Archive for June, 2009

More workfare bollocks

June 29, 2009

Bad news for the government’s workfare plans.

Recruitment companies getting tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to find jobs for the unemployed are at the centre of a fraud probe after staff made false claims of getting people into work.

The Observer found that A4e, one of the government’s biggest private contractors, is at the centre of the Department for Work and Pensions inquiries. It is understood that at least two other recruitment companies have been probed by the DWP.

The revelation comes weeks after A4e was earmarked for £100m of contracts for the government’s Flexible New Deal, in which private companies will be paid for each person they place in a job.

Anyone want to try and persuade the public that funding corrupt recruitment consultants is a worthwhile use of taxpayer’s money?

Update: More, via Andrew

Further update: A commenter shares his experience of A4e:

Well, what a surprise about A4e. Last year I was recovering from illness so found myself seeking help from A4e so that I could get back to work under their Government Jobcenta related assistance to people like me. So I went to their office a few times and met some of their “advisers”. Their assistance seemed to be limited to them looking for jobs in the local papers, websites and, of course, the Jobcenta Plus list of vacancies: all things I can do for myself. I asked if they had any contacts with local employers and found that they didn’t. They did help me a little bit with with one job application in that they put the application in for me so, I guess, they could claim their payment if I got the job. Well, fair enough, I’m not begrudging them payment for work they do but I could have just as easily applied directly myself and if I had done would not have flagged up the fact that I had been recently off sick, which is not necessarily a plus point with employers.

I did get an interview for this job but didn’t get selected: it was a job that had been advertised in the local paper.

Then, as I was feeling better, recovered and ready to work I ceased claiming Incapacity Benefit. The people at A4e were clearly unhappy about me stopping my claim since they were only paid for helping people on Incapacity Benefit. One of them advised me to keep claiming. Instead I started claiming Jobseekers Allowance, which, because of my circumstances I didn’t get and, after finding there was similarly not much assistance, stopped my claim for that too.

The real problem is that contrary to Cordon Bleu and Peter M’s assertions, there are very few jobs out there at the moment. So wasting money on A4e and other contractors so they can give phoney advice to those looking for work is wrong.

It’s also potty that those unable to work because of illness are targetted (”we want to look at work you can do, rather than work you cannot do”) while there’s not so much help for those fit enough to work: most employers want employees who are fully fit.

There’s also not much training available, just some Learn Direct courses on English, Arithmetic and Word Processing. But what’s the point of doing training if there are no jobs out there?

Hensher on Bruno

June 28, 2009

Philip Hensher has an interesting essay on Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film Brüno, in which he plays a gay Austrian journalist. I always liked Baron Cohen’s character comedy – by playing prejudiced characters like Borat and Ali G, he draws out and exposes the prejudice in others. Hensher argues that this new film is not laughing at homosexuality but at the heterosexual reaction to it. He looks at the reality of homophobia and contrasts Baron Cohen’s well-crafted character study with what normally passes for British comedy.

Groups, and individuals influenced by group psychology, have murdered in Britain and the United States. Matthew Shepard was murdered by two men acting in collusion in 1998 in Wyoming. Jody Dobrowski was killed by two men on a planned spree on Clapham Common in south London in 2005. David Morley was murdered on the South Bank in London in 2004 by a teenage gang, who filmed the attack. Reading through the horrible accounts of these murders, one thing which recurs is the savagery of each attack, as if not murder but obliteration were the aim of the perpetrators. Dobrowski could only be identified by his fingerprints. Something beyond mere rage seems to have been awoken here.

Open and frank hatred of homosexuals through comedy has been remarkably persistent, and may even be on the increase in the media. The Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles casually uses the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory way and ridicules the gay singer Will Young for his sexuality; he was defended by the BBC for the first incident, but censured for the second. Jimmy Carr has discovered that the use of the words ‘gay benders’ is enough to raise a laugh from a Channel 4 audience. Al Murray caused immense offence with a character in a sketch show who was both gay and a Nazi – that was the joke. He seemed to have forgotten that many thousands of gay men were murdered by the Third Reich. Those who survived the war were not, unlike all other categories of the persecuted, eligible for compensation. Still funny?

The appalling Horne and Corden show got a laugh out of a sketch about a gay war reporter – I suppose the joke was that gay men shouldn’t be interested in foreign or military affairs. A presenter of a talent show broadcast for a family audience, Patrick Kielty, mocked a male contestant who seemed moved almost to tears by calling him ‘a big gayer’; the BBC defended this stereotypical comment by saying that it was ‘not intended to cause offence’.

What relationship there is between publicly funded, broadcast abuse and violence against homosexuals is debatable. Probably the media have done no more than reflect some vulgar usage, and propagate it more widely.

