Friday, 26 November 2010

We are family?

Martin Amis has been sharing his views on UK-Israel relations with Ha'aretz.
"I live in a mildly anti-Semitic country, and Europe is mildly anti-Semitic, and they hold Israel to a higher moral standard than its neighbors. If you bring up Israel in a public meeting in England, the whole atmosphere changes. The standard left-wing person never feels more comfortable than when attacking Israel. Because they are the only foreigners you can attack. Everyone else is protected by having dark skin, or colonial history, or something. But you can attack Israel. And the atmosphere becomes very unpleasant. It is traditional, snobbish, British anti-Semitism combined with present-day circumstances."
He's half-right. Israel does get a fair amount of stick from European lefties, but I have never bought the argument that this is a matter of anti-Semitism. Rather, it is a result of conscious or sub-conscious prejudice in our expectations of other middle-eastern states. We expect savage behaviour from them (and, sad to say, are all-too-often proved right). It's part of what the late Edward Said would have seen as the 'orientalising' narrative, the depiction of the East as a mysterious 'other', the home of Kipling's "lesser breeds without the law".

We do hold Israelis to higher standards, but because of familiarity rather than prejudice. We see them as displaced Europeans, rather than Asians, so hold them to what we fondly still suppose to be European standards of behaviour. Our criticisms of Israeli behaviour are an inverted tribute to our kinship.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The man who waters the workers' benefits?

My copy of PCS View, my trade union's magazine, arrived through the door on Wednesday, promising to "fight the cuts" before they had even been announced, and condemning the Government for "making ordinary people pay for the economic crisis".

All fair enough, I thought, and directed the magazine towards my recycling bin, together with the assorted flyers and leaflets that accompanied it. Then I stopped and looked at some of these. Most were offering financial services of one sort or another. For example, PCS+, directly affiliated to the union, was offering life insurance. For a mere £12.60 per month, I would receive a payout of £7,500 on my death, or a cashback of £3,301 if I survived till I was 70. Great, except that for the same premium Aviva would insure my life for £75,000 - 10 times the value! - and the cashback would actually represent £1,000 less than had been paid in, even ignoring inflation. "For many people", the blurb read, "an unexpected death could mean financial disaster." Especially if coupled with life insurance from PCS+.

Scottish Friendly were also advertising their services, and in particular their 15-year MoneyBuilder plan - essentially a 'with profits' savings plan, like those wonderful Equitable Life schemes. For an initial investment of £10 per month, rising to £20 per month by year 6, you would receive a guaranteed lump sum of £2,959 after 15 years - only a few hundred pounds less than your total investment of £3,240. A four per cent annual growth rate, which seems pretty optimistic in these times, might even earn you all your money back (though inflation would have significantly reduced its value while Scottish Friendly sat on it).

And I thought that trade unions were meant to fight against the exploitation of workers, not to collude in it.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Papal bull

It may be a slow news week, but I have been finding it hard to understand the sheer volume of media coverage of the Pope's visit. I appreciate that he is the leader of one of most important world religions, but can that really be worth so much newsprint in our - allegedly - secular society?

This afternoon, I had an epiphany. This isn't really about the Pope. Like African conflicts during the cold war, this is a proxy battle in our very own 'culture wars'. On the one side are the evangelical rationalists, Dawkins et al, to whom the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church represent something atavistic and unsavoury, slouching into the 21st Century dragging medieval convictions (and the taint of negligence in relation to child abuse) behind them.

On the other side, are conservative pundits and newspapers, seizing on the Pope's denunciation of secularism to amplify their fears of Christmas being replaced by 'winterval' in town halls up and down the land, of celebrities taking the place of deities, of moral relativism rampant, and of cross-wearing banned by petty bureaucrats.

As in the USA, the tone adopted by the culture warriors is shrill, and neither side is really interested in the other's views as anything other than a target for denunciation and derision. This is a dialogue of the deaf.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Careless whispers

Reporting on the resignation of William Hague's special advisor this afternoon, the Evening Standard alludes, censoriously and primly, to "rumours that had been circulating on the internet [about the nature of their relationship]".

Those will be the same rumours that were reported by the Standard diary (on the pretext of reporting on a Freedom of Information request) last week, and (in the guise of reporting on a 'row between bloggers') in earlier editions today, will they? Yes, I believe they will.

