Friday, April 29, 2005

Wasted evening?

Went to Demos last night for a salon (apparently that’s what they call it now, although I’d just call it a roundtable) on creativity in cities. The twist was that the creativity they referred to was in Brazilian cities.

I’ve penned a piece on it, which I hope to link to later. The only thing I will say is that it was one of the less productive events I’ve been to in quite awhile. In fact the only thing I got out of the occasion was a chat with a BBC World Service researcher who has been working on a radio programme which will go out in August starring Paul Merton which will seek to harmonise humour in the EU – that is trying to find a joke which works in every country. They’ll have their work cut out with the Greeks and Portuguese I reckon…

Oh, I tell a lie – there was something that was substantial from the Demos event: free-flowing vodka and cranberry juice. That’s me: never one to miss out on a free drink here and there…

Update - the article is now up at Brazzil, but can be linked through here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

An alternative view

May I add my take on the whole Brian Sedgemore discussion? The Lib Dems seem to be falling over themselves in congratulation at what seems like a political coup. But three points seem to be in order.

First, why has it taken so long for Brian to see the light? Isn’t it a bit rich to leave Labour and join another party when he’s effectively retired from Parliament? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have had the courage of his convictions and moved across the floor before the election?

Second, was he much good as a constituency MP? OK, so he represented Hackney for nearly 30 years, but you could put up a donkey with a red rosette in that part of London and see it returned. From what little I’ve seen of Hackney politics (and it’s a little, I’ll grant), he didn’t seem that active.

Third – and perhaps most tellingly – there are Lib Dems in Hackney who have misgivings about Sedgemore joining the party. When party members from the area concerned have doubts party HQ should be listening. After all, they are the ones who most likely have their ear to the ground and know how effective or not a high-profile defector may be the cause.

Then again, the whole thing will be forgotten by tomorrow. Oh wait, it has.
In the shadows

On a slightly more troubling note, few observers will have failed to notice that the election campaign is apparently getting quite nasty in Bethnal Green. Last week George Galloway was harangued by anti-democracy demonstrators to the point where he claimed to be fearful of his life.

But spare a thought for those not in the media spotlight. Although I’m not doing any campaign work this year (exams and revision is my excuse), I was copied into an email from a councillor to party canvassers. Apparently a team of them were challenged by young, angry anti-democracy protestors on the Turin estate who chased them away. When they spy them coming they ring around their friends and then confront the campaigners.

My councillor friend reckons the antipathy may be due to the estate being one of the most rundown in the area. But walking along Bethnal Green Road the other day I came across stickers plastered to the side of traffic lights and on post boxes saying the same thing.

I wonder how it will all pan out next week?
Election? What election?

Opened up my inbox this morning to discover election day has been moved forward to tomorrow. Oh no, sorry, it’s London University’s union elections.

It’s bad enough that I can’t make my mind up about next week’s choices. How the hell am I going to find the time to wade through this lot of grasping student hacks before noon tomorrow?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Over one hurdle...

A bit of a rush around today. There I was sitting around the flat this morning, waiting for the computer's spyware to finish its job. I know, I thought, I'll ring up Queen Mary and see whether they've come to a decision on my application to study there next year. What happens? Voicemail.

At that point the postman arrives, shoving some letters addressed to me - for a change. One was from the LSE. Yes, they were pleased to offer me a place. Hooray I thought, Queen Mary slipping to the back of my mind.

Then the next, almost sudden, black thought: tuition fees around £3085 for the next three years (minus living costs). So it was back to the computer to crank out yet another begging statement, highlighting my worthiness at some much needed cash for next year. Conveniently too, my former supervisor's accompanying reference fell through the door at the same time as well.

So now it's down to the LSE to place yet another funding application with those nice people before Friday's deadline. Only to be followed by yet another one which I'm now eligible for, having been accepted at the School.

Getting the place is only half the battle it seems. Whether I end up with the necessary funds to actually start in September is another matter...
Travel writing...

Lisbon is proving to be a bit of a writing inspiration. Another piece on the city, at a different e-publication this time.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Understanding the mechanics

My most recent piece is up, this time at City Mayors. For all those who wondered how Brazil's political system worked... well, here it is.

