Archive for October, 2010

The Big Society Challenge!

October 28, 2010

An amazing idea from Martin Bright:

I have a suggestion for the millionaire axe men of the Coalition government. 

After the Comprehensive Spending Review, David Cameron should order each government minister to publish details of his or her charitable giving and the number of days a year they spend on voluntary work.

This, after all, is what they are demanding of the rest of us. The richer members of  society will now be expected to underwrite the arts and the charitable sector, while the rest of us volunteer to take on the functions of the public sector. 

Better still, why not insist that every minister with personal wealth of over, say, half a million, establish a charitable foundation within their own policy remit to take over a chuck of state provision and save the taxpayer some money. It would be the perfect way to pay back some of the cash they have saved on their – no doubt perfectly legal – tax dodges. 

In my experience voluntary and community work is done almost entirely by the working class.

I’m sure the National Government will prove me wrong.

(Image from Political Cream, via Paul Waugh)

It’s Only A Game

October 25, 2010

Regular readers will know that there is no better site on the web for your football news and analysis, but I have to admit I’ve not been covering the Wayne Rooney scandal. It seems that the spud-faced nipper has been thinking of leaving Man Utd and joining its historic rival Man City. This has resulted in a death threat being scrawled across a Rooney billboard (‘Join City and you’re dead’) and police had to be called to a crowd of Man U fans causing a disturbance outside Rooney’s house. There’s so much to say about all this, but ultimately I cannot match the analysis of the Daily Mash:

MANCHESTER is to build a gigantic bowling alley after it emerged that 30 local men had nothing better to do on a Thursday night than go to a footballer’s house and threaten to kill him.

As a crowd of men in balaclavas gathered outside the home of the footballer who might go and play for another team, civic leaders said Jesus Christ, this place is so incredibly fucked up.

Bill McKay, a Labour councillor from Ardwick, said: ‘If we had a really big bowling alley that also had arcade games and maybe a Pizza Hut franchise then that would hopefully be enough to distract them from threatening to kill footballers who want to play for another team.

But Stretford-based social worker Julian Cook warned that the death threats were no longer confined to footballers who may or may not have expressed a preference to stop playing for one team and start playing for another one.

He added: ‘In the last six months I have seen men in Eric Cantona masks threaten to kill lollipop ladies, dogs without collars, post boxes and random pieces of litter. I think what we really need here is a second Laser Quest and maybe a TGI Fridays.’

This Is Tomorrow

October 23, 2010

There’s a passage in Stephen King’s plague novel The Stand where Stu Redman, an ex-factory machinist from East Texas, remembers covering a deadshift at a petrol station in the early eighties when a guy drives up in a convertible. ‘He wasn’t old and he wasn’t young,’ Redman remembers: the driver struck you as someone who ‘had been looking into the dark for a long time and has finally begun to see what is there.’ The driver said he was going to New Orleans. He made jovial back-and-forth. Redman remembers saying ‘If you’re who I think you are, you’re dead.’ ‘You shouldn’t believe everything you read,’ the man replies, and drives off. The stranger, Redman is convinced, was Jim Morrison.

King always had a fascination with the singer (there are echoes of Morrison in Walter O’Dim) and might even have claimed to have picked Morrison up as a hitch hiker, again in Texas. The point is that the Jim Morrison of this memory inside a postapocalyptic dream is how I’ve always liked to imagine Richey James Edwards after his disappearance: a man cleansed of his insecurities by anonymity, tooling down to New Orleans at peace with himself and the world. Hey, kid, get away from all that shit. You’ll feel better.

Ben Myers splices snapshots of Edwards’s career velocity with passages on his wanderings immediately after abandoning his car at the Severn bridge. The Manics are famed for their erudition, and Richey’s wide reading of literature, history and politics is more striking still in a contemporary musical landscape of illiterate self-obsessives. His songs dealt with everything from the Holocaust (‘The Intense Humming of Evil’) to sex slavery (‘Yes’) to the conditions of zoo animals (‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’).  When you consider that Edwards wrote lyrics rather than prose, his achievement as an artist is even stronger. The Holy Bible is a masterpiece of compression to rival Eliot. In Richey’s imagined journey taxi radios and B and B televisions tell us about the OJ trial and the killing of Bosnian Muslims. Richey’s inexhaustible curiosity about the world is reflected in the text.

