Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Drive to Work Day 2012

Today was London's first Drive To Work Day, what the organisers called an opportunity to "enjoy the freedom of London streets empty of pesky cyclers and walkers." The results were fairly predictable, although not too different from what anyone who travels frequently in central London might expect. Lots of cars moving very slowly. Even without cyclists leaving their bikes at home and public transporters leaving Oyster cards in wallets, hundreds of thousands of motorists were out in force to prove the satirical point.
By chance Drive to Work Day was also the release of the UK Census data, where amongst many car and public transport gems was the fact that 42% of Londoners now survive happily with neither a car nor van. This fact is struggling to filter upwards, under Mayor Boris Johnson the price of bus travel has risen faster than the congestion charge, a bizarre decision to incentivise personal car use over public transport. At central government level, the freeze in fuel duty is evidence of similar priorities.
Closer to the ground, business and local government seem to be better attuned to a changing world. The Borough of Camden have just announced a trialled closure to through traffic on streets that serve Covent Garden, with the aim to improve conditions for residents, retailers and shoppers. Private sector interests are hoping to remove the metal "bus wall" that dominates Oxford Street, Britain's main shopping destination. The notion of Peak Oil has quietly been joined by the arrival of Peak Car, and developed nations are showing a definite trend of cars left at home. It was long ago that General Motors started making more money from financing arrangements than selling cars outright, and this year they turned to MTV's owners, Viacom, in the hope of making cars cool for a generation who hasn't grown up under their parents' infatuation with the motorcar. Smartphones, 3D films, and Nintendo Wii have made the combustion engine appear more than a little dated.
Of course there are also the human costs associated with car culture, London last week saw the death of its fourteenth person on a bicycle, and pedestrian deaths went up by 33 per cent in 2011. These statistics seem to have done little to alarm either Transport for London, the Mayor's Office, or the public at large, which presents the uncomfortable truth that tragedy is calculated as value of human life versus the extent to which motor traffic has been normalised in our collective conscience. Over in the US, Chicago has started to figure this out and take action, they recently adopted the Scandinavian approach of making zero fatalities the central principle in transport planning. Any other walk of life and this might be a bit of a no-brainer, somehow the dehumanised world of urban transport - where people are defined not as people but by their mode of transport (cyclists, pedestrians, drivers) - has developed not only an aversion to common sense, but also a pretty strong immunity to the emotions of death.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Generation Forsaken - A new media opportunity

And so George Osborne told the Tory Party conference of his plans to cut housing benefit for the under 25s... just think of the happy families, the bonding experiences for graduate children unable to find jobs and parents worrying about theirs. Last week I started reading an article and made it through three lines before reaching the words ‘unpaid internship’. That was when I stopped reading the article, and I hope it’s not only me who’s fed up of reading about how severely I’ve been screwed as a young person in Britain.

Six months ago I was listening to the author Anna Minton speaking about the Olympics at a café in Hackney. When the time for questions came around, a member of the crowd from the Occupy movement asked what she would actually be doing to protest the Olympics, and having just summarised the retrospectively added Olympics chapter from her book Ground Control, Minton sort of shrugged and said researching and writing was more “what she did.” I don’t want to criticise Anna Minton, she writes and researches brilliantly on the under reported subject of private control of public space. At the same time, for the broader issue of dissent… the Occupy protester had a point.

 For all the high human costs, the suffering, anxiety, frustration and sense of doom, the economic thrashing being dished out to Generation Rent has created one new industry out of the need for people to write about it. This isn’t surprising, it is after all infuriatingly unfair (and therefore good media) that people should have to do high quality work, without pay, before they have any chance of landing themselves a real job that will even then probably be low paid and not very secure. We don’t expect pensions, we didn’t get half the benefits of the post-World War II welfare state, we pay the buy-to-let mortgages of those who did but hope is not lost because the Comment is Free desk needs somebody to tell them about the torturous experience of having to live at home with their parents after university. Somebody a few years younger has the opportunity to write about how the education maintenance allowance helped them and how much harder life will be without it. Someone else gets to write about how £9,000 tuition fees will scupper their plans of going to university. The Higher Education Statistics Agency reckons that 2010-11 saw an intake of some 12,500 students of media studies or journalism, helping to create a body of approximately 50,000 students in the field of mass communication and documentation. The figures suggest the supply of young journalists and their hardship stories is likely to increase even as demand shrinks. A handful will get moments of success when their experience or opinions are called upon, and based on an ability to articulate our sorry state of affairs a smaller number will make it onto the bottom rung of the journalistic ladder. Most will be left high and dry when the media markets decide that people have developed unfairness fatigue and that we need a new social injustice juggernaut.

Conspicuous in all this is that we’re a generation raised on a fetish for documenting events rather than creating them. Whether our social lives on Facebook or microthoughts on Twitter, we’re obsessed with telling people how we’re feeling rather than actually doing much about it. Too proud for protest, too private for the streets, a generation of intellects beg the media to make something notable of their grievances rather than taking to politics to redress them. There’s something of an End of History hangover in it all, the ill effects of growing up in a neoliberal zenith so empty of alternatives that people have been left incapable of envisaging change. If post World War II gave us Baby Boomers then we must be Generation Forsaken, or the Timorous Twenty-Somethings… any piece of alliteration that summarises people lamenting their problems without the chutzpah to do much about them.

At the heart of the issue is a generation who sees itself without a stake in our politics, we live in our parents’ society and under their ground rules just as we might live in their houses and under their roof. Young people have no stake in our society because in reality we’re living someone else’s society, a generation that was born into something and has at no point had to partake in reordering it. We have no Tahrir or Syntagma Square moments of our own, the best mobilisation of dissent in our own Parliament Square was the Sri Lankan Tamil community making better use of our democracy than we trouble to ourselves. As far as progress is concerned, and it’s always good to include a little hope, the most positive developments are perhaps gains made by the campaign to lower the voting age to 16. The idea seems to have made inroads into the Labour party, would increase the power of young people in society, and would help instill politics in minds whilst they are still in their formative years. It’s a step in the right direction, but the solutions to the problem need to be framed, and even forced, from outside parliament rather than from within it. Osborne’s plan for housing benefits is evidence that it’s no good waiting around for a government to sort out the mess we’ve inherited, and nor should demands be limited to a housing benefit by which government helps us pay the landlords of a society we can't afford to live in.

Of course I sympathise with the victims of these unfairnesses. From high rents to non-existent jobs I’m part of the generation, but nobody gets anywhere feeling sorry for themselves. There’s an irony that I’ll submit these words into the same market place I’m condemning, I’ll pitch it as the unfairness of no more commissions to write about unfairness, but perhaps that can help draw a line under this little cottage industry. We’ve been had… screwed… it’s now more important to start doing something about these injustices than to only go on talking about them.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Mitt Romney and Big Bird

Having almost recovered from suggesting that 47% of American voters were scroungers, Mitt Romney didn’t waste time retaining the nasty mantle in America’s presidential election campaign. In a performance that most felt won him the first election debate with Barack Obama, Romney said that he would cut public funding to PBS, the broadcaster of Sesame Street. Romney made clear that Sesame Street was exactly what he had in mind by saying, “I love Big Bird… But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

America has rushed to Big Bird’s defence. Obama joked that it was time somebody got tough on Big Bird, a FiredBigBird Twitter account quickly attracted 30,000 followers, and parents and children have uploaded videos of support to YouTube. Romney’s plans to rein-in Big Bird go back almost a year, when he told an audience that “Big Bird is going to have advertisements”, and he taps into a general misconception amongst Americans that PBS claims huge quantities of government money. In 2011 an opinion poll found 40 per cent of Americans believed PBS accounted for between 1 and 5 per cent of government spending. The actual figure is 0.0001 per cent, between 1 and 5 per cent of US government spending would give public broadcasting about $300bn to play with.