That'll just be the one taker then?
Keeping a lid on things

I hadn’t mentioned it after my quip last week regarding tensions in Latin America. But Julia sent an interesting article from the Folha de São Paulo (though I can't find the direct link to it), so it only seems fair to comment on it.

Essentially the article analyses the challenge posed to Brazilian foreign policy by relative political weakness and instability in some of the Andean countries along its western and northern borders. Ecuador’s president has finally been removed – the third in a decade, while Bolivia’s president has threatened to resign and Peru’s is only maintained by an understanding between himself and the opposition. And then there’s the agitation between Colombia and Venezuela, following a border incident earlier this year. The commentary suggests this may make it difficult for Brazil’s Lula to project himself globally, if Brazil can’t manage its own backyard.

It’s an interesting angle, especially since for next week’s International Politics exam we spent time earlier in the year assessing the pressures and actors towards greater democratisation in the region during the 1980s. It would seem that we’ve overlooked the limited institutionalisation of those processes since then and what directions they present for contemporary international relations.
Getting by

Struggling with a lousy cold at the moment. Hopefully it will all clear up over the next few days and before the start of exams next week.

Last week a couple of research posts were circulated to Latin American studies students – which I may well be making an application for. Neither are related with Brazil or political science, but as has been pointed out to me before, you have to go where the money is from time to time.

Also waiting to hear back about an interview at the Institute of Education regarding my application there. Initially it was rejected, but there may be a reprieve.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

At an end?

Finally, after a few false starts and hiccoughs, my ESRC form is now with the LSE’s Government Department. I’ve done my bit, having bullied and cajoled referees and college registrars to get their sections completed, finally handing it over with a sense of exhaustion, yet completeness yesterday afternoon.

Oh how we laughed when we wondered what the ESRC meant by its 31 July final result deadline (I don’t get mine till October) and cried over whether we were to do it in triplicate or not – not counting my own little heart stopping moments when I imagined that a +3 application wasn’t possible at the LSE according to the ESRC’s website. Or the time when I had to weigh up whether five years of work and one year of a two-year course at Oxford constitutes a completed research training programme. Or the realisation that I have to go back to the LSE with a self-addressed postcard – the one thing I forgot…

Ultimately, who knows? As I said to the registrar yesterday, all this work and it’s possible I may not be lucky (it’s around a 30% success rate). But as she said: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

And I've still got another form to get through before the end of next week...
Mutton dressed as lamb

I’m giving away my liberal persuasion when I say this new pope, Benedict XVI, isn’t the one for me. As a lapsed Catholic, I find it hard to square my views with his. I only had to listen to an interview he did several years ago, before he became Pope. He castigated liberation theology for involving the Church in political activity, when it’s evident to him the two spheres are separate. Yet hasn’t that been part of the Church’s mission over the past two thousand years? As far as I understand it, it was never just about future salvation, but also about improving the lot of the poor and needy now. And who can really be against using the religious experience to encourage changes in quality of life and the empowerment of the poor?

In the interview Benedict also makes it clear that he doesn’t condone religious relativism: the idea that other faiths may contain different dimensions of the truth. That is unfortunate, not only because it may undermine John Paul II’s past attempts to reach a compromise with the Orthodox Church, it may also pose a threat to the Islamic world, especially if those sentiments are whipped up and taken to heart by less thoughtful types. It’s bad enough having idealist extremists on one side; we don’t need them on the other as well.

Then there are the Church’s social teachings which I find so hard to understand: Catholicism’s implicit inequality between the sexes, prohibition on contraception, abortion and condemnation of homosexuality. Where’s the tolerance of difference, the acceptance of the modern world and contemporary social relations? I know the counter-argument: Catholicism is an article of faith, not a form of consensus. Yet it is this unwillingness to yield to social and political changes may well be wants ultimately weakens it. From territorial division of the Roman Empire to the Reformation, the Church has consistently failed to respond to the disenfranchised accordingly. And once again, it looks like it has missed the boat, with congregations falling in North America and Europe while in Africa it fails to face up to the challenge of AIDS.