Saturday, 14 August 2010


When I began working for the Audit Commission in 1994, the ten year-old organisation was on a roll. The investigation into Westminster City Council's gerrymandering scandal was making headlines, local authority performance indicators were being published for the first time, and reports on issues such as youth offending and regeneration seemed as critical of a tired Conservative government as they were of local authority and health service practice. With its recital of what now sound like tired or even trite mantras - 'customer focus', 'joined up government', 'evidence-based management' - the Commission was the very model of modern managerialism.

Despite this rising profile, worries persisted about the Commission's future under a Labour government. John Smith had pledged their abolition in 1992, but contact had gradually been established, first through back channels and then more openly with Frank Dobson, then shadow local government minister. Jack Dromey still referred to the Audit Commission as "the accountancy wing of the Conservative Party", but his tone became jocular rather than threatening.

Slowly, it became clear that New Labour had no intention of abolishing the Audit Commission. Far from it, the government-in-waiting wanted to expand, and radically alter, the Commission's remit. With the exception of flagrant misbehaviour, as witnessed at Westminster, the Commission's performance reporting was traditionally as dry and detached as its audit judgements. Performance indicators were hedged around by caveats about local circumstances and local discretion, and national value-for-money reports made generic recommendations, the pill often sweetened by sideswipes at the policy framework set by central government.

New Labour had other ideas. The Audit Commission would become a vital tool in the crusade to improve public services (or Stalinist control-freakery, depending on your perspective). Under the Best Value regime, then the Comprehensive Performance Assessment and Comprehensive Area Assessment regimes that replaced it (inspect-o-rrhoea?), the Audit Commission and its emissaries would sit in judgement on elected local authorities, awarding them star-ratings, or red or green flags on the basis of their performance.

The argument that the Commission was simply publishing information, allowing local people to set their own priorities and their own criteria in judging council performance, providing fuel for accountability, vanished. The man from the Audit Commission knew what was good, from Lampeter to Lambeth, and would judge local authorities against these benchmarks.

Michael O'Higgins, the Audit Commission's chief executive, spoke last week of the irony of the Commission's abolition, when local authority performance has improved (with the unspoken assumption that the Commission has been responsible for this improvement). A deeper irony still is that, if the Audit Commission had not so enthusiastically embraced a chance to operate as shock troops for the New Labour revolution, they might not today be being sacrificed on the altar of localism.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

In the eye of the beholder

Prince Charles' letter to the Prime Minister of Qatar, published this week, certainly captures its author's voice, veering at times into self-parody. In one faux-tentative passage, the Prince argues that traditional architecture is preferred "because it enhances all those qualities of neighbourliness, community, human-scale [sic], proportion and, dare I say it, 'old-fashioned' beauty."

The last word, underlined by hand in the letter, made me think of another man with a forceful personality, strong views on architecture, and a conviction that shallow functionalism in design can marginalise and undervalue beauty. Indeed, when undertaking a commission for the last government, this grandee complained that civil servants persistently tried to censor all mention of 'beauty' from his report.

I don't think either of them would thank me for the observation, but Prince Charles' fellow beauty-seeker is, of course, none other than Richard Rogers, the architect whose Chelsea Barracks scheme the Prince was seeking, successfully as it turned out, to derail.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Ecraser les bourgeois?

It is commonplace to contrast the social mix of London with the segregation of Paris. This analysis characterises (caricatures?) Paris as a doughnut city: the centre is homogenously bourgeois, while the immigrants and the poor are relegated to the concrete banlieues on the other side of the Peripherique.

London by contrast is held to be a city which switches from elegant townhouse to high-rise council housing in a matter of yards, as a result of the combined efforts of the Luftwaffe and post-war planning. There are richer and poorer areas, but few districts are devoid of either social housing or a middle class enclave.

But perhaps that's all starting to change. Central St Giles is a garish Renzo Piano development on one of London's most historically ominous sites. The super dense development may tip its hat to the crowded tenements that once dominated, but there the resemblance ends. While 53 flats have been allocated to Circle Anglia for social rental and intermediate buy-rent, the others are apparently being marketed in the Far East, with prices starting at £500,000 for a studio, and £1 million for a two-bed flat.

What's missing is the middle - the flats that might be within the financial grasp of people on an average, or even above-average but not astronomical, salary. Central London's property market appears to have reached a condition where only the super-rich and key workers (the 21st Century's 'deserving poor'?) can afford to get their foot on the ladder. This is a 'mixed community', true, but a very odd one: just how will this blend of jetsetters, jobseekers and low-paid workers actually rub along?