The Sesame Street argument reveals three things about Romney’s Republicans. First of all, on the idea of advertising products to children, we see that nothing is sacred in the Republican understanding of free markets. Second of all is a disinterest in educational programming. Lastly is a failure to appreciate the positive spillovers from government investment.  Romney’s Republicans see a capitalist economy as one in which people start businesses and get rich, with the government ever trying to stand in their way. Sesame Street is a little closer to the reality. The programme started in 1968 with funding from the Carnegie foundation, the US government and the Ford Foundation among others. It helped develop Jim Henson’s Muppets into the commercially successful brand that sold for $680million in 2000, before being bought by Disney in 2004. Sesame Street is broadcast in more than a hundred countries to more than a hundred million viewers, including a 2011 debut in Afghanistan, where the show brings a softer version of US foreign policy. In going after Sesame Street we can see that Romney is not only failing to recognise an American institution when he sees one, he’s also attacking a successful business.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Ed Miliband, One Nation... and who's this Disraeli chap?

It's easier to think highly of people after they're dead. It's even easier to think highly of them if they died almost a century and a half ago and have a statue in Parliament Square. Early on in yesterday's conference speech, Ed Miliband name dropped Benjamin Disraeli and his 'One Nation' pitch to the Tory party of the 1870s. By the time he finished up an hour later the Labour leader had said "One Nation" another forty-five times. Of Disraeli, Miliband started out with "he was a Tory, but don't let that put you off", indeed there are plenty of reasons to dislike Disraeli aside from his party.

Given that Miliband's speech took aim at Britain's bankers it's ironic that Disraeli had both made and lost a fortune playing the markets with shares in mining companies. Given the high value Miliband afforded to tolerance it's ironic that Disraeli was such a reactionary figure when it came to the rights of Catholics, especially in Ireland. When Disraeli took the office of Prime Minister for the first of his two ministries, he famously announced that he had "climbed to the top of the greasy pole", and yet Disraeli was a politician who did more than most to grease the pole in the first place. He fell out with Sir Robert Peel when the Prime Minister overlooked him in forming a government in 1841, and in retribution Disraeli became an influential opponent of the Corn Law Repeal that Peel forced through the Tory government against the interests of the landed aristocracy and in favour of the working poor. What would today be known as an arch flip-flopper, Disraeli's great rival, William Gladstone, became consumed with an almost religious zeal to do away with the "Beaconsfieldism" (Disraeli was made Earl of Beaconsfield by Queen Victoria) by which Disraeli governed without any consistent principles. Away from home and Disraeli was something of a war monger, his close relationship with Queen Victoria was useful given his frequent unpopularity with politicians and public alike, and as such he was an imperialist by nature. He recommended that Victoria should make herself Empress of India, and took Britain into Afghanistan to expand her empire against the interests of Russia. Towards this same aim he was unmoved by Ottoman atrocities in the Balkans, and looked rather to the need for Ottoman allegiance against Tsar Alexander II.

During his time in office Disraeli did conduct reforms to the good of the working poor, permitting a degree of union action and legislating for improvements to public health and housing. In 1867 his Tory government beat the Liberals in the race to extend voting rights to almost a million workers and thereby harness the impetus of the Reform movement to Tory advantage. For the most part Disraeli was a very human politician, that is to say that he was self-preserving, opportunistic and frequently petty. He was not the pantomime villain that many of his contemporaries made of him, often with anti-semitic allusions to his Jewish background, but neither is there much reason beyond his notoriety to celebrate him a hundred and forty years on.

The nod that Disraeli got yesterday in Manchester makes me fear for the Labour Party conference of the year 2152, when delegates hear of the visionary David Cameron and his plan for a 'Big Society'. At lunch the conference delegates will unplug themselves from the conference and plug themselves into the restaurant table without having to leave their seats. Some of them will teleport home whilst others take the everyman option and climb into their hovercar. The politics won't have changed much, which is why the same lines will work just as well, and Cameron will bring with him nothing more than the approval of a stock character from history.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Miliband and Cameron - Don't follow leaders

If you haven't already heard that the country prefers Labour to Tories, but also feel safer with Cameron than Miliband, then you soon will. It's the latest thing to talk about, and people keep talking about it despite the fact that Britain tends to vote for parties rather than prime ministers. One Labour writer recently hypothesised that the media, and in particular the right wing press, would soon turn on Miliband. The idea runs that until now they've given him an easy time of things, and when Cameron rejects Leveson demands for newspaper regulation, the Mail and the Telegraph will ratchet up the rhetoric in gratitude. If this is true, and it doesn't seem like a ludicrous suggestion, then what we will need is a mass outbreak of common sense.

I doubt many of my readers are also regular readers of the Telegraph or the Mail, so I may just be preaching to the choir, but sometimes that's useful too. I'd also like to stress that I'm no Labour supporter... nothing annoys me more than the idea that without the current Tory government everything would be fine, and nothing could be worse than the idea that just voting Labour at the next election will allow everyone to sit back and watch everything get better. Whoever you vote for... the government gets in, and all politicians are the same. I sympathise with both statements, but some politicians are worse than others, and some governments are worse than others. I suppose I'm writing this because I know intelligent people who have spoken grudgingly well of Cameron the statesman, and it's this that gives him a lead in the perception of leadership. So let me clarify a few things.

Cameron is a disaster, a trusting fool, and an all round policy idiot. He kept faith with both Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks beyond the point at which they were obviously going to contaminate his own public standing, indicating that he has a chronic lack of judgment. His 'Calm down, dear' remark to Angela Eagle, and others like them, show a man not only out of touch with the majority of the country who aren't millionaires, but a man also out of touch with the half of the country who are not men, and the large majority of women who don't potter around country homes in aprons, wondering what to cook for dinner. The man's politics reveal a complete poverty of ideas, which leaves him relying on ideologies of neoliberalism fused with a Charles Dickens novel, this despite the fact that neoliberal policies created the country he calls 'broken', and despite the fact that Charles Dickens was writing two hundred years ago. Cameron can think no further than cutting taxes for the rich and cutting welfare for the poor because he was raised in a conservative family, in conservative academic institutions and has emerged from this life experience without an original thought in his head. But we all knew this.

What Cameron seems to have going for him, however, is also the very reason that he's disliked. He's posh. Really damn posh. Distant cousin of the queen, Etonian, Oxford, son of Panmure Gordon stockbroker, millionaire a handful of times over. His entire life schooling has placed him above the social and economic levels at which most people live, and as a result he knows exactly how to look down on commoners. He can appear unflappable because he doesn't care, he was elected Prime Minister and that's it. Cameron doesn't have to do anything other than look statesmanly because he's already made his parents proud and he's so far removed from the rest of the population that he will never really know if he's made their lives better or worse anyway. This is why Cameron looks like a good Prime Minister, and it's also why he's a terrible one. It doesn't matter if Ed Miliband looks boring, if he's got a square head or a dull manner, we shouldn't want anything more than good politics from our politicians, and when sensible people put emphasis on superficial characteristics we are contributing to the very thing that makes our politics so cheap, nasty and bad. If politicians think that all they have to do is seem assured to earn the electorate's favour then there's no reason to do anything but. In the case of Cameron this is an even more crucial point, because to approve of a politician of such little ability and substance, but only because of the way he carries himself, strengthens the poisonous idea that in Britain there is a class of people born to rule and a class of people who need to be ruled over.

