What Were They Like?

1) Did the people of  Albion hold ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds?
2) Did they honour the written word or tell stories when darkness fell?
3) Did they shake hands and kiss in greeting?
4) Were they inclined to quiet welcome and fellowship?
5) Were their temples made of stone?
6) Did they cherish all, equally, or did rank hold sway?
7) Did they use paper to carry their dreams?
8) Did they have the use of the wheel?
9) Were they people of the land, with dirt on boot or hand?

1) Long ago they exchanged sweetmeats and feasted to excess. Now they cultivate
 their gardens and remember and are healed.
2) In darkened rooms, illuminated by blue tinged light, they drifted in stories 
of pictures and words. The stories helped them to forget, help them to remember.
3) Once, yes. Now, they do not touch, except in vibration carried on the wind. They
 kiss only the mask they wear.
4) They were an exuberant race, of bluster and boastfulness, long ago. Now they take
 refuge in quiet connectivity and contemplation.
5) The temples were of brick and glass and plastic to pacify powerful gods. Worship
 was done two metres apart. Chevrons pointed to the altars. Why? We no longer know.
6) Madam, it is not known. A fragment discovered suggests they were lost in a dream of 
trust. Their Leaders fell prey to greed and vanity. Many died alone, of all ranks.
7) Paper was venerated and coveted in equal measure. Even those without it survived. 
Frantic  accumulation could not save all.
8) When the fall came, they travelled but once a day and returned to walking, as a 
memorial. Who can say? The car parks are empty now.

The Old Grey Owl

(with apologies to Denise Levertov)

Time for The Adults and The Experts to Take Back Control

It has to be Keir

And so we come to the most protracted, forgotten, now almost irrelevant election in the history of democracy, The Labour Party leadership election. What, you mean that still hasn’t happened yet? Even when it started, in an entirely different epoch a couple of months ago, it was dull and infuriating in equal measure. Now it doesn’t even have the traction in popular consciousness to make it to dull. It epitomises many things that are wrong about the Labour Party. An impeccable exercise in Democracy, it engages and excites only die-hard activists and passes by everyone else. Yes, The People. Us. The ones the whole thing is meant to serve.

In reality, as the bodies are beginning to pile up, it has become more important, not less. Because the Tory response to Coronovirus has been lethally poor. It has had, at the very least, the beneficial aspect of exposing what happens when you systematically run down every area of public provision. You leave a husk of a State, that can be blown over by a gentle breeze, never mind the raging hurricane that is COVID 19. Some extraordinary facts have been exposed by this whole terrible tragic affair, but none more shocking than the fact that at the beginning of the crisis Italy had twice the number of intensive care beds and provision than did the UK. TWICE. A shameful dereliction of duty by the governments of the Coalition and the Tories, which has caused barely a ripple of comment in the media.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to go back to the piece I wrote about the labour leadership, way back at the beginning of January. Much of it still holds now, even after the field has narrowed. This was my view back in January, the days when one could go to the pub, the cinema, restaurants and theatre, meet friends and family, go to work. When will those days return?

The horror of the General Election is fading. This is partly because of self-preservation on my part. A life time of news addiction should be fairly hard to break you would have thought, but not in this case. I have been physically unable to watch the news, in any form. Obviously, I no longer watch the main BBC news after their disgracefully partial performance in the election, but even Channel 4 news and Newsnight have not tempted me. The prospect of having one’s nose dragged through the crowing and smug self-congratulation of the victors is only marginally more distasteful than the recriminations of the vanquished. Either way, there has been no real incentive to plunge back in as an observer of politics.

But that state of childlike innocence cannot last for ever, at least not for sentient adults, and so I have begun, cautiously to dip a toe in the water again.

Firstly, one has to endure the patently ridiculous analyses of why The Conservatives won. And no, I’m sorry, but no matter how pompously you opine this, it’s just not true that this was a reward for the party that was going to protect the “Will of the People” and that somehow Democracy with a capital D is the real victor. It’s quite the reverse, actually. This was a victory for lies. And I still believe, no matter how naively, that eventually there will be a reckoning. More of that later. For now, it’s time to turn our attention to the next Labour leader.

