Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Gilded palaces

If there are two things I dislike with a moderate but consistent intensity, they are shopping malls and crowds.  So it was against all sorts of better judgement that I visited Westfield Stratford this evening.

As we walked through the thronged corridors of shops clad in gleaming marble, shiny glass and fashionably-distressed copper, my companion observed that the crowds really looked and sounded like East London - loud, ethnically mixed, not particularly well-heeled.

This reminded me of a middle-aged man I watched being interviewed when the Royal Festival Hall was refurbished in 2007.  When the building opened in the 1940s, the interviewee was growing up in South London, and vividly remembered his first visit to the venue: he could not believe that someone like him was not only allowed but encouraged to visit somewhere with this thickness of carpet, this richness of marble, this elegance of balustrade.

In many ways Westfield Stratford, the apotheosis of 21st century consumer capitalism, is the polar opposite of the Royal Festival Hall, with its high-minded aspirations towards 'culture for the masses'.  But the buildings share something too: like the Festival Hall, Westfield Stratford isn't a dumbed-down version of something else.  It doesn't fob local people off with cheap finishes and 'value' retail outlets, but gives them as good a high-end shopping mall that it would build anywhere else.

There are plenty of criticisms to level at malls - their gaudy promotion of consumerist fantasy, their impact on neighbouring shops, their introverted street systems and privatised public space - and Westfield Stratford will probably be accused of many of these. But it doesn't patronise, or pander to presumed poverty of aspiration.  It deserves credit for that.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The chronic

There's a wonderful scene in Generation Kill, the HBO mini-series following a battalion of US Marines through the confusion of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the embedded journalist asks Lt Col Stephen 'Godfather' Ferrando why he speaks with such gravelly whisper.

"Throat cancer," Godfather rasps laconically.

"You a smoker?" asks the journalist.

"No," a long pause, "just lucky, I guess."

I've been thinking of this exchange as conversations with friends and acquaintances have touched on the various illnesses - heart disease, liver problems, cancers, degenerative conditions - that are beginning to intrude on forty-something lives. Almost invariably, the first reaction is, "But s/he doesn't smoke/drink that much/eat turkey twizzlers/[insert bad habit of choice]."

I wonder whether this surprise at people becoming ill despite their virtuous lifestyles is a peculiarly modern way of thinking. Medical science has made huge advances in digging beneath the symptoms to identify the underlying epidemiology, physiology and causes of diseases, and equally great strides in identifying the environmental or behavioural factors that can increase or decrease susceptibility to particular diseases.

But only very rarely has science identified a straightforward and un-varying causation: if you do x, you will contract y; if not, not. 'Luck' (which is actually how we describe causal factors that we don't understand) continues to play a part: only an idiot would deny the links between smoking and lung cancer, but 10 per cent of lung cancer cases still arise in non-smokers. We prefer certainty, and not to acknowledge that "time and chance happeneth to all" (hence, I suspect, the scrabble to blame non-smokers' cancers on 'passive smoking'). And governments collude in the process, understanding that preventing the damage caused by unhealthy lifestyles works better, and probably costs less, than medical intervention to reverse or mitigate it in later life.

But is this assumption that our lifestyles can protect us from illness really a symptom of modernism, or does it represent the atavistic resurgence of something much older - a perception of disease as a punishment for moral iniquity? This view broke cover in the early days of HIV (memorably satirised in Brasseye's distinction between 'good AIDS' and 'bad AIDS'), and persists in the absurd economic debates about whether smokers pay more in excise duty than they cost in medical care, and in the vilification of poor people for their diets. In understanding epidemiology, have we slipped back to attributing blame?

Saturday, 13 August 2011


My understanding of life as a poor teenager on an inner city housing estate is about as sophisticated as the Downing Street cat's take on politics: I can see it, where I live and where I work, but my analysis is superficial at best. Nonetheless, a few days after riots in London, thoughts and analyses race through my head, as the muttering backbeat of commentary - both banal and insightful - grows in volume. So, here's what I think today.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson told the Today Programme, "Over 20 or 30 years we have got into a situation where young people have a massive sense of entitlement." Leaving aside trite scoffs about his own Eton-educated sense of entitlement, he's on to something here. A sense of entitlement and benefit dependency are a reality for many poor people today, but the deeper tragedy is when this becomes the only reality.

