Wednesday 31 December 2014

A Year in Film 2014

As 2014 draws to a close, it is time once again, in keeping with the previous eleven years, to review the films I've seen over the last twelve months.

According to my summary on the brilliant Letterboxd website, I've seen 93 films over 173 hours (not counting the trailers). Apparently, the infamous Sodastream sales-rep Scarlett Johansson is the actor I've seen most often and, in all honesty, have been the most disappointed with - 'Lucy', 'Her' and 'Under The Skin' were all two star films in my view, whilst 'Chef' and 'The Winter Soldier' won't make it onto my top five of the year. What will are:

1. Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Interstellar
3. Boyhood
4. Pride
5. Dallas Buyers Club.

These aren't necessarily the best films - '12 Years a Slave' is extraordinary - but the ones I've enjoyed most and look forward most to watching again.

Anyway, here's the 2014 list in full: in keeping with previous years, I only count actual trips to a cinema - not films on DVD or BluRay - and as usual I've arbitrarily rated the films I've seen. You can find ratings for the last decade here.

★★★★★: Unmissable!
★★★★☆: Definitely worth seeing
★★★☆☆: Decent film
★★☆☆☆: Disappointing
★☆☆☆☆: Pants
☆☆☆☆☆: Why was this released?

Big Eyes ★★★☆☆:
Birdman ★★★★☆:
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ★★★☆☆
Black Sea ★★★☆☆
St. Vincent ★★★★☆
The Homesman ★★★☆☆
Kajaki ★★★☆☆
What We Do in the Shadows ★★★★☆
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 ★★★★☆
Mr. Turner ★★☆☆☆
The Imitation Game ★★★☆☆
Interstellar ★★★★★☆
Nightcrawler ★★★★☆
Fury ★★★☆☆
Citizenfour ★★★★☆
The Maze Runner ★★☆☆☆
'71 ★★★★☆
Still The Enemy Within ★★★★☆
Gone Girl ★★★★☆
Ida ★★★☆☆
Dracula Untold ★★☆☆☆
Tony Benn: Will and Testament ★★★★☆
Maps to the Stars ★★★★☆
Smart Ass ★★☆☆☆
A Walk Among the Tombstones ★★★☆☆
A Most Wanted Man ★★★★☆
Pride ★★★★★
The Keeper of Lost Causes ★★★☆☆
Finding Fela ★★★☆☆
Dinosaur 13 ★★★★☆
Night Moves ★★★★☆
The Congress ★★☆☆☆
Lucy ★★☆☆☆
Two Days, One Night ★★★★☆
Into the Storm ★★☆☆☆
God’s Pocket ★★★☆☆
Finding Vivian Maier ★★★★☆
Guardians of the Galaxy ★★★★☆
The Search For Simon ★★☆☆☆
Joe ★★★☆☆
Camille Claudel 1915 ★★☆☆☆
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ★★★★☆
Boyhood ★★★★★
Begin Again ★★★★☆
The Breakfast Club ★★★★★
Ilo Ilo ★★☆☆☆
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared ★★☆☆☆
Cold in July ★★★☆☆
Chef ★★★☆☆
The Fault in Our Stars ★★★★☆
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ★★★☆☆
12 Angry Men ★★★★★
Edge of Tomorrow ★★★★☆
Fruitvale Station ★★☆☆☆
X-Men: Days of Future Past ★★★☆☆
Jimmy’s Hall ★★★★☆
The Lunchbox ★★★☆☆
Blue Ruin ★★★★☆
Godzilla ★★★☆☆
Tom at the Farm ★★★★☆
Frank ★★★☆☆
Tracks ★★★★☆
Chronicle of a Disappearance ★★★☆☆
Locke ★★★★☆
A Matter of Life and Death ★★★★★
Calvary ★★★★★
The Past ★★★☆☆
The Raid 2 ★★★★★
20 Feet from Stardom ★★★★☆
Noah ★★★☆☆
Divergent ★★★☆☆
Captain America: The Winter Soldier ★★★☆☆
Starred Up ★★★★☆
The Double ★★★☆
Under the Skin ★★☆☆☆
The Zero Theorem ★★★☆☆
The Book Thief ★★★☆☆
Stranger by the Lake ★★☆☆☆
The Armstrong Lie ★★★★☆
Her ★★☆☆☆
Only Lovers Left Alive ★★★★☆
The Patience Stone ★★★★☆
The Monuments Men ★★☆☆☆
The Lego Movie ★★★★☆
RoboCop ★★☆☆☆
Dallas Buyers Club ★★★★★
August: Osage County ★★☆☆☆
The Missing Picture ★★★☆☆
The Wolf of Wall Street ★★★★☆
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit ★★★☆☆
American Hustle ★★★☆☆
12 Years a Slave ★★★★★

