Out Now!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

An Irishman walks into a bar

An Irishman walks into a bar and sees a man with a large gold-fish bowl. The man gathers a small crowd around him and places two fingers into the bowl. Within minutes the goldfish are swimming in formation and performing complex, watery balletics. The Irishman is amazed and asks how it’s done. The man states the obvious: a man’s mind is superior to that of a goldfish. The two fingers in the water merely conducts the will of superior mind. 

The Irish man says, ‘I can do that’, and places his two fingers in the bowl. He closes his eyes. Moments later his brow is furrowed, and beads of sweat run down his cheeks. Soon after that his mouth opens and closes…pop…pop…pop.

It’s a very old joke, one that made me laugh as a kid. The question though is what actually constitutes ‘the joke’ here? Is it the visual image of goldfish doing Busby Berkeley routines or the Irishman having a mind inferior to that of a goldfish?

The Irish joke has long been a staple of English working class humour, and I believe in Ireland there are Kerry jokes. Perhaps in Kerry there are jokes centred around one particular town – a street – a house. 

Comedic Russian dolls.

It would be beyond the pale to substitute a black or a woman for the Irish man. It would rightly be seen as perpetuating and reinforcing past prejudices and injustice.  Then again you could argue the same applies to the ‘Irishman’ at the hands of the English.

The question arises is there a substitute? If we said, for example, ‘An American walks into the bar etc’ it would read gratuitously hostile. On the other hand, if we said ‘A German walks into a bar it would just sound incongruous, because we don’t associate Germans with stupidity. The joke wouldn’t work.

For this kind of joke to work it has to match an established stereotype, and has to reflect either some hostility or the false reassurance that the audience is in many ways superior to the butt of the joke. It’s a subtle kind of collective bullying, keeping a perceived threat in its place. It's something done on a regular basis on otherwise politically correct panel shows, the butt being those whose politics are feared or despised:
  A red-neck / ukip supporter  walks into a bar…

We could of course abandon this kind of joke all together, but I suspect that we wont.  It's not in our

Thursday, 22 May 2014

And we have Zumba!

The sun is setting and Monmouth prepares for bed. There is  a quiet hum of excitement

Tomorrow the fair comes to town

I walk down the road. A mile to the river

Is this it? Two tents and a teapot?

No, of course there is more...

Well...a little more

Time to say goodbye to the fair.

But there are other attractions; spoilt for choice you might say.
And we have Zumba.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Who's in charge of thought control?


Richard Scudamore sent some crude and sexist emails to a long standing friend. Here are some of them, and they don’t make pleasant reading. In this private email he warned his friend to keep a woman colleague nicknamed Edna ‘off your shaft.’

Another email tells of a former girlfriend ‘…called double decker…happy for you to play upstairs, but her Dad got angry if you went below. And finally, just to give you a sample he forwarded an old sexist joke: “Once upon a time a Prince asked a ­beautiful Princess, “Will you marry me?” The ­Princess said, “No!” And the Prince lived happily ever after and rode motorcycles and banged skinny big t****d broads...”

Unfortunately for him copies were automatically sent to his PA whose job it was to arrange his diary. It is unclear as to whether she had to read these emails, but read them she did. She was shocked. So much so, she sold them to a national newspaper, which no doubt assuaged her feelings.
As a result one leading officer for Women’s and Girls’ football claimed these comments might ‘put women off football’ and demanded disciplinary action. She added “The people at the top of the Premier League should be sending down the right message to all levels of football.”

Another spokesman is quoted as saying:

 “Every employing organisation should have a disciplinary code covering staff conduct, and follow due process at all times when there is an allegation of sexist behaviour.”
Shadow Equalities Minister Gloria de Piero declares: ‘It is time to kick sexism out of football.’
And who on earth would disagree with the statement by Women in Sport that: "Sexism, as with racism and homophobia, is not acceptable in the workplace.”? 

But are these charges applicable? 

Scudamore, to my knowledge, has never publically indulged in sexist behaviour that would discourage women from football. You could argue the culprit in this respect is the PA and the newspaper that made money from four or five private emails. 

In Scudamore’s words: "They were received from and sent to my private and confidential email address, which a temporary employee who was with the organisation for only a matter of weeks, should not have accessed and was under no instruction to do so. "Nonetheless I accept the contents are inappropriate and apologise for any offence caused, particularly to this person." The question is whether the PA who made money from this will also apologise.

The former Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell would argue the reverse. For her Scudamore is the villain of the piece:
a)‘You can’t have one position publically and then be laughing privately.’
b) In the world of social media and email, there is no public and private.
And, in a quite sinister, almost North Korean statement:
c) "I expect and hope that as a changed person he will reflect and make absolutely clear that these unacceptable views he circulated privately, he will never, ever express again."
With regard to the first point it was Elizabeth I who famously declared she didn’t want to make windows into men’s souls. In other words a Catholic could remain Catholic in private belief so long as he or she publically attended a Protestant Church. Similarly past American Presidents might well have racist beliefs but politics and pragmatism saw them championing Civil Rights. 