From where I stand (and my limited perspective may be part of the problem), this world of entitlement and dependency looks pretty bleak - alienated from the sense of self-worth that work can generate, with weak family and social networks (apart from the toxic ties of gang culture), in grim environments illuminated only by the iconography of consumption. Russell Brand, writing in yesterday's Guardian, was typically eloquent: "The only light in their lives comes from these luminous corporate messages. No wonder they have their fucking hoods up."

Benefits and precarious rights are the only stake that this class has in society. Should it surprise us that threats to these residual rights are regarded as an assault? Should we wonder that any fleeting opportunities to seize control and to share in consumer culture are embraced? We'd like to think that education and employment initiatives can create those opportunities. For the lucky few they do, but that path looks increasingly steep, rocky and uncertain.

If you take a left perspective - and it's increasingly hard to find any others that make sense - you start to wonder what the role of the benefits system actually is. In the era when the spectre of communism was seen as a real threat to burgeoning capitalism, was social security used, like 'liquid cosh' in an old people's home, to pacify the masses and prevent them from rising up to seize control of a system that loaded the dice against them?

Perhaps the road to this week's riots is a long one, leading back through the last forty years, as working class culture wilted in a post-industrial economy, as the soviet regime faltered and fell, and as capitalism's leash was loosened by successive governments. The demented bout of speculation that ensued took the system to the brink of collapse, but the banks were bailed out, like rich kids in magistrates' courts, while welfare spending tightened and jobs became fewer and fewer - 'socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor'. Seen through this lens, it is not the riots that are remarkable, but the fact that peace was not breached far earlier.

In this uncertain state of crisis, the dependency relationship created by benefits may be one of the few ties that continue to bind the poor to the rest of society. The irony of the current situation may be that, by cutting benefits across the board (let alone withdrawing them from those involved in rioting), the Government may be undermining one of the few bulwarks that continue to defend a decadent and discredited capitalism.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Step on

After the riots, the surge of opinion and analysis. As Aditya Chakrabortty observed in today's Guardian, this week's mayhem has acted like a tumultuous Rorschach Test in which everyone can see what they want to see. So, three quick thoughts on the week's events (please take 'nothing can justify', 'London is the poorer' and 'in a very real way, we are all guilty' as read):

As any halfway-decent engineer understands, suspension bridges wobble worst when crowds fall into step: the unified pace amplifies the sway, and bridges become perilous. This natural tendency to lock step scuppered the Millennium Bridge in 2000, and a sign on Albert Bridge still warns troops to break step. Social networking enabled the rioters to converge and focus their looting, but enabled the clean-up too. The cumulative impact was dramatic: just as rioters overwhelmed the police, volunteer street cleaners swamped Hackney and had to be redirected to Clapham Junction. The capacity of social networks to foment groupthink makes for a queasy feeling, like being on a ship that lurches, as its passengers rush first one way then another. This alleged anarchy was built upon systems and herd mentality.

The roll-call of closed roads on Tuesday's radio bulletins gave a trivial taste of what is must be like to live in a war zone, never sure from one morning to the next what districts remain intact. It showcased the precariousness of urban life: the actions of a few hundred teenagers can quickly disrupt the delicately-balanced metabolism of the ecosystem (as can a few days' fuel blockade, or a heavy snowfall). But Tuesday also showed the resilience of that ecosystem: people picked their way past burnt-out buildings to the tube, and shops continued to operate from behind smashed windows.

Finally, the riots may not have been explicitly political, but they were about power. Or at least about powerlessness. It may be as futile as it is presumptuous to speculate about individual rioters' motives, but it is not hard to read into the faces captured on CCTV the euphoric rush of suddenly and surprisingly being in control - of your life, of your neighbourhood, of your scared fellow citizens. The price to be paid for those moments will be harsh, but will the violent euphoria prove addictive?

