Monday, 19 December 2011

The Library - A final post for 2011

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my local library recently. I’ve got few bad words to say about libraries… they’re a public service, and they’re full of books. I believe in the value of both of these things, and I doubt many will be surprised by my saying as much. There are, however, two types of opinion in this world. The first type is an opinion based on principles that sound morally persuasive, largely rational, and in keeping with the rest of our views. The second type is more a conviction than an opinion, you find it in your gut and think little more about its meaning thereafter, you simply believe in it. The second type is infinitely superior, it makes me think of the words of the eighteenth-century philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, “A man lives by believing in something, not by arguing and debating about many things.”

Almost all of my political beliefs come from my gut. Sometimes they could use a bit of moderation, but that’s the only place from which I believe they should rightly originate. I grew-up in a town where half the young people have nothing to do but ruin their lives with drugs, they have no employment prospects, and the formal politics of this country trundles along seemingly oblivious to this inconvenient fact. This experience of growing-up underpins my politics. My position on libraries, on the other hand, I must confess has generally, until my recent visits, come more from out of my head than anywhere else. It’s only since spending regular time in a library that the conviction has made the journey south into my guts.

Each time I go there I see a man with holes in his jumper and a woollen hat sitting on top of his head. A satchel from an adult learning college rests against his chair and beside his workboots. He rolls his jaw forwards, setting eyes on dense diagrams in a book concerning the study of plumbing. Fair enough, I might be giving you a heart string tugging stereotype here, I might even be romanticising the (non) working-poor, but I don’t care, because that stereotype exists, and in him is everything that is noble in a human. You have a man in one of the poorest areas in London, seeking self-improvement so as to earn a livelihood for himself, and if you can’t esteem a man like that then who can you esteem? Rather than assisting him in his endeavour, the council see fit to close the library, limit its opening hours, or put it under the stewardship of unemployed volunteers such as himself, because of course none of us have (increasingly expensive) livings to earn, and it’s not as if anybody is paying any taxes after all.

I could give all kinds of examples for the value of libraries. I could talk about after-school clubs for children who might not have any other safe place to go to. I could give the hypothetical author who fell in love with books in a library at a young age, could give the old man who walks in and collapses from his walking stick into a chair to sit and read a newspaper. I’ll lay off the heart strings though, and stick to my man studying plumbing.

I don’t like Winston Churchill. He’s a racist, his views on Islam are embarrassing, the worst examples of a British ability to take pride in its bigotry. As a military politician he is overrated, and as a civilian politician he’s a blue-blooded aristocrat with contempt for the working man. That said, there is one anecdote-come-quotation of his that I am happy to hold in high regard. In discussing where to make savings to fund the war, Churchill was encouraged to cut the arts. His apocryphal response to this was one of outright refusal, Churchill arguing that “if we cut the arts, then what are we fighting for anyway?”

A society takes its value from its pinnacles, its most sacred entities, not from the median points and bog-standard mediocrities by which it slopes along through one more orbit of the sun. Our modern politics believes that if things are ongoing, if life continues, then all is well, like life expectancy as a measure of quality of life. In the rational, emotionless eye of modern politics, if people are still alive then things are already a success. The institutions on which our society might once have prided itself, because they were more than just the bare minimum, are no longer sustainable. Pinnacles are an excess, and society is healthy so long as you are breathing and Warner Brothers and EMI are taking-care of the pride, ambition and joy.

Let me tell you. A library is a pinnacle. It’s quiet, it’s safe, it’s full of knowledge, and people go there to learn. If any politician believed in economic recovery (and they don’t) rather than short-term self-preservation and lip service (which they do), then they would not even consider jeopardising the future of something so integral to education. Unless we’re envisaging UK sweatshops as a means to economic growth (and, who knows, we might be) productivity is based on education. Everything that damages education will likewise damage economic productivity. Not only that, but social cohesion also depends on education, because education is the only thing that allows people to genuinely perceive that there is more to their life than the number of decimal places that they don’t have in their bank account, the brand of trainers they don’t have on their feet, and the car they don’t have in their driveway. To put that into the context of modern Britain, education will help people perceive that there is more to their lives than the number of decimal places that they used to have in their bank account, the brand of trainers that was on their feet, and the car that they used to have in their driveway but recently had to sell.

Anyway, with all that said and done, I’ll leave you once again, hopefully with the value of libraries consolidated that bit more in your heads. In order to really see what I mean, in order to get that feeling down into your gut where it belongs, I recommend stopping-in for a visit next time you’re on the high street.

On the subject of books, my own has attracted a good amount of publishing interest lately, and I hope to be talking about the follow-up this time next year.

Festive tidings to you all... keep your wits about you.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

St Paul's and Slavery

Greetings from a London turning grey for winter. I’ve been away a while, hanging-out with mortality and reflecting on whether there is any point making efforts at writing journalism. In conclusion, the answer is probably no, and though I might give it a whirl again at some point in the future, that won’t make the occupation any less of a waste of time. Journalism is only the profession of forming opinions for others to dispense as their own, and whatever the craft involved, or the value of this service, world-changing it ain’t.

I’ve been down at St Paul’s Cathedral a fair amount recently, chatting to protesters in the occupation and seeing what’s going on. They’re good people doing a good thing, and I suppose that, though less negative than often is so, a few familiar things have stuck-out in my impressions of the coverage of it all. Firstly, I’ve enjoyed the familiar media habit of focussing on the class background of the protesters, in particular the fact that they are largely middle-class and educated. It amuses me that when riff-raff start smashing-up their community it isn’t political because all they’re doing is vandalism and looting, and then when middle-class people start protesting against economic injustice it is somehow less political because they’re middle class. Clearly the only way to be political in modern society is to run along and vote nicely twice a decade, and then get back to work because, fear not, we have professional politicians taking care of the politics. I’ve also enjoyed the irony that it is a serious political statement when somebody is prepared to live in a tent in central London to demonstrate their beliefs, the only problem is that once you’ve started living in a tent in central London to demonstrate your beliefs, nobody will ever take you seriously again. Most enjoyable amongst the negativity is the criticism that the protesters generally seem to be a happy bunch, a definite flaw, for indeed, who would ever listen to a happy person, and indeed, what do happy people know about the world anyway? If they’re not miserable then they’re obviously not aware of what life’s supposed to be about.

What else has been good… property laws?... that was a good one, the property laws and lawyers that float backstage, waiting to remove the protesters from outside the cathedral. In Syria it’s the Assad family, in Bahrain the Sunni royals, and in Britain we have the great and faceless god of property laws to move the people along in orderly fashion. Whatever the method, the net result is no different… shut-up, shove-off and do what you’re told before we baton-charge you. I love the fact that we have laws in this country that will stop people protesting in Parliament Square outside the seat of our democracy, and outside the seat of our economy at the Stock Exchange (to avoid splitting hairs we’ll pretend for a moment that the Stock Exchange is not also the seat of our democracy). We do not, however, have any law that stops every vacant property on an impoverished high street from being filled by a pawnbroker, a payday loan company, and at least three betting agencies.

