Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Lovely Jubilee

How embarrassed am I?! Ever since I miss-read a Daily Mail headline saying “The Lovely Jubilee”, I’ve been planning a street party to commemorate the anniversary of the first edition of Only Fools and Horses. What a fool I am. Apparently the “lovely jubilee” has nothing to do with Del Boy’s iconic catchphrase (it’s not spelt that way, who knew?), and is instead a celebration of the fact that the queen, god bless ‘er, has sat on her throne now for 60 years. Long to reign over us indeed. Yet I can’t help but think that the lads from Nelson Mandela House would be a better way to mark the passing of time here in Britain. Their story of struggling to make ends meet, their evasion of the law and their na├»ve optimism has more resonance with me than tales of crowns and palaces ever will. After all, who doesn’t look at their own life and wonder, why do only fools and horses work? “Poppycock!” they cry. “This is a time to rejoice, not to whinge and whine and moan and talk of democracy. Let’s put up the bunting, wave our flags, cheer for all that is good about being British!” Well, I hate to disagree… No, wait, scrub that. I love to disagree! So let’s take a look at some of the ludicrous arguments used to insult our intelligence and justify the existence of the octogenarian scrounger.

1. The Queen Works Really, Really, Hard.

The queen has had a rough old life. She’s 86 you know. 86! Although, since she has two birthdays a year, perhaps she’s actually 172. And she’s still working! In the past five years she’s been to the United States, Turkey, Oman, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Slovenia and Slovakia. She’s even been to Belgium. What a hectic schedule that is, travelling first class around the world to interesting places. And when she’s there they treat her like, er, royalty. There’s the dinners, the banquets, the formal state occasions, the luncheons with presidents and prime ministers, the vicious Bruce Lee-style pheasant killings. The list goes on and on. Then there’s the waving. If she ever ends up with carpel tunnel or RSI she’d have a damn good claim at an employment tribunal. To make it worse, there’s no let up, the queen is the queen all day, every day. Even when she’s asleep. Of course, the training for the job wasn’t a huge deal. No exams, no coursework, no group presentation with a powerpoint display. All she had to do was be born. A princess. Simple.

2. She Does More Good Than Harm

This is what I have come to think of as the Earlobe vs Appendix debate. On the one hand are those who think that, while queeny may be of little constitutional value, she does at least give the nation something splendidly pretty to look at. Decked out in a spangly tiara and carrying a gold mace around, she is every inch an earlobe: useless but at least you can hang jewellery on it. However, I am inclined to think of her more as society’s appendix – an anachronistic relic of an earlier stage of human development, utterly pointless and ignored until something goes horribly wrong. At which point it can cause an enormous amount of grief and is generally a right royal pain in the arse. Think Diana conspiracy theories, the queen mum’s vodka habit, or any time Philip opens his stupid, racist mouth.

3. The Queen is Good for Tourism

To plagiarise Mark Steel, I doubt that anyone has ever gone to Paris, travelled to the top of the Eiffel Tower and thought, “Wow! The view is incredible, but somehow spoiled by the lack of a monarch.” The television is full of vox pops showcasing the stereotypical tourist, hoping to catch a glimpse of “your fabulous queen Elizabeth!” But if this is the case, then why do tourists come at any other time? Surely they’d only turn up once every 25 years, knowing she was a dead cert for a golden carriage drive-by. Why does anybody go to a museum? More people take photos outside Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London than are ever pictured next to a royal. Shakespeare’s been dead for close on 400 years but people still go to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Besides, if Point 1 is to be believed, she’s never in the bloody country anyway.

4. The Monarchy Prevents Fascism

I kid you not. I once had a discussion with a work colleague who insisted that the monarchy would save us from fascism if ever the need arose. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “I don’t really like the queen, but if the Nazis ever came to power, she’d be able to put a stop to it.” Which is, of course, a killer argument if we ignore reality. And history. And the facts. The one time when fascism posed a mortal threat to this allegedly green and pleasant land – the 1920s and 1930s – our esteemed royalty rather failed the anti-fascist test. Standard texts tell you that Edward VIII abdicated because he simply couldn’t live without the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson. Apparently the king marrying an American socialite divorcee would not sit well with the country’s weak constitution. What these noble and austere tomes omit to tell us is that good ol’ Eddie was a Hitler-loving fascist – and that’s the real reason he couldn’t carry on as king. After he quit his life of throne sitting, he sieg heiled his way around Europe. One young civil servant who met the, then, duke of Westminster described him as “pretty fifth column”.