Saturday 24 May 2014

Newham, Sprung

The local elections In Newham are over and the result, once again, is No Overall Surprise: Sir Robin Wales is back as Mayor after 12 years in power and every councillor is still a Labour representative.

So much for the delusional optimism / monumental bullshit of this comment on my last post about local politics, from a supporter of the horrendously misnamed Newham Peoples Alliance (NPA):
Newham finally has a credible opposition..... The efforts of The Newham Peoples alliance have not gone to waste... Be prepared for a historic defeat to Robin wales.... The online Newham recorder poll alongside the NPA Mayoral poll are both indicative of the climax Of the newham spring
Regime change, my arse.

The NPA's political journey from endorsement by "left-wing" MP George Galloway to an alliance with the party of bankers, private equity managers and Old Etonians has been an object lesson in breathtaking political opportunism. The willingness of the Tories to at least tolerate vile homophobic messages and deliberate religious sectarianism by its new allies offers another lesson too, about what happens when you enter into what I shall mischievously call a "civil partnership" with reactionary communal interests in the borough.

But the situation facing the left alternative in Newham isn't really anything to take comfort from: the combined Mayoral vote for the Greens and the Socialist Party dominated TUSC was just 4763 (6% of votes cast) and nothing screams "there's no serious left alternative" like the latter's seventh place behind pretty much everyone, other than the mercifully deceased Christian Peoples Alliance.

I was one of those who, faced with a Green Party 'paper candidate' and a Trot group parachuting in with the hope of recruiting some new members, decided not to vote on Thursday. For this sin, someone on Facebook said in a private message that I was providing "succour to the racists in UKIP". In the circumstances, unfriending him was the very least I could do - a punch in the canister seems more appropriate - but it is systemic of a irritating fetishism about the electoral franchise that I find simply incomprehensible.

For leftwingers, voting is tactical and like all tactics, its value lies in bundling it together with other tactics into something resembling a strategy. Organising a national demonstration in central London, for example, in order to galvanise a growing movement or motivate supporters in advance an crucial date or decision, makes complete sense. On its own, it's just another stroll through town. The same applies to voting: if there's a growing momentum for radical change, either locally or nationally, then maybe it's a potentially useful tool. Of course all the other tactics, like building local support and engaging the wider public, take time: at least four years or, if UKIP's trajectory is any indicator, more than twenty. That's why it's tempting to skip these tactics, but on its own, voting turns out to be an ineffective waste of time and resources. No matter how they try to spin it, the Greens and the TUSC in Newham have demonstrated how having no strategy just shows up the chronic weakness of the left locally.

There is still hope. Others, like the new Left Unity party, do seem to understand that short cuts simply don't work. But in Newham, creating a progressive alternative in 2018 to the political bankruptcy of both Robin Wales' Labour and the kind of faith based opportunism that backed the Tories probably needs to start immediately.

I'm happy to leave this to others: I'm hoping to get out of Newham before Sir Robin Wales' next re-election in four years time, when I suspect the cohesiveness of the borough will have been finally destroyed by slum landlords, vicious cuts and more of the kind of nasty, reactionary communalism we have seen over the last few weeks.

Anyway, to borrow from a very old joke, "if you want to find your way there, you really wouldn't want to start from here".