Which might as well be the crux of this… and I hate to break it to you… but… well… we’ve been screwed. Let me just say that again. We’ve been screwed. We have been screwed for a long time, we’re being screwed right now, and – boy oh boy – we’re going to get screwed so much harder before this is out. Acceptance is the first step, if we can get more people saying that we’ve been screwed, admitting to the truth of things, then perhaps we can get screwed a little less hard, or perhaps maybe we can even unscrew things a little. That’s the problem… we’re all too damn weak. Your average citizen will sooner spend his time defending the very system that betrays him, than swallowing pride and admitting that they have been screwed, and that they have been screwed each day of their life. Come on… let’s try it together now, as one… we’ve been screwed, we’ve been screwed, we’ve been screwed… it gets easier the more you say it, because that’s the thing, we’re all slaves together at the end of the day. You might have all the music you want for just £10 a month courtesy of Spotify, you might have bought a wetsuit and taken-up river swimming, you might have ridden your bicycle through a desert and over a mountain range, but once you get out of the river and off of the bike, make no mistake, you are only a slave.

Every living expense in your daily life is more expensive because it is purchased in direct competition with a financial machine that buys commodities for no purpose beyond making money out of another’s legitimate need. Every pound that you earn for those purchases is going to be worth 95 pence in a year’s time, and only 75 pence in five year’s time (assuming, optimistically, that inflation doesn’t rise) because a gaggle of politicians devalued your money to keep that same financial system in business. People would be wise to pay attention to the eviction of the traveller community at Dale Farm in Essex, because whatever the whys and wherefores of the case, make no mistake, the underlying message is clear. This system owns you, and alternatives are unacceptable. Against that, don’t doubt that it must be so much easier for politicians to do nothing when all the little people are lining-up obediently to say that the system works. Just you wait, just you wait for the day that you start seeing payments to the Chinese government in the ‘deductions’ column of your salary, just you wait for a Russian estate managements firm to buy-up that seaside town where you had your childhood holidays, just you wait for a crack-head to snatch your laptop from outside the café because his care worker was laid-off. Oh it’s going to be fun all right, at last life will be more exciting than Facebook again.

A couple of things to remember as the insanity mounts. The RMT-member train driver who gets however many tens of thousands a year… is not your enemy. The teacher with a generous-sounding pension… is not your enemy. The Somali immigrant is certainly not your enemy, the buy-to-let landlord (who may well be a scoundrel and a scumbag) is not your enemy. Even the bankers, the suit-wearing banker who takes home a few tens of thousands and feels smug about his work address, still he is only small fry and not your enemy. Even the police… even the god damn police are not your enemy (we can only hope that they realise as much too). Your enemy is not even the 1%, it is the 0.1% and the government that was mandated to deliver a healthy and just society, and goes about a day-by-day failure in that task with the same assurance as if they were doing the job well.

What is really needed… let me tell you now… at a whisper so as not to cause alarm. What is really needed… is a war! Yep, that’s right, and none of that class war claptrap either… we need a good, old-fashioned war… spilled innards and missing limbs (!!)… if you don’t believe me just look at the reforms and social welfare policies of the post-Second World War period. Sadly, really, this is so sad… but the truth is that in order for people to realise that this is their society and that they are entitled to a fair piece of it, what really needs to happen is for people’s husbands, fathers and sons to be killed by the tens of thousands in the name of the country. Only then, after the bleeding has stopped, will people finally recognise that they live their lives as part of a nation, and are thus entitled to a part of that nation. I really hope that it doesn’t come to that, but with the government ratcheting up plans to start dropping bombs on Persia in the name of world peace (Persia, incidentally, hasn’t invaded anyone for over 800 years)… well… perhaps it might.

In the meantime, if you’re in London, take a trip to St Paul’s… as I said, they’re good people with a good cause. When you arrive there, reflect on who it is you give forty-hours of your life to each week… those hours are precious. At the camp, be sure to put your prejudices against appearance aside, enjoy listening to people playing music, enjoy being given a meal and asked nothing in return, enjoy it when someone says ‘hello’ without a thought of what they can gain from you, but only because you’re another human being. After all, isn’t that what society was supposed to be about?

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Dismal Science and speed limits

After a couple of months away from reading news or writing blogs, the Department for Transport's planned increase to the national speed limit seems amusing enough to warrant some words. Having held but not enforced a 70mph speed limit since 1965, the proposal will see a new limit of 80mph not being enforced from 2013.

Most tragic of all has been the speech of Transport Minister, Phillip Hammond, who remarked that motorways should be 'the arteries of a healthy economy'. Hammond continued to demonstrate fearlessness in the face of metaphors, adding that it was 'time to put Britain back in the fast-lane of global economies.' The extra 10mph will apparently equate to 'hundreds of millions' of pounds for us all to share, and solve all of our problems apart from the serious matter of politicians giving cringeworthy speeches. There are currently no proposals aimed at addressing this second concern.

The vague optimism of this economic forecast reminded me of comments made by Mervyn King in February. Explaining what to do about Britain's 5% rate of inflation, King cited keeping our fingers crossed as a key component of monetary policy. This led me to ponder, once again, just how the discipline of economics maintains such a veneer of science, finger-crossing not normally being held as a reliable means of securing an outcome.

Anyway, to give a cursory look at Hammond's 'hundreds of millions' bonanza. A 2003 report by the Department of Transport put the total cost of traffic accidents at £18billion. £13billion of this is owing to personal injury, and £5billion to damage of property and vehicles. The cost to the economy of a fatality is £1,492,910, whilst serious injuries rack-up £174,520 a pop. Research by the European Road Safety Observatory reckons that for every 1km/h increase in speed, there is typically a 3% increase in accidents. With 10mph equating to 16km/h, we can anticipate significant increases in accidents where the new speed limit is applicable, the economic disadvantages of which will hopefully be offset by the social gains of improved population control. Further to the cost of accidents, consideration should be given to the fact that an engine is approximately 10% more efficient at 70mph than at 80mph, and with the cost of oil only likely to move in one direction, this will make engines 10% more expensive in return for those extra ten miles travelled in an hour. Whatever the maxims about time is money, that much time is unlikely to be worth that much money.

The Department for Transport has also offered justification for the increase with the argument that it will align UK speed limits with the rest of Europe. True though this may be, a 75mph speed limit has obviously done little to stop Ireland developing a national debt 96% of its total economic output, whilst Portugal, also at 75mph, has only managed to achieve 93%. Elsewhere in Europe, at 80mph, the Italians have a debt 119% the size of their economy, and the notorious Greeks, also at 80mph, have racked-up a pile of debt 142% the size of their economy, which is shrinking at 5.5% as you read this.