Possibly. It reflects, if nothing else, the infantile desperation of British humorists and pundits in reaching for one of the few hatreds that still dares speak its name.


When You’re Gone

June 27, 2009

My review of David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is now available at 3:AM.

It’s Just A Ride

June 27, 2009

Can religion be replaced? That’s the question CiF posed to Ophelia, perhaps hoping for a shouty advocacy of the New Atheist One World Government. It didn’t work out that way.

My thoughts are these. The question seems to imply a kind of formal replacement of religion with something else. Anyone with any intelligence or decency will know that this is just not possible or desirable. 

But we can make a humbler demand. We can insist that religious authority sticks to what it is good at – weddings, funerals, christenings – and let go of all the other areas it insists on being involved in, such as welfare, education, nuclear defence… The strategy should be one of containment. Keep religion in its box, and it’s fine, even worthwhile. Let religion into the sphere of governance, and you’re looking at Goldenbridge or the Swat Valley.

My second point is one that I’ve made before and will keep on making. Humankind is a mystical animal. Everyone has a metaphysical hunger for the big questions. We are preoccupied by love, meaning, desire, pleasure, intellect, ideology and the qualities of the physical universe.

Religion cuts off this speculation by providing quick and easy answers. It’s the philosophical equivalent of a Big Mac diet. It discourages all speculation beyond its binary afterlives and tinkertoy creation myths and, in so doing, frustrates and retards the spiritual development of humanity.

As Ophelia says in the comments, religion is subject to natural erosion and the great monotheisms will one day share the obscurity and irrelevance of the Egyptian kitchen gods. It will no longer act as barrier in our search for the real answers – and the real questions. Free from fear or incentive, we could take the first tentative steps towards a true spirituality. To finish with Bill Hicks:

The world is like a ride at an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it, you think that it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly coloured, and it’s very loud and it’s fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question – is this real, or is this just a ride? And other people have remembered, and they come back to us. They say ‘Hey! Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because, this is just a ride.’ And we…kill those people. Ha ha ha. ‘Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride. SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account and family. This just has to be real.’ It’s just a ride. But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter because: it’s just a ride. And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings, and money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourselves off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here’s what you can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defence each year, and instead spend it feeding, clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, for ever, in peace.

Reflections on the Great Crunch

June 25, 2009

My review of Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold is now available at Butterflies and Wheels.

Stettin Station

June 25, 2009

STETTIN_STATION_MED‘There was no doubt about it – two years into the war, the Third Reich was beginning to smell.’ It’s this line, perhaps, that elevates David Downing’s ‘Station’ series above the run of historical and spy fiction. Like Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he contrasts the pure and glittering totalitarian dream with the general compromise, inconvenience and sheer dirt of daily life. Totalitarianism pulls reality in different directions, but reality pulls back. Downing’s protagonist, reporter John Russell, has to travel all over occupied Europe to perform various missions on behalf of the Nazis and the Resistance but his progress is frustrated by undrinkable coffee, coils of red tape and late, stinking, crowded trains.

Russell is an American foreign correspondent living in Berlin during the buildup to World War Two. He has a German girlfriend, the actress Effi Koenen, and is a weekend dad to his fourteen-year-son, who is becoming an ardent Hitler Youth. If that wasn’t complicated enough, his reports to the world outside the Reich have to become more and more subtle and contrived as the Nazi state grows in zealotry and power. (Downing’s latest installment, Stettin Station, has a lovely Grub Street feel to it with cynical antifascist journos ridiculing the Nazi press conferences in between drinks.) In a quest to arrange eventual escape Russell ends up working for three different intelligence services, playing them off against each other.

As with most series books, you have to read from the beginning to appreciate the momentum, and Downing does it better than most. Food becomes scarce. People start disappearing. You can practically hear the sirens. The rising tension is best illustrated through the character of Effi, an accomplished actress whose state-sponsored films become more and more political and disturbing. It’s a brilliant study of propaganda and captures the general tone of the series: millions of lives held in the palm of a hand that is slowly curling into a fist.

Intelligent, subtle and genuinely thrilling, Downing’s ‘Station’ series combines great storytelling with a street-level portrait of a society at war.

How The Light Gets In

June 25, 2009

Let me say that this is not an attack on the left. I think that Lenny has written some excellent pieces on the Iran uprising and the position that John Wight holds seems to be a minority one shared only by Lenin’s crazy friend Yoshie ‘This Is Not A Revolution’ Furuhasmi and what’s left of the Respect leadership.

Marcus has already dealt with this but there are a couple of points Wight made that struck me. Here he is explaining why leftists should declare solidarity not with the protestors fighting on the streets for their freedom but with the uniformed thugs attacking and killing them.

