a portfolio of short, sharp, skill-sharing sessions I can deliver anywhere, guerrilla style
  • Practicing these sessions out of hours or lunchtimes in the office 
  • Testing whether they can be done via Google Hangouts.
  • Adding all of this to the training page on the blog.
And then rolling into the New Year ready to go!

PS - in the event that someone in a Friends of the Earth local group is reading this, just a quick reminder to take training and skill-sharing requests through the usual channels, e.g by e-mailing I'm testing a skill-share driven approach to capacity-building in new groups at the moment in any case, so together with Campaign Hubs, this means I expect my on-the-clock training to increase as well.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thor - The Dark World mini-review

All credit to the makers of Thor 2 - The Dark World, they aren't underestimating their audience. See this film, and you'll have to hand-wave not just the magical space vikings, but the whole of Stan Lee's gimcrack pseudo-Norse cosmology.

And a pack of dark elves from the dawn of time cosplaying the Borg.

And the notion that Greenwich Palace is three stops from anywhere on the Tube.

Thor 2 gets away with all of this with a positively rabid self-belief and a willingness to wear its canon lightly - i.e. stuff is, now let's tell a story! It follows Iron Man 3 and Avengers Assemble in being the third solid Marvel film in a row, after the erratic qualities of earlier efforts, including its predecessor.

It builds on the merits of the original - chiefly gorgeous art direction, a great start and fanning the cult of Hiddlestone - by better integrating the small-scale character-driven moments and the epic. Plus Natalie Portman gets to save the world(s) in a major advance on her love interest role first time around.

Midgard and Asgard in perfect harmony, or as near as darn it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Wise Man's Fear: giving Patrick Rothfuss the benefit of the doubt

The sequel to The Name Of The Wind, The Wise Man's Fear, is a sprawling double album of a fantasy novel - not a genre known for its brevity. Coming it at a colossal 994 pages, it makes its predecessor, a third shorter, look abrupt by comparison.

Warning - spoilers ahead.

I'm no fan these days of the shelf-busting fantasy - why do you need 1,000 pages when you can tell the story in 500. Heck, in some cases even 300 would be too much. 

But I kept going - with a little judicious skimming - up to the end. 'Cause let me tell you, there are some great short stories in there. My favourite is the sequence late on where the hero Kvothe returns a pair of kidnapped girls to their township - it's a western story in miniature. 

There's also a whole lot of world-building, man-build-magical-stuff, man-get-training and man-solve-problem going on in TWMF. More than enough to keep the core-audience entertained, and well done enough that it doesn't feel like the padding it sometimes is.

At the very least, with Rothfuss we're dealing with a skilled craftsman at work. I'm still trying to work out if he's more than that. And that depends for me on where he's taking the protagonist and the series a a whole.

On the face of it, Kvothe rides the  teenage boy wish-fulfilment demi-god trip harder than any fantasy protagonist I've seen since the Belgariad. Having spent most of the previous book and part of this one training to be a wizard, he takes a break from his studies to pick up mystical unarmed combat. The full Grasshopper treatment.

Kvothe's omnicompetence reads like an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons munchkin's dream: teenage mage-thief-bard-monk-fighter, anyone?  And apart from those who hate him, everyone admires and respects him to the point of nausea. I came very close to putting the book down at the point where he's schooled in the arts of love by a passing fairy queen. 

No. Just no. Just Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!

But I persevered. The quality of the writing aside, the main reason I did was the sense that Rothfuss might be setting his hero up to knock him down, hard. Both The Name Of The Wind and TWMF share the same framing device: Kvothe is telling his story to a scholar while in hiding as a village innkeeper, a shadow of his former self seeking exorcism in telling his story.

Something has clearly gone very wrong. And we know from the title of the series and references in the framing story that Kvothe is a regicide.

My hope is that Rothfuss intends at least some subversion of fantasy's tendency to pander to adolescent power fantasies - it's played too straight for parody. 

So, at the moment I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. But if the plot doesn't start moving quicker than this and he keeps giving us hundreds of pages of Kvothe levelling up to the coos of his adoring audience, I'm off before Rob-Jordanification sets in.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guest post by Matt Sellwood: Three Silmarils To Rule Them All

At various times in his life Matt has been a work colleague and a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party. At all times he has been an excellent chap. He's currently freelancing prior to starting work as a barrister in the near future.

You can find him on Twitter as @Mattsellwood

Today, he's making a persuasive case for why The Silmarillion is the best Tolkien book. Take it away Matt, and many thanks for dropping in here at the blog.