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Whatever Happened to the 'Newham Revolution'?

At a local event last week, I found myself making small talk with one of Newham Labour's candidates for councillor positions at this May's elections. I've never been very good at small talk, especially with someone I know only vaguely, which is why the conversation started with the inevitable:“so how are things?” The candidate, who I shan't name, explained how busy everyone was canvassing their wards. As this is Newham, where 60 out of 60 councillors are Labour, I jokingly said, “surely you don't have to worry? I mean, you guaranteed to win, right?”

“Well as Sir Robin says,” came the reply. “We're really fighting the election after next. The cuts that are coming are that bad.” Incredible.

Labour candidates in this borough effectively become councillors-elect as soon as they are selected: the lack of any credible opposition makes victory a certainty. They also know that between their election and May 2018, they are expected to provide unquestioning support to cuts of £41million in 2015/16 and another £53million in 2016/17 – and evidently Mayor Sir Robin Wales isn't terribly confident his own party nationally will reverse the cuts if it wins the General Election next year.

So is Newham Labour really worried that the devastating impact of cuts could trigger a change in local politics? Casting an eye over Labour's current opponents, it would represent less a shift and more a major seismic event. What's really noticeable is just how barren and marginal municipal activism has become in the borough, after years of control by a single party dominated by a powerful Mayor.

At one time Newham had the Respect Party, which was relaunched at the end of December 2012 by its divisive, opportunist leader, the MP George Galloway. It has since vanished without trace: Galloway's pledge to field a Mayoral and councillor candidates in 2014 has failed to emerge. He was back in February 2013 in support of the woefully misnamed Newham People's Alliance (NPA), essentially an attempt to organise a distinct Muslim voting block. “This is the beginning of the Newham revolution,” blustered Galloway. The following month, the NPA announced its intention to trigger a referendum on Newham's mayoral system. That failed to emerge too. It hasn't updated its website since August 2013.

Meanwhile, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (essentially the Socialist Party) became the latest in a long line of far-left groups to parachute in, launch themselves on the electorate six weeks before the election and hope for the best. Around the country, the TUSC has barely attracted more than 5% of the vote (you can look here for their own analysis if you're so minded). Even though I personally quite like their Mayoral candidate Lois Austin, who I'm working with on a campaign concerned with police surveillance of activists, the stubborn perseverance involved in repeating the same failed tactic over and over again frankly amazes me.

As for the Greens, Newham is one of the few London boroughs that has no local party. Its Mayoral candidate Jane Lithgow, who seems like a nice person and encouragingly describes herself as a Green Socialist, stood in the General Elections of 2005 and 2010 in West Ham but saw her vote drop to just 1.4% - coming in eighth place behind both UKIP and the National Front (quite an achievement in multicultural Newham). This May, she will count herself lucky not to lose her deposit.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that the opposition to cuts in Newham, if it emerges at all, will not happen through the ballot box but through dozens of small acts of resistance. I hope so. But it also suggests that Sir Robin's rhetoric about “fighting the election after next” is really about scaring some discipline into future councillors for when the cuts start to bite hard, as well as encouraging some of the more complacent candidates to turn up for door-knocking now there's an election approaching.

And given the calibre of most of them, it will probably work too. No wonder local politics is so depleted and dysfunctional.

Friday 18 April 2014

Local Police Back Out of Radio Debate With Newham Monitoring Project

Yesterday I joined the Director of Newham Monitoring Project, Estelle du Boulay, on local community radio station NuSound Radio 92FM, which is based at Durning Hall in Forest Gate, to discuss policing in Newham. Originally we were supposed to debate the issue with the local Borough Commander, but unfortunately, after agreeing at first to participate, Newham police backed out completely from joining us on-air.

Some background: at the start of April, NuSound's "Community Hour" presenter Pete Day suggested to Chief Superintendent Tony Nash, Newham's new Borough Commander, that he come on and talk with NMP about policing in east London. Initially Nash accepted, but within a day, the local police seemed to start getting cold feet, offering instead his number 2, a Superintendent, and placing conditions that insisted discussions should focus just on policing in Newham. They also wanted a list of topics that would come up. We were happy to comply if it meant that an interesting debate might go ahead.