I’ve also heard it alleged that the new pope doesn’t care if this turns people away; that he would approve of a smaller, purer Church. But that would weaken the Vatican’s claim to speak on behalf of a wide section of humanity. Then again, all this may well be the uttering of a cardinal who never imagined himself destined for the pontificate. It may well be that the reality of power tempers his excesses and forces him to steer a more mainstream path. But I don’t have form when I suggest such things – last time I argued this I was talking about George Bush in the first months of his presidency…

Could there not have been a more moderate alternative – even liberal by the standards of the Catholic Church? Probably not, given the conservative nature of the majority of cardinals, most of who were appointed during John Paul’s reign. And even the only apparent light – that this won’t be as long a papacy as John Paul’s – ignores a small cloud on the horizon: that come the next conclave it will most likely be the very same cardinals who appointed Benedict who will once again have to choose.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Democratic ambiguity

At first sight the following stories seem unrelated: the arrest of 8 policemen in Rio the other week for murdering 30 people, the Mexican Congress’s decision to strip Mexico City’s mayor from immunity, the sacking of the Ecuadorian Supreme Court by the president and Congress and Chile’s deadline to file charge on past human rights abuses.

But dig deeper and it appears that there are greater forces at work. Impunity, which dominated the past, is going out the window; the rule of law is increasingly making itself felt. That’s quite a substantial change from before, when off-duty policemen murdered without fear of being caught or the crimes of the Pinochet era were hushed up.

But before we get too exited about the virtues brought about since democracy’s return to the region, the Ecuadorian and Mexican cases may well be of concern. Actions in both countries have disguised prevailing political motivations, using the force of law as a justification for their actions. Ecuador’s Supreme Court was appointed late last year by the same president who has now dismissed them, with one of the main aims being to rescind prosecution charges against a former president. Meanwhile Mexico City’s mayor is reportedly among the most scrupulous and honest politicians in that country and therefore a threat in next year’s presidential elections to the ruling centre-right PAN government and former dominant party, the PRI.

What this shows is that the debate about democratic consolidation in Latin America is more subtle than they first appear. But then again, isn’t that ambiguousness central to understanding democracy? If it wasn’t then the subject wouldn’t be half as interesting to study!
Last, but not least...

And yes, I got a chance to have a word with John Harris after the meeting as well. Not about his quest to find someone acceptable to vote for, but about his first book, The Last Party, which recounted the story of Britpop from the sublime of Suede and Blur to the (at least to me) ridiculous of Oasis and Menswear (and which I reviewed here).

I told him I enjoyed it hugely but had a bone to pick with him. His was one of the few books which immersed me in a wave of nostalgia – more specifically back to the 1990s and the idea that ‘things could only get better’. He admitted that was the point, the association of music with the New Labour government only taking form after Britpop had become part of the establishment and ceased to be cutting edge.

I also asked him if he’s noticed the apparent 1990s revivalism which appears to be taking place. Judging by some of the fashion magazines Sonic the Hedgehog T-shirts are in, as are Nike Air trainers while Oasis will be releasing a new album later this year. Was he responsible for all this? I asked. His response: a relatively sheepish look. Read into that what you will!

And damn it, I forgot to bring along my copy to get him to sign. Then again, I might have seemed too much like a groupie…
Think tankery gossip

At Demos last night for a debate on who those on the Left should vote for and whether tactical voting could work against Labour this time around. At the podium was John Harris, who has written a book about his search for an alternative to New Labour, following some reports he’s done for the BBC, and Labour apologist and columnist, David Aaronovitch. Chairing it was Neal Lawson, who has broken with New Labour in recent years.

The meeting and location was exactly as expected: open planning, stripped wooden floors and minimalism abound at Demos – exactly what you would expect from a New Labour think tank. I also heard from someone that they had cut a deal with Ikea for their furniture – but does that make them cutting edge, or catching a wave after it’s passed?

