Archive for August, 2011

A Pox on the Olympics

August 19, 2011

20110819-124817.jpgIf, as we’re always being told, the national economy is equivalent to an individual or household economy, how to explain the Olympics? When you’re in debt, the first thing you do is cut down on your social life. Yet the coalition, so fond of hectoring us about the maxed-out national credit card, is set to party like it’s 2005. In April we had the Royal Wedding. Next year there will be another feudal celebration in the form of the Diamond Jubilee. The Olympics will take place that same year, at a cost of around £14 billion. In times of austerity, could not a more practical use be found for the cash? You could understand if London was hosting the World Cup, which resonates, incandescent, in the English soul. But, I mean, fucking discus throwing? Hello?

Outside of self-selecting City Hall polls and rubber-stamp consultations, the question of whether Londoners agree with this use of their money is debatable – and never mind people outside London who are also paying for this. But the political class wants this event, there’s no question of that. Late July saw a ‘One Year To Go’ ceremony, with Boris Johnson and Seb Coe, and live coverage from Trafalgar Square and the Olympic Park. (You should check out the Guardian liveblog of this event, which to the paper’s credit doesn’t even begin to pretend interest or respect.) London writer Iain Sinclair claims purges and evictions around Olympic sites: ‘long-established businesses closed down, travelers were expelled from edgeland settlements, and allotment holders turned out of their gardens.’ The reaction to last week’s riots was: Christ, what about the Olympics?

On one level the madness has method. The Olympic bid was won on July 6, 2005. It has been realised that the five circles might as well be a crosshair. Sinclair’s walking tour around the site is punctuated by fences, signs and guards: ‘Baghdad conditions imported. Green zones staked out, helicopter-patrolled.’ Raids continued. Police officers cited the event in crackdowns on harmless environmental process. The security became hysterical: in one incident, Sinclair says, ‘two enforcement officers burst into a cafe in Mare Street, searching for a woman who had dropped a cigarette butt on the ground outside’. In an act of counterproductivity and silliness, Hackney council banned Sinclair from speaking in any of its libraries, after he wrote an LRB piece critical of the Olympic project. An internal email obtained by the Hackney Citizen under FoI from the council’s Head of Media said that ‘we should not host an event on Council premises promoting a book which has an overtly controversial [sic] and political (albeit non-party) agenda, and actively promotes an opinion which contradicts our aims and values as an organization – in this case the 2012 games and legacy’.

But Ghost Milk is not an investigative expose of the Olympic bid. It’s more an aesthetic meditation on place and what Sinclair calls the ‘Grand Project’. It seems everything has to be what business writer David Craig calls ‘a major reinvention of the wheel.’ A government IT project cannot be a simple upgrade, it has to be a massive overhaul that costs millions and is out of date by the time it’s online. And the same goes with regeneration. What else could explain Media City?

Upscale can kill a project. Overreach can make a good local celebration into an expensive national embarrassment. Yet it keeps happening, because the Grand Project is carried out ostensibly for citizens, but mainly for politicians and businesspersons on the regen gravy train. They are places to work, not places to live, and the contradiction makes the place seem eerie, a hole punched in the universe.

Sinclair captures this sense of placelessness. To him the Olympic dream is a ‘long march towards a theme park without a theme’. He describes the Westfield mall as ‘a waiting room, a room you can’t escape, never having properly arrived.’ The landscape from the M62, all ‘cooling towers, no-purpose sheds and glinting rivers’ is ‘an itinerant area that you can’t define as country or city’. This is of course the problem with globalisation. So good and necessary in many ways, it nevertheless tends towards an effect where ‘cities are swallowing each other, pastiching, making copies of copies’. I think of Houellebecq’s prophecy, that in time, the whole world will come to resemble an airport.

From the early chapters based around the 2012 site Sinclair travels all over the UK and Europe. It’s not always an interesting journey, partly because of the real-ale prose – the recent Private Eye Sinclair parody is cruel, but accurate. Sometimes, he can be pretentious. (In a New Statesman interview he told Jonathan Derbyshire that the Olympic site represented ‘a sort of invasion psychosis that landed not only in Iraq, but also in the Lower Lea Valley.’) Long passages on Ballard, Beckett and Kerouac appear for no apparent reason.

Sinclair would surely appreciate the irony of eighteen-year-old Chelsea Ives, an Olympic ambassador and athlete who has met Coe and Johnson, being turned in by her parents, to answer charges of throwing bricks at police cars and looting mobile phones. It’s like the glossed and tinkly regen dream coming face to face with the reality of an increasingly chaotic, and divided country. It’s also a reminder that national unity is a fragile myth.