Not to mention that the queen mum, god rest ‘er soul, wrote letters to friends recommending Mein Kampf for a spot of light reading, pointing out Hitler’s “obvious sincerity”. Or that princess Margaret spent her life spouting all kinds of vicious racist and anti-Semitic bullshit. Oh, but what if it was true? What if the royals really were our first and last line of defence against the Nazis? For a start Liz would have to stop inviting wannabe fuhrers to her garden parties. Prince Harry – who, like his brother, is starting to look increasingly like his father – would have to pick out different fancy dress costumes. And then we’d have to rename UAF as One Unites Against Fascism. It really doesn’t bear thinking about. 

5. But She’s A Really Sweet Old Lady

“She is ever so lovely though. Once I queued for over nine hours to meet her, and when I finally got to shake her hand, she said, “How long have you been here”, and I said, “over nine hours” and she gave me such a sweet smile. You could tell from the way that she looked at me that she thought I was special.” And indeed you are. This is the one that really irks me, that really makes me grind my teeth. It’s the argument that we should ignore the pomp and ceremony, the bluff and bluster, and see the queen for what she really is – a little old lady who’s just like our mum or our nan. Except she’s not. According to Forbes she’s worth in the region of £310 million. And that doesn’t include the paintings and the palaces, the estates and the jewels. It doesn’t even include the bloody swans. She’s not like you and me. And she’s certainly nothing like my mum.

My dear old ma is 71 this year. Never once has she missed a family birthday, never once has she put less than a tenner in a card, the choice of which involved a lengthy deliberation to ensure she picked the one that contained the sentiment she wasn’t confident enough to express in her own words. For four or five days a week she helps look after my sisters, both in middle age, both with health problems. She cooks, she cleans, she washes, she runs errands. When crises hit, she’s there fussing, caring, helping in whatever way she can. Each week she gets by on a basic pension, eeking out the cash to make sure she’s got some cake or biscuits to give to the grandkids if she sees them. In winter she turns on the halogen heater in her bedroom, and lights one of the rings on the kitchen stove to keep warm. There are no chauffeur-driven limousines. No official visits. No state banquets. And yet I have learned more about love, respect, dignity and compassion from this woman than I ever could have done from any member of the royal family. Where’s her fucking jubilee?

And there’s the rub. While the rich and the privileged toast the jubilee, there are millions of people, just like my mother – real people, ‘ordinary’ people - who inspire us every day, who shiver with the cold, who just about scrape by, who struggle to find work, and yet remain completely ignored. Following the death of princess Charlotte, Tom Paine once surveyed perceptions of the wealthy royals and the impoverished multitude and concluded that we “pity the plumage and forget the dying bird”. Tragically his words are as valid today as they were three hundred years ago. Austerity may bite, but don’t worry, not only are we all in this together – this time next year we’ll all be millionaires.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Resistance - The Best Olympic Spirit

This Monday gone saw, what was for my money, the finest political meeting I have ever had the privilege of attending. For two hours a packed Friends Meeting House in London witnessed some truly incredible speakers come together to denounce racism and call for justice. Whether it was the quiet dignity of Doreen Lawrence, the passion of Janet Alder or the sheer presence of 1968 Olympic legend John Carlos, I have never felt a room so electric, so emotionally charged as Monday night. The video of the event can only convey a fraction of the atmosphere, which still makes it an absolute must see.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Spiralling Cost of the Olympic Games

Point of order. If I go to the supermarket with a budget of fifty quid, but then proceed to spend three hundred, I am by any definition over-budget. This still applies if half way round I suddenly decide to increase my budget to four hundred pounds. To think otherwise would be to incur the wrath of my bank, my partner, and logic itself. To constantly revise the estimate each and every time you run out of money means you haven’t set a budget, you’ve picked a number at random. You could spend nine, ten, or eleven billion pounds, and it wouldn’t matter. Sebastian Coe may as well have said, “We originally set out with an Olympic budget of a fiver, but have managed to remain within our budget since we have spent less than £25 billion.”

So it is that we survey the costs of London 2012 with a heavy sigh. Although we haven’t had word of an increase in the Olympic budget for what seems like days now, the unveiling of Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Orbit tower/sculpture brought the whole sorry saga back to my attention. The 115m structure, which has set us back £22.7 million, looks like a crazy roller coaster where the sky’s the limit, reaching ever higher as it spirals out of control. Which, to my mind, makes it the single most expensive Olympics budget metaphor in history. In fairness to Kapoor, he has come out and said that the £15 entrance fee is a “hell of a lot of money”.