Initially I thought Myers needed a bigger campus – it would have been interesting to see Edwards age and travel in nameless exile. But I have a tendency towards wishful thinking and Myers’s scenes of solitary travel in the Welsh ruggedlands carry not just a greater sense of realism but far more emotional charge – I was close to tears towards the end of the book and while writing this piece, which isn’t typical for me: I haven’t listened to the Manics for years, but there must still be some of the Manics fan left in me after all.

For all that he had a hard time in the small town of Blackwood, Edwards always returned to his roots: he could have got into Oxford but studied at Swansea, he visited his parents often, he loved the Welsh landscape. (‘Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene… I recognise dim traces of creation.’) The impression is of a home and family centred man who loved his country. Myers seems to have captured something like the moment of death – the failing separation between the molecules of the physical self and the molecules of the physical world: thoughts, memories, impulse, emotion also becoming part of this absorption of the one into the everything. Richey’s predominant thought is of his pet dog.

If you like, you can read this Guardian review, which like all its literary criticism is condescending, removed and dismissive – a house style that goes for maturity with all its strength and becomes a scream of its own inexperience. (Edwards’s fellow undergraduates ‘insist on viewing everything from behind a screen of irony or a detached and highly juvenile sense of post-modernism.’) 3:AM‘s piece is better, naturally, but Darren’s snipes about celebrity culture (‘a world where Lady Gaga is heralded as the new Bowie and mumbling some drivel about ‘Albion’ over shambling rent-boy versions of ‘Boy’s Don’t Cry’ makes you the next William Blake’) ignore the fact that Edwards admired stars, icons and mainstreamers: he championed East 17, pitched for Kylie to sing on Generation Terrorists and did Smash Hits singles reviews. He preferred all-out commercialism over the anti-intellectual, muso-twat cult of authenticity that is the dominant aesthetic today: ‘why go to university and get degrees only to live a life of poverty and relative obscurity? Why press five hundred records when you can do five hundred thousand?’ Lady Gaga is someone Richey would have loved.

The urge for understanding and recognition is one of the great drives behind creativity and fame – as the Wildhearts lyric goes: ‘If I stand on top of the world maybe I’ll find someone I know.’ So many people I knew grew up in small communities of knife-edge conformity. First in the city you could tell the men and women of your type and generation – their left arms looked like shit. I used to think: the beautiful people, the shining ones, every one of them once sat crying in small rooms with a razorblade in one hand and a copy of The Holy Bible in the other. Edwards’s fame told people that it gets better, that the world is bigger than this, that pretension is a risk worth taking. A fan urges Edwards shortly after his disappearance to ‘think of everyone you’ve influenced or inspired. There are loads of kids out there who’ve been turned onto new music, new books and new ideas because of you and your band.’ There’s no doubt that the 4 Real stunt encouraged self harm. But I’m convinced that Richey Manic saved lives.

Heart of Darkness

October 21, 2010

My review of Self Made Hero’s amazing graphic retelling of the Conrad story is now available at 3:AM.

I Ask You Questions, Tell You Lies, Criticise, Sympathise

October 21, 2010

It’s exactly three years since I started this blog.

At 985 posts, there is more than one post for every day of the three years. That probably isn’t a good sign. There have been less posts in the last year because of full time work and other writing commitments. I have been in full time work for an unbroken year and that is good.

I am in a room in Fallowfield and the sun has just gone down. I’m playing Gwyneth Herbert; it could just as easily be Blue States or St Germain or Aim.

I don’t feel I’ve changed a great deal since starting the blog: as Irvine Welsh says, people don’t change that much, they either become more themselves or less themselves. The writing on the blog still reflects my obsessions – aggressive secularism, over the top attacks on other obscure intellectuals, plugs for my other writing, therapy-speak confession, the panda’s progress.

I have however become more and more impressed with the amount of interesting memory I’ve accumulated and fascinating people I’ve encountered.

I have had two nervous breakdowns before the age of thirty and still, sometimes, feel anxiety creeping in around the edges. I feel more acutely than ever the truth of Hunter Thompson’s words: ‘It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.’

I have learnt though (and here is another lapse into therapy-speak) that it’s not the shit that happens so much as your response to it. I have more and better tools to deal with the shit.

I feel generally happy, grateful to exist, full of energy, full of piss and vinegar.

I am going to plan inter city trips.

I have learned something about the impermanence of all things and the acceptance and celebration of this impermanence.