However, NuSound was then contacted again, this time by a Detective Chief Inspector, who said Newham police “didn't think it was a good idea” to appear on-air with us. It's a shame – but the offer remains open to the Borough Commander ever changes his mind.

Anyway, Estelle and I went on the show anyway - here's the recording of what we said:

Friday 21 March 2014

Proudly Anti-Fascist - An Open Letter to Clapton FC's Chief Executive

Yesterday, Forest Gate based amateur football club Clapton FC posted a statement from its chief executive Vince McBean on its website saying that “over the last 48 hours” it had “received several emails from individuals stating their concerns about some of the supporters at Clapton” - notably, that Clapton's fans are left-wing, anti-fascist and that as a result, they might provoke “EDL style demos” at the club's home ground. McBean's response is completely appalling and so this is the letter I emailed to him this evening.
Dear Mr McBean

Today I saw the 'AntiFa' statement posted on Clapton's website and I was so appalled by it that I felt I had to write to you.

I am one of the new supporters who, as you mention, are joining the club all the time. I've lived in Newham, within walking distance of the Old Spotted Dog, for nearly 25 years but my first game was only a month ago. Like so many others, I found my way to the club through word-of-mouth, after pressure from an old friend who raved about the brilliant atmosphere created by the supporters. When I eventually made it to a match, it turned out that everything I'd been told – about how welcoming the fans are, about their principled stand against racism, homophobia and fascist extremism, about the wit and lack of bigotry in the chanting – turned out to be completely true. That's the reason why I now have a Clapton FC scarf hanging up the front door of my flat.

Your statement issued yesterday mentioned the club's “strong ethos... of not tolerating discrimination or racism of any kind”. It is an ethos I share: since 1992 I have been a management committee member of the Newham Monitoring Project, east London's oldest anti-racist organisation based just down the road from Clapton FC on Harold Road. Our work involves the kind of community-based advice and support for local people suffering racist hate crime that rarely receives enough publicity but it does mean that discrimination and racism are issues I feel extremely qualified to talk about.

And I can tell promise you this: when a bunch of far-right keyboard warriors start making unsubstantiated e-mail threats intended solely to provoke a reaction, the last thing you want to do is take them at their word and issue an apology over some non-existent 'offence' or inappropriate conduct you haven't even investigated.

Actually, that's not entirely correct – the last thing you want to do is to damage and debase your club's reputation by insulting, supposedly in the name of intolerance to “discrimination or racism of any kind,” your loyal and genuinely anti-racist supporters in an desperate attempt to try and appease some obnoxious right-wing extremists.

At the very least, your statement needs removing immediately and amending so that it makes clear that, as far as the club is aware, there is no basis for any of the malicious claims made in the emails you have received. However, I think you also owe an apology to Clapton FC's fans, old and new – the implication that there might actually be some foundation to these ludicrous allegations is an affront to all of us.

I look forward to the removal and amendment of the website statement as a matter of urgency.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Olympic Domestic Extremist - An Interview on NuSound Radio

This is an interview I gave today to Pete Day of east London community radio station NuSound 92FM, on the recent release of my 'domestic extremist' police surveillance file.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Secret Diary of an Olympic Domestic Extremist

This article first appeared on the Network for Police Monitoring website

After reports in June last year that Newham Monitoring Project, the east London community group I've been part of for over 20 years, was spied on during the 1990s by undercover Metropolitan police officers, I've wanted to find out if information about me is held on secret police databases. The Guardian reported estimates of up to 9000 people classified by police as potential 'domestic extremists' and so to find out if I'm one of them, I submitted a 'subject access request' under data protection legislation.