Too right it is. And yet it seems like a bargain when weighed against the costs for sport's quadrennial festival of commerce.  At last count the budget is running at £9.3 billion, although this figure rises to £11 billion when you include the £766 million it will cost to buy the Olympic Park land and an additional £826 million on what has mysteriously been dubbed “legacy costs”. Leaving aside the fact that the famed Olympic legacy seems to consist of little more than simply buying a legacy, let’s instead take issue with the figures.

Hugh Robertson, the minister for the Olympics and situating missiles in residential areas, is said to be “increasingly confident” that the games will come in under budget. All right so. But which budget? It’s certainly not the budget submitted when the country was bidding to host the games in 2005. Back then the figure was an estimated £2.4 billion. The Public Accounts Committee suggests that the discrepancy came about because “LOCOG’s initial estimates for the cost and scale of venue security were based on a “finger in the air estimate”! Ah, guesswork - the firm foundation on which every sound economic policy is built.

By 2009 the budget was up to £9 billion and rising. The cost of the opening and closing ceremonies doubled at the end of the last year. And just to rub it in, we’re being charged extortionate fees to attend any of the events that are being put on using public money. If you were lucky enough to get a ticket to an Olympic venue it will have set you back anywhere between £20 - £725. If you want to go to the Olympic concert, you’ll be splashing out £50+. Fifty quid to be reminded that Duran Duran were shite? I think not.

The most startling recent cost increases have revolved around security at the games. The budget has now more than doubled to £553 million. Once again the Public Affiars Committee have been scathing in their appraisal of the games organisers:
"LOCOG has had to renegotiate the contract for venue security it awarded to G4S in December 2012. However, there is no evidence that the Government has secured any price advantage, even though the value of the business it is putting to its contractor has increased from £86 million to £284 million."
Lest we forget, the G4 part of these security ‘experts’ were, in their previous incarnation, responsible for a catalogue of shambolic mishaps marked by such ineptitude as to make the Chuckle Brothers look professional. After a spate of prisoners escaping while being transferred between prisons, Group 4 managed to put an electronic tag on the prosthetic leg of a burglar. When the man simply changed his leg and went on nicking, the masterminds at G4 were baffled. We can sleep safe at night knowing that G4S will foil any terrorist plot. Probably by knocking out would-be bombers with a length of wood they're carrying on their shoulders. To me, to you.

The last time the games came to London they were held amid the rubble of a city still devastated by World War II. As we enter a double dip recession, politicians are increasingly fond of referencing those “Austerity Olympics”. They are put on display as a proud symbol of what a cash-strapped nation can achieve, a reminder that the collective high spirits of the nation are more important than money. They are the promise of a successful, prosperous London 2012. Blah. Blah. Blah. What the politicians fail to tell us when invoking the spirit of 1948 is that the government of the day refused to contribute any public money to the games. When there was no money in the coffers, Clem Atlee decided not to cough up.

A better comparison would be to examine the Olympiads of recent times where all bar one of the host cities (Los Angeles in 1984) exceeded their budget. Both the Beijing and Athens games saw their eventual costs double from the intial estimates. The hosts of the 1976 games, Montreal, were eventually saddled with debts of  $2 billion. Before the games got under way the mayor of the city, Jean Drapeau, claimed, “the Olympics could no more produce a deficit, than a man a baby”. Montreal finally finished paying off their debt in 2006, thirty years after they held the games.

With the costs of the games nationalised and the profits privatised, the people making money out of the games will be the IOC and their loyal band of corporate cohorts. No doubt the ConDem coalition will continue to throw money at a budget that, history suggests, has not yet finished increasing. Only people with more money than sense would spend time trying to book Keith Moon for the Olympic Ceremony. The trouble is that it’s our money they’re throwing around. Like a shop-a-holic on a spending binge, there’s no cost too small, no lavish step too far. It’s an addiction. A disease. Won’t somebody, please, cut up their credit cards?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Pete Norman - The Third Man in the Photograph

The clenched fist salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico is one of the defining images from a year of global protest. Despite its ubiquity it has lost none of its extraordinary power. Muhammad Ali, who knew a thing or two about both the Olympics and racism in the United States, said that it was “the single most courageous act of the century.”

Like thousands of others, a poster version of John Domini’s famous photograph hangs on my wall. But for a long time I was puzzled. Who was the third figure on the rostrum? And what did he make of this unique protest? In the picture he seems to stand somewhat awkwardly, staring into the distance as the flags are hoisted at the end of the medal ceremony. With his mouth ever so slightly open, frozen in the blink of a shutter, it is difficult to tell if he is even aware of Smith and Carlos, or whether he is awestruck by the 100,000 people crammed into the Aztec Stadium. For all I knew he could have been a racist, utterly disgusted by the events unfolding around him, lost in a reverie of his own bigotry.