The stakes are very high. That is because there is one inescapable fact about the Labour Party and it’s this: despite the febrile fantasies of the MSM about a new centrist grouping emerging from this debacle, sweeping to power and destroying the Labour party, it is the Labour Party that is the only force that can challenge the Tory/Brexit party. And what follows from that is that the choice of the new leader becomes the most important decision facing the UK, one that will dictate events in the future: short, medium and long term.

And you can’t choose an effective leader unless you’re clear on what went wrong under Corbyn. Part of the horror story since December 13th has been the profoundly depressing spectacle of Labour party members, supporters and commentators determinedly getting it wrong. There appears to be an uncanny ability to grasp the wrong end of any stick proffered in their general direction. So here goes. This is my attempt to grasp the other end of said stick.

Labour Party finally gets rid of those pesky Lefties or Right Wingers. (You choose)

Why did we lose?

  1. Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn as leader was far and away the main element in our lack of popular appeal. You can squeal all you like about the mainstream media (and obviously it is grotesque) but I think that it’s reasonable to expect professional politicians and media analysts in the party to anticipate that and to counteract it. That is why they are there. And they failed miserably. But Corbyn’s failure went further and deeper than this. He seemed incapable of clearly making the case for the socialist alternative, both in general terms of principle and specific terms of policy. He and his advisors didn’t seem to have “gamed” any potentially tricky questions that might come up in interviews or debates and actually prepared an answer for them. This reached its most embarrassing zenith when he first unveiled the form of words “Neutral” on any campaign in a second Brexit referendum, weeks after it was blindingly obvious that the party’s position on the crucial issue of the election was the object of ridicule.

Their position on Brexit and the second referendum made perfect sense logically, but only for people who can listen to an argument for more than one sentence. Those people don’t vote labour. If that is the position you decide on, you have to take time to explain and make that case, over and over and over again, weeks before the campaign starts.

The other great failure of Corbyn was intimately tied up with one of his unique selling points, a quality that generated a lot of his appeal in 2017 and which gave him a refreshing sense of authenticity. His refusal to play dirty. His stubborn clinging on to the moral high ground might have enabled him to sleep soundly at night, but there was too much at stake for that. And against an opponent like Boris Johnson, what juicy material he had to work with. There should have been an incessant daily barrage of attack. Johnson the Liar was such a fertile source of material to work with, it truly was an open goal. And Corbyn missed it.

  • Brexit

In a straight fight between the blunt simplicity of Get Brexit Done and a nod towards reality that Labour tried to embrace, there was only going to be one winner. I remain baffled why nobody from the Labour Party effectively made the case for a second referendum. This was not a case of defying the will of the people, quite the reverse in fact. Nobody in any TV studio, on any Vox Pop, in any poll or husting knew how many of the fabled seventeen million voted for a hard Brexit. Holding a second referendum was a way of finding out and genuinely healing the country. If you have a specific deal on the table and a majority had voted for it, then that would have been it done, and there could have been no arguments, no matter how stupid leaving is. How can a second referendum be portrayed as antidemocratic? It’s not as if the seventeen million were going to be barred from voting in the second one, but that’s what it appeared at times in the debate. The Right and the Leave alliance were petrified of a second referendum because they knew it was quite likely that a majority existed to remain. Just as in the case of Scotland, the Right wrap themselves in the Democracy argument, except when they don’t like the probable result. Self-determination is the inalienable right of oppressed peoples everywhere in the world against brutal dictatorships (apart from the ones we sell arms to, obviously), except when we are the dictators and the oppressed are the Scots.