Further north, the Norwegians, with a budget surplus of 12%, inflation down at 1.3%, and one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, persist with a 62mph speed limit, and any driver caught speeding above 85mph is faced with an unconditional 18-day prison sentence. Of course the consistently strong German economy dispels any hard-and-fast correlations, Germany having no speed limit on its autobahns.

All of which is only a complicated examination of what anybody with an ounce of sense will have realised instinctively. Speed limits have no bearing on national economic performance, and the problems of the UK economy are more significant than 10mph. We await government directives encouraging people to chew their food less and walk quicker, alongside simultaneous measures prohibiting reading on the toilet, an inefficiency that costs the economy hundreds of millions of hours/pounds in lost output every year.

Anyway, until next time, stay sane... your country needs you.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Quick thoughts on Rioting

Well, as everybody else in media or internet circles has given their own particular view on what rioting means to them, it’d be a shame to miss out on the opportunity. Also, I’m about to spend ten days away from the UK, quite long enough for the media to find a new tyrant in a desert, a woman dumping a cat into a wheelie bin, or increase the volume on the economic meltdown story that is, at present, bubbling nicely on the rear hob. In a nutshell then.

Riots and/or looting, are both political statements. Our entire social model is based on the sanctity of private property, when people do not respect private property, and are happy to risk criminal proceedings in not doing so, they have essentially stated that they do not believe in our politics. Society and politicians need to understand that it does not take a genius to feel that something is unfair, nor does it take a genius to perceive that your future isn’t looking too rosy. A youth smashing a window has the same meaning regardless of whether or not he calls himself a Marxist, has a university education, and has read Das Kapital. The window is still smashed, and if you don’t like broken glass all over the street, you need to figure out why the window got smashed. If you are only prepared to listen to ideas from the articulate and educated, you are going to wind-up ignoring an awful lot of people, in fact, most people.

People need to take a more mature view of politics, of social harmony as an act of bribery, a balance in which people have to feel their interests are represented. It is commonly-held that unrest in Arabia has been a product of demographic changes, an increasingly young population who are not represented by an old social order. I’m not sure why it is hard to grasp the concept of similar circumstances in the UK. The form that unrest takes is determined by cultural factors, if youths steal televisions and trainers, then (I know this is obvious) that is a reflection of our entire society. Similarly, if politicians are so unimaginative and cowardly to be unable to look beyond finger-wagging and where are their parents(?), then that too is only a reflection of our society. Some windows might have been broken, some buildings burnt down, but all we are seeing is a very real playing-out of all the traits that anybody with their eyes open would have perceived to have been present in society beforehand anyway. As citizens, as a population as a whole, we are constantly being violated by our government. In bailed-out banks, MPs expenses, rising tuition fees, and privatisation plans that did not appear on an election manifesto, our liberties and integrity are constantly flouted. A very wealthy minority of the population have done very well out of this, 1.5million people also got a buy-to-let mortgage in return for buying into it, 70% of people have got their own roof under which to be shafted, and public pensions have bought-off a few more million. If you fall into any of these brackets, you have a reason to shut-up and stomach the injustices for your decades on earth. If you don’t, then why would you? People can condemn mindless youths and thugs, but the fact is that you still have to live with them. A braver goal would be to help them become more productive citizens, after all, no number of judgments will alter the reality that you’re sharing your streets and society with these people.

As far as policing goes. Britain already spends, as a proportion of GDP, more on domestic policing than any other developed nation, having overtaken the USA sometime during the nineties. If fear compels people to interpret the riots as a case against cuts to the police, that is only one more step in a policy that has no end anyway. Police do not prevent crime, they deal with criminality. The best way to prevent crime is to give people a social and moral code that they value. The Japanese do not stockpile shovels and wheelbarrows to deal with earthquakes, they (endeavour to) build earthquake-proof structures.

Some blindingly obvious observations. The banking system stole a hundred billion from the taxpayer, left us liable for many more of their future losses, and still largely maintain the veneer of a respectable profession. Teenagers steal trainers and are immediately depicted as swines for doing so. MP David Laws embezzled £40,000 from the taxpayer to give to his boyfriend in rent, David Cameron accepted his resignation (which was over the revelation of his sexuality, rather than expenses fraud) as that of ‘a good, honourable man.’ It is deeply patronising (like most of our formal politics) to suggest that anybody, no matter how conventionally stupid, could miss the fact that this is not quite fair. There have been 937 deaths in police custody since 1990, a quarter of them at the hands of the Metropolitan police. That needs to be broken down into more than just a statistic. Almost a thousand people, since 1990, have been taken-in by the guardians of law and justice... and then died, were never again seen alive. When that happens in Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia we see it as horrifying, a cause for Amnesty International, whilst in Britain it can be accepted as part of normalcy. Each of those corpses had family, friends, and was part of a community of other people who once knew them. Again, you don't have to be a genius or a politics student to figure out that something's not quite going as it should be.

The government (of all political colours), meanwhile, really must be applauded for their largely successful ability to evade almost all criticism. As an institution, the government has authority over education, finances, employment, housing, transportation and just about every other field of our existences. It is mind-numbing to think that the government could be responsible for almost everything that touches our daily life, and yet be responsible for absolutely nothing once society goes belly-up. Our lives have been given to/appropriated by Westminster to control and order, and when things go wrong they can do nothing more than blame the parents and tell the children to get back indoors. If Westminster had any meaning or nobility in it, right now would be a time for deep soul-searching, self-reflection, and guilt. If Westminster is just a charade of political legitimacy, 650 good-jobs and a talking-shop for ambitious people who can string sentences together, then we’ll be hearing more about police, zero-tolerance, and the word ‘tough’.

In the meantime, might I suggest this, and this, as the best way that we, as decent individuals, can deal with the fine mess into which we have been led. If you're sticking around, and are passionate about doing something positive in society, might I recommend doing it yourself, rather than paying somebody else to do it for you. If you care about your community at all, might I suggest walking around it, rather than watching it on a screen in the corner of the living room, it's never quite as bad as they like to make out.

Peace and love to you all, we're going to need it.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The cost of renting and the cost of living

I recently wrote an article for the website, openDemocracy. It's a bit more academically rigorous (well, quite a lot more actually) than much of what I write on my blog, but I'm quite happy with it. The subject is a look at how to make hardship a little less hard, and whether we should increase wages for poor people, or do something to reduce the rents that poor people pay out to landlords... my argument is that reducing rents is by some way the more meaningful of the two approaches, see what you think.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Crime fighting and Revolution via smartphone

The internet and its associated technology continues to take steps towards making the world a better place. Already this year we have witnessed Vodafone single-handedly toppling Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, whilst Twitter, Facebook and live blogging have enabled western comrades to experience freedom fighting (sic) in the Libyan desert from the safety of their desks.

Online heroics reached new heights this week, however, when an intrepid and innovative member of the public, seeing two youths stealing a bicycle outside a busy pub, took a photo of the theft using their smartphone. The photo has since been circulated through Twitter, a perfect example of how modern technology allows us to pool our collective will into an unstoppable, but also convenient, social force.