The Whisper of the Village, The Knock at the Door

October 19, 2010

My review of Tom Segev’s biography of professional Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal is now available at 3:AM.

So It’s Come to This: A Post About HMOs

October 16, 2010

This is a piece about Houses of Multiple Occupation or HMOs. You don’t have to read it. In fact I recommend that you do not read it. You will find it very boring. It’s a housing policy thing. It is prompted by this piece in the MEN. It is one of the few topics covered here on which I can put my hand on heart and say I know what I’m talking about.

Essentially, the new government has decided that landlords renting shared houses will not have to apply for planning permission before renting a place as an HMO. But Manchester City Council wants to opt out of this so that HMO developers in Manchester will still have to apply for planning permission. I don’t have a problem with the opt out, we should be doing more to scrutinise developers and landlords. I just want to look at some assumptions made in that piece and others.

1) The idea that having areas with large concentrations of students is necessarily a bad thing

There’s always been a tension between town and gown. We criticise students for their naivety and pretension. We envy their youth and leisure. In terms of their impact on the area, I don’t think we have much cause to complain. Students contribute something like £2.5m a year to Greater Manchester. Many of them like the city so much that they stay on. The atmosphere is better for their presence. It is a redistribution of wealth from the shires to the working-class North.

Fallowfield councillor David Royle says that ‘The multi occupancies cause major concerns and problems for long-term residents such as anti-social behaviour.’ Now most of my serious jobs have involved housing policy and housing complaints in some way. Of the ASB cases I’ve known, many of the perpetrators were people with a strong local connection to the area.

Another councillor wants to make sure that ‘communities retain the identity of their neighbourhoods’ – but what is that identity? I know areas where you can launch upon yourself a campaign of ceaseless harassment and intimidation for telling someone’s kid to stop throwing his ball at your window, where the sound of gunfire is a shock but not unknown, where you can still be hounded out of your property for having too much melanin in your skin. These are areas where the introduction of a street of pill-happy film students would count as gentrification. These areas are like this because we think it is a progressive idea to pay families to live in the same area for generation upon generation and world without end.

2) That HMOs are always occupied by students

The Daily Telegraph estimates that the UK average salary is £23,244. Personally, I don’t know many people in the city boundaries who earn that or above. Most people I seem to meet are way below and struggling. The fallacy of the law of averages kicks in here: as the old fisk goes, ‘When Bill Gates walks into a bar, the average net worth of the patrons rises by a few billion dollars, but that doesn’t mean that the typical patron of the bar has got a billion dollars.’

The fact is that many working professionals live in HMOs, and not just young professionals. If you’re in a couple you may just about be able to get a flat, but for the single person there really is no other alternative. You don’t go back to your parents’ house (even though many people in their twenties and thirties are doing just that) because the principles of independence and self-sufficiency have been hammered into you by your culture and peers and you want to live up to them. So you get off the train, find a room, pay £250 and you’re there.

It is a precarious and peripatetic existence as the working men and women of our generation try to keep one step ahead of the overdraft and student loans. If you have a contract job you hold on to it with both hands. If not you bounce from bar to call centre, chasing opportunities and creative dreams, never knowing where the next rent cheque’s coming from. You raise your head to people in the street and go in and out of each other’s houses for spare food and tools and conversation. Sometimes you go out and get drunk in South Manchester bars and sometimes you and your housemates have parties at the weekend or drop in on other parties and sit out in the back garden at a table of bottles and ashtrays until the morning can no longer be denied with any degree of honesty.

And what’s the alternative? Take out a mortgage at several times your salary, spend twenty years paying it off and then the market crashes and you can’t sell the fucking house anyway? No, the illusion of home ownership, of the house as investment and guardian, lost its solidity long ago. The English dream of the house and family and garden crashed with the crash. Council or HA housing is out because the National Government is reducing it to a ragged safety net for the desperate and dispossessed rather than a valid alternative housing choice. Don’t count on a public sector landlord to fix your water heater or protect you from the ‘vulnerable adult’ next door.

The idea that large concentrations of HMOs create a reduced sense of community and friendliness is a reactionary delusion. And at a time where we don’t have enough houses, and are likely to have less, trying to hang on to some ideal of family housing and local community is absurd and gives nothing to the reality of how much people earn and how people live.