Combined with a distinct lack of analysis of the social forces involved on either side of this dispute, this has led to many voices within the international left being raised in support of an opposition movement led by a section of the Iranian establishment motivated by sectional economic interests. It is a movement driven by students and Iran’s more affluent middle class.

That such a powerful and determined movement has erupted should come as no surprise. After all, history teaches us that the more privileged layers of a given society are every bit as capable of taking to the streets to struggle for their interests as the working class and the poor, especially in the wake of an election that doesn’t go their way. In this regard the examples of Chile in 1973 and Venezuela in 2002 spring to mind.

Read that last sentence again. Yes, Wight is drawing an equivalence between the Iranian uprising and the US-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende and attempted overthrow of Hugo Chavez. Do the Iranian demonstrators really have the CIA behind them? All Wight tells us is that ‘the main beneficiaries of what is currently taking place in Iran are presently sitting in Washington, Tel Aviv and London.’

This is how Wight deals with the sexual apartheid of the Islamic Republic:

No democracy is without its imperfections. Under the Islamic Republic Iranians, no matter where they happen to live throughout the world, have the right to vote in elections. Women are debarred from standing for office, which is certainly regressive in itself. However, this differs from democratic elections in the West only in the sense that debarment here is based on economic status rather than gender. In effect this ensures that only the wealthy within western societies have any meaningful chance of holding high office.

Wight doesn’t mention that potential candidates had to be vetted by the Guardian Council. Of the 475 people who put their names forward, just four were allowed to stand. For Wight’s analogy to work you have to imagine a UK where a) women are banned from running for office and b) all candidates have to be approved by a selection committee set up by the government that only lets a tiny minority of government loyalists through the process.

These are the only original points Wight makes – the rest of the piece consists of the same cliched arguments for theocracy.

1) Our son of a bitch

Kissinger’s theory of Islamic fundamentalism as a bulwark against Western imperialism. ‘[I]n its resistance to US hegemony, in its material aid to Arab resistance against Israeli expansionism, [the regime] certainly plays a progressive role both regionally and globally.’ The needs and desires of the people who actually have to live under a theocratic regime don’t enter into this calculus.

2) ‘Where’s the smoking gun?’

It’s an old tactic of Holocaust deniers to cite the lack of a written order from Hitler ordering the gassing of Jews as evidence that no, or few, Jews were gassed. Similarly, Wight can claim the absence of proof as proof itself, and state that: ‘no hard evidence has been produced proving that electoral fraud on anything like the scale suggested took place in Iran.’

The closed nature of the Islamic Republic means that we are unlikely to find a memo saying: ‘Let’s steal this election and kill anyone who disagrees. Signed: Ahmadinejad’. Because of this lack, we are to believe that the erratic voting patterns seen in this election, including entire cities and provinces voting against tradition, huge percentages changing political allegiance overnight, the lack of regional variations, the fact that turnout exceeded eligible voters, that this increase did not show a swing in support for Ahmadinejad, the fact that Khameini approved the results almost immediately instead of using his three-day consideration period, and that the election was followed by a communications blackout and a vicious crackdown on dissent – all this is to be ignored and Ahmadinejad’s victory taken on trust unless and until an Islamic Freedom of Information Act reveals the smoking gun.

3) Ahmadinejad – Hero of the Volk

It’s a staple of fascist propaganda that the leader is beloved by the common people closest to the soil and that anyone who disagrees is a liberal elitist out of touch with the man in the street. This form of propaganda is used to a lesser extent to defend elites in democratic countries. It presumes that the working class cannot think outside its economic interest and Wight has swallowed it whole: ‘Ahmadinejad… represents the interests of the poorer sectors, particularly in rural areas.’

Except that rural income has stagnated under Ahmadinejad. The Iranian working class has been hammered by unemployment, privatisation and the repression of trade unions.

Mousavi has nothing to do with these protests. I forget who said that the tipping point in a revolution is not when the state is at its most oppressive but when there is some relief or slackening, a rent in the fabric of dictatorship. For Iranian dissidents the election was that rent and they are tearing the canvas apart. The whole world is watching.

And that’s why, when I read about Iran, I don’t hear the words of Marx or Engels but those of Leonard Cohen: ‘There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in’.



June 23, 2009

missyWcoe4xI expect you have the consolation of religion, or the guidance of a philosophy, but when me and the girls get frazzled, or blue, or rapturous, or just awfully so-so, we shin out and buy ourselves some hats.

Chris Hannan’s Missy stands with the best of contemporary historical fiction. His heroine, nineteen-year-old adventurer and opium head Dol McQueen (the title is opiate slang) has the sensual cynicism of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, and her tale is told in the same conversational-Victorian style.