“Love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart; and remember that the true hope of the Noldor lieth in the West, and cometh from the Sea.”

The Silmarillion is a terrible novel. It features names that are impossible to remember or pronounce, patchy characterisation, frustrating allusions to major plot points which are never expanded upon, and themes which are as repetitive as the average soap opera.

All of the above is true. Fortunately, the Silmarillion isn't a novel – and it is the insistence on treating it as such which has led so many people to dismiss it as Tolkien's “other book”. You know, the one that only massive nerds read, and only then because they want the credibility of having said that they've done it.

Well, I am a massive nerd, but I believe the Silmarillion to be the Tolkien family's greatest work. One has to use the term family, of course, because Christopher Tolkien spent years pulling the text together from the unfinished fragments of his father's scattered papers. Begun in the trenches of the First World War and continued until the year of J.R.R's death, the raw material of the Silmarillion was a sprawling expanse of tenuously connected story-telling, and one which perhaps only the author's son could have forged into a coherent whole.

It's hardly surprising that people expect the Silmarillion to be a novel, and judge it on those terms. It is often described as a historical prequel to the Lord of the Rings, but it is in fact an attempt to create a collection of mythological and legendary stories akin to the Prose Eddas, the Arthurian Cycles, or even the Bible. When understood as such, many of the peculiarities of the book begin to come into focus. One doesn't read a collection of Greek myths, for example, and complain that the character of Ares is one-dimensional, or that Zeus' motivations aren't clear. Instead, one appreciates that the stories interweave and inter-relate to form a message about how one's life should be lived.

The Silmarillion is, in Tolkien's own style, an attempt to do just that. Rooted in his own idiosyncratic blend of Judeo-Christian and pagan ideology, it explores the morality and worldview espoused in the Lord of the Rings, but in much greater detail. From the creation of the world (actuated in the form of song and poetry, what else?) to the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, Tolkien uses his invented history to teach lessons about love, revenge, pride and pity.

One of the most irritating – because most wrong – criticisms of Tolkien's work is that everything is depicted in black and white. Nothing could be further from the world of the Silmarillion. Here, what seems to be good can be turned to evil through pride and selfishness, whilst the darkest times can be redeemed to such an extent that they become 'eucatastrophic' – Tolkien's own term for the unexpected and unlooked for saving of the protagonist from seemingly insurmountable odds.

I don't claim that the Silmarillion is an easy read. It suffers, in particular, from the fact that Tolkien's predilection for describing things in many languages for the simple joy of exploring words is given free reign at the beginning of the book. This ensures that, unfortunately, many readers don't make it to the story of Beren and Luthien, or the tragedy of Turin, or the final triumph of Earendil. In not reaching these stories, they are neither engaging with wonderfully written and compelling narrative, nor with the moral principles that Tolkien is attempting to communicate through them.

Ultimately, as with the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, the message of the book is a simple one. Take pleasure in one's own creative power and in the beauty of the world, but avoid pride and hubris in the knowledge that one person must act in fellowship with others in order to succeed. For Tolkien, salvation comes not from blasting trumpets and charging knights, but from humility, love, simple faith and goodness. Myths based on those ideals are ones that I can get behind.

P.S. Also, if you read all the way through, you get 1000 nerd points and the extraordinarily useful real-world ability to speak two different kinds of Elvish. WIN.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A final note on the dead hand of musical history

Having tried and given up compiling my own top 20 albums of all time, never mind my own top 500 (see my comments on the NME's efforts), I find myself confirmed in my view that the problem lies less with the critics and more in the notion of a musical canon.

If I was to write a list of my favourite acts right now, for example, it would read a little like this - some rock classics, sure, but far from just the usual suspects.

Deep breath: Scritti Politti, Altaar, Talking Heads, Ulver, The Velvet Underground, Wolves In the Throne Room, Lambchop, Hercules & Love Affair, Husker Du, Gram Parsons, Negativland, Alcest, Om, Elbow, Earth, James Blake.

Yet the minute I start thinking about the best albums evah, I'm drawn back to including things I haven't listened to for years, cassettes which gave up the ghost  years ago and which I haven't replaced.

It's not that those old tapes of Revolver, The Smiths or Protection didn't contain good albums, very probably great ones. The problem is being pulled too strongly towards them not by your own personal inclination, but by the wisdom of crowds, by the gravity of conferred status, by mythology and reputation. The older the music, the greater the reputation.

So how about this experiment in closing: what if we played, wrote, thought, loved music as if there was no canon at all? No pantheon but each with their own passions and influences? 

For today, for ad bloody astra?