If you want a hero, if you want someone with charisma and an other worldly allure then go and read a book or watch Braveheart or something, look to rock and roll or a novelist, maybe even go and do that heroic and charismatic thing you've always been meaning to do yourself. As far as politics is concerned, vote for someone who cares enough to fluff a sentence now and then, not a politician so far up his own arse, and so full of class-induced self-righteousness that he can reel off entire speeches of nothingness without a glitch. What I'm saying is that if you want a politician to make the country marginally better, in the real world... don't worry if he might seem like a bit of a dork... dorks tend to do less harm than sociopaths and their divine, narcissistic missions.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Why this was not about a film trailer

For a time last year westerners fell in love with Al-Jazeera. Armchair revolutionaries watched as archetypal despots were overthrown by archetypal freedom fighters, you might say that liberals felt a pang of vicarious empowerment that our domestic politics tends to deny us. It made for good viewing, in no small part because of the simplicity of the story we were given. After the revolutions were over, we changed channel.

The Muslim world, however, did not, and both before and since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Muslims around the middle east were watching civilians killed by the dozen in drone attacks on Pakistan, they were watching Palestinian communities driven into poverty and mocked by Israeli security forces for the privilege. We changed the channel, and remained largely unconcerned by the middle east until fanatics blew up an ambassador. It needs to be stated forcefully that this is not about a ten minute piece of film propaganda, created by Christian fundamentalists in America. “Innocence of Muslims” is absolutely, categorically the tip of the iceberg. The idea that Muslims around the world are becoming violent over a film propagates some Victorian idea of a hysterical and semi-civilised breed of robed madmen; it’s the religious equivalent of David Cameron’s "Calm down,  dear!" reaction to Angela Eagle. Muslims around the world are incensed for legitimate reasons, and when their anger boils over in ugly fashion, they will watch Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stand bravely failing to understand how people can be so hateful, and how America remains committed to freedom. Clinton and Obama felt, no doubt, that they were speaking truthfully and with integrity; that this is so is only testament to the way attacks against Islamic nations have become normalised in our thinking, and meanwhile we’ll see at least one more drone attack on Pakistan before the end of the week.

But it’s not only the middle east where Muslims are made to suffer, and just because westerners are terrifyingly unaware of as much, we shouldn’t assume Muslims are too. When was the last time you read an article about the Muslim population of the Philippines being bombed by the Christian state in Manila? Did you ever hear the one about 78 Thai Muslims suffocated in transportation by the Buddhist police detaining them? Occasionally, and only because of violent eruptions, we hear of the Muslim population of Uyghur, in north west China, being driven towards cultural extermination by the renaming of settlements, denial of job opportunities, and torture of activists. Each one of these brutal responses to legitimate political grievances have been welcomed under the umbrella of ‘anti-terror’ since September 11th 2001; just because the west chooses to remain clueless about this wider picture, we'd be wrong to assume that in an age of global media the Muslim community is similarly in the dark. Muslims do not have some peculiar complex of victimhood… Muslims are victims, and you can demonstrate as much without even needing to mention the monstrosities of justice that have taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

In the aftermath of the recent violence, we will have Muslims depicted as highly strung and over sensitive, just as was done in the wake of the Mohammad cartoons. It’s true that healthy relations include both ridicule and criticism; we make fun of Germans for being uptight and efficient, we make fun of Brits for being inhibited, we make fun of Americans for being brash.  But we don’t drop bombs on them. If you want to make fun of people you really shouldn’t also wage a near constant and only vaguely justified war against them, and if you want to make such a war against them you shouldn’t make fun of them. Harmless jokes (not that ‘Innocence of Muslims’ was anything like it) might be acceptable amongst those with normal, healthy relations, but in a context of the endless slurs and violence that the west dispatch or permit against Muslims, you can understand how it might feel like the final straw. It is evidence of just how desensitised we are to the effects of drone attacks and air strikes that people will talk of the exercise of free speech, no matter how offensive, as no just incitement to killing people. We do genuinely seem to have forgotten that our foreign policies are killing Muslims on a daily basis, the uncomfortable truth is we just don’t care.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

A cultural boycott. In America.

A Republican Party party wouldn’t be much fun. At the convention in Tampa, Florida, the GOP wheeled in a couple of brass bands, which doubled as a means of providing music whilst getting some American minorities inside a blindingly white convention hall. Up in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Democrats have lost the voice of hip-hop superstar, Jay-Z, since 2008, but still retain the services of Dave Grohl, who closed out the convention with his Foofighters. Grohl is a little less famous than Jay-Z, but with hip-hop drowning in consumerism and misogyny, you might say the music of the former Nirvana drummer is better suited anyway.

At about the same time, Michael Stipe prohibited the Fox network using REM’s ‘Losing my Religion’ in its convention coverage. In a statement through Warner-Tamerlane Music the singer said, “We have little or no respect for their puff adder brand of reportage. Our music does not belong there.”

The Republican candidate for vice president, Paul Ryan, is an anti-women’s rights Christian fundamentalist, a rabid free market dogmatist, and has lied about everything from factory closures to his personal best time for a marathon. Confusingly, he has also said that Rage Against the Machine are his favourite band, despite admitting apparently not listening to the lyrics (worrying in a politician). Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist, and a vocal backer of the Occupy movement, wrote a Rolling Stone editorial on the subject. “Charles Manson loved The Beatles but didn’t understand them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen and doesn’t understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his favourite band, Rage Against the Machine.”

Bruce Springsteen refuses to acknowledge communications from Chris Christie, the arch conservative, union-busting and budget slashing governor in his home state of New Jersey. The Boss won’t be any stranger to being misunderstood, ever since Ronald Reagan used Born in the USA as a campaign song, Springsteen has unwittingly provided US nationalists with a keynote anthem. Ryan’s disinterest in lyrics is obviously not unique amongst conservatives; Born in the USA was an anti-war song about Vietnam, complete with a refrain of, “Sent me off to a foreign land/ To go and kill the yellow man.”

Watching the GOP convention it’s hard not to feel that fanatics have hijacked the Republican Party. Their politics is an embarrassment to Eisenhower, to Roosevelt, to Lincoln, and to the Republicans who battled for worker’s rights and unions in what was a better day for politics. Fanatics need anthems, only in their stubborn single-mindedness they lack the respect for the world’s uncertainty, and the questioning, critical spirit that underpins all good art and music. As a result, their music is made by those who oppose their ideologies. The party conventions in America demonstrated the depth of the rift between the parties in US politics... if they’re ever to be brought back together it will require people to be delicate with their criticisms. I have some sympathy for the Tea Party Republican base, people who feel let down by their country, and who will not be won-round by liberals who wish only to cast them aside as white, racist bumpkins. It’s hard to afford their leaders the same compassion, and it seems that musicians are not about to.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The way we grow food isn't working

I recently wrote a piece for openDemocracy about food production, and the way it won't continue to work in the way it currently works. The result of this will be poor people in Africa starving to death, and poor people in the western world spending money they don't have on food.

It's a really important piece of writing because it's on a subject that not enough people are talking about, and on a subject that people have the power to change through the food they buy.

Most importantly... you shouldn't buy flowers from supermarkets.

For the rest of the article, read on.

And start talking about it in the pub and around the dinner table... because that's how changes start.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Return - Britain

At the airport they'll wrap my bicycle in plastic. Round and round they'll spin it until it's all shut away and suffocating inside, waiting to be mistreated by baggage handlers on both sides of Europe. My month of pedalling will be undone in just three hours and forty minutes. London will be waiting for me, ready to give me what for and remind me of my other life.