Monday, 30 May 2011

Communing wth locale

The random public sector buzz-word generator has been at work again, this time supporting the conference industry. I am invited to a conference that is entitled 'The Next Steps in Localising Communities: Localising Power, Empowering Citizens and Building Communities'

This babbling brook of gibberish is actually quite impressive in that it manages to combine New Labour's vacuous 'communities' rhetoric with the Coalition's equally inchoate commitment to 'localism'. A genuinely historic alignment.

It is also, at heart, almost entirely meaningless: how on earth does one localise a community? The words could be re-arranged at will - like a syntactical anagram - to make no more or less sense. 'Building the Locale: Empowering Communities, Localising Citizens and Localising Power', anyone? It makes no more sense and no less.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The attraction of laws

Tbings fall apart and you wonder - increasingly - whether the centre can hold. Just as one part of the Government is offering to repeal laws on demand, in the name of 'cutting red tape', other ministers are promising to introduce some of silliest-sounding laws in history: a law to guarantee a level of overseas aid equivalent to 0.7 per cent of gross national income, and a law to put the 'military covenant', which recognises the sacrifices made by the armed services and commits to fair treatment, on a statutory footing.

The issue is not fair treatment for service personnel or to generous overseas aid. Both are laudable aims. But neither needs laws. Proper treatment of the armed services is a budgetary and administrative matter, as is overseas aid. These laws will not create new offences, new rights or new statutory powers. So why take parliamentary time up with them?

Three explanations suggest themselves. One is that the Government is grand-standing; using legislation to make these administrative commitments is simply a way of underlining their importance, of inscribing press releases on vellum. A second explanation is that the Government is simply trying to wrong foot any of its successors who would want to govern differently; what they could do by fiat, they will make their successors do by law (or face the consequences of trying to repeal legislation).

A third explanation is perhaps more disturbing, if less cynical. As our constitution forms the executive from the legislature, it must be easy to confuse making laws with governing the country. This must pose a particular problem to a Conservative/LibDem coalition. They are pledged to roll back the frenzied law-making of which they accuse the previous government. But they can't stop legislating, any more than a shark can stop swimming as it sleeps. Making laws is what Parliament does, what governments do. So, instead of seeking to meddle in the every day behaviour of citizens, they have turned their gaze inwards, and apply the harsh discipline of statute to themselves and their successors.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Gold against the soul

It's hard to know what to say about this extraordinary object, on display in a shop in Mount Street last weekend. Suffice to say that it was one of the more restrained (if sexually disturbed) objects in the shop, in that only the loo seat was painted gold. The rest of the stock would have made Liberace look like the consummate minimalist.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Taking liberties

Pubs in London seem to be full of people taking offence at each other. A few weeks ago, two young men were turfed out of the cholera-grim John Snow in Soho for kissing each other. Outrage and kiss-ins ensued. And the following week a woman was ejected from the William IV (co-incidentally - or at least I think co-incidentally - a gay pub) in Hampstead for breast-feeding. Again, outrage was expressed, spokespeople spoke, and a feed-in is planned.

My first instinct was that throwing people out of pubs for this sort of behaviour was a disgrace. A gay kiss should hardly shock anyone in Soho, and I would have thought public breast-feeding was almost de rigeur in Hampstead. As a liberal, it's not my place to object to anything legal that anyone wants to do in a pub - or anywhere else.

But I found the shrill spirals of denuciation and protest almost equally irritating: nobody was attacked; no violence was committed; have we nothing better to protest about? Also, I can hear my inner Kingsley Amis harrumphing, and looking wistfully back at the days of smokey drinking dens with herodian attitudes to children: shouldn't pubs being places for adults to drink alcohol and talk, not facilities for making-out and nursing?

More seriously, public behaviour is about manners as well as rights: just because you legally can do something, doesn't mean that you should. Almost any behaviour can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on context - an axiom that dogmatic assertions of rights overlook. Writing on my favourite mad libertarian website, Spiked, Frank Furedi has argued against those who reject a basic level of liberal tolerance, which permits but does not approve or disapprove, in favour of 'celebrating' and 'respecting' other people's beliefs, lifestyles, etc.