With the image of the thieves now viewed by some tens of thousand of people, it is plain to see that this approach to crime fighting, using smart phones and Twitter, works much better than old-fashioned, twentieth-century methods, which included an archaic practice known as 'stopping it' or 'doing something' when faced by somebody stealing a bicycle right in front of you.

With great excitement we await the next contribution of smart phones to social justice.

The stolen bicycle remains stolen.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Scoundrels, patriotism, the Union Jack and sliced bread

Things are getting worse. I’ve known this for a long time, but now I’m really starting to worry. There’s no point reading articles or keeping abreast of events in politics, the truth reveals itself in fashions more mundane. It started a year ago. A Lebanese man, working from a premises that doubled as an internet café, had been making me falafel most lunchtimes for about six months. It was good stuff, chopped parsley and raw onion, ripe tomatoes, and at only £2, on Cavendish Square, a minute’s walk from Oxford Circus, lunch in central London didn’t get much better. We always exchanged banter about his business, his face always miserable, dark bags under his eyes, a hooked nose and lips that sneered a smile as he told me the amount of money he paid in rent, and the amount of money he actually made. He was from Beirut, his English fine but far from fluent… the fewer words people command in a language, the more truthful and pointed those words are likely to be. Each time we met, he told me that soon he would return to Lebanon, where life would be better. I remember the afternoon when he summed-up three post-financial crisis (!!!) years of sensational headlines and supposedly sophisticated economic analysis. He turned to me, dark eyes levelled my way, that hooked nose and those thin lips as he drew out his fist, rotated it downwards with a large, plump thumb pointing at the ground, and he said to me.

‘In England… you cannot make any money.’

And a few months later, he was gone. None of that, however, was very much more than boringly predictable in modern Britain. It is only in recent months that I have been made better aware of just how bad things are getting, the rotten seat of the latrine above which we teeter, just waiting to plunge down into twenty-one centuries of shit. It was the advertising that told me, for adverts will explain the state and concerns of the nation better than any politician or journalist ever manages. You might get some outliers that fall wide of the mark, but in the main, marketing spots the direction in which things are headed.

It is with growing alarm, therefore, that I keep seeing advertising and packaging enlisting the services of Union Jack. Weapons manufacturer, BAE Systems, were very much ahead of the game in this respect, and for the best part of three years, they have had Union Jacked black cabs going around central London under the title ‘BAE Systems: A big plus for the UK’ (which, undeniably, reads much better than ‘BAE Systems: A big problem for innocent civilians all over the world’). The fashion has recently gone into overdrive, however, with Pimm’s Union Jacking their bottle, Hovis Union Jacking their bread, Vodafone Union Jacking black cabs all of their very own (rather than actually paying its £6billion tax bill to the country), and Cheryl Cole advertising shampoo beside a Union Jack rug whilst talking about ‘British hair’, obviously different to other hair in ways previously unbeknown. The middle classes have not been neglected by the clamour, and for those too refined for the vulgar euphoria of red-white-blue, the Festival of Britain is being celebrated on London’s South Bank. It is no coincidence that the original festival, sixty years ago in 1951, was intended as a ‘tonic for the nation’, still rebuilding after the Second World War. The Hayward Gallery and Festival Hall area has been duly adorned with photos of British inventors, a giant fox made from straw (they omitted the chasing hounds and aristocrats), recordings of seagulls, and photos of British troops in Helmand, Afghanistan. There is, after all, nothing better than tastefully-shot images printed on aluminium to help soften middle class views of an expensive war, especially one that has decimated a poor country for shoddy reasons increasingly forgotten and forgiven.

Be that as it may, the bottom line in all this British bluster is that, in short, we’re fucked. It brings back memories of riding through the south of Romania, where each town has the blue-yellow-red of the national flag fluttering over it, and apart from that an awful lot of poverty, begging gypsies, derelict factories and rutted roads for the entire five hundred mile stretch below. Don’t mistake me, many of the people there are living happy and fulfilled lives, but it is in spite, rather than because, of anything that the nation has ever done for them. When people start encouraging you to get excited about the piece of rock you live on, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.

So where does this leave us? Well, first of all, we’re all going to have to learn to appreciate the finer, non-material things in life. If the flag doesn’t work for you then I recommend reading, but buy your books quickly, before a publishing model premised on whether a book can be marketed, rather than whether it is any good, makes storytelling and good writing extinct in not so very long at all. As a rule of thumb, I suggest only reading authors who are already dead, which serves me well as a literary filter.

On the matter of learning to live harmoniously with one another, we will need a lot more love and understanding. All those born earlier than 1975 need to understand the burden that has fallen on all those born since, it’s hard work to muster goodwill with prospects limited to no career, no pension, and in the interim a life of paying other people’s buy-to-let mortgages for them. As for those of us born since 1975, we need to extend love and compassion to those born prior, they are to be screwed by the very same alliance of business and government that will slowly destroy us all, the only difference is that they were afforded the luxury of being screwed under their own roofs. We must all extend compassion to those born since the millennium, who will plumb new depths of meaning for the word ‘doomed’, and it is surely only a matter of time before the termination of all new pregnancies is made compulsory.

What is to be done? I suggest that all concerned members of society must, with immediate effect, stop socialising, and especially breeding, with anybody associated with either the financial sector or the three major political parties. By such means might we peacefully exterminate their grubby and self-serving DNA from the gene pool, or at the very least limit their opportunities for reproduction. If this fails then we will all have to put our faith in social mobility, which was proven to be alive and well in the marriage of common Catherine Middleton to royal Prince William. The wedding showed that if you want to move up the social ladder then you absolutely can, but first you better persuade someone with more money and standing to let you into their bedroom and fumble with their genitals. If that doesn’t prove fruitful then I advise making yourself comfortable in the rut that you’re in… for you’re going nowhere.

*With thanks to Flaubert. A more scholarly version of some of the issues here discussed will soon (we hope) be completed for OpenDemocracy, my own book (we hope) by the end of the year.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Blackfriars Bridge, J.G. Ballard and the Bicycle

In 1973, British author, J. G. Ballard wrote the book ‘Crash’. In 1996, director David Cronenberg turned the book into a film, the general response to which was widespread confusion at a plot based on couples that have made car accidents a part of their sex lives. Admittedly unconventional, Ballard’s achievement was to take the mundane notion of road safety, and turn it into something artistically brilliant. The book’s anti-hero becomes obsessed with killing himself in a head-on collision that will take the life of Elizabeth Taylor, and though that is but one thread in the story, the general trend is to show a society fundamentally selfish in its desire for gratification, and to show humans prone to attaching their most animalistic desires, their love and lust, to contraptions of steel and synthetics otherwise known as motorcars.