In this sense, the whole business of the New Deal (worse than the Old Deal, a fact that seemed to escape the Daily Mail) that Johnson fell into was simply an elaborate set-up with the election in mind. Everything was calibrated so that Johnson could fight a People versus the Crooked Politicians campaign, with Johnson, bizarrely, being a “Person” and not a “Politician”

  • Anti-Semitism

The success of painting The Labour Party, the most overtly anti-racist party in the history of political groupings was breathtakingly brilliant. The voices against Corbyn and Antisemitism from within the party were clearly opposed to his socialist programme. John Mann, Ian Austen, John Woodcock were the worst kind of chancers, without a principled bone in their body. There was clearly a problem that was more than just presentational. A certain breed of naïve Trot lets their belief in global capitalist conspiracy spill over into ludicrous antisemitic views. A tiny minority from what I can see. The Party will be better off without them. But it’s done now and it won’t go away, so any leadership contender will have to talk tough on this and take immediate action on anyone who falls short. At least it might lead to a situation where the spotlight can be turned back on the appalling racism and homophobia in the Tory Party (much more widespread, running much deeper and with more impact). The next leader, whoever it is, must also be brave enough to be absolutely unequivocal in their condemnation of the current government of Israel, which is racist and corrupt, while getting rid of the last traces of antisemitism within their own organisation.

  • Language and message discipline

The Tories have always been better at talking a language that approximates to that used by human beings. Their professionals have added to that by coming up with series of slogans that are easy to understand and which tap into an emotional message about country, belonging and empowerment, just as UKIP did. The Labour party must find a good communicator and hone down their ideas into some pithy slogans, that connect with people. The appeal to rationalism just isn’t enough any more. People do not want to be persuaded, they want to feel that their instincts are right. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work for that to happen. Blair’s greatest strength was his oratory, in big set piece speeches, in interviews, in talking to the public. In all of these settings he was convincing as a human being and someone who was trying to answer the question directly.

This applies particularly to the manifesto, which has become the target of most Right wing Labour commentators. Let’s be quite clear about this- the manifesto was very popular. The policies make sense. They are moderate rather than extreme. The level of spending they entailed, for example would have taken the UK to the average spend of OECD countries and behind France and Germany. People should have been constantly banging on about that way before the election and all the way through it. This is moderate mainstream European social democracy.

The problem was that there was too much and the impression was created that new things were being added as they went along in desperation. Hence credibility was lost. Streamline the offer, create a coherent narrative, make the case and repeat constantly.

The drive to disown Corbyn and Corbynism has its dangers. His greatest achievement has been to drag the party to the left in terms of policy, so now all candidates have to espouse some version of greater public spending and renationalisation. It would be a catastrophic error, in my view, to junk all of that and go back to Blairism.

Except in one respect. And this is where I go a little controversial, Labour Party chums.

I don’t think the political instincts of the next leader are at all important. I’d love another Tony Blair figure, as long as the manifesto remains broadly the same. The Leader must be someone who can connect, who has already connected, with the public. And the public are important here. It’s irrelevant if the membership don’t like them. In many ways the mass membership, which is often cited as Corbyn’s greatest achievement, is actually a mill stone around our neck. It’s not a private club. The membership are clearly out of step with the attitudes and ideas and aspirations of the general public (yes, alright, there’s no such thing as the general public, I know, but you get what I mean) so we have to step outside of our own values and ideas about policy sacred cows, and think laterally about what is most important, what will make a difference that people will embrace in ordinary people’s lives.

There is one final element to raise before I pin my colours to specific candidates. Yes, it’s our old friend, Electoral Reform.

Proportional Representation was Blair’s biggest mistake, bigger even than the Iraq war. Our FPTP system condemns us to years of Tory governments. And even worse, Tory governments that are getting more and more extreme. The current lot make Thatcher look like Beatrice Webb. There has been a majority in this country for my entire life for left of centre government, yet the existence of the SDP, the Liberals and the Lib Dems, plus FPTP produces massive Tory majorities. It is completely undemocratic and unrepresentative. Just imagine what sort of country we would be now with forty years of soft left social democracy and coalition governments behind us. I could weep with frustration. The new leader must embrace PR and cross party alliances enthusiastically and formally.