The Met were supposed to comply within 40 days but it has taken over six months and the intervention of the Information Commissioner's Office to finally receive a response. If the details provided are complete, they confirm that the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU), part of the Met's SO15 Counter Terrorism Command, began logging my activities in April 2011 because I spoke at Netpol's 'Stand Up To Surveillance' conference - ironically, an event debating the rise of unaccountable police intelligence gathering on protests and local communities.

What is a 'domestic extremist'? There is no legal definition: it's a term invented by the police. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) says it is "generally used to describe the activity of individuals or groups carrying out criminal acts of direct action to further their protest campaign". ACPO also claims that because the majority of protesters are peaceful, they are "never considered 'extremist'... The term only applies to individuals or groups whose activities go outside the normal democratic process and engage in crime and disorder in order to further their campaign". In 2012, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary said in a review of police intelligence units concerned with protest that "the term 'domestic extremism' should be limited to threats of harm from serious crime and serious disruption to the life of the community arising from criminal activity".

How, then, does someone who has never been charged or convicted of any criminal activity - I've never even been arrested - end up on the 'domestic extremist' database? The answer seems to involve speaking and writing about the security preparations for the Olympics. The NDEU was evidently obsessed with the Counter Olympics Network (CON) and I was covertly photographed speaking at its conference at Toynbee Hall in January 2012. However, my police file also records a Olympics-related talk I gave at Netpol’s ‘Kettle Police Powers’ conference in May 2012 and recounts, in some detail, the comments I made on behalf of Newham Monitoring Project at a Save Leyton Marsh public meeting the following month. As a result, I was logged entering the Olympic Park with a day ticket at the end of July, with a thorough description and the comment “believed to be a member of CON”.

However, the ‘intelligence’ gathered at these events and or subsequently pulled from posts on my blog was either hugely inaccurate or simply fictional: at no time, for example, did I ever become CON’s ‘Security Advisor’ or ever suggest ‘shutting tube stations by triggering fire alarms’. The NDEU file also suggests I “openly stated that the Olympics are likely to be targeted by smaller, unpublicised affinity group style actions”, which is an mischievous spin on a piece I wrote in July 2012, on how the problems facing anti-Olympic campaigners who had bent over backwards to negotiate with the police had probably given the case for DIY affinity group protest “a tremendous boost”.

Having made it onto the police intelligence-gatherers’ radar, my file includes my email and phone details and an old photo taken in 2010 by my friend Louise Whittle (lifted from her Harpymarx blog) at the Trafalgar Square flashmob organised by “I’m a Photographer Not A Terrorist” – yet again, coincidentally, an event concerned with oppressive police surveillance. It also makes repeated mention of involvement in Netpol and records my participation in the ‘Save Wanstead Flats’ residents’ campaign that opposed the siting of a temporary Olympic police base on public land close to where I worked. Involving public meetings, lobbying MPs and even a legal challenge in the High Court, this must surely represent activities that are quintessentially within “the normal democratic process” and yet details of my employer, a respected Newham charity that supported local people to set up the campaign, were added to the file.

The thing that angers me the most, though, is that the Metropolitan Police had no compunction in sharing information with the NDEU that was received when I became the victim of a crime, after criminal damage to my home. The file notes that this confirmed my mobile number and address and added my landline telephone number.

As this information was gathered, the file notes: “there is no suggest (sic) that BLOWE has actively engaged in any Direct Action” but “takes up many forms of left-wing activism” and “is known for his involvement in Counter Olympics Network, Save Wanstead Flats and Network for Police Monitoring”. This, apparently, was enough to justify continuing surveillance (I get a mention for attending the UK Uncut bedroom tax protest in April 2013) but it’s a very, very long way from “threats of harm from serious crime and serious disruption to the life of the community arising from criminal activity”.

Let’s face it: if I can end up with a National Domestic Extremist Unit database entry then almost anyone involved in any kind of ‘left-wing activism’ can too. That’s why I’m urging other campaigners to pursue the arduous process of their own subject access requests – and why the only way to stop the police from relentlessly gathering unnecessary 'intelligence' is to shut down the domestic extremist database completely.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.