I think of Crash often, I think of it every time a driver jeopardises my life to shave five seconds from his journey, when a driver accelerates dangerously to overtake, just so that he can wait behind another motorcar rather than my puny, engineless bicycle. I think of it when I see cars decked in aerodynamic flourishes and neon tints, the driver with his thumping stereo a regular pharaoh of our automotive age. Ballard was highly-regarded as an author, though brushed aside politically and filed under 'science-fiction', a label he rejected for the manner in which it allowed people ignore the reality of his subject matter. Anyone who might question the central thrust of Crash, the idea that cars can transform humans into emotionally numb murderers, need only refer to the Critical Mass event in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where an irate motorist accelerated his car through the middle of a group of cyclists. Alternatively, ask any regular bicycle commuter in a British city.

Crash has been in my thoughts a lot already this week. First of all came the preliminary results of a UK study investigating the idea that the nation, spurred by increasing costs of car ownership, is nearing a tipping-point at which everyone starts cycling and we suddenly wake-up in Amsterdam. The initial findings suggest that this is categorically not the case, and that amongst the many cultural attitudes behind Britain’s lack of affinity for the bicycle, fear is far and away the main reason keeping people off two wheels. Which is hardly surprising, nobody is likely to value quality of life or lower living costs when the ‘life’ component of those two statistics seems to be in danger each time you pull into the centre of the road to turn right. No matter how remote the possibility of dying on a bicycle, constant reminders of that possibility are not about to encourage cycling growth, moreover, if people are afraid, then it’s insufficient to simply tell them that they shouldn’t be.

As ever, the foremost word in response to this fear is ‘segregation’, and both the academics and Transport minister, Norman Baker, have emphasised the value of keeping bicycles and cars separate, a philosophy as inadequate for the protection of cyclists as it is insulting to conscientious motorists. Aside from the idea that cars should inhabit a barbaric territory unfit for bicycles, it raises the question of what happens when, eventually and inevitably, a motorist has to coexist in civilised fashion with cyclists they have been permitted to believe belong in a separate infrastructure. A look at footage of rush hour in Copenhagen is all it takes to see that, yes, believe it or not, bicycles and cars can use the same spaces harmoniously, and where they do, more people are inclined to cycle anyway.

The second reason for my Crash preoccupation is a vote in the London Assembly on Wednesday 8 June. In spite of his confusing title of ‘cycling mayor’, Boris Johnson has rejected the continuation of a 20mph speed limit across central London’s Blackfriars Bridge. The mayor has instead enabled a new limit of 30mph, because, let’s face it, there’s no freedom quite like accelerating for 400metres before stopping at the next set of lights. The majority of the London Assembly opposes Johnson’s decision, the City of London Corporation (the city’s central borough) is already seeking to impose a 20mph speed limit across the square mile, and a range of cycling advocacy groups have mobilised their memberships to lobby against the mayor’s imposition. What we have been left with is a classic case of the Big Society, where the very bodies charged with making our lives easier start making them harder, and everyday people are left fighting just to maintain a pretty shabby status quo. Cyclists are twice as common as private cars on Blackfriars Bridge during morning rush hour, and prioritising a motorist’s burst of acceleration over the safety of a cycling majority is further evidence of authorities prepared to champion cycling without actually taking cyclists seriously.

It is at this point that my two recent grievances suffer a head-on collision, with the number-one fatality being the ‘cultural shift’ that ministers seem to believe is in the offing. Both the Blackfriars speed limit and the segregationist thinking are typical of a delusion wherein decision-makers anticipate exponential cycling growth, without first doing anything to temper the habits and speeds of motor vehicles.

Boris Johnson has made a sound bite out of ‘smoothing traffic flow’, an agreeable title for the car-focussed reduction of pedestrian crossings, and complete removal of the western extension to the congestion charging zone. Despite 14,000 street light features in the City of London, a cyclist is expected to dress like a fluorescent lollipop if they wish to be seen by motorists, all of whom are supposed to have healthy eyesight and their own working headlamps. London cyclists continue to struggle with the fatal problem of lorries in the city, however, efforts from the Metropolitan Police and Transport for London have focussed amusingly on raising awareness about the potentially lethal threat, rather than actually doing anything to reduce the incidence of that threat. Initiatives in mainland Europe have established out-of-town distribution centres where long-haul freight is dropped and moved into cities using smaller vehicles. Coordination of deliveries means that one lorry will serve two separate addresses if they are nearby. Britain, meanwhile, remains crippled by the lack of imagination that blights much of our politics, and lorries in London remain one further example of an accepted culture of dangerous roads that cyclists must learn to survive within. The last four years have seen 26 London cyclists die under lorries, and that these tragedies have given such little impetus to the process of change underlines the horrifying reality, as espoused in Crash, that a broken transport model is actually more precious to us than human life.

I often think that a group of cyclists in London can sound like war veterans swapping stories, we have all been involved in an accident, if not then we know and love others who have. We know of drivers who have nudged us with their 1000kg vehicles, shunting us either to teach us a lesson or when nosing towards the front of a line of traffic. All too often our community is required to mourn somebody who has died prematurely and needlessly, and though cycle advocacy groups are loath to encourage an even higher degree of fear on the part of prospective cyclists, it’s inadequate merely to sweep the dangers under the carpet, the dangers need to be addressed. The police must penalise motorists according to the law, and not show lenience according to their empathy as drivers. The law must treat motor vehicles as a potentially deadly innovation that move things from A to B, not as an extension of our living room, office, or ego. Our cities need to be made into better living spaces for us all, and for that they must be made, genuinely, into better places to cycle.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Twilight of the Idols - The coming fall of Lance Armstrong

“He can’t have been doping, that would mean we were living a lie.” That was the message my friend and old cycling partner sent me amid increasingly firm allegations that seven-time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong, was likely to have all along been using performance-enhancing drugs.

As teenagers we had watched, transfixed, as Armstrong tackled the mountains of Europe, leaving us to emulate his feats on the rather more modest roads of Leicestershire. In 2001, on the famous slopes of Alpe d’Huez, we watched Armstrong feign weakness at the back of a lead group containing his long-standing rival, Jan Ullrich. All day he pretended to suffer, let the German’s Telekom team set the pace, and then, approaching the base of that final climb, Armstrong dropped the act and pulled to the front. He looked round at a struggling Ullrich, fixed a stare upon him, a hard stare that came to be known as only ‘the look’, and a moment that has since entered into cycling folklore. Armstrong opened-up, began to spin his famous cadence against the 7.9% average gradient of the mountain, and a little under forty minutes later he had destroyed the threat of Ullrich and set the fourth-fastest recorded ascent of Alpe d’Huez, thirty-eight minutes and one second.