Perhaps the developers (Legal and General, and Mitsubishi) are agitators, working under deep cover to foment revolution, by laying bare the inequities in society. Or perhaps it's just another of the bizarre outcomes of London's soaring land values, persistent high-end demand, and reliance on developers to provide public goods.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The illiteracy of uses

Long ago, before Brick Lane became internationally-renowned home of the ironic haircut, I attended a meeting between the Mayor of London and protestors from the Spitalfields Market Under Threat (SMUT) pressure group. With the protestors, who were seeking to preserve the former wholesale market on the edge of the City of London, was florid architect Will Alsop.

They had asked Will along, they said, to demonstrate how new commercial development could co-exist with, rather than destroying, the courtyard of 19th and 20th Century buildings, by then enclosing an 'alternative' market, selling everything from vintage clothing, to dream-catchers, to decommissioned pub signs. With a straight face, Alsop unfurled his plans. Over the nondescript market buildings towered a monstrous blob on stilts. One of the bien-pensant SMUTters coughed nervously, and explained that this proposal wasn't necessarily what they were actually proposing.

Straight face aside, I wondered whether Alsop was making a wry comment about the confusion of buildings and uses in the UK planning system. What the SMUTters wanted to preserve, I sensed, was not so much the decent but nondescript market buildings, but the marginal market uses that they accommodated, a messy bulwark against bland City expansionism.

But our planning system's 'use classes' are a blunt instrument: retail is retail, and drinking establishments are drinking establishments. Planners cannot discriminate, so protestors are forced to rely on heritage arguments, in order to defend the unique and particular against the homogenous and generic. They make claims for buildings, when what they are actually talking about is character - fleeting, intangible and easly destroyed. Spitalfields Market is now redeveloped (Smithfield is the new front); while many of the market buildings were saved, and a few token market stalls remains, they feel as forlorn and denatured as in a suburban megamall.

Reading this week about the Parisian proposal to designate streets and shops for specific uses (eg, as bookshops, bakeries, butchers or tabacs), I started to wonder we could imitate the initiative. Perhaps individual shop units could be designated for 'slightly funky coffee shop not owned by Seattle-based leviathans', 'old-fashioned hardware store where you can buy nails by weight in paper bags' or 'butchers with organic meats and straw boaters'.

This type of positive discrimination is what the great estates can do; it's what Howard de Walden have sought to do (with some sucess) in Marylebone High Street. But this power seems unlikely to be granted to town halls even in our brave new world. It may be irreproachably conservative, and trendily localist, but it would be a heretical denial of free market ideology.

Monday, 17 May 2010

"We are still waiting on language"

And three more direct quotes from a meeting this afternoon:
  • "this should be a cross-cutting bedrock"
  • "all the groundwork will be fully in line with the direction of travel"
  • "there will be clarity on what vehicles we need going forward"
This was not, needless to say, a discussion about public transport, or quarrying...

Thursday, 29 April 2010

It's the stupid, economy!

With the last prime ministerial debate dissolving into inchoate chattering behind me, three night thoughts about the economy:

All three parties are continuing to evade the issue of where the cleaver should fall. Assuming we believe that the present level of public sector borrowing is unsustainable (or, which is not quite the same thing, that it risks incurring the wrath of the bond markets), we are facing deep and wounding cuts to public services. All this wittering about efficiency savings, reduced bonuses and more effective procurement is marginal at best and evasive in general. And the safeguarding of the NHS and education as sacrosanct simply means that the viciousness of benefit cuts or tax rises will be so much more acute elsewhere. When people look back on this disingenuous apology for a debate, they may be angry. They would have every right to be.

Cutting public spending will hit all sorts of people, me included. But it's less clear than it used to be what the public sector is nowadays. Since 1997, the process of privatising public services has accelerated. Companies like Capita, Serco and Veolia may not be household names, but they each have public sector revenues running into billions of pounds every year; they empty our bins, clean our streets, collect our council tax and run our trains. The public-sector income of big consultancies like KPMG, Price Waterhouse and McKinsey is lesser, but nonetheless considerable. The modern state is locked into a co-dependent embrace with an ever-growing parastatal private sector. Will cutting public expenditure boost or undermine this economic interzone?