Update: Interesting take on this from Deborah Orr:

With first-time buyers now approaching middle age, and high density homes having proved least satisfactory at housing families, it seems that high-density flats ought to be developed with the young in mind. The young, after all, are most likely to move to the city in search of study, work and experience, and most likely to be willing to share with others.

It is quite normal for people to wish to move further out of town when they start families, lured by green space and less strained services. At present, thanks to the points system, these are the people most likely to be offered council homes in inner city areas less suitable to family life.

Rent-controlled shared flats must be built, stimulating the economy, and made available to the young. Such accommodation will pay for itself, not in the short-term, like the ‘luxury flats’ built privately for sale, but in the long-term, perhaps supported by mutualised bonds that guarantee interest after a reasonable elapse of time. Surely this is not beyond the bounds of our financial and social ingenuity?

An Economy of Time and Space

October 11, 2010

We all laughed at the Big Socahteh during the election campaign but Dave hasn’t let go of it. He based his conference speech on the concept and people all over the political spectrum are beginning to take it seriously. Even Martin Bright, who sees more than most, writes that: ‘I am not offended by the Big Society. I don’t see a lot wrong, in principle, with this kind of ultra-devolution. There is an anti-authoritarian element to some of the thinking that should be hugely attractive to those who have supported the co-operative movement, for instance. Indeed, if they had any sense, Labour politicians would start moving into this territory, arguing that they are the party that really understands the Big Society on the ground.’

Bright’s comments are nothing compared to those of Matthew d’Ancona, who has truly seen the light:

Cameron’s notion of the ‘Big Society’ seems so baffling to so many: it refers to all the stuff that stands, or ought to stand, between government and citizen, but to which we have become blind. The most radical passage of Cameron’s speech addressed this squarely: ‘Citizenship isn’t a transaction – in which you put your taxes in and get your services out. It’s a relationship – you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and it matters what you think and you feel and you do.

So to get out of the mess we’re in, changing the government is not enough. We need to change the way we think about ourselves, and our role in society.’

Far from being woolly or mysterious, the Big Society is a clear, simple and powerful idea: a project in which the state is tamed, not dismantled; power over public services is dramatically devolved; and non-governmental bodies and charities are recruited to socially useful ends. The fact that we find this so strange says more about us than it does about the concept: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves.’

Forget the weirdness of an party that has always called for getting the government off our backs, and which ran on a civil liberties ticket, inviting everyone to ‘join the government of Great Britain’. (As Suzanne Moore remarked: ‘This is a Government supposedly committed to a smaller State and yet what it is actually proposing amounts to a massive experiment in social engineering.’) The passage quoted by d’Ancona is the most thought-provoking part of Cameron’s speech and, having thought about it, I prefer citizenship to be a transaction more than a relationship.

Citizenship is about being part of a thing greater than yourself. But it is also about autonomy and having the space and time to pursue your own interests and desires. One of the reasons I support redistribution of wealth is that it gives people this autonomy and reduces their dependence on work. Progressive politics is meant to bring time and freedom to the poor as well as the rich. And there is nothing left-wing about working all day to throw taxes onto the furnace of the deficit, then spending the evenings and weekends filling potholes or attending council area meetings. I know loads of people volunteer and do a great deal of good and I’ll salute them, but it must remain a choice and not an obligation. This sounds selfish and maybe it is, but only in the sense that wanting your personal space and a social life is selfish.

Again, we should learn from the American constitution, which guarantees the pursuit of happiness. The mark of a civilisation is that it gives you this pursuit, if not the actuality.

(d’Ancona’s piece via John Rentoul, image from Political Cream, via Paul Waugh)

Another Day Older (Deeper In Debt)

October 10, 2010

There is encouraging news about a recent demonstration that took place outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills where trade unionists have been highlighting the fact that restaurants and bar management are keeping tips earned by staff. I worked in bars during a chaotic period in my twenties, and no doubt will do so again. I started out in a Sheffield nightclub, carrying rickety and swaying towers of dead glasses through packed and sweaty crowds, cleaning up the puke and skavving around the local restaurant kitchens for spare ice because our ice machine had been fucked for months. Like all bar jobs, it was laborious, high-pressure and exhausting but there was a camaraderie and an atmosphere to the place that I’ll never forget. There are many stories I could tell about those strange days, but perhaps that is another tale for another day. 