In 2003, descending from the Alps to a stage finish in the town of Gap, Armstrong raced downwards, neck-and-neck with the main contender for his yellow jersey, the Spaniard, Joseba Beloki. With the summer heat melting the bitumen in an old road surface, and the two diving for a hairpin bend, Beloki’s front tyre snatched from under his wheel, leaving Beloki in tears upon the tarmac with a broken pelvis, and Armstrong taking the only available option other than a crash. At breakneck speed he rode through a field, dismounted, jumped over a ditch, and regained the road to finish in a competitive time. There are countless instances of the natural ability and stunning determination that has seen Armstrong spend a decade giving goosebumps to cycling fans and neutrals around the world. He has achieved so much since recovering from cancer in his twenties, when doctors felt that his career, if not his life, was over, that the recovery is now a footnote rather than the main reason for the respect he commands as an athlete. When you know how it feels to train hard for an average speed of 20mph, it becomes incomprehensible to think that professional riders average 25mph through three weeks, two mountain ranges, and 2,500 miles. When we saw what Armstrong was capable of inflicting on his rivals, when we saw the force with which it was done, it was impossible not to be mesmerised.

In a television interview due to air in the US on Sunday night, Armstrong’s former lieutenant, Tyler Hamilton, has confirmed his own history of doping, also saying he saw Armstrong injecting erythropoietin, the hormone known infamously in cycling as EPO. Used to boost the production of red blood cells, the drug improves recovery after major exertion, and has never been far from the doping scandals of cycling’s recent history. Hamilton himself forms part of my complicated relationship with cycling, his own fall from grace beginning with a two-year doping suspension in 2005, after he was found with someone else’s blood in his body. Hamilton spent years pleading innocence, and I was not alone in wanting to believe the claims he made. Three years earlier, at the 2002 Giro d’Italia, Hamilton crashed in the early stages, breaking his shoulder but riding on to finish second overall. Come the end of the race, after three weeks clenching his jaw in pain, Hamilton underwent dental work on the surfaces of eleven teeth that he had ground away. Life can be tough as a fan of professional cycling, where revelations periodically oblige you to accept that moments you believed testament to the human spirit were in fact made possible in a laboratory, and facilitated by the rider’s emotional weakness rather than his human strength.

Accusations against Armstrong are nothing new, and though the Texan commonly points to a record of 500 drug tests all returned negative, his former teammate, Floyd Landis, has dismissed this defence, stating that “500 tests that come back negative are meaningless because the tests don’t work.” Landis himself, disgraced after his 2006 Tour de France victory was annulled for unnaturally high testosterone levels, alleged in 2010 that doping had been rife at Armstrong’s US Postal Service cycling team. In response to Hamilton’s confession, Landis has said, “we just doubled the number of people telling the truth.” With Hamilton having suffered from depression since his downfall, there appears to be a sense of relief on the part of two riders who have over the years been painted as villains rather than sadly typical.

It is the Postal Service connection that has transformed long-standing accusations into a formal case against Armstrong. What was a cycling issue has grown into the prospect that a US public body was sponsoring an outfit involved with illegal drugs, trafficking those drugs, and obscuring the payments through which they were purchased. The federal Foods and Drugs Agency has become involved, and the timing of Hamilton’s confession is the result of his being called before a grand jury to give evidence. His emotions are evident in a letter to family and friends, in which he says of the experience, "I told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I felt a sense of relief I'd never felt before.” A big-money legal and PR campaign, trademarks in Armstrong’s often venomous defence of his name, has already accused Hamilton of courting publicity for a forthcoming book release. Whatever the accuracy of such a charge, it must be said that self-promotion and the truth are not necessarily incompatible, and having long-ago tarnished his reputation, it is hard to imagine Hamilton risking criminal proceedings by lying in a federal investigation.

How all this fits into the history of cycling is a difficult issue, in some ways cheating is a chapter in the legend of the sport. The 1904 Tour winner, Maurice Garin, was disqualified amid accusations that he caught a train through one of the stages. The early history of grand tours is littered with anecdotes of poison slipped into drinks by rival riders, felled trees and tacks being laid across roads by rival supporters. In 1967, English rider Tom Simpson died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux with a performance-enhancing cocktail of amphetamine and alcohol inside him. The spectre of this early-day doping has not stopped Simpson’s dying words of “put me back on the bike” taking their own special place in cycling mythology.

And yet, however intriguing we might find moral collapse in the face of human ambition, systematic doping can never be permitted to become institutionalised in a sport that desires to be taken seriously. I do not fear for the sport of road cycling, sponsors and stars will come and go, but I have faith that pure-spirited people will always be compelled to ride and race bikes together. Our sport has earned a bad reputation that brings with it great shame, but has also generated a determination to be rid of drugs, and a self-reflection, of which to be proud.

What happens next is key to the short-term future of professional cycling. Sadistic though it might be, if Armstrong is finally found guilty, the completeness with which his image, myth and brand is destroyed will be directly proportionate to the good of cycling. The whole affair teaches us the perils associated with the taking of heroes. We must experience greatness ourselves, the highest beauty of the bicycle is that it allows us to do so, with our own legs, and in our own lives.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Elderly man gunned-down at mountain home, body dumped in ocean.

The death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan has prompted a range of reactions from across the political world. UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, congratulated those responsible for Bin Laden’s killing, saying he was relieved to hear that the infamous upstart was finally dead. A press release from Downing Street declared that Bin Laden’s brand of international terrorism had seriously undermined the role of central governments in making a mess of people’s lives and striking fear into the hearts of decent, ordinary folk. The statement reads,

“Whilst recognising the cost-effective value of terrorism as a means of destroying lives and nations, it must be recognised that governments alone have been given the mandate to perform this task, in an orderly fashion, and within the ever-changing context of the law.”

Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, issued his own statement, praising the value of Bin Laden’s tireless work in politics. Welcoming news of the death, Blair stated that it must nevertheless be appreciated that the man, with his gigantic beard and wild eyes, had provided an excellent means of distracting the population from all of the harm performed by governments during the past ten years…

“Without Osama it would have been far harder to underwrite a trillion pounds of bad debt in the banking sector, privatise higher-education, and continue the process of making Britain into a measly, little tax haven. We must thank him for his commitment and quickly go about finding a successor.”

It is this question to which the world now turns, and with The Guardian having dubbed Bin Laden, “the planet’s most wanted man”, the task is no small matter. Early betting has Moammar Gaddafi as the favourite to become a short-term stand-in, though advisor’s to Nick Clegg have not ruled-out the possibility of a bid from the Deputy Prime Minister. A clamour of ambitious Al-Qaeda lieutenants have argued against a break with tradition and believe that the title should remain in Wahabi hands.

There is, however, a growing belief in the efficiency-savings to be had from outsourcing the role of “planet’s most wanted man” to a different planet. Speaking via a satellite link-up with the Death Star, Darth Vader said he felt it regrettable that his own services to evil had been overlooked by giving Bin Laden such a title in the first place. A spokeswoman from Mordor communicated a message on behalf of Sauron, lord of darkness, though the words are hard to distinguish against a background of inferno-like roaring thought to be an enormous, burning eye.