I wrote a book the other year, my story of breaking a world record for a circumnavigation by bicycle. The manuscript is sitting on the desks of publishers all around the city. Most of them, I'm flattered to say, agree with the agents who wanted to represent me... they say that it's an excellent piece of writing. Excellent writing. But. We're not sure how to market it. Nobody knows which shelf to put it on in Waterstones. When I think about it on my bicycle I find myself pedalling faster, my heart beat following. So I try not to think about it. Publishers are like high street banks... they arrive late on the scene and then buy too much. Agents across London are tearing hair out over piles of chick-lit they can't shift for love nor money... all of it conceived of and signed for in a boom... worthless in the bust. As with markets and politicians, publishing waits on the next big thing... only the world is not what it was. In the past a book could not be sold for less than a publisher-set price, council libraries would buy a copy of every book put out by a major publisher, an indirect subsidy to the arts that also kept bookshelves well stocked. Bookshelves. Are not what they were. Council libraries. Are not what they were. I return to that world of safe bets, where our writing, artforms and creativity are presided over by retail trends. The market now does the work of state censors and offices for public morals. In a sense it's democratic... and yet, subjectivity aside, what is popular is not always good, just as what is good is not always popular.

I expected some of what I found during the two thousand and something miles I've just ridden... other things took me by surprise. I never expected Croats and Italians to talk so much of an angrily hopeless younger generation, just as it was the younger Greeks I spoke to who were most venomous about what is being done to their country. It's not only Britain's youth that bristles against the future being carved out for us, a generation told that in modern society all the carrots are gone and only a big stick remains. I didn't expect to hear people in Livorno and Geneva describe their cities as 'livable', two former UK residents who shudder at the high living costs and low quality of life they left behind. In a word like 'livable' you see the brain drain by which the UK economy hemorrhages talent because we mistake 'mean' for 'efficient'. Public holidays, living wages and tenancy rights did not stop Germany developing an infinitely better balanced economy than our own... some might even say these things helped. Most of all I didn't expect to arrive in Istanbul and hear of plans to construct tunnels beneath the central area of Taksim Square, creating a pedestrian space above ground. The idea is a crazy one, and nor does it address the root of the problem, but if a city as obsessed with the car as Istanbul has realised that the twenty-first century requires urban spaces that are about people rather than traffic... this really does leave London as Europe's last city to grasp the nettle. From afar I hear of Boris Johnson's plans to create cycle lanes above the roads, evidence of a mayor who really will stop at nothing to avoid making the roads themselves more civilised. Cycle lanes in the sky will do little to make life safer for people on foot in London... 77 pedestrians were killed by London's drivers last year. In the plan, and as ever, you find a mayor more at home in gimmickry than politics.

Along my road I wasn't surprised to find antipathy towards the EU. Croatians talk of the family dairies and cheese makers who survived civil wars and will now go bust because they can't afford new equipment required by EU standardisation. Greeks talk of seaworthy fishing fleets that had to be scuttled, with new vessels bought to satisfy similar criteria. When you see the corner into which the EU tries to force Greece, with only a political and banking class set to benefit, it becomes hard to argue that the EU is not a sinister imposition upon everyday Europeans. That's not entirely how I feel, it's certainly not what I want to believe. The thing is that cycling across Europe gives a sense of freedom and community in perfect harmony with the ideals of an institution like the EU, but whereas my journey has everything in common with the EU's notion of togetherness, the EU seems to have nothing in common with my journey as evidence that life is all about the everyday people of a country. In the EU I see the ideal of community used as the garnish-come-distraction for little more than the flawed fairytale of trickle-down economics, with shit falling from great heights on the people that I encounter as I ride. I'd be more convinced by the EU's intentions if it made Gini coefficients, or some other measure of wealth inequality, as central to accession as low capital controls and the rights of foreigners to buy land.

Everywhere I went I expected to find markets... to find finance, and if there's any place where such things are most at home then it's the society to which I'll return. Marx argued that the revolution should've happened in Britain and not Russia, that we were the most advanced along the path of capitalism. It's hard not to agree, although I won't hold my breath for the revolution part. London may be the world's self-styled financial capital, but more worrying is the enthusiasm for markets that persists in political dialogue, even as markets go about running amok amongst society. It's not only Britain's rail commuters being squeezed until the pips squeak... bankrupted shops have their windows bricked up and are turned into flats, bankrupted pubs are carved into flats, unprincipled landlords use plasterboard with the soundproofing properties of a rice cake to squeeze two tiny rooms out of one small room. Meanwhile the government sets targets for 20% of housing to be affordable, and even though their definitions of 'affordable' are questionable, more mind-boggling still is why the government would have a target to make 80% of houses un-affordable. I know an independent florist turning his basement into a flat so that he can rent it out to survive. I know an independent bike shop that stayed in business by sectioning off the old workshop and installing a toilet so as to rent the space as an artist's studio. Both are places where the owners help old ladies across the road, will do a bicycle delivery for the local cafe, lend tools to teenagers, or simply be the sort of business around which a community is formed.

If that sounds a lot like society being taken to the cleaners then don't worry... because the market will find the answers. The market already found the answers. The market has the answers if you fancy working in Domino's Pizza for a minimum wage that the politicians who set it would never get out of bed for. And don't worry about feeling the pinch when the rent is due either... because the market provided a payday loans company to give you an advance, and a pawnbroker who'll buy anything of value in the meantime. If you'd like to improve your lot in life then you'll have no difficulty finding a betting agency any more, have a flutter on the hope that maybe it didn't have to be that way, drown your sorrows in a bucket of fried chicken once it transpires that actually it did. They're the answers the market's got waiting for us... my hot tip for the coming years is to invest in plasters and bandages... that's right, home first aid kits are going to go through the roof once all the kids have had their playing fields sold to developers and there's nothing but concrete to fall on. Meanwhile the government gives us a crisis to fear, the threat that things could get worse... well... too late, because this is worse... and after it there will come another worse and another worse until people start demanding something better. Positive examples abound throughout (drumrollThe David Cameron Big Society... but the problem is the government doesn't want to model itself on people-led initiatives, it wants to stick gold stars on their chests and give them a pat on the head as it carries on business as usual.

I really don't think this is about party politics, you can blame the red team just as much as the blue team, but I find it sad that today's Conservatives, the party most comfortable with flag-waving, think so little of our country they can't imagine business or employees wanting to settle in Britain for any reason other than low tax and carefree regulation. Eighteen months ago we were subjected to a fairly routine bluff and told that Barclays bank might leave its London headquarters for New York. The New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, welcomed the idea, but said there'd be no special incentives. His words, to be precise, "I've always thought it doesn't make sense to buy business." It doesn't. Our government has fundamentally misunderstood its role, positioning itself as some sort of broker between business and people... when the idea is they're supposed to be the people. Wherever I've travelled, the things people seem to respect most about the UK tend to be free entry to museums, the NHS, and the BBC... in short, the things that are intended to have a human value beyond some grubby, little price tag. I don't dispute there are inefficiencies within each institution, but the correct way to deal with these issues is to audit the services with a view to the public good, not sell them off to be asset-stripped by a private sector that will only impose its own inefficiencies anyway. Bonuses for failure and bankers getting half-drunk at lunchtime are two examples that spring quickly to mind. The clash between public and private sectors is much more about dogma than rationality, and the excesses of markets are no better than the excesses of states.