Manchester: The Context

August 13, 2011

Forget the pundits. You need no sympathy or apologia for the criminality of the last few days to acknowledge that crime does not happen in a vacuum. Youth service cuts did not cause the riots, but youth clubs are still a good thing, in and of themselves. This week I’ve read two interesting pieces, one by Manchester musician Dave Haslam and another by the editors of far left magazine Manchester Mule. I don’t agree with all their points, but their state of the city analysis is essential.

The city centre is a ferocious concentration of wealth and power, manifested in Urban Splash complexes and Trafford Centre-style retail farms. Rent hikes forced more and more citizens into the crime, violence and corrosion of the outer listlands. We have one paper, a pious crusader tabloid that is out of step with the needs, hopes and dreams of most people in the city: and establishment creative industries that still think it’s the Summer of Love, ’91.

The statistics make bad reading. According to the Mule, 27% of Manchester’s children grow up in severe poverty – the highest level in the nation. Each year six thousand will be expelled from Manchester’s schools. Our teenage pregnancy rate is twice the national average, our life expectancy is the lowest in England. 28% of 16-24 year olds in this city are unemployed. Oh, and we’re the self harm capital of Europe. Top banana, indeed.

Dave Haslam, when giving talks on Manchester’s regeneration, says that he’s sometimes ‘tempted to edit out’ what he calls the ‘and yet’ paragraphs. This is the problem. As a city we had to struggle to recover from the disaster of Thatcherism and then the IRA bomb in ’96. Northern chippiness combined with civic boosterism in a lethal silence. It is what my friend Jerry Cornelius calls the ‘Confidence Fairy’: if we keep banging on about the boring old social indices (the unspoken catechism goes) investors will be scared off, our fragile resurgence will collapse and the social problems will get even worse. Better to keep quiet, rattle the pennant, demolish half of Salford for another shopping complex, put a few more bouncers on the Printworks doors – anything but confront the bad side of our city, and the people that missed out on the boom.

I’m not running the place down, I love my city and its renaissance is undeniable. It’s clear however that we have outlived the luxury of backslapping, and should ask ourselves hard questions. Commerce and regen cash flowed like the rain of this rainy city during the boom years. Why then do we have these shocking levels of poverty and ignorance? Why are expectations so low? Why, in other words, do so many people in Manchester live bitter and unhappy lives? What will become of us now that the money has run out and the austerity grind has kicked in?

It’s a real shame that it has taken the actions of a hundred or so vicious morons to put this on the agenda.

I Heart Manchester, Salford, London

August 11, 2011

I see the bad moon arising

I see trouble on the way

I see earthquakes and lightning

I see bad times today

– Creedence Clearwater Revival

‘Bad Moon Rising’

I saw nothing of the riots and suffered no harm, except anxiety for the friends and family I have in London and Manchester. So there is little point in me writing about the events of the last few days. We don’t know the circumstances of the Duggan shooting. The police won’t tell us. But we know exactly why the riots happened, and exactly how to stop them happening.

The riots happened because of Tory cuts, the abolition of EMA, Iraq, the death of the nuclear family, consumer advertising, racist feds, absent fathers, the last Labour government, wealth inequality, rap music, political correctness, immigration, multiculturalism and Tony Blair.

To prevent more riots, all we have to do is overthrow capitalism, tax the rich, bring back the married couple’s allowance, send in the army, open more youth clubs, set up more CCTV, take down all CCTV, take rioters’ benefits, kick rioters out of social housing, bring back capital punishment, bring back National Service, arm the police with water cannon and baton rounds, close down the Blackberry messaging network, ban Twitter, Facebook, email, SMS, mobile phone lines, CB radio, carrier pigeon, morse, clacks and semaphore.

I’m exaggerating for comic effect, but only a little. The above list of ‘root causes’ and ‘solutions’ are taken from things I’ve heard on social networks, in op-eds, even in Parliament.

The biggest misconception to me is that the riots are a youth thing. It suits the left to say that because they can get a vicarious thrill of Da Yout risin up, a source of fire that they can channel into ideology; it suits the right because they can piss and moan and wail about Broken Britain.

Up here in Manchester, though, the age range of GMP arrests was 15-58. Out of 113 arrests only seven were under eighteen.

It would be interesting to see a pie chart of profession and income. Parading through London and Manchester’s 24-hour courts are a hairdresser, an army recruit, a charity worker, a teaching assistant, a forklift driver, a call centre agent, a scaffolder, a lifeguard, and the grammar school daughter of a millionaire.

So far, there has been little or no political content. The politics, if they exist, are libertarian/Thatcherite: smash a window, and take what you see. Manchester’s high street took a kicking, but so did independents in the Northern Quarter. In London the rioters went for family-owned independents and charity shops. Up here there has even been a suggestion that the far right were involved. If what happened was an uprising, why not firebomb the square mile?