As for the debate, it could be characterised simply: as a return to traditional Labour values (Harris) or a search for greater choice (Aaronovitch). But Harris wouldn’t phrase it as simply as that, despite Aaronovitch’s attempt to stereotype him as Old Labour with its commitment to statist solutions. Instead Harris argued that he recognised the need to change, but said greater private sector involvement without the guarantee of a level playing field for the public sector couldn’t be fair.

As to my question, both failed to respond, and Lawson didn’t take the bait. I asked whether this wasn’t a debate which had also taken place before the last election, with the result that Tony Blair promised to make his focus the reform of public services. In fact, that was the central thesis of Lawson’s co-edited book, The Progressive Century (which has been commented upon in this blog before), but those ideals appear to have abandoned in the period since, following the al-Qaeda attacks, Iraq and the so-called war on terror. Wasn’t the danger, I asked, that without any meaningful reform, Labour may well find itself in 2009 in exactly the same position as 2001 and 2005 – by which time it may be facing a more hostile electorate, who see little reason to vote for them again?

Iraq was one theme which was skirted around, which was refreshing – if anything, the arguments have been rehearsed ad nauseam; but I also suspect that a Demos crowd would be keen to avoid having that conversation. Consequently, there was only one spat between Harris and Aaronovitch over the issue, with Lawson sitting serenely between the two. Subsequently, I was told by a friend at the meeting that the two really don’t like each other – and that altercation revealed it. Admittedly though, my friend is an uncontrollable political gossip!

Among the other observations made was one by a young blonde woman who occasionally writes for the New Statesman. She asked what the future was for Labour when so few young progressives were willing to join. As a counterexample she pointed to the Tories whose youth wing was not only growing, but far more politically and ideologically active. In response Lawson highlighted the relative decline of Labour by mentioning a conversation he overheard between some Labour students at conference. They were discussing which member of the leadership they most identified with; several plumped for Geoff Hoon, which begs the question, what the hell does a Hoonite believe?!

Then the woman’s companion then launched into an ill-thought out and inarticulate defence of traditional Labour values. That got Aaronovitch’s blood up. He seems quite an irascible individual, but since he’s spent the best part of three years defending what many deem to be indefensible – the war on Iraq – it’s probably understandable. As my friend the gossip, commented afterwards, the problem with Iraq is that it’s now just about opinions; and Aaronovitch is convinced that he’s right. The result was he launched into these comments, taking them apart, stressing the hollowing out of politics in general, the fact that Africa and climate change were now on the Government’s agenda (for the first time ever) and that there wouldn’t be any substantial difference between a Milburn or Brown premiership.

Whether you agree or not with Aaronovitch’s muscular form of politics or Harris’s search for a feel good form, that last observation definitely seems to be the case. And with the polls showing the likelihood of Labour getting back in relatively easily, that prospect seems ever more likely.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Picking the right places...

Woo-hoo! So I've been offered some cash - OK, not all of it but enough to cover the main cost of a flight. So it looks like I'll be heading here and here in June.

And yes, before anyone asks, it's for academic purposes...
The other 11 September...

Saw Machuca yesterday afternoon in Chelsea. I think it’s a first for me, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Chilean feature film before. We were in two minds whether to go, especially because the day was warm and sunny – not something you can guarantee in London in April.

However, we decided to give it a go, especially since it was a preview and the director, Andres Wood, would be there to answer questions afterwards. And I’m glad we did. Well worth seeing, although I don’t think it will get quite the attention it deserves, not least because I can’t see it as a commercial draw in quite the same way as other Latin American films have been, most notably City of God and The Motorcycle Diaries.

Machuca is a drama about the friendship which begins between two 11-year old boys in Santiago on the eve of the military coup in 1973. The two boys come from opposite social spheres: Gonzalo is a child of the middle class while Pedro comes from the nearby shantytown. They first meet – and have to overcome their prejudices of the other – when the priest and principal at Gonzalo’s private school brings in some of the poorer to participate in classes. The film was apparently inspired by Wood’s own school-time experience when the priests at his school brought in around 40 shanty dwellers. He acknowledges this fact by a dedication in the credits.