Perhaps that doesn't sound like an optimistic starting point... but cycling across a continent has a tendency to make you feel positive about things. In this world there are better ideas and there are worse ideas, and there's nothing like the mentality of a foregone conclusion for letting the wrong ideas win out over the right ones. This is positive... this will end positive, because since I started riding South Korea has decided to tax derivatives, the negative publicity of starving people has seen Commerzbank join other German banks in a moratorium on funds trading agricultural commodities... and the French... god bless 'em... have not only resolved in Paris to pedestrianise urban motorways along the banks of the Seine, but also initiated their financial transaction tax. It's only 0.2%, but its main value is as a precedent against financial institutions profiting when endless speculations create chaos for the 7 billion people on this planet who simply need money to go about their daily lives.

But even without all that, this is positive... because with only my legs I just crossed Europe in a month. I'm still amazed that when I cycled around the world I reached Shanghai in 83 days. 83 days might not exactly be a short amount of time... but Shanghai is the other side of the world. I could never adequately express just how amazing it feels to make your way across maps by bicycle... you see the world as it truly is, whether that's the beauty of descending a summit or the grim reality of a stray dog gnawing off the hind quarters of a roadkill cat. Out there you clear out the smoke and mirrors, the bread and circus is left behind and you remember what humans are supposed to live for... you are reminded that people everywhere are good, and that the everyday people of the world want nothing more than the same simple securities and pleasures. Most of all... powering yourself across a continent or a country like that... you're reminded that things are possible, eminently possible... they're just waiting for us to make them happen.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

No more crossroads - Turkey

About 200 miles separate the Greek border from Istanbul. I knew before I reached them that I planned to ride quickly and get back to some of the comforts of a settled life. In Greece and Croatia I would regularly talk EU with those I met... it’s topical, comes up in conversation. I knew before I got to Turkey that I wouldn’t mention it once, and neither would anyone else. Perhaps when I lived here four years ago it might’ve been different, but even then approval for accession was faltering... nowadays the matter has become completely irrelevant. On too many occasions the EU exposed the reality of its supposed inclusivity. We had Sarkozy openly opposing Turkish accession, Austrian politicians at least have the clumsy decency to be honest and admit they see the EU as a Christian affair, Germany finds it easier to welcome Turks as workers than as citizens. A year ago I asked a Turkish friend if she thought Turkey still wanted to join the EU. She laughed... “I think that soon the EU will ask to join Turkey.” Turkey is not at a crossroads. This may come as a disappointment to cliche enthusiasts all over the world. People love the “east meets west”... Istanbul as a city straddling two continents... Europe and Asia. All that hokum is the lifeblood of tourism here, but the reality is that Istanbul is no more a meeting point of cultures than Bradford, Leicester, or the Edgware Road... and as a city it’s much less diverse than London or Paris. Turkish politics is charged, it always is... but it doesn’t involve the EU, not anymore.

For some time Turkish horizons have been broadening, looking as much to the south and east as to the west. The Turkish economy is dominated by a handful of enormous holding companies enjoying significant control of media outlets, not to mention relationships with government that are far too close. From this domestic stronghold Turkish construction in particular has spread outwards, $20bn worth of Turkish projects were interrupted when Libya went into civil war, everything from airports to roads and ice rinks are being constructed by Turkish firms in central Asia. The economic push has its cultural counterpart, a Turkic brand of Islam is taught by Turkish-backed schools known as the Gülen Movement, the schools are not without controversy, but nonetheless have seen a Turkic vision of Islam being taken to nations such as Pakistan. In 2009 I was cycling through Kazakhstan, where oligarchs who emerged from a falling Soviet Union have holidays in the south of Turkey and send their children to be educated in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey exports soap operas all over the Caucasus, now and then I would be with families in the middle of the Kazakh steppe, amazed to find teenagers in particular glued to images from Ortaköy and the Bosphorus. In the Caucasus, Istanbul has developed the same sort of prestige a European might lend to New York.

How does all that convert to the streets of Istanbul? Outside, the world media depicts Turkey as a rapidly developing economy... a story of boom every bit as simplified as the Greek story of bust. The Economist, who should really write children's stories rather than news articles about Turkey, have spoken of the country as Europe's China, and yet domestically people still talk more about high unemployment and inflation. In the Galata district, south of Taksim, I talk to a graduate student of Bilgi University. She tells me the once renowned state institution has been sold to the American Laureate Education Inc, one of the world's biggest retailers for private education. She tells the same story as others I know at private schools in poor countries... 'most students don't want to learn... always tapping at iphones... but because their parents pay such high fees it's almost impossible for teachers to fail them.' Nobody told the UK's coalition government how education works when you make money its central component.

Looking for optimism, we talk instead about the quality of Turkish fruit and vegetables. In response I hear of the urban migration underway in Turkey, with villages sucked dry to provide workers for overcrowded cities. I listen to the story of the Turkish banana... "always grew really well in southern Turkey... but now Turkey has started importing more bananas from South America. People say they're better quality, which isn't true... and part of the reason for the change is the economy here is doing well, and there's employment for farmers in the textile factories..." she places her hands on the table... "the problem is when the currency goes down, or the textile factories move somewhere with cheaper labour... then there's nobody left growing food, and we'll have no money to buy any."

If that's the outlook for rural poor, urban middle classes look to be having a better time of things. In the affluent district of Levent I cycle by the newest of the city's shopping centres, still as busy as when I first saw it two years ago, and me still just as amazed that you can see Harvey Nichols in Istanbul. Inside you find Wagamama waiting to be joined by Carluccio's, and outside a security guard tells you there is a policy of no bicycles on the forecourt... the whole arrangement a nice tribute to the fact that Turks do privatised control of public space as well as any Briton, and Muslims know how to worship consumer gods as ardently as any Christian. I wonder if I'm looking at the future of humanity... with core economies holding cultural and economic control of the entire world, whilst the third world - be it Africa gobbled up by the Chinese or the Caucasus by Turks - is left as scraps for the second world, and middle classes everywhere are given Harvey Nichols and katsu curry to make it through seven disempowered decades on the planet. In each of these countries - from Britain to Kazakhstan - the world's poor sink below the radar, drop out the bottom.

I meet Turkish friends who seem little more positive about the future of their society. People are sad about the rise of gated communities, the inequality, exclusion and ugly portrayal of affluence this belies. Turks are amongst the world's top users of Facebook, and my friends lament that this is the medium through which the middle classes now live. They reproach themselves... "of course I could go to a protest... I care... I care so much... but I don't want to be hit with a policeman's gun." I tell them that although for the most part less brutal, kettling protesters has the same effect on activism in Britain.

The hesitations might be the same, but the protests are different. The Turkish protest movement is levelled almost exclusively against an Islamic government. Since the 2002 election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey's secular and republican middle classes have felt increasingly threatened. There is no disputing that AKP were democratically elected, the concern is that democracy has allowed Islam retake a central place in Turkish society, but that once that position has been consolidated, Islam will never extend democracy the same courtesy. The fears seem justified, and even though The Economist maintain a strict code whereby it's impossible to read the name AKP without the prefix 'moderately Islamist'... both the New York Times and The Guardian have begun to talk about the erosion of democracy, with Turkey now the world leader for journalist arrests, and the government having acquired the power to appoint judges in the constitutional court. The electoral strength of AKP helped Turkey move away from a dark history when democratic governments were intimidated and toppled by military coups. The concern now is that the AKP are weakening that same democratic process in the name of their own power.