As Egyptian revolutionary Mosa’ab Elshamy put it: ‘Egyptians and Tunisians took revenge for Khaled Said and Bouzazi by peacefully toppling their murdering regimes, not stealing DVD players.’

A couple more thoughts.

Remember the student protests, how thuggish and anarchic everyone said they were? Take note of the difference between a demonstration and a crimewave.

Also, can we have an end or at least a break to the constant moaning and shrieking about immigrants? It appears that the only citizens willing to stand up to looters and rioters were from immigrant/ethnic minority communities – Dalston Turks, Southall Sikhs, Haringey Kurds, Birmingham Pakistanis, Poles, Somalis and Bengalis in Whitechapel. Their bravery should be recognised. We should remember it before we lock up or deport people for the political crime of wanting to work here and make a life here.

I know I bang on about this, but it seemed an important point when I saw BBC footage of a rioter being interviewed in Salford, outside the trashed and charred precinct where I used to buy books and groceries. Why did you riot? ‘Gotta,’ he said. ‘All the Poles, coming over here, taking our jobs’ – yes the guy actually said that, rapped out that fucking cliché. And before you accuse me of looking down on the dispossessed white working class, remember that the working class were, overwhelmingly, the victims of this criminality and this carnage in terms of homes, livelihoods and lives.

Having said all this, context matters. In a crisis economy and under a radical rightwing government this was a bad story waiting to happen. The line has been crossed. It will be crossed again.

I hear the voice of rage and ruin. There is a bad moon on the rise.

Nick Freeman: Curse of the Vulture Princesses

August 2, 2011

The Manchester Evening News star columnist, the lawyer Nick ‘Loophole’ Freeman, writes this week about a case where a local man is facing corporal punishment for, allegedly, groping a woman’s arse in a Singapore nightclub. If convicted, the Mancunian defendant could be sentenced to two years, a fine or a lash with a four-foot cane.

This would be a good opportunity for an interesting legal column about corporal punishment, and the rights of foreign nationals in dictatorial regimes. This is what the Evening News’s Clarence Darrow has to say:

Show me a man whose hands haven’t hovered in temptation over a pert female derrière and I’ll show you a man without a pulse.

It’s part of the red-blooded male DNA to want to touch what we like to see, but social cues and the laws of civilized behaviour stop us from doing so.

Drawing on personal experience, Freeman identifies a double standard in the ruling.

I spent 16 years at a law firm being ‘man handled’ by a paralegal. I know, it sounds pathetic. Surely I must have enjoyed the fact that most days she’d pinch my bottom or try to slip her hand into places as private as my clients’ files. I didn’t like it or encourage it, I liked her as a friend, but I didn’t want her to do it.

So every time she did, I’d tell her to stop. But it only ended when I left the firm.

Had the tables been turned, I’d have had my backside kicked all the way to a tribunal and probably the courts. End of career. But because I’m a man I’m expected to endure – no, even enjoy – it.

Freeman has written about these issues before. Back in June he wrote a piece on Manchester’s Slutwalk demo. This wasn’t just a local thing. Women over the world demonstrated for the right to wear what they liked without the risk of getting raped. (Incidentally, the Evening News coverage was disputed by a friend of mine at the demo, who said that contra the MEN report, not everyone was dressed in ‘[b]asques, stockings, and suspender belts’ and there were more than a ‘handful’ of male feminists there).

This was Freeman’s take:

Many women may baulk at my assessment – particularly those who took part in Manchester’s lamentably named Slut Walk on Saturday, where hundreds of women donned racy outfits in response to a Canadian police officer who advised schoolgirls to ‘avoid dressing like sluts’ in order to prevent sexual assault.

Those taking part claimed women should be able to wear whatever they like in public – including racy red underwear – without being judged and their motives questioned. But, as a red-blooded alpha male, let me state unequivocally that I believe how a woman dresses (and behaves in that dress) tells a man what’s on her mind.

I abhor rape and attacks on women and, believe me, as a criminal defence lawyer, I’ve been involved with plenty of cases where those who have been dressed in a perfectly conventional way were still victims of this heinous crime.

I also strongly believe that yes is yes and no is no. But, in the real world, a woman who behaves or dresses in a sexually provocative way conveys a certain message. A message that, ironically, can victimise men.

Again, Freeman’s turned the main issue on its head – a story about misogyny has somehow become a story about male victimhood. Again, he ‘speaks from personal experience’. As well as the sixteen-year ordeal at the hands of a predatory paralegal, Freeman also had to endure the following traumatic event at an impressionable age.

At the age of 19, I went to a party having just completed my first year law exams that day. Already in a buoyant mood, I arrived at the house and was greeted by a gorgeous fellow student.

Bewitching in a skimpy dress, she threw her arms round me, kissed me passionately and led me upstairs. Things heated up quickly but literally at the critical moment she suddenly cried: ‘no, stop, what about my boyfriend?’ I was astonished.