Perhaps, as I glide into middle age, I should adopt a posture of grouchy liberalism - defending absolutely the rights of people to act as they will, but grumbling intermittently when they do so.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The lost art of keeping a secret

The foundation of British democracy is the secret ballot, no?

Voting this morning, I noticed something that had niggled with me previously (though I am far from being the first person to have noticed it). When I gave my name and address, a man tore me a ballot paper from a book, and the woman with the list of addresses read out a number to the man with the book, who wrote it on the counterfoil.

Didn't this mean that they could look at my ballot paper, and identify how I voted by cross-referencing with my electoral roll number, I asked? Yes, answered the Presiding Officer, but only on the orders of an Electoral Court, which was a very rare occcurrence. So the local authority would keep, indefinitely, a record of how every local elector had voted in every election? Yes, but it was kept safe.

The Presiding Officer was a thoroughly respectable looking gent (handlebar moustache, book about lancaster bombers), so I didn't pry further. I can also understand why some records are necessary, to test allegations that large numbers of ballots have been handed out as job lots to candidates' families and other such malfeasance.

But this secret recording of individual voting patterns still seems a bit rum. I am no more paranoid than one should be, but a lesson of modern times seems to be that all data is eventually leaked and/or fed into government databases. You can easily imagine the security services making a strong case for (limited, of course, checked and balanced) access to such information, so they could identify potential menaces to society voting for 'extremists'.

We should, I suppose, feel glad that we don't live in a repressive surveillance state, that would abuse and misuse such personal information. Shouldn't we?

Friday, 22 April 2011

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Who needs remote control?

It's commonplace (and generally inaccurate) to suggest that left and right are meaningless labels, that ideological differences between Labour and Conservative have evaporated, that we are all thatcherites now. Though the Coalition has outflanked Labour in its liberalism (it would be hard to imagine how to be more authoritarian, without introducing martial law), their economic policies are pretty dry, neo-con even.

But if clear blue water is visible in terms of content, an even more dramatic difference in style is becoming visible. Today, Ken Clarke is reported as criticising his colleagues for their tendency to leave ministers hanging when their policies prove controversial. Witness Andrew Lansley's 'pause to listen'; witness Caroline Spelman's forced retreat from privatising forests.

The Coalition lacks the discipline and control mechanism of a strong Number 10 policy unit, endlessly second-guessing ministers and re-writing their policies. Ministers are free to announce pretty well anything they like - however radical, daring or plain mad it may be - but are also free to take the blame alone if they get it wrong. In this darwinian policy competition of rugged individualism, the fittest survive and the laggards are thrown to the wolves.

By contrast, for all its embrace of market capitalism, the Labour government stayed true to its collectivist roots. Even as Tony Blair became more and more presidential, the approach was stalinist: to borrown Bagehot's terminology, the 'dignified' trappings of collective cabinet government stayed in place, while the 'efficient' mechanisms of sofa government dictated policy throughout Whitehall.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Quod erat demonstrandum?

Some scenes from yesterday's march:

Near Westminster, two French tourists (wearing his'n'hers pastel anoraks that give the lie to their country's stereotype of fashion consciousness) wander into the demonstration from a side alley. With consistency that is admirable going on for perverse, the policeman who had had refused to let me use that alley as a short-cut refuses to let them back the way they came, so they have to join the crowd, weaving between GMB and student union banners as the sluggish current carries them along to Parliament Square.

Walking up Regent Street (past an unattacked Apple Store), the absence of cars and buses creates an eerie calm, broken only by distant sirens and the repressive chatter of helicopters' rotors. A tweedy woman walks past, shouting into a mobile phone her shrill shock at the disruption to her shopping trip.

North of Oxford Circus, a gaggle of protestors surround two fleeing figures in hoodies, shouting 'Police informer! Police informer!' and trying to photograph their faces. To prove their point, the hoodied figures mutter a few words to the police forming a cordon round Topshop, and are let through. Outside, vindicated, their pursuers leap up and down with glee. I am uncomfortably reminded of the old black-and-white photos of the denuciations of collaborators in post-war France.