You have to wonder what took the outside world so long to start cottoning on. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once expressed regret at having played football in his youth because shorts were immodest. In a recent blunder, a low ranking minister said that a woman without a headscarf is like a house without curtains, either for sale or rent... and yet such comments have leaked from the party ever since their 2002 election. The party's keynote Islamic policy, lifting the ban on headscarves in universities and other state buildings, has been used by foreign media to represent the party line, when in reality it's more like the tip of an iceberg. By far the most troubling factor, which has again gone unnoticed, is that the headscarf ban was lifted more in the name of Islam than in the name of freedom and equality of expression. It'll be interesting to see how The Economist reconciles its 'moderately Islamist' with a proposed outlawing of abortions .

Worse is what the tone of religious rhetoric has done to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially women. Secular friends talk of being looked at with disdain by covered women in cafes where everyone once would have sat unconcerned by theology. In retort I've heard it said that women in full, black niqabs look like cockroaches... I'm assured it's a joke, but joke or otherwise it shows the low ebb to which relations have fallen. Most distressing is the incidence of domestic violence, specifically honour killings of a woman or teenage girl who resists her family's marital decisions. Although statistics are haphazard, there is general agreement that the practise has increased during the ten years of AKP power, particularly amongst Kurdish communities. Ironically enough, the last decade has also seen an improvement in legislation to protect Turkish women... apparently words on paper don't go very far when the government helps to create a culture in which the greatest abuses and misuses of Islam are committed.

Across the last four years I've spent the best part of eighteen months living in Turkey. I can still wax lyrical about the flavour of the tomatoes and peaches, the grilled meat and fish, the richness of the language and the fact that Turkish has a word for the reflection of moonlight on water. I love the respect for the universe that is implicit to the culture here, a spirituality thanks in no small part to the holism of Sufi Islam. I still love the way that Turkey remains broadly uninfected by the west's evil, media-infused culture of fear... the way strangers will talk to one another, that a man will pick up someone else's child and ruffle his hair without any thought that such an innocent act could ever be the precursor to something sinister. On a crowded Istanbul bus, when someone gets on at the middle door, they sometimes pass their akbil, the equivalent of their oyster card, through the crowd towards the front of the bus. Complete with the owner's keys, the akbil will make its way through the strangers to the front of the bus, where a stranger swipes it and sends it back through the strangers to the original owner. Turkey will always be a special place to me, but any idiot can wave a flag... if you really care about a country, it's no less important to criticise it.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Bailing out - Greece

The air in Greece is not thick with anything. There is nothing etched on the faces here. You cannot feel the tension on the streets... at least not the streets of Edessa, the northern town I reach soon after crossing from Macedonia. Greece is suffering a stark hyperbole crisis, sensationalism here has run into diminishing returns. If we were to tax the financial media's use of words like 'toxic' and 'brink'... southern Europe would soon be back in the black. Greece is a European country being stuffed by the markets. Simple. It's not doomsday here... just a country being stuffed by the markets.

Greece is not in turmoil. This is especially relevant to stock markets, which Flaubert once described as nothing more than "barometers of public opinion". Irrespective of any fundamentals, objective or otherwise, the projection of chaos that has become associated with Greece is partly responsible for the fact that the Greek government has to pay yields of up to 30% to borrow money. I ride into Thessaloniki, up the inside of stagnant traffic jams. When whole cities can still afford to sit in cars, burning petrol at €1.80 a litre... there's obviously a lot of crisis left to run.

Everyday Greeks seem similarly dismissive of Crisis! A woman in a bakery smiles... "What did you expect?... are we all supposed to be crying?" A man sits outside a cafe... "Pro-pa-gan-da!... Bullshit!" His friend grabs a stool... belly like a water melon, stubble, black sunglasses, curly hair cut short at the sides. He spreads his legs, pulls his shorts up like a Greek John Goodman straight out of The Big Lebowski. He plants a finger on a hairy thigh... "You see a crisis here?!... we have sun, sea, farms, petroleum... There is a crisis... a bankingcrisis... and they want us to pay for it." He goes on. "The euro was a catastrophe for Greece..." he points into his palm... "€1 was 340 drachma... coffee was 100 drachma before... then it was €1." Italians will say exactly the same. Prices doubled overnight.

Meanwhile Europe is drip-fed a diet of ignorance. Reuters will whisper about 'Grexit' and a 'drachmageddon' that will cost hundreds of billions of euros if Greece fall out of the eurozone. Either lazy journalism or market omerta prevents the making of the obvious point that bailouts to keep Greece in the euro have already cost - erm - hundreds of billions of euros, failed to work, and will ultimately see Greece sell their national assets - from islands to major ports - at far below their true value. It's a little confusing that the structure of a Greek restructure is a country that has sold the very things by which it could once have made money... perhaps that's just the formula for the 'mature economy' the Greeks are to become. A mature economy is one that innovates new ways in which it can be stuffed by the markets.

Talking to people on the streets, what is most obvious is that everyday Greeks quite clearly do not want to be bailed out, just as Angela Merkel tries to appease the everyday Germans who do not want to bail them out. If everyday Europeans, both bailers and bailees, do not want to do any bailing... it seems the only ones in favour of a bailout must be the French and German banks that will otherwise be unable to absorb the losses of their own failed investments. Let's be clear... we do not bail out governments or taxpayers... we bail out banks, the primary representatives of capitalism who are not themselves subject to the primary rule of capitalism. Failed businesses are supposed to go bust.

And yet there's more to it than that, and northern Europeans would do well to resist judgements of lazy Greeks getting what they deserve. Greece is a foothold for the idea of market preeminence over societies, applauding its application in the Mediterranean will help bring about the day when we are all made Greek. The 1929 Wall Street Crash and Great Depression saw Roosevelt famously tell the American people, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself"... in the twenty-first century our governments encourage us to shit ourselves and hope that the markets will clear up the mess. Keep hoping. For five years Europeans have been given a constant crisis narrative, one accompanied by a paucity of any real information. Italians have low household debt, a banking system thought to be solvent, and high government debt. Spain has a largely insolvent banking system and low government debt. Public sector spending is higher in France than in Italy, and yet traditionally stable France has become a more attractive destination for investment since Crisis! gathered momentum. Britain saw a financial sector debt crisis transformed into a public sector debt crisis, not least because of the costs of supporting the financial sector. Faced with very diverse economies and problems, each different nation has been prescribed the exact same solution. Strip your states... empower the markets. The markets, the markets... always the markets, a remedy proposed by those who stand to benefit from its application... if this were a medical situation we'd be talking about quack doctors and second opinions. Only in a climate of hysteria could such flimsy reasoning have come so far.

It is this climate that has prompted the human suffering that is the overwhelming focus of contemporary media about Greece. A 40% increase in suicides has become the most infamous indicator for as much... and I wonder if perhaps that's just what the markets call the price of a mature economy. Even with recent gains in the suicide rate, it should be noted that the Greeks were starting from a very low suicide base... you're still much more likely to kill yourself as a Frenchman, German or Brit. Racist attacks have also increased significantly, some Greeks have fallen for that all too human failing... when being screwed by a white man who speaks your own language or English... the obvious thing to do is beat up an immigrant. Health and social services are being deprived of resources, so that a recent case drawing nationwide and international attention saw patients in a psychiatric hospital facing food shortages. Modern capitalism will frequently be given credit for the notion that they are responsible for feeding the world. Whether in the form of austerity-hit hospital budgets or high oil prices diverting land to biofuel rather than food... it's less talked about that markets also know just how to starve people.