But mustering every fibre of willpower, I leapt off the bed, pulled on my clothes and made my exit.

Disappointed? Obviously. But more significantly I was disgusted to have been manipulated and, yes, victimised.

I don’t want to get into cod psychology here. Although he’s famous for motoring cases, I don’t doubt Freeman’s experience in this criminal field, or his commitment to rape victims. And nothing I’ve quoted suggests that Freeman has a problem with non-passive women.

A few points, though:

1)      Although the rule of law applies to men and women alike, many crimes are not gender neutral. Rape, sexual harassment, DV are overwhelmingly man-on-woman crimes.

2)      Men read everything into everything. Women have a right to get drunk and flirt without having the obligation to follow male expectations. Women flirt with me all the time. I don’t expect them to marry me or bear my children.

3)      No one who describes themselves as a ‘red-blooded alpha male’ should expect to be taken seriously in these kinds of debates.

(Image: MEN)

Self-Referral Fun

August 1, 2011

Lots of what we’d call ‘service users’ complain about doctors. I absolutely love them. It’s getting in front of a doctor that’s the problem. I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of days dealing with NHS admin gatekeepers, who are fascinated by NHS policies, procedures and funding pots, and assume that everyone they speak to shares that fascination. I don’t know the system that well, having been out of treatment for years, but here’s the impression I get – if you want to be treated, it’s not a good idea to have a job. Called the crisis team three times over the weekend, rang out. The GP has evening appointments one night a week, with everything booked till next week. You can’t even get an evening appointment in an emergency. Mental health in Manchester seems to be on a nine to five, Monday to Friday basis. I get the impression that police do most sections and interventions. They seem well disposed to the mentally ill, I suppose talking a sobbing undergraduate down from a bridge is a break from the usual recidivist psychos. I could ring the Samaritans and talk to some retired magistrate, who is probably a Christian fundamentalist. I could go to A and E and, at best, talk to some friendly psyche. At worst I could be detained for three days, perhaps longer. Unlikely I know. But it could happen, that’s the thing. I could lose my job. It’s a small team at work and I am running the office solo. Plus, it’s not a good idea to take time off work in this situation. This shit doesn’t affect my performance. You have to go on working. What else is there?

Thing is, suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under thirty-five, and the world rolls on well enough without them, thank you. Who would remember? I no longer have the impulses and am just living through a numb and tearful period, with flares of ativism like fireworks in the fireshot night. You feel every disturbance, every twitch of the air constitutes a threat. For two days I have been inundated with calls, texts, IMs and DMs, including from a close friend who had a simultaneous and identical experience. It should make me feel safe. But instinct tells me there are things out there looking for me. Also, it takes a concerted effort to speak.

I figure it’s time to make a change. I think at the weekends I’ll stop going out, because every drink in a pub is like Russian roulette now. The future is wine and DVDs, and Facebook in the unlikely event I want to talk to people. That’s it: I am out of the game.

Time After Time

August 1, 2011

Julie Anna looks at the Daily Mail‘s coverage of the Iraq Inquiry.

Julie notes that the Mail seems to think it knows the findings of the inquiry before it reports, and that it’s entitled to preempt the findings of a judicial inquiry.

The impression is that Chilcot will denounce Tony Blair as a liar and scoundrel, and will reveal details of the old rogue’s misdeeds, including that ‘a deal to go to war had been ‘signed in blood’ at President Bush’s Texas ranch in 2002.’ I wonder if the Mail thinks Tony Blair signed a contract with George Bush, actually in his own blood. Who knows.

Julie analyses ‘the ‘damning criticism’ of Tony Blair’s handling of what the Mail describes as one of the ‘biggest foreign policy fiascos in modern history’ and sensible people regard as the liberation of oppressed people from tyranny.’

Is the Mail right about what the inquiry will say? There are two ways this could go:

1) The inquiry says that the evil Tony Blairs made a pact, signed literally in blood, with George Bush to invade Iraq as part of his plan to spend all our money on foreigners. In which case the Daily Mail will say that Chilcot is a model of integrity, in the best traditions of the independent judiciary, and speaking truth to power.

2) The far more likely scenario is that the Chilcot inquiry, like the Hutton and Butler inquiries that came before, will conclude that there was some incompetence but no actual wrongdoing. The Mail will then say that the inquiry was a whitewash and that Sir John Chilcot is a government stooge, and possibly an agent of Israeli intelligence. They will then call for a new inquiry.

This is I think the third inquiry into the decisions that led to war. I wonder how long the Mail and the antiwar left will insist on pulling the inquiry bandit at public expense.

Personally, I would like to see an inquiry into the Mail‘s ‘journalism’ regarding asylum seekers, and the role this has played in the growth of far right terrorism.

(Image: John Rentoul)