Normally, the scale of the Tory victory would guarantee at least ten years of opposition, but these are very specific, strange circumstances. I can absolutely imagine Johnson completely bolloxing this up and, when he does, vengeance will be swift. The Labour party needs to be ready. And so, my vote is going to Keir Starmer, who has intellectual gravity and supports the manifesto. Trouble is, he’s a little dull. That might be enough, but it might not. So, (brace yourselves) I’d support Jess Phillips as Deputy. Yes, I know she’s right wing. Yes, I know she’s said some terrible things. But she is somebody the public warm to instinctively. And that is a much-underestimated quality amongst labour activists and supporters. (With that in mind , I just have to add that, at the end of this contest, I have actually been very impressed with Lisa Nandy, even though I disagree strongly with her about The North, Brexit and Democracy. She is a communicator and could have a very bright future.)

This brings me to the final achilles heel of the party. It’s the tribalism and visceral hatred of members of the same party who are further to the right than some others. The scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian is still the best representation of this – the spat between the Popular Front of Judea (splitters!) and The Judean Popular Front. We’re on the same side, guys. Accept the broad church, work with other progressive forces, form a government that can make a difference to people whose lives have been diminished by Tory Governments. You know it makes sense.

To me now, it reads like an uncovered manuscript from an ancient civilization, rather than a run of the mill blog. Jess Phillips has come and gone. I’d probably go for Angela Rayner instead. Starmer and Rayner. Not exactly Morecambe and Wise (ask your parents), but better than The Chuckle Brothers. It’s a return to John Smith as leader of the Labour Party. A little dull, perhaps, but now more than ever, it’s time for the adults to be in charge.

Milagritos, Part 1

Covid-19, Martial Law, and the Psychology of Panic Buying

Forty years ago, on February 23rd 1981, there was an attempted military coup in Spain, when Colonel Antonio Tejero led a group of soldiers and invaded Parliament. I was there, and this is my story of a different kind of panic buying.

Meticulous Government planning reveals benefits of being outside the EU

On Saturday morning I battled through a local Sainsburys the size of an aircraft hangar to do the weekly shop, expecting to find acres of empty space as the fear of contagion gripped the good burghers of Bromley, sending them scurrying to their online grocery accounts. No such luck. The shop was rammed with anxious shoppers doing a remake of supermarket sweep. For the second week in a row, the toilet paper aisle was stripped bare by the pillaging hordes, followed closely by the dried pasta aisle and the sanitiser and paracetamol sections. No-one seems remotely bothered about their cats or dogs, however, and the unspoken fear remains that eventually this crisis will end with everyone making spag bol from Pedigree Chum. Without the spag.

As I prepare for an extended period of self-isolation (previously known as “getting old”) my mind has wandered back in time to an earlier period in my life, when I encountered the full range of panic buying experiences, and learned something invaluable about the standard human response to moments lived in extremis. The year, gentle reader, was 1981, and I found myself living Spain in an early version of the gap year. Back then, this was simply a way for wasters to put off clambering onto the mortgage treadmill. Having greatly enjoyed three years at York University, an educative holiday generously funded at the taxpayer’s expense, I was searching for an innovative means of extending this period of investigative scholarship. I had dipped my toe into the waters of full-time paid work and, to be honest, it was not to my taste. It was certainly not what my years of training had prepared me for.

Thankfully, existential crisis was averted when an old school friend, who had spent the previous year doing TEFL in Madrid, contacted me and suggested I go out to Spain to play. And so it was that in the late summer of 1980 we found ourselves in Valencia looking for English teaching jobs. I had no experience, no training and not much idea. My friend had at least done it before, but that was the extent of his advantage. What we did have on our side, however, was luck and good timing, historically speaking. We were both English graduates in Spain at a time when the TEFL industry was, to put it mildly, a bit of a cowboy operation. We were, to our surprise, snapped up and began life as teachers at the Global School of Languages, under the guidance of proprietor Senor Petit, a huge French Algerian man of prodigious appetites and precarious finances.

Valencia before Social Distancing

He was a true eccentric who constantly surprised. (not least in his approach to the regular payment of salary owed) He would at intervals arrive at the office dressed in full, traditional Arab robes and head dress, complete with mirror shades and would wander in and out of lessons, much to the delight of the little old well-to-do Spanish ladies who made up the bulk of the clientele. At least once  a week, during quiet moments he would announce to the group of young English lads that worked there, “Muchachos, vamos a jugar” and he would take us all down to the bar in the street and pay for all the drinks while we did a Space Invaders tournament. We literally never knew what to expect from him, from one day to the next, and forgave him many missed or late payments because he was rather fun. It might have been different of course if we had had families and responsibilities, but we were, to a man (and it was all men) feckless wasters, so it all seemed part of a glorious adventure.