It’s set in 1862, the civil war is seething and the gold rush is just beginning to slow down, and Dol finds a comfortable hustle in the underworld of the American West. Hannan brings this underworld to life: you can practically taste the rotgut and feel the sawdust under your boots. The plot involves a haul of prime opium and a murderous pimp called Pontius (‘When I give a girl her last chance and she bitches it, I get a basin and wash my hands of her. Then I nail her hands to the floor’) and it’s like Sarah Waters if she’d stuck to good storytelling instead of bowing to the pressure to write Literary Fiction with capitalised initials.

Hannan delivers marvellous insights (‘You know when someone you don’t like makes you feel better? You’re so swimmy with gratitude you loathe yourself’) and has the gift of summing up character in one line. A particular highlight is Dol’s alcoholic mother, jealous of her daughter’s looks, and an increasing danger to herself and others. Missy is a spectacular debut: the West has never been this wild.

Orcadian Crimes

June 22, 2009

This is interesting. This guy, Max Scratchmann, moved to the Orkney Islands with his partner in an attempt to escape the stresses of urban life. He parlayed his disillusionment with the islands into a book, Chucking It All: How Downshifting To A Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve My Life, the publication of which has been cancelled after threats of legal action and a complaint from the island’s MP.

Angry islanders, including one lady who recognised an unflattering depiction of herself, remonstrated with the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Carmichael. He obtained a preview copy after it was featured on the island’s radio station, and successfully lobbied the London publisher Nicholas Brealey, who has cancelled the book’s publication scheduled for this month.

Mr Carmichael insisted it was never his intention to get it banned altogether, but objected to the author’s ‘hurtful and vindictive’ lampooning of several residents, whom he argued were ‘clearly identifiable’ and would have their reputations damaged if the book were published in its existing form.

Scratchmann’s conclusions about the island were not shared by Barbara Foulkes, the director of the local tourist board and a life-long Orcadian. She said she suspected he was ‘bitter’ because his own attempt at downsizing had failed.

‘I certainly don’t think it’s an accurate view of Orkney today, because it’s a very vibrant community,’ she said. ‘We have a good, thriving social life that doesn’t all revolve around drink. I don’t know this chap so it’s difficult to say, but he strikes me as somebody who maybe doesn’t get on with people.’

I have been to the Orkneys a couple of times and still have friends there. It’s a beautiful place and my memories of it are happy ones. I don’t know if I could spend six years there, as Scratchmann did. The winters are long and spooky.

I haven’t read Scratchmann’s book (and, now, never will) but he raises interesting questions about the urban versus the rural:

Scratchmann described moving to the Orkneys as like ‘falling through a rent in the fabric of the universe and tumbling headfirst into the 1950s’. He wrote: ‘We were taken aback at our first night-time encounter with Orcadians, who are rather staid and emotionally repressed by day, but veritable Jekyll and Hydes when the midnight sun sinks and rum and whisky washes away their numerous inhibitions.’

He concluded: ‘The two major pastimes on long winter nights are gossip and adultery.’

‘The book I set out to write was not about Orkney; it was a book about the experience of downshifting, and about urbanites who think that all you have to do is go to the middle of nowhere and that everything’s going to be wonderful,’ he said yesterday. ‘Of course it’s not. The society, the weather: everything about Orkney was totally wrong for us. There are no trees, for a start.’

People have this idea of the city as a soulless cluster of alienated individuals and the countryside as a place of warm, friendly communities. Of course in real life it’s often the opposite, with the happy, diverse and welcoming people located in the metropoli while the small town experience tends to be more League of Gentlemen than River Cottage Spring. Yet the romance persists and we have London’s rich couples buying second homes in some godforsaken cowtown that hardworking locals will struggle to get out of all their lives.

What doesn’t help is that there is a visceral oversensitivity about such things. When The Idler named Stockport as number 12 in its list of ‘Crap Towns’ (‘Entertainment includes being glassed in one of the town’s many pubs, avoiding being stabbed on the infamous 192 bus and avoiding leaving your house as much as possible’) it received a thundering denounciation from the local paper, the council leader and one of the town’s MPs. The thing is that a) The Idler’s comments were made in a comedy stocking-filler book, not in a serious report and b) many Stopfordians would agree with The Idler.

The fact is that some places in the UK are great to live in, others are landmarks of boredom and despair. Can we not now point this out without having our books pulped? Why this masochistic hunger for offence? As Howard Jacobson said in Manchester:

Why are the British always crying… From Diana onwards floods of tears, especially when a camera is near. You can’t turn on the TV without some person wailing because they’ve been thrown off a talent show when they had no talent in the first place. Our stiff upper lip has become a big, soft, wet, trembling one.


Waiting On The Rain

June 21, 2009

My review of Tom Reynolds’s More Blood, More Sweat and Another Cup of Tea is now available at 3:AM.