Heading east for Alexandropoli I see graffiti covering signposts, a handful of which caution drivers to turn on headlights in tunnels, to be aware of landslides. It's noticeable that just the English language portion of the warning has been painted over, so that you can only see it if you're passing slowly on a bicycle. I doubt it will cause the deaths of many foreigners, but the antipathy of some is clear. None of what I'm saying is to claim that all was once well in Greece. There is general consensus that taxes were evaded, corruption problematic and pensions generous. Whatever the truth in that, the solutions on offer will create new problems rather than eradicating old ones. 

As I ride for Turkey I think back to Paris, to the businesswoman who told me the French didn't believe in the crisis and would "bury their heads in the sand." The more I think about it the more I disagree. Swallowing the pill of austerity and putting your faith in ultimate salvation from the markets has been disguised as some sort of dignified resilience. Suck it up and don't squirm. She had it the wrong way round... the only dignified thing left to do is voice the sort of truths that society has long been made embarrassed to declare. The rules of our system are broken... we must take our heads out of the sand in order to say so.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Outside - Croatia

I cycle with the world economy stuck in my head. The total value of global derivatives, an insurance market for things that may or may not come to pass, is twenty times bigger than all global output. About 1% of all the world's shares are owned by Norway's sovereign wealth fund. A two pence coin is made with more than two pence worth of copper. In the early 90s, the Tokyo real estate market was worth five times the world economy. The temperature has been up around forty all down the coast of Croatia, punishing heat, like riding through a hairdrier. I cycle down the last hill of a deserted stretch, into the town of Karlobag. Boats are bobbing at anchor, a quay beside deep water. Take off your shoes and shirt. Jump. And the world economy and that too too solid flesh it melts away into the cool waters of the Adriatic.

Croatia is like an escape within the escape, an EU stopgap. Next year that changes, Croatian accession comes in July 2013, a recent referendum settled any last minute jitters that the Croats might have been having. With the unfortunate arrogance that persists in some western Europeans, one journalist spoke of the referendum as a choice between progress or Croatia as "Balkan quagmire". As I ride south the heat increases and the figs ripen on the trees that line this coast, you can smell pigs roasting on spits, you break from the sun by jumping into the clear, cobalt waters of that ever-present sea. If Croatia is a quagmire... well... then quagmires are all right by me.

I rode here five years ago... it was just as perfect then, the difference now is that idiots like me went back to the UK and shot their mouth off about how beautiful Croatia was. EU or otherwise, Europe has arrived in Croatia. German and Dutch supermarkets have appeared in out-of-town retail complexes, the bank of Split has been absorbed by France's Societe Generale group, each major city has its own wireless network. Western Europeans - from Brits to Italians to Germans and Swiss - are everywhere. There are billboards at the roadsides - "In emergency - dial 112" - written in English. On this coast of road trips there must be a lot of cars, campfires and drinking sessions that go out of control with the words "what number is 999 in Croatia?" I watch tourists take photos of their meals as the plate is set down, like a prayer of grace for the digital age, uploaded to Facebook after they finish eating. A Croatian waiter tells me Croats are reserved people, intolerant of tourists... he jokes that people would only be happy if tourists arrived at the border, handed over €500... and went home.

The attitude to the EU is similarly cool. 65% of Croats voted 'Yes' to membership, but only 40% of people bothered to vote... a clear sign that voter apathy is not only the prevail of affluenza societies in the west. I ask everyone their thoughts... 'no opinion', 'don't care', 'doesn't concern me' . A fifteen year old girl serves me a sandwich at her family's kiosk. She tells me she is "too young for things like that", and assuming it outlives her, will now lead the rest of her life inside the EU. It's a striking contrast that up ahead waits Greece, where frustrated people still just about believe life outside the EU will be worse. Here in Croatia the people are told life inside the EU will be better... and are skeptical. Whatever the circumstances, everyday folk generally tend to doubt that change will be in their best interests. Back in Trieste I met an Italian-Croat who bemoaned that EU membership means his family will have to pay tax on the Croatian home of his deceased grandfather. He was unsure of details, but to me it sounded like the change was more likely caused by the new tax regime of Italy's Mario Monti. His feelings underlined two pertinent EU trends. People are unsure how the EU actually works, but will still blame it for making their lives worse. Croatian nationalists question the wisdom of signing over their autonomy to Brussels, when two decades ago Croats were dying to preserve their independence. Try telling a nationalist that domestic culture is more alive in a euro-toting French boulangerie or Italian cafe than on most pound sterling high streets of clone town Britain.

Not everyone agrees with the nationalists. Elder Croats with keen memories of Yugoslavia and its wars seem to take a pride in being admitted to the European club. Along the borders, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro are a long way from any meaningful chance of accession, and for many Croats there is no difficulty in choosing between association with their neighbours or Europe. Croats are not losing any sleep over which side of 7% Spanish bond yields go... in the Balkans a crisis is not measured in basis points. EU leaders will be relieved that the Croats voted accordingly, Croatian accession will maintain the idea of the EU as a vision of the future worth belonging to, a political project with the longevity to outlast the market's whims. If 4 million people in the Balkans had been accepted to the EU, only to decide that French and Germans had nothing to offer them... as snubs go, it would've been pretty monumental.

The question becomes more complex if you move away from the understanding that the EU equates to progress. At a roadside near the Bosnian border I speak with an economics student from Zagreb, selling watermelons for his holiday. He points to his grandmother's field and slaps a melon... "that is where this comes from, but..." and he drills a finger on his forehead, "Balkans are crazy... we import melons from Greece! We could grow everything here... but instead we import!" For him, the EU means finance given to Croatia to grow food with western corporations who will then profit from exporting the food whilst Croatian taxpayers repay the loans. "Croatia... will be like a field for Europe... just a field."

If global finance offers little hope for Croatia, a barman suggests that at least the difficulties of life under  capitalism are helping everyone get along better. The markets will be the new strongman, holding different ethnicities together instead of a Tito. In my cycle down the coast there is one fifty mile stretch more important to me than the others. I leave the tourist road and head inland towards Benkovac. Five years ago I went that way as a wrong turning, found roadside fields marked throughout with signs warning of landmines. This year I go there out of curiosity, and though you can still see the houses that were peppered with gunfire, I find only one remaining sign post. It's been uprooted, and is rusting in the long grass. The fields have been cleared and ploughed, black vines are twisting from out of the earth, tiny bunches of grapes trickling downwards through the fullest green of leaves shot through with sunlight. I try to avoid sentimentality... and yet... it's really nice to see vines buried in earth that once held land mines.

I leave Croatia across its southern border, riding into a 48 hour stint that will take me to Greece via Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. In informal world politics, the best way to judge relations between two countries are the roads that connect them... nobody improves passage to places nobody wants to go. As I head inland, away from the coast, the road into Montenegro is being rebuilt and resurfaced. Progress has definitely been made in the Balkans... it's a poke in the eye for Clash of Civilisations, a timely reminder for Europeans that to achieve its potential a nation has to start picking the right fights, not revisiting old ones.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The threshold - Italy

I've climbed through the Alps. The world feels different up there... all silent and timeles beneath peaks where snow still shines in the sunlight. I've ridden over the Colombiere, Roselend, up the road to Saint Bernard, summits and passes steeped with the rich history of European cycling, lessons in patience learned on your way up above two thousand metres. After Saint Bernard the road angles down, you see the Valle d'Aosta opening below as gravity takes a hold and starts hauling you down, pulling you faster. Faster. Faster the tarmac tumbles under you, the corkscrew unwinding so that the road invites you to accelerate... pines, abandoned restaurant...to accelerate down into the turns, daring you carry more speed into each new bend, stay later on the brakes so that in the dying metres you're sticking out your chest to try and catch a little more drag, leaning in and out of the bend... upright again as the road goes straight down... crucifix, fountains... everything jumping out from the corners of your eyes, the lands below shining in misty sunlight as the speed gains, pulls water from your eyes, the valley walls opening to let you out after almost an hour of pure descent, gliding down into a summer's morning... in Italy.