Lastly, the three candidates fell over each other to laud manufacturing industry. Fair enough, except inasmuch as these were the same people drivelling on about 'knowledge economies' and other weightless chaff only years ago. Consistency, and a modicum of dignity, are maintained by talking nowadays of the importance of science and high tech manufacturing, rather than the dirty and - by implication - 'uncreative' factories of the past. But nobody has given anything more than sentimental or affirmatory arguments as to why serious manufacturing industry should take root in the ashes that remain, after three decades of systematic and determined de-industrialisation. Absent the public sector and the former 'masters of the universe' from the world of finance, and you have to ask, What of our alleged economy remains?

They are now vying with each other to say that teachers are valuable. And the sea wet. And that fiddle music is a great accompaniment to urban bonfires. Selah.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Because I'm worth it...

Do you ever get those days when you just want to be looked after, when a visit to a beauty salon that is the only option, when natural products must be used to create those wholesome feelings of health and natural vitality?

You do? Well, look no further. As ever, Brixton has the answer...

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Hammering the quacks

One of the more depressing things about living and working in London's less prosperous neighbourhoods is the sheer number of spiritual entrepreneurs (from every imaginable established religion, and then some) seeking to make a fast buck out of people with genuine hardship in their lives.

Today's leaflet, from Pandith Lakkshman Sastri, who operates out of the hallowed portals of Tooting Supermarket (66 Tooting High Street), offers palm- and face-reading to help with everything that life can throw at you, from the commonplace to the incomprehensible: 'Business, Money, Family problems, Children's problems Husband and Wife relation, Education, Love, Job, Marriage, Divorce, Sickness, Promotion, choice of stones, abroad etc.'

At the bottom of the flyer, the small print reads: 'All matters will be kept confidently.' Which I will certainly bear in mind, next time stone-choosing becomes an issue.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Triumph of the bland

David Runciman's talk on the politics of three London Olympic Games at Queen Mary College last week was amusing and enlightening. In 1908, Anglo-American relations became strained - the English felt the American's habit of training was unsporting - and the organisers kept the prices high to deter dangerous crowds of the wrong sort of spectator.

In 1948, the tone was one of austerity (athletes had to hire towels if they didn't bring their own) and restraint. The malnourished English took a perverse pride in the fact that the national anthem was only heard five times (opening and closing ceremonies, and three gold medals), compared to Berlin in 1936, where Deutschland Uber Alles and Horst Wessel had rung out continuously.

The 1948 Olympics were also the last Games where medals were awarded for artistic endeavour. The quality of entries was mixed, to put it politely: no medals were awarded for music, and the sculpture that won gold was a heroically anodyne piece by Gustav Nordahl called Homage to Life (photo, right, Bengt Oberger).

Runciman compared this inoffensive couple to the heroically striving ubermenschen whose representations triumphed in Berlin in 1936. A retreat to the bland was understandable if not inevitable given the horrors of the previous 12 years. Together with an irreparable fracturing of consensus on what constitutes 'good' art, nervousness about the appropriation of sporting iconography by fascists signalled the end of art as a competitive Olympic activity.

Even today, sport-inspired art tends either to the heroic or the apologetic, to the apotheosis of man and the spirit of '36, or to mushy statements of universal brotherhood (see Invictus, though I doubt I will). The International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne manages to combine both (photo, above left, IOC/Juillart). Leni Riefenstahl casts a long shadow.

Friday, 5 February 2010


To the right is a graphic that appeared in the Guardian last weekend, to illustrate a story about flood risk and global warming:

The larger map is pretty familiar: it sets out the flood risk that would arise from a two-metre rise in sea levels (at the upper end of projections for this century).

The smaller map, which seems to have inundated most of eastern England, is less familiar. Reading the small print, it becomes clear that this is a map of a truly cataclysmic scenario. The complete melting of the polar ice caps would release a staggering 33 million square kilometres of water into the sea, and this could result in a sea level rise in the order of 84 metres. So it's farewell to Norfolk.

But the qualifications pile up. This outcome is "very unlikely - and probably only possible many thousands of years into the future." So, like global pandemics, asteroid collisions and exploding supernova stars, this type of sea level rise is not really something we can do a great deal about now.

You have to ask why The Guardian chose to print this map. Following the failure of the talks in Copenhagen, it is very tempting - even for those of us who broadly accept the scientific consensus - to stick our heads in the ever-warming sands, declare that the problem is too monstrous to tackle, and enjoy the sunshine.