I don’t think you can pigeonhole Machuca as a coming-of-age film in the conventional Stand By Me mould. While there is some hope offered by the two boys’ friendship, that sentiment is tempered on two fronts: the of the impending military coup; the knowledge that the coup will advantage the upper and middle classes; and the bleak future faced by the poor and marginalised – and which continues until today. Indeed, it is left to one peripheral character, a drunk and absent father, to state that fact: ‘In fifteen years your friend here will be running his father’s company, while you will be cleaning the toilets.’

In the discussion afterwards, Wood said he wanted to make a film which went beyond the politics of the period. This was especially so since he wasn’t sure that a film about Chile in 1973 would be popularly received. As I am regularly informed by those in the know, Chilean society remains divided in the older generation while the young either have little knowledge of the events which occurred or remain apathetic. Consequently he was keen to focus on the story and keep the politics peripheral to any discussion while working with the child actors. One audience member found this contradictory: how could he make a film which was so obviously political and not find himself talking to the children about the period?

But you can see why Wood was so keen to strike a balance, especially while a substantial section of Chilean society continues to believe the coup was a good thing: an overtly pro-Allende film would have discouraged many cinema-goers from attending and reduced its commercial appeal. Also, it may well have switched off many viewers.

When asked who he drew his inspiration from in cinematographic terms, Wood highlighted Patricio Guzman’s La Batalla de Chile, the epic three-part documentary on the last year and a half of the Allende government and the coup. Watching Machuca those influences are very clear: from the street protests and demonstrations by both left and right (including everyone jumping against the middle class ‘mummies’, rich women banging their saucepans in protest and the menacing faces and helmets of the fascist-inspired Patria y Libertad youth marches) and the tangible feel of civil war lingering in the air to the public discussions over the rights and wrongs of the priests’ actions in the school and to the dark and gloomy room in which the family sits, watching the graining footage of the junta – including Pinochet – informing the population that Allende was dead and martial law imposed.

But for me, perhaps the most vivid image is of Gonzalo’s and Pedro’s classroom after the military has taken it over: the walls stripped bare, save for a picture of the junta, and empty desks as one boy after another disappears – a reminder of the disappeared which persisted throughout the military period and over which many families have still not received justice.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Urban life

A sharp knock at the door this morning. It was a policeman asking if we had noticed anything happen in the flats opposite between 6.30 and 7am. Apparently there was a serious assault, but we weren’t very helpful, having only woken up when he knocked.

The police are still out there, having put tape up, while forensics are checking out the area. Meanwhile the local kids are talking to the policemen about their car while the younger ones are playing football nearby.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Election blogging

Given that a slightly more global election is taking place in Rome this week, what chances are there of getting those boys in red to blog the conclave?!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

New travel pieces...

So my latest pieces are up at Hackwriters. One is a piece I wrote over a year ago and polished more recently on the different kinds of backpacking styles. The other is my first reflection of Lisbon. I should hopefully be able to crank some more stuff out about the place – for the first time I actually went somewhere and took notes to write up when I got home. It’s amazing how differently you look at things when you do that. But it also means always having your notepad in your hand…

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Just got back from Lisbon this afternoon where all was sun and escape from what is increasingly looking like the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of General Election, given the propensity of the Prime Minister and Chancellor to be joined at the hip.

I think I’ve got some suitable material to use by drafting some pieces relating to Lisbon. Suffice to say, I had a good time, overeating on way too many steaks and staying in the sun for too long.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Urban futures

I’m going along to this event on Brazilian cities in a few weeks’ time down at Demos. I’m willing to take bets on how quickly they get around to participatory budgets as an example.

Amazing, isn’t it, that it’s now all the rage although those in the know (ahem) have been extolling its virtues for quite some time.
Brazilian Left

Some extremely useful pieces on Lula’s government including prospects for social welfare reform and the differences between the Workers Party (PT) and PSDB (social democrats) which would be of interest to anyone, like me, interested in the Left. I suspect they may well end up in my dissertation’s bibliography later this year. Unfortunately, they are both in Portuguese, but for a fee I might do a translation!

The newsletter comes from the well-regarded Fundação Perseu Abramo, a think tank associated with the PT, and which I have a soft spot for, on account of their help and support during a spot of fieldwork I did in São Paulo five years ago.
Writing, writing everywhere, but not a penny in return...