Bar staff are something like the second lowest paid group in professional life. They are ununionised and often work below minimum wage. The anti-smoking movement claimed to be representing bar workers when it rammed through the public ban, but displayed no interest in their pay, rights or conditions. My precarious stint in the trade taught me to always bring my glasses back to the bar, and always to tip bar staff. If you can’t afford to tip you can’t afford to drink in the bar. The fact that chain bars steal these tips from their staff is yet another argument not to drink in chain bars. And there is a karmic self-interest in tipping. Life is changeable and the economy is bad. Walk into your local next week, and the man behind the bar could be you.

Shalom Lappin recently published an essential piece on the National Government cuts programme.  ‘Critics of the cuts have stressed the social and civil damage that they will do,’ he writes, ‘but most have left the basic economic reasoning of the government’s anti-deficit case intact.’ In fact, as Lappin explained, the government programme is ‘entirely misconceived in economic terms’. Its opponents need to challenge Cameron not just on grounds of social justice but of economic literacy.

Lappin argues that ‘cutting deficits in a time of sustained economic downturn simply exacerbates the deficit and reinforces the trend towards long term deflation.’ We cannot export to make up for the cuts because so much of our trade comes from the eurozone, which is fucked. The example of Greece is not relevant because, again, it has only the eurozone to trade with and, anyway, ‘Greece’s extreme austerity program has not improved its credit rating or attracted foreign investors.’ He goes on to say this:

Similarly, the claim that heavy government borrowing in times of prolonged economic downturn forces out private investment is without foundation. In such conditions there is no substantial private demand to force out of the financial market. Government investment, financed by deficits, is the major source of demand, and hence a necessary instrument for preventing widespread economic collapse. Deficit reduction is best achieved through economic growth, and significant cuts are best deferred to a period of relative prosperity.

Capitalist theory sees the market not as a tool that humanity can use to better itself but as a powerful entity that humanity must serve: in Paul Krugman’s words, Cameron and Osborne are ‘like the priests of some ancient cult, demanding that we engage in human sacrifices to appease the anger of invisible gods.’ We are throwing bodies onto the fire to calm the capricious volcano god of the deficit.

Lappin points out that Cameron and Osborne are going much further than even Thatcher, and that ‘the damage that they do to the social and economic fabric of the country may well be irreparable.’ He could have added that there will be little effective resistance to the National Government programme. Trade union power is a fraction of what it was in the eighties. The working class is more interested in hounding migrants and benefit cheats than protecting its communities and the liberal/far left more concerned with promoting religion and throwing spurious war crime charges than effective defence of people’s livelihoods and lives.

The Unite campaign on hospitality workers is a good thing because it dents the perception that the unions are purely about the public sector. Far too much opposition to the National Government is focused on what it will do to public sector workers rather than their private sector counterparts. Public sector workers, on the whole, are better looked after: I have done entry level positions in both public and private sector organisations and, when talking to people just starting out in the world of work, I always recommend the former over the latter.

This is where cuts aren’t necessarily a problem. A housing association boss on £150,000 can just as easily get by on £100,000. There is corruption and exploitation in local government same as there is in the City, and there is no justification for defence of high civil service pensions and other senior employee gravy trains. Unions should follow Unite’s example and reach out to call agents, shelf stackers, glass collectors, data entry clerks, checkout chicks and everyone else at the low end of the service industry on which most of Britain’s business is based. This isn’t to divide different groups of workers against each other. It’s to make sure there are as many on the right side of the barricades as possible.

The revolution will be televised when there are strikes in call centres.

‘Heard It Never Rains In Los Angeles…’

October 10, 2010

The Homes and Communities Agency is a public body that is supposed to promote and develop affordable housing. Urban Splash is a property developer that has received around sixty million in grants for housing schemes in Greater Manchester and Yorkshire. Sir Bob Kerslake heads the HCA and is soon to join the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Salford Star carries a piece, with photos, on Kerslake’s party with Urban Splash head Tom Bloxham at his villa in the South of France.

Money quote:

The Salford Star wishes to make clear that it is not inferring any link between Sir Bob Kerslake partying at Tom Bloxham’s opulent bubble house in the South of France and Bloxham’s company Urban Splash receiving, we estimate, over £60million in public subsidies for many of its failing housing schemes.

The Salford Star is just questioning whether it was appropriate for the head of the government’s social housing programme to accept hospitality from a potential recipient of HCA funding weeks before he took up his designate post as head of the HCA.

(via Owen Hatherley)