The man in question was the Australian sprinter Pete Norman, silver medallist in the men’s 200m. In the stadium tunnel where the athletes were held before being led on to the field, the American pair revealed their plan to Norman, which the Australian fully endorsed. On discovering that Carlos had left his pair of gloves in the Olympic village it was Norman who suggested that the Americans should each wear one of Smith’s remaining pair. He also offered to wear an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as a gesture of support. Norman recalled:
“As we were going out on to the track, Paul Hoffman, the cox of the US rowing eight, came over to congratulate the guys. The rowing team was supporting the African-American guys. Paul, who is white, had his badge on. As Paul reached over to shake hands with John, while John had his right hand clenched, he reached across with his left hand and undid Paul’s badge. He then pinned it on my tracksuit. I proudly wore it on the stand.”
The American athletes were delighted to have Norman’s support. “Here was a guy,” said John Carlos, “from the other side of the world showing he believed in humanity, in love, and in God, and that showed his character.” Yet the mood was quickly soured. The stand taken by the black athletes drew almost instantaneous condemnation from Olympic officials and those opposed to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Following pressure from Avery Brundage, the IOC president infamous for his racist and anti-Semitic views, the US Olympic Committee suspended Smith and Carlos. Time magazine ran a front page of the Olympic rings with the headline “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier”. Both men would receive death threats and see their families targeted as a result of their actions.

Amidst the ensuing furore and media scrum Norman not only defended the clenched fist salutes but also went on the attack, criticising the Australian government’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples and their ‘White Australia’ immigration policies. “I couldn’t see why anyone would dislike or hate someone simply because they were a different colour. Colour doesn’t matter. Nationality doesn’t matter.” His anti-racism brought him the respect of black athletes throughout the United States. Norman was the only white competitor invited to the inaugural Martin Luther King International Freedom Games in 1969.

Subsequently Norman found himself ostracized by the Australian athletics officialdom. It didn’t help that his behaviour seemed unusually erratic. Off the track he had begun an affair and drifted increasingly away from the Salvation Army, which had been such a big part of his early life. On the track things went from bad to worse. After being awarded second place in the Victoria 100m championships in 1972 – a race that he had clearly won - Norman threw his silver medal at the chief judge. Later in the season Norman was left out of the Australia squad for the Munich Olympics. Despite carrying a niggling knee injury, there was no discernable reason to overlook a fit-enough Pete Norman, who was, after all, Australia’s only Olympic sprint medal winner. Norman had no doubts that the decision had little to do with athletics:
“I earned the frowning eyes of the powers-that-be by misbehaving at the state championships when I honestly thought I’d won the state 100m title. That, plus the fact that I’d, would you say, misbehaved at my previous Olympics, gave the selectors a good opportunity to leave me home.”
Pete Norman retired immediately. The pressures of international fame and the sheer hard work involved in competing in top level athletics contributed to the separation of Norman from his first wife, Ruth, in 1972. The painful wrench stretched family loyalties to breaking point and, as so often happens, impacted most upon the couple’s children. After leaving his job as a teacher and suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon he fell into a cycle of alcoholism and depression.

Only in the last few years of his life did Norman find anything resembling contentment. Tentative steps towards reconciliation with his children were attempted. Australian sporting authorities righted some of their previous wrongs, inducting Norman into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1999. As the Sydney Olympics approached, Norman was invited to carry the Olympic torch across Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge.

Pete Norman died in 2006. Two of the pallbearers at his funeral were Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Smith and Carlos are rightly remembered as the men whose courage and dignity produced an unparalleled gesture of defiance. History should also record that Pete Norman played his own small part, not as a bystander in a picture, but as an example of unity and solidarity. As the self-effacing Norman said, "I didn't raise a fist, but I lent a hand."

Coda: Since Pete Norman's nephew, Matt Norman, has been in contact I thought I'd add a couple of bits of information. The quotes in the post are taken from the book, "A Race to Remember: The Pete Norman Story", by Matt Norman and Damian Johnstone. I have no doubt that, should you be interested, Bookmarks should be able to lay their hands on a copy for you. Also, Matt has directed a film telling the story of Smith, Carlos and Norman at the 1968 Olympics which will be released in the UK in July this year. You can find details at www.salutethemovie.com.