A debate in the Observer today quotes a former chair of the IPCC as saying, "Unless we announce distasters no one will listen." But conjuring cataclysms like this doesn't help; in fact, it plays into the hand of those who argue that the threat is exaggerated, or a trojan horse for a green re-engineering of society.

It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Browsing survivalist websites recently (don't ask), I clicked on a banner ad for Hardened Structures, and specifically for their '2012 Shelters'.

The 2012 Shelter sounds like a serious piece of kit. The website tells us: "As a specific Threat Event, the anticipated catastrophic effects resulting from 2012 are far greater than the anticipated effects from WMD’s, anarchy, climate change or any of the other specific Threat Events for which we have developed mitigation designs ... most engineers and scientists agree that for a fully protected 2012 shelter the following threats must be mitigated;

  1. 3-Bars Blast Overpressure of 45 psi
  2. Force 10 Earthquake in successions
  3. 450 MPH winds
  4. Extreme Gamma & Neutron attenuation from a 100 megaton air burst detonated 20 miles away
  5. Solar Flares with 1,000,000 volt EMP
  6. Flooding (complete submersion for 100 hours)
  7. Extreme External Fires at 1250 F for 10 days
  8. Magnetic Pole Shift
  9. Radiological, Chemical and Biological Weapons
  10. Forced Entry and Armed Assaults
  11. 12’ of snow and 10’ of rain
  12. 500 lb Hail Stones or flying debris at a speed of 100 mph"
Usually I find that ignoring TV for six weeks keeps you safely insulated from the Olympics, but some people are clearly determined to take no chances. 900 days to go, and counting.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Reality used to be a friend of mine

Just before Christmas, an age ago in internet time, a man called David Thorne published an email exchange on his website, apparently between him and an entrepreneur called Simon Edhouse, who wanted some free graphic design for a new venture. The (cruel but very funny) exchange was an internet hit (particularly among graphic designers, who seemed all too familiar with the scenario), but Edhouse quickly denounced it as a vicious fabrication by a former friend.

Browsing around, I found Edhouse's own website, where he was facing concerted internet heckling from people who seemed unconvinced by his denials. But it also contained some of his own thoughts: "destiny is DIY" and "the map is not the territory". These curious pearls made me wonder whether perhaps Edhouse was actually a fictitious character, invented by Thorne for his own cruel amusement. Perhaps Thorne was fictitious too. They both seem to come from Adelaide, which may as well be Alpha Centauri for all I can do to verify the existence of either of them.

It reminded me of a university friend, studying philosophy and overwhelmed by cartesian scepticism, desperately gripping the lamp on his desk, seeking reassurance that it - perhaps alone in all the universe - was verifiably real. All that is solid melts into air.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Kicking against the BRICs

Compared to the hubbub over Google's threats, media coverage of the banning of China's first 'gay pageant' was limited, but gave an interesting snapshot of something. I'm just not sure what.

The Guardian had reported on plans for the event on 10 January, with organiser Steve Zhang suggesting that police could yet shut it down. And so they did. But this seemed to be very polite repression: police were reported to have had friendly conversations with the participants, who were told that homosexuality was a 'sensitive issue'. Very different in tone to Russia, where 'gay pride' and similar events are regularly and violently broken up by police (and nationalist counter-demonstrations).

If the demonstration had been by a political opposition group, the situation would probably be reversed. Russia is a democracy, albeit a compromised and autocratic one, and opposition parties are at least tolerated. The harsh treatment of pro-democracy activists in China shows that ideological pluralism is still seen as a dangerous threat to stability. You can bet that Google searches for gay dating sites would be far easier to get past China's internet censors than phrases like 'Tiananmen Square protests'.

At which point one starts to wander dangerously close to sweeping generalisations about value systems and cultural heritage, confucianism and christianity. One culture is concerned about social cohesion and harmony, the other about personal behaviour and sin. Both can be repressive, but in different ways and to different people.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Maps and legends

Not exactly long-awaited, but if you want to follow the London to Brighton route set out in previous posts, It should be fairly easily navigable on OS Explorer maps (numbers 146, 135 and 122).

Or, to entertain myself primarily, I have also pooterishly plotted the route on Google Maps, here:

View London to Brighton in a larger map