Thursday, February 23, 2006

Parisian culture

The other day I was listening to a French radio station (hoping to improve my French by osmosis). It's a mainstream station, has football commentaries sometimes, but generally it seemed far more intellectual than most UK stations, with lots of serious discussion of films and books. It reminded me of cafes in Paris during my trip at xmas; I heard a guy telling another about a documentary he was doing, looking back to the time he covered the troubles in Northern Ireland. I just had to go over and speak to him, saying that I had written about it for the Open University and visited with a few students.

Another time there was a group of young American/Latin American academics sitting near me in another cafe on Rue de Rivoli, discussing academic politics - how some people get jobs they don't deserve, etc. One said that he'd recently given a paper called: "Towards an ethics of Latin American literature". Not the kind of chat you tend to hear around Wembley and rarely in central London. I felt like asking why one would need a specific ethics for Latin American lit.; a specific politics maybe, but ethics are usually considered to be pretty universal if they are to be valid - but I let it go. However it was encouraging to be in a culture where this sort of cafe conversation/radio discussion was pretty normal. The tradition of Sartre and De Beauvoir lives on.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

USA: Weapons not Welfare

" 'The Working Poor' examines the "forgotten America" where "millions live in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being." These are citizens for whom the American Dream is out of reach despite their willingness to work hard. Struggling to simply survive, they live so close to the edge of poverty that a minor obstacle, such as a car breakdown or a temporary illness, can lead to a downward financial spiral that can prove impossible to reverse."

"Grotesque inequality"

A report in the Observer makes clear the appalling level of poverty and the grotesque inequality in the US, largely ignored by US politicians, not reflected in the entertainment media - laugh along with Friends and other yuppies - rarely reported in US news media with its focus on celebs, sport and crime:

"37 million poor hidden in the land of plenty"

"... Americans have always believed that hard work will bring rewards, but vast numbers now cannot meet their bills even with two or three jobs. More than one in 10 citizens live below the poverty line, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening.
Under President George W Bush an extra 5.4 million have slipped below the poverty line. Yet they are not a story of the unemployed or the destitute. Most have jobs.
Even families with two working parents are often one slice of bad luck - a medical bill or factory closure - away from disaster. The minimum wage of $5.15 (£2.95) an hour has not risen since 1997 and, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest since 1956. The gap between the haves and the have-nots looms wider than ever. Faced with rising poverty rates, Bush's trillion-dollar federal budget recently raised massive amounts of defence spending for the war in Iraq and slashed billions from welfare programmes.

During the 2004 election the only politician to address poverty directly was John Edwards... While 45.8 million Americans lack any health insurance, the top 20 per cent of earners take over half the national income. At the same time the bottom 20 per cent took home just 3.4 per cent.

In America, to be poor is a stigma. In a country which celebrates individuality and the goal of giving everyone an equal opportunity to make it big, those in poverty are often blamed for their own situation. Experience on the ground does little to bear that out. When people are working two jobs at a time and still failing to earn enough to feed their families, it seems impossible to call them lazy or selfish. There seems to be a failure in the system, not the poor themselves."

Paul Harris in Kentucky, Sunday February 19, 2006
Observer story


'... The percentage of black Americans living in poverty is 24.7, almost twice as high as the overall rate for all races. In predominantly black New Orleans, that disparity translated into those with cars and money, almost all white, fleeing the flood while more than 100,000 car-less blacks were trapped in the flooded city.

Academic experts also say the government's figures minimize the true scale of poverty because they are outdated. The formula for the poverty level was set in 1963 on the assumption that one third of the average family's budget was spent on food.

This is no longer true. Housing has become the largest single expense and tens of thousands of the "working poor", the label for those who work at or near the minimum wage, are forced to sleep in cars, trailers, long-term motels or shelters.

U.S. Poverty Worst in Industrialized World

"Every August, we Americans tell ourselves a lie," said David Brady, a Duke University professor who studies poverty.

"The poverty rate was designed to undercount because the government wanted to show progress in the war on poverty.

"Taking everything into account, the real rate is around 18 percent, or 48 million people. Poverty in the United States is more widespread, by far, than in any other industrialised country." '

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Global warming warnings

ITV have a reporter travelling around looking at global warming - and it's alarming:

Nunavut, Canada, February 19 2006
"... This community knows that warming is happening - it just ain't as cold as it used to be.