As far as responsibility for the death is concerned, a joint-statement from Buckingham Palace and the Metropolitan Police has denied involvement, amid rumours that the killing had been “brought-forward” so as to prevent possible disruption to the royal honeymoon of Prince William and the arch social-climber, Kate Middleton. Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Paul Stephenson, also moved to play-down speculation that Bin Laden had been shot in the mistaken belief that he was a Brazilian electrician.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Ai Wei Wei and anti-dandruff shampoo

The artistically discerning international community remains concerned about the plight of Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, detained by the Chinese authorities when attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong last week. Ai Weiwei is best-known for his work in the Tate's Unilever Series, and currently has a hundred million imitation sunflower seeds, made from porcelain, strewn across the floor of the Tate Modern on London's South Bank.

The Tate are said to be, "dismayed by developments that again threaten Weiwei's right to speak freely as an artist", and the gallery recently illuminated "Release Ai Weiwei" on the side of the building, overlooking the river Thames.

Back inside the gallery, protesters today entered Unilever's 'Sunflower Seeds' exhibit, distributing the names of incarcerated dissidents who have not had the good fortune of being made into household names whose welfare is worth troubling over.

Meanwhile, don't expect to hear much out of the Tate's corporate partners at Unilever on the subject. A 2008 report, entitled "outpacing the market" talks of Unilever's aim for a sustainable 20% growth in China. As far as social problems go, the corporation's research found nothing more profound than the fact that 70% of Chinese require a shampoo to address dandruff concerns, and that Guang Dong province represents China's largest shower gel market.

As for the Tate's other corporate partners, the Swiss bank UBS represents the largest foreign banking presence in China, aiming to double its revenue over the coming years, and BP remains "deeply committed to growing its business in China". None of which interfered with Tate's ability to associate its "iconic brand " with these, and any other corporate sponsors prepared to stump up the necessary cash.

The result is 9% economic growth to bankroll a repressive Chinese state, and corporate responsibility substituted for a logo on a prestigious gallery wall. It already seems to have been accepted that art loses none of its soul through association with big business, and the only surprise is the Tate's sudden discovery of a moral compass, which we can only imagine will quieten down again next time a sponsorship opportunity comes knocking.

Anyway, enough out of me, just as the old saying goes, words speak louder than actions.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The forest sell-off revisited... for openDemocracy

I brushed-up my blog post about the privatisation of England's remaining public forests. I made it a little more scholarly, expounded some ideas with more detail, and submitted it to the website openDemocracy. They're perhaps a little more avowedly leftist than I am, with a few populist streaks thrown-in.

That said, they are also home to some really good journalism and independent thinking, and so I'm happy to say that they've published the article, and it can now be found in their ourKingdom section.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Japanese tsunami stops Libyan revolution

A few weeks ago, Libyan rebels were portrayed as being on the cusp of ousting the tyrant, Muammar Gaddafi. With the western world having since gone Libya-gaga, rebel forces have now been portrayed as pegged-back into their Benghazi stronghold, and the portrayed prospect of a new regime appears to be deadening in the water.

All of which seems like an awfully inclement situation for the British government, who had hoped to sell military equipment to a new regime, the French government, who had hoped to find a new regime in Africa that might be encouraged to speak French and bolster France's long-dwindling portfolio of empire, and the US government, slowly coming-round to the idea of a Libyan no-fly zone, the implementation of which would require bombing Libyan airforce installations that could be rebuilt at a later date by Bechtel and Halliburton. Elsewhere, the passionate freedom fighters at the Arab League have denounced Gaddafi as an enemy of his people, and simultaneously sent Saudi Arabian forces to fight against Bahrainian people engaged in their own display of political agitation.

Meanwhile, out of the desert and into the western world, the liberal throng has continued recalibrating their conceptions of Arab states, updating the previous black-box understanding of politically neutral (plus camels) to politically angry (no camels after all) and repressed. With everybody so bored by online news pages that can't be updated frequently enough, and Facebook pages less fun than they used to be, the population at large has become excited about events in Libya, interpreting the present rush of blood as a concern that is deep-seated within our collective value systems.

Down in Westminster, the coalition government of David Cameron have also got pretty hot-under-the-collar about the injustices of the Gaddafi regime. After immediately mooting ideas to arm the opposition, Cameron and his foreign secretary, William Hague, are now throwing their weight behind the no-fly zone, and indeed seem to be doing everything in their power to agitate on behalf of a rebel movement that nobody knows anything about. Not that such is especially surprising, a mock-up of freedom in Libya is a better interest for whimsical liberals back home than his own government (yawn!), the effective privatisation of higher education (borring!), and coalition reluctance to pass the Bribery Act or regulate the fictions of the banking industry (enough!). Indeed, Britain's political left is perhaps only about another nine months from aspiring for no better than a Labour government (but they were so much better!) as the pinnacle of progressive politics. In such a context, political engagement becomes much easier when it involves only nominal support of a foreign man defending a town with a name you don't have to remember, and then voting for Ed Milliband four years down the line.

All of which is now old news anyway. Though derided at the time, Colonel Gadaffi has made-good on rambling promises to deliver an apocalypse should his overthrow be sought. After briefly removing himself from the media spotlight with an earthquake against Christchurch, Gadaffi finished the job on March 11, summoning a second earthquake off the north-eastern coast of Japan, and with a force of impact measuring an enormous 8.9 on the Richter scale. The ensuing tsunami has devastated lives and property all along the Japanese coast, with media retailers refusing to rule-out an eventual death toll in excess of 10,000 people, and journalists keeping their fingers crossed that the damaged Fukushima nuclear facility might yet go the way of Chernobyl and cause countless more miseries besides. All of which leaves perhaps another fortnight before events draw to their obvious conclusion ...

'Muammar who?'

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Selling a forest

The UK government has this week performed a widely-publicised U-turn in plans to sell the 18% of Britain's forests that are not already privately owned. The decision came after a somewhat unexpected backlash in which over half a million people petitioned against the privatisation, with funds being donated to pay for opinion polls and adverts in national media. The movement focussed on fears that privatisation would lead to forests being exploited for the cultivation of wood-based biofuels, resort developments, and also to the neglect of visitor centres, footpaths and other facilities that allow the public to actually access forests.

More telling, however, seems to be the romantic and symbolic attachment that people have given to the remaining publicly-owned woodland, the right-wing Daily Telegraph have called our forests a "precious asset" that are too sacred to leave to the free market (unlike almost anything else in life), and a letter signed by politicians, fashion designers, chefs, the editor of men's magazine, GQ, and the archbishop of Canterbury approached the matter with;

"We who love, use and share the English forests believe that such a sale would be misguided and shortsighted. Only 18% of English woodland remains under state protection for the benefit of the public. It is our national heritage. We are an island nation yet more people escape to the forest than to the seaside. We have relied on them since time immemorial, yet we are only a heartbeat in their history."