And then, one afternoon of a pretty slow day “teaching” a group of IBM business men (how he had secured this extremely prestigious contract with IBM was baffling to us all and was never satisfactorily explained) the door swung violently open and Senor Petit burst into the room.  

“Everyone out! There’s been a coup d’etat. Go home. There’s an announcement due. The army are out on the streets!”

We all, teacher and students, looked at each other and after a pause, burst out laughing. That Senor Petit, eh? What a card! Always the joker.

He looked baffled at our reaction. “No, no, I’m serious. There’s been a coup in Parliament. Everywhere is closing. You’ve all got to go. Now.”

Eventually the penny dropped and we all realised he meant it. Spain was in the first flush of democracy after surviving under the jackboot of the fascism of General Franco (or General Francissimo, as our Spanish chums  rather disrespectfully called him) and a few disgruntled members of the old Guard, under the leadership of a ridiculous character, Lieutenant Tejero, had marched into Parliament , fired a few shots and declared a military coup. For a local point of comparison, imagine Mark Francois doing the same thing in Westminster to “save” Brexit. Francois is actually more likely to shoot himself in the foot, but you get my point. It was serious and there was mass panic, with no-one knowing what side the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, would come down on: Democracy or Military rule.

I did my usual walk home, several hours earlier than normal, through the centre of Valencia. The streets were absolutely packed and you could feel the atmosphere – a strange mixture of fear, excitement and shock. Just about everyone was scurrying through the streets with small transistor radios jammed up against their ears, desperate for the latest news. The local newspaper was published every two hours and the whole thing felt like being in a film. You know the sort of thing: brave, principled British journalist in a far-flung former colony, caught up in a military coup carried out by brutal extremists. Said journo risks life to get the truth out, while getting involved in a liberal, caring way with local little-person campaigners, with a bit of love interest thrown in. Local colour is dispensable as far as the plot is concerned and a couple of those characters die, including, tragically, the love interest, despite the heroic best efforts of plucky liberal journalist. Brit journalist returns to Blighty at the end of the film a sadder and a wiser man. That, of course, was the scenario I was running through my head on my fevered walk back to my flat. It was tremendously exciting, not least because at the back of my mind I was pretty certain that, as a Brit, I was safe because there were certain rules about this sort of thing. As I was to discover later, it was an entirely different scenario for most of my Spanish friends, all card-carrying members of the Spanish Socialist party. More of that later.

I noticed, as I dodged the crowds and weaved in and out of the traffic that was choking the city streets, that lots of people were struggling with heavy bags of shopping, and that at several shops I passed, queues had formed which snaked out of the doorway and down the street. I did a double take, a bit baffled that now of all times, people would choose to do their shopping, but then I realised what was going on. They were panic buying. The news on the radio was sufficiently apocalyptic to ensure that everyone feared the worst. Good news was in short supply and the best response to this unprecedented situation was to assume that we would be holed up at home for days and that food was likely to run out.

By the time I had worked this out I was nearly back at my flat, away from the main drag, in the splendidly seedy streets of Barrio Carmen, a neighbourhood of prostitutes, drug takers, revolutionaries, artists and ne’er-do-wells. Blindfold, one could always tell when one had arrived back in those familiar alleys because of the smell: a heady cocktail of sewers, garlic and marijuana, a smell redolent of adventure and contagion.  Of Risk.

My flat was in a crumbling four story tenement block arranged with several others around a tiny plaza in the middle of Carmen. It was litter strewn and daubed with graffiti, but the shabbiness was brilliantly illuminated by a neon purple Bougainvillea that clung to the wall of the block opposite. I use the word “plaza”  loosely. It was in fact the tiny bit of space created when, to steal from Charles Dickens, the surrounding blocks leaped apart out their conspiratorial huddle when disturbed by members of the Guardia Civil. One block went off to help the police with their enquiries and the others hung back a little smoking a Ducados and looking a bit shifty. That was the Plaza where my flat was situated.