The second point – a fuzzy generalisation - is equally debatable. A public figure would be bonkers to blog controversial views or bad taste, or post them on Face Book. But a private email should be that - private. The postal Services Act of 2000 declares it a criminal offense to wilfully open another person’s letter to their detriment, and backs this up with a potential £5000 fine. Though, to my knowledge, there is no similar legislation with regard to email, the principle is essentially the same.

Jowell’s last point is just plain totalitarian. Richard Scudamore’s views are not my views. They amount to schoolboy giggles from a fifty-two year old man. Even so, he is perfectly entitled to say what he wants in private and to friends. I imagine there are equally raucous, tasteless and sexist outbursts at Hen Parties.
I am not championing Scudamore’s comments. I am arguing against thought control in the private sphere.
It is more important to judge someone by their deeds than what they might say or not say in private. In Richard Scudamore’s case he has joined with the FA and Sports England to promote a new FA Woman and Girls programme with a £2.4 million investment. And has publically proclaimed his intention that the football lead aims to be at the ‘leading edge’ of the ‘whole equality agenda.’

It will be interesting to see the outcome of the disciplinary action to be published next week.


AuthorRussell Watkins/DFID

Friday, 9 May 2014

A letter sent and regretted

We are awash with CGI and fast moving images, but sometimes a simple woodcut or sketch can evoke something far deeper. This is a sketch by Dr George Heinrich Langsdorff who accompanied Rezanov's expedition to Alaska, Oregon, California and Japan. When I came across this page I stared at it for some time, thinking of two letters that might have passed each other, one from Nikolai Rezanov to the Tsar, the other from the Tsar to Rezanov. 

But background is needed.

Alexander I of Russia was a natural politician. When he sent out an expedition he hoped would win Russia great tracts of unexplored America and vast wealth from fur and trading links, he led the ship’s Captain, a German named Krustenstern, to believe he was charge of the expedition. He also led his emissary, Nikolai Rezanov, to believe that he was in charge. It might sound madness but Alexander knew what he was doing. Both were indispensible to the mission and neither would serve under the other. At least it allowed the mission to set sail.

 The problems came later, problems so bad that Krustenstern had to order the ship’s carpenter to divide the master cabin by a wooden partition. Rezanov spent much of the voyage in his half, ostracised by officers and crew alike. At last, eaten up with rage he wrote a twenty page letter to  Alexander, the Tsar of all Russia. In it he threatened to leave the Tsar’s service: “I will stay in America for a century. Rank and decoration are not necessary in America and I will send them back with pleasure on the first available transport.” He demanded his children be sent to him when they reached the age of thirteen, intending them to settle with him in Kodiak. Things must have been bad. Have you seen Kodiak? 


It was also political suicide, but like strong drink it felt good at the time. The letter was sealed and sent with dispatches to St Petersburg. 

 Somewhere in Siberia this letter would have passed another letter, one sent from Alexander to Rezanov. In Owen Matthew’s words, ‘it was the warmest, friendliest, and most supportive letter the emperor had ever sent him; it would also be the last.’ It ended with: ‘As a sign of Our particular good wishes towards you I also send you a diamond tobacco case with Our monogram. I have also taken your son as a Page at court.’ The whole story is reminiscent of those emails launched in drunken anger – except in slow and tragic slow motion. One can only imagine how Rezanov felt when he read the Tsar's letter and thought on his own, trundling its way  west on the plains of Siberia.  

No more posts on Nikolai Rezanov, I promise you. I'll just recommend Owen Matthew's book 'Glorious Misadventures' for those who like this kind of thing.

* This map of Kodiak Island and the surrounding area. I, Karl Musser, created it based on USGS data.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Fur, penises, the mad and the bad

It’s said that pornography drives developments in cyber-technology and it seems true throughout history that it was the baser instincts that drove men to explore. In the case of the Spanish it was gold, the Portuguese spices and the Russians fur…and seal penises. 

Nikolai Rezanov’s first impression of the Pribilof islands was the smell. As his ship approached the largest seal rookery in the world he glimpsed through the mist a shoreline dense in brown slippery bodies and then  the stench of rotting meat.

 “The number of seals on this island is unbelievable. The shores are covered with them. It is very easy to kill them…Before I arrived 30,000 male seals had been killed in a single day. Their pelts had been discarded.’ This was an appalling waste. With its hairs packed at an incredible 300,000 per square inch the northern fur seal skin was famous for its softness and warmth. So why in this case had the pelts been discarded?
The prize here was the animal’s penis – air dried and sent to Canton to satisfy the Chinese obsession with aphrodisiacs. “More than a million fur seals had been killed by the time I arrived,” reported Rezanov.

 The sea otter too had once been plentiful, 3,000 pelts taken in the average season. They were no longer to be found in these waters. And Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction. 

 Discovered 1741 Extinct 1768

 The natives fared little better. Within fifty years of the first Russian contact the Unangaz population had been reduced by eighty percent. But fortunes were made by the ruthless and reckless, the mad and the bad but rarely by good men.