Yesterday I got my opus – alright, application for ESRC funding – off to my first testimonial writer. Then it goes around the houses to the second and prospective department before making its way back to the ESRC by 3 May. At least that’s the theory.

At the beginning of the academic year it all seemed so easy, with plenty of time. Instead I was running around trying to complete the research proposal, trying to inflate my research skills, printing it off, checking for mistakes, printing it again and finally banging it in the final post. And that’s after I’d made sense of the 50-page guidance notes, only to realise I’d made an error in the whole process and had to go back to square one.

Now for the next week I’m going to be making myself unpopular with my referees as I harangue them to get it to the relevant department. And is there any guarantee I’ll be successful? About a one in three or four chance.

Slim pickings.

Meanwhile I’m supposed to be revising.

Postgraduate study? I’ve never been so stressed…
Locked away

Found what might potentially be a goldmine for my dissertation on social democracy: a treasure trove of papers from a series of seminars last year and earlier this month.

But for the love of God, can I access any of it? Not unless I’ve registered, which presumably I have to pay for.

Whoever said knowledge was a virtue?
Election titbits

So the race has started and they’re off. Three cities for the Tory leader and five for Charlie K by tea time. And I compare this to my girlfriend’s grumbles about not wanting to make the cross-town trip from Bethnal Green to Kingston for a few hours on Saturday. Puts things in perspective, eh?

But with just over 24 hours gone in the contest, I’ve had my first pieces of election material sent to my inbox. The Lib Dems’ youth section was quickest off the mark, offering to bribe me – bribe? Sorry, I meant pay – with my travel costs to help campaign. If that wasn’t enticing enough they can offer me a sofa or a floor somewhere too. Hmmm... I may take a rain check.

Then CK (does his office still call him that? For the love of God, why?) cranked out his bit, presumably while on his jet to Newcastle (impressive multitasking I thought). It was the usual guff, but what caught my eye was a bit at the bottom asking those with websites and blogs if they would like to plaster ‘Support Lib Dem’ banners all over their patch of cyberspace.

Me? Sorry, I’m declining. How can I be dispassionate and critical of all candidates if I’ve got someone’s label all over this blog? And besides, there could be a further reason, which I must come to: over who to vote for. The latest polls put the electorate in volatile mood and I can sympathise.

For the last 11 years I’ve voted tactically, usually to unseat the Tories. This time round commentators are talking about tactical voting working against Labour. And given Blair’s ill-timed words yesterday – “You [the British people] are the boss” – perhaps it’s about time he got a kicking, especially after he ignored those of us who marched against war two years ago.

Not that I want the Tories back in. But I want Blair’s wings clipped. And that means reducing his majority, boosting the capacity of his awkward squad and making it more difficult for them to pass offensive legislation like that on detention without trial. So how can this be done in Bethnal Green? Well, apparently Respect has a good chance of beating Oona King, but only if it’s done tactically. Unfortunately though, I don’t find George Galloway particularly attractive and the party he leads seems dubious, harking back to a world which only the SWP wants. So what do I do? Hold my nose and vote for him? Is there any other way of unseating Labour here? It’s going to be an interesting few weeks, methinks.

Finally, some entertaining news from the Lib Dem website:

Interested in standing?

If you are interested in becoming a candidate yourself, please email
Candidates Office (England) or the Scottish or Welsh Liberal Democrats.
So much for the comprehensive all-day development day I underwent a few years ago during which all prospective candidates were assessed and rigorously scrutinised before being unleashed on unsuspecting party members - and if successful, on the public. I can never get that cold, bleak and rainy day back – in Warrington of all places…

Monday, April 04, 2005

Explaining my absence

Am getting my head down to revision what with exams just over a month away. Although somehow there was an oversight of this small detail at chez Burton last month with the girlfriend booking flights to Lisbon for later this week. So chances are there will be little from this end for much of this week but hopefully a few posts on thoughts and reflections regarding the Portuguese capital at the weekend. And then more virtual silence till the exams are done and out of the way.

Does it ever end?!