El Barrio Carmen, gentrified

But there was one notable oasis in this desert – a tiny shop in the next block from us. It was the human equivalent of the Bougainvillea. Milagritos it was known as. “Little Miracles”, so called because its cramped interior was crammed with every conceivable item of Spanish food and wine known to man. Just before going up to my flat I popped in there expecting to have to wait patently in a queue, but the inhabitants of Plaza Lowlife were a little more laidback than their mainstream contemporaries. It would take more than a military coup to get them to lengthen their stride. The shop was empty and I was able to casually select some choice delicacies: Several plump chorizos, beans, tuna, fruit salad, bread, coffee, two cartons of UHT milk and a ridiculously cheap bottle of Rioja.

The toothless owner grinned and cackled at me, “Eh, Chico, has ganada el Gordo, no?”, the sentence delivered with her Ducados precariously balanced in the corner of her mouth, its familiar, pungent black-tobacco smoke contributing to the curing of the Serrano hams that hung from the yellowing ceiling. “El Gordo”, or “The Fat One” was the big Spanish lottery rollover. She was clearly surprised to see me buying anything more substantial than a baguette and a hunk of cheese. I smiled, and staggered out of the shop with my bags cradled in both arms, struggling with the door while trying to keep everything balanced and secure.

I crashed into the flat, the door swinging on its hinges as I made it to the kitchen table, lunging the last couple of steps so that the bags spilled their contents out onto the bleached and scarred wooden surface. Just as I did so, there came a voice from behind me.

“Hey, you beat me to it. You been shopping as well? What did you get?”

It was Alan, my flatmate and general partner in crime. He was equally laden as I had been, two bulging brown paper bags in his arms. I proudly itemised my purchases one by one as I laid them out on the table. It was an impressive haul. We could survive a siege with the supplies arrayed on the table.

“Not bad,“ conceded Alan, grudgingly, “Not bad at all. Well done that man. We’ll not starve at any rate.”

“Yeah, it’ll do for a bit of panic buying, “ I replied, feeling rather pleased with myself. “What did you get?”

Alan smiled, knowingly, and placed his bags on the table.

“No panic buying for me, old boy. Mine are carefully considered essential supplies” And with that he emptied the bags.

Four hundred cigarettes, premium Ducados of course, three bottles of Scotch and three bottles of Larios Gin.

“Man cannot live by bread alone,” he explained, catching my wide-eyed reception of his shopping expedition, “Especially when one is living through the eye of the storm of History.”

He smiled, evidently pleased with his preparations, and then a frown passed across his face, like a cloud. “Oh, nearly forgot.” He fumbled in the pockets of his jacket and extricated two bottles of San Miguel, opened them and passed one over to me.

“Cheers” he said as we clinked bottles, “It’s gonna be a long night.”

And it was. He was right about that and right about his emergency supplies compared to mine. So, please, don’t stockpile toilet paper and paracetamol, stockpile alcohol and books. It was a long, long night full of extraordinary adventures that seem barely credible now, nearly forty years later here in mainstream Europe. Part two will follow, as my contribution to keeping spirits up during this Coronovirus nightmare. I have a terrible feeling that I’m going to have to do parts 3 , 4 and more because this thing is going to get worse. Keep safe everyone and best of luck.

Readers’ reactions to “Zero Tolerance”

My new novel, “Zero Tolerance”, was published on February 28th and so far the response has been fantastic. The book is a satirical look at the state of secondary schools in the UK in 2020, and casts a critical eye on trends in management, leadership and teaching. Here are a few of the early reactions from readers:

“Loved, loved, loved this book by The Old Grey Owl”

“Barry Pugh is a creation of comic genius”

“I couldn’t put it down”

“Funny, sad and maddening. Satirical, but very close to the bone.”

If you care about schools, children and teaching, please spread the word about the book by passing on the links and retweeting. All feedback welcome! You can buy the book at the links below:


e-book and overseas readers