All of which is very nice, and whilst I approve unreservedly, I think that the whole affair raises some interesting curiosities. Firstly, the sense of a threat to our national entitlements as a people has obviously been raised more acutely in the instance of forest privatisation than in the instances of our access to higher education or public libraries. Secondly, given that we are talking about preserving less than one-fifth of our forests as publicly owned, and celebrating so enthusiastically the "people power" that has ensured they will remain so for the time being, evident is the extent to which we have already become beggars for the crumbs of our own table.

What intrigues me most of all, however, is the symbolic dialogue that has been raised, specifically the notion that the forest is actually ours, naturally and inviolably so, and not to be sold into private hands. Whereas it's easy to think of any number of business concerns that might be thought to morally belong to the people of the nation, the most obvious comparison would seem to be the ownership of land itself, with or without a significant number of trees upon it.

Which is, essentially, the almost entirely ignored concept that is central to domestic social-politics. You have to wonder whether the archbishop of Canterbury would feel so spiritually generous in his regard for who has moral claim upon 120,000 rural acres that are owned by the Church of England, or the £19million that the church has made from selling hundred-year leases on central London parking spaces. Elsewhere, Oxford University (est. circa 12th century) reported combined assets of £1.6 billion in 2004, including £55million-worth of residential and commercial property in Oxford. Cambridge University (est. 13th century) owns much of its host city, and in 2009 spent £24million in adding a stake in the Millennium Dome/O2 Arena to its property portfolio. Most galling of all is perhaps the 300 acres (most) of London's Mayfair and Belgravia that 'belongs' to the Grosvenor Estate/Duke of Westminster, along with commercial properties and other rural holdings in Britain and abroad. The central London estate is the backbone of the Grosvenor Group, and the current Duke of Westminster is Britain's third richest man, with an estimated value of nearly £7billion. The inappropriate and outdated absurdity of our social economy being built on such structures is nicely illustrated in the fact that the Grosvenor Estate dates back to 1677, when Sir Thomas Grosvenor married Mary Davies and inherited the lands of the latter. Mary Davies, at the time of the marriage, was 12 years old, and so the third-biggest fortune in Britain can be traced back to what would, in modern thinking, constitute child abuse.

Anyway, enough of the history, back into the future and the real world, where scum like us have to measure the land beneath our feet in square metres. The average new dwelling in Britain totals at just 76 square metres, the Netherlands manages 115 square metres in spite of having an extra 150 people per square kilometre of population density. The notoriously squashed Japanese still manage to afford an average 92 square metres.

Needless to say that a land tax could do an awful lot to redress these injustices, premised on the fact that, just as with the forests, the land ought really to be seen as a common asset of the people of a nation. Whereas it takes a stretch of imagination to see what right a government has to take money earned by endeavour or innovation, it isn't so inconceivable to suggest that land is the one thing a state can lay legitimate claim to. Of course, you'll get an awful lot of people calling you a communist for suggesting such a thing, although not the arch-free market governments of Singapore or Hong Kong where, in the case of the latter, 40% of state revenue is generated through land tax. Needless to say that it's a lot simpler to collect and a lot harder to avoid than other taxes, and it implicitly removes the burden of taxation from the dispossessed.

All in all, it's a highly capitalistic tax, in the sense that it mitigates against the likes of the Duke of Westminster and a host of buy-to-let scoundrels making money out of nothing but the fact that they have money to start with. It would also be a disincentive to a bunch of petroleum-rich parasites buying-up the ground beneath our feet and the buildings above our heads, in fact, by removing people from a bondage to property, the dispossessed would be better-placed to realise their potential, and those with capital would have to use it in a more enterprising fashion than simply buying a roof and then charging the earth for someone to live beneath it.

So... that's what capitalism would actually look like, what we have is a sort of socialism for the rich, a feudal society with wi-fi.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Throwing Ideas... with Stephen Fry and Hosni Mubarak

Britain's jack-of-all-intellectual-trades, Stephen Fry, was this week presented with an honorary doctorate from the University of Sussex, receiving his fourth such accolade amidst fierce mutual congratulation. As Fry praised the Sussex establishment that he "couldn't be prouder" to have been made a part of, the Sussex establishment duly fell about itself in rapture at their proximity to Fry.

With the ceremonial shenanigans now over, both parties return to their normal business, which Fry described, in the case of Sussex, to be "showing us how the world could be." True to this mandate, Sussex maintain a policy of winding-down research in political economy, linguistics, and a highly-regarded chemistry department, and have instead started focussing their energies towards courses called 'international business studies'. The university also presses ahead with policies to reduce its student support services, whilst building houses all over the village of Falmer, in order to let them to undergraduates at inflated prices.

Fry, meanwhile, returns to his work of reading other people's stories for audiobooks, writing about his love of the iphone, and posting his every second thought on Twitter. When not busy with such pastimes and part-time social do-gooding, Fry lends his voice to banks, insurance companies, multinational breweries, telephone companies and numerous other business interests prepared to pay for it.

All of which, of course, goes without saying in a world of corporate endorsements and the need for institutions of higher education to balance their books.

However, what caught my attention was one sentence from Fry's graduation speech, in which he urged that, "we can change the world not by throwing stones but by throwing ideas."

This entertained me on three levels. The first being the fact that Sussex University and Stephen Fry seem to have entered into some sort of shared amnesia, one that mistakes warm sentiments about reason and learning for a belief that they are bettering the world, and not actually partaking in some of its most socially negligent pastimes.

It also entertained me for the fact that Stephen Fry, as a homosexual and avowed atheist, would not be such a respected member of society were it not that many before him were of a mind to try and change society's regressive tendencies. Indeed, stones have often been thrown to show that people actually believed in their ideas as more than just word formations.

Finally, it entertained me in its similarity to the words of embattled Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, in his televised address this week. With approximately one hundred protesters having been killed during demonstrations against the de-facto dictator of thirty years, Mubarak declared that,

"It is not by setting fire and by attacking private and public property that we achieve the aspirations of Egypt and its sons, but they will be achieved through dialogue, awareness and effort."

All of which is just heart-warming from a man who rules his country under emergency law, has arrested, outlawed and disappeared his political opposition, confiscating their assets and subjecting them to strict censorship. Of particular interest to Fry, a vocal proponent of gay activism, will be Mubarak's systematic persecution of homosexuals, a political strategy designed to appease Islamic opponents to his rule.

With the sons of Egypt still on the streets and throwing stones and other articles in demands for a fairer society, along with Stephen Fry and Hosni Mubarak, I urge them to get back inside, obey their curfews, and start "throwing ideas" at their most reasonable and dialogue-loving despot, who will certainly bow before progressive reasoning if only we can throw enough ideas at him.

Or perhaps there is a grey area on Fry's stone/idea-throwing continuum. Perhaps nations with lots of sand, Arabic and poverty are expected to throw stones, whereas nations with iphones, zebra crossings, and frappuccinos have reached a pinnacle at which now all that remains to be thrown are ideas.

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