And they are backed up by the climate experts who tell us the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth - by three or four degrees Celsius in the last 50 years and by a projected seven degrees in the winter by the end of the century.

If that is anywhere near true, we risk passing what the scientists call a tipping point - a point of no return where changes in climate, perhaps catastrophic, start to happen - in this case, temperatures warm enough perhaps to precipitate the melting of the Greenland Ice-cap and that would raise sea levels around the world by seven metres.

It would make the New Orleans flood look like a little local difficulty."

Lawrence McGinty

Worth following.

Dancing on ice at the Winter Olympics

Scottish music again

Last night the theme of Scottish music (see Julie Fowlis post) returned with brother and sister Sinead and John Kerr of Scotland. They were representing Britain in the ice skating dance at the Winter Olympics (of course if they did badly they would be "the Scottish pair").

They did an excellent set of three dances based on traditional Scottish music- just to make it clear that being the British pair does not mean they are English !

I had been impressed by the standard reached by some of the celebs in the TV show, Dancing on Ice (which was getting over 10 million viewers each week - and is a world away from such crap as Celeb Big Brother); but the Olympics contenders showed what incredible levels could be achieved. The Scottish siblings' first lift had Sinead doing a handstand on John's knees ! Here's another one, from another show:

Apparently they have won the British championship twice - but this beautiful sport doesn't get much TV coverage. Instead we get massive overkill of football and hours of soporific snooker and dire darts. They were ranked 11th in the world and hoped to get in the top ten. They just made it, coming 10th, in their first Olympics bid. Look out fro them in Vancouver in 2010. Let's hope we see more of them on TV between then and now.

Improbably perfect Russians

It was won - no surprise - by the Russian couple, Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov, who added the gold medal to two world championships, and this was the third Russian gold so far. They looked almost too perfect, like the replicants, Pris and Roy, in Blade Runner:

Monday, February 20, 2006

"Why Truth Matters"/Julie Fowlis

On Sat. afternoon I went in to central London, but it was cold, cloudy and then began to rain, so I went to a Waterstones, Piccadilly, and browsed. Although I'm trying to throw stuff away for the coming move, I keep buying books. Today I bought just one: "Why Truth Matters", a critique of postmodernism, etc.:

"A witty and eloquent debunking, grounded in solid philosophical scholarship, of the 'fashionable nonsense' that pervades modern culture and academia. Truth has always been a central preoccupation of philosophy in all its forms and traditions. However, in the late twentieth century truth became suddenly rather unfashionable. The precedence given to assorted political and ideological agendas, along with the rise of relativism, postmodernism and pseudoscience in academia, led to a decline both of truth as a serious subject, and an intellectual tradition that began with the Enlightenment. "Why Truth Matters" is a timely, incisive and entertaining look at how and why modern thought and culture lost sight of the importance of truth. It is also an eloquent and inspiring argument for restoring truth to its rightful place. Jeremy Stangroom and Ophelia Benson, editors of the successful butterfliesandwheels website - itself established to 'fight fashionable nonsense' - identify and debunk such nonsense, and the spurious claims made for it, in all its forms."

"Why Truth Matters" at

Julie Fowlis at the Irish Centre

Later that evening I went to the Irish Centre in Hammersmith. It usually has Irish music on Fri and Saturday evenings, but this Sat they had a young Scottish woman, Julie Fowlis, who had just won a BBC competition as the best newcomer in Folk music. She had a lovely voice and the band was good. It was nice to see these young people keeping these old traditions alive and enjoying themselves:

"Can someone singing mostly in Scots Gaelic really make a mark on the music mainstream? Ordinarily you'd say no, but Julie Fowlis from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides sings with such mesmerising beauty and passion, you wouldn't bet against her."
Colin Irwin & Jude Rogers, WORD MAGAZINE, February 2006

" interest in her evocative music is intensifying. Fowlis could be the first Scottish Gaelic crossover star in the making"
Peter Culshaw, DAILY TELEGRAPH, February 2006

“Young, gorgeous and inordinately talented….utterly captivated the audience from start to finish”
Sue Wilson, SUNDAY HERALD, January 2006

"Julie is the Winner of the BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award 2006 for best emerging artist.
Julie voted as Gaelic Singer of the Year 2005 at the Scots Trad Music Awards!"

Some of her songs can be heard here