Newly downgraded by Moody's to "Baa2". I like to imagine Marcus Aurelius being told by a young buck in a suit that he's been made a "Baa2". The timing of the downgrade couldn't have been more political, a matter of days before an Italian bond auction, one more proof that credit rating agencies are not the objective market observers that their profitability hangs upon. Cycling in Italy the surprise is not so much that the country faces economic difficulties, it's more that the economy ever got so strong to begin with. On the roads I'm passed by groups of old men, a dozen of them in matching lycra and bronze skin, pedaling up towards hills where later I pass them snapping cards down upon a cafe table. The cafes and beaches are full, the most regular signs of commerce are stalls selling peaches at the roadside, the occasional rusting bicycle that rolls by with a crate of courgettes stuck over the back wheel.

And yet Italy still works. Apartment blocks are still being constructed in Genoa, a General Electric plant on an industrial stretch of the Tuscan coast is still constructing platforms for oil and gas extraction, foreign number plates still drive in to spend their tourist euros. As with Centre Parks in the UK, as people start taking their holidays closer to home, recession has been good for domestic tourism. At the same time, there are signs of trouble. In a foccaceria, the woman behind the counter puts my €20 note through a machine, raises her eyebrows and nods that counterfeit notes are definitely a problem. In the hills outside Genoa, a Tunisian man with a fruit stall enthuses that "Italy is beautiful!... to visit. To live and work," he smiles, "as a foreigner... is difficult." In Tuscany I'm assured there are no more prostitutes than before on the road from Pisa to Livorno, but with at least one on every junction, to me it seems more present. Italy's street art is as lively as ever, all the usual encouragement to smash fascistas and capitalistas, to rebel, to remember that the Genovese police killed Carlo Giuliani at the G8 protests of 2001, that they beat up a school full of activists in the same week. All through the north I see "No TAV" daubed on walls, I'm told it's a proposed high speed rail link to Lille in northern France. Italians joke that nobody wants to go to Lille anyway... it's comforting to learn it's not only British politicians who have a soft spot for fast, expensive trains at a time when the economy seems to ask for something more.

As ever I'm confronted with a conflict. Travelling by bicycle, with farmers giving you peaches and refusing your money, lends life a feeling that all is well. At the same time, it's clearly not so simple, because if it were then the police brutality, prostitution and government waste would not be the problems that they are. What I like about life by bicycle is its tendency to prove the fundamental goodness in human society, and the fundamental deception behind the cultures of consumerism and fear all too prominent in our societies. That said, there's clearly work to be done in making societies a bit more reflective of the spirit of life on two wheels. 

Speaking to Italians, people obviously believe the wrong work is being done. The government of Mario Monti is well passed its honeymoon, the early days when a grey haired academic, dubbed 'the professor', took charge of a team of technocrats to give politics some post-Berlusconi respectability. After the former president's charges for sex offences, Monti was parachuted in at the behest of the head of state, the equivalent of our queen choosing a successor to a disgraced prime minister. At the time there were raised eyebrows, but it's as the policies become more unpopular that the government's credibility is being questioned. Just as Britain has found itself beset by an aggressive regime of privatisation that didn't figure in any election manifesto, so too are the Italians scratching their heads at the democratic gulf that seems to have opened. Monti himself seems little happier in the role, and with Berlusconi eyeing a return to office, the new man has already said this will be his only term.

As for the policies, they are dismissed as either insignificant or set to effect the wrong people. The billionaires and mafia are being ignored, people anticipate that hard-saving Italians will be left to pick up someone else's bill. Italians demonstrate the remarkable human ability to detect unfairness whenever they are a victim of it. A cafe owner complains, in words that vault a fairly high language barrier, that in today's Italy only the Church has any money. The new government has started to address as much, and the church must now pay taxes on profit-making ventures such as its many commercial properties. Too little, too late summarises the reception, and middle-class Italians seem more concerned by the repeal of a Berlusconi tax break on second home ownership. Unaffordable housing and adults stuck at home with parents make those who have saved for country retreats no more sympathetic. Cash is proving a further bone of contention, and the outlawing of cash transactions above €1000 has been an unwelcome start in clamping down on commonplace evasion of VAT. The verdict varies from this as encroaching government, to discrimination against an old population without plastic in wallets or PINs in heads, and repeat questions about why the government isn't going after Italy's largest firms instead. Market liberals will be little happier. There is talk of opening the pharmacy business to competition and stopping old practices of price protection. Taxi licenses are to be reassessed, with the revocation of licenses that have been sold-on by previous holders. Cabbies in Rome have already begun to make their displeasure known, in the capital the license is enough to secure a mortgage approval from a bank, but even then... nobody believes chemists and cabbies are at the heart of the problem.

It's become a piece of eurozone trivia - Italian debts are bigger than Greek, Irish, Portuguese and Spanish combined. Greek perseverance within the euro is key to keeping the heat off Italy and remaining contenders for the unenviable position as Europe's sickest man. Debt-GDP ratios have also become part of the popularisation of debt culture, Italy has a debt 120% of an annual output... a more terrifying way of saying that Italian debt could be cleared with fifteen months output. Government debt stands at about $2.2 trillion... Italian GDP is about $2 trillion. None of this is to say Italy has no problems, only that if there's a calm or an apocalyptic way of saying something, the mood of our times is to go for apocalypse. Few commentators mention that some of this debt will not mature for half a century, that innovations and inventions will have made the economy a very different place by the time they do. For all the stereotypes put about in the name of selling olive oil and pesto, the truth is Italy is a significant industrial nation. Everything from helicopters to torpedos and dentist chairs to power tools are manufactured here, not to mention the obvious production of automobiles, gourmet foods and designer labels. Italy is not a southern European backwater that may or may not have been admitted too early to the euro, it's an original member of the G7. The 1970s proved that governments do go bankrupt, but bankrupt governments are not in the interests of the markets. Without markets society is in trouble, but without societies that trade, produce and consume... the markets cannot even exist. You can find evidence of as much in gains for the dollar and yen across the last eighteen months, this in spite of Japanese debt rates of 200%, and the US senate constantly having to lift the debt ceiling to permit more borrowing. In uncertain times, markets have no safer bets than large, functioning economies... just don't expect them to shout about it.

So is Italy doing fine? In terms of gelato for a touring cyclist... definitely. In terms of a robust economy... perhaps not. My road is about to take me out of the EU, into Croatia, and via a city that underlines the foremost Italian problem. In Trieste the local newspaper is covering a McKinsey report that has found the city to be Europe's oldest, with 27% of the population older than 65. Italy's declining birth rates and generous pensions have created a somewhat top-heavy pyramid scheme. Monti's government has already raised retirment ages, prompting predictable resentment in those who have seen the finish shift just as they were sticking out their chests to cross the line. At the younger end of society, the extension of working lives exacerbates an already acute lack of jobs. Italians stress that national debt is a government problem, families here balance their books, and household debt is all but non-existent. Of course the complaint is relevant, but if generous pensions and state empoloyment has bankrolled this nation of savers, it's ironic that Italians can simulatenously be found to complain that the state is too big.

As with all the countries I will cycle through, the Italians need to make some big decisions in the coming years. The root of the problem, however, is how best to balance our sovereign monetary systems with unstoppable changes in populations. Whatever decisions are made, the whisperings of the free market will not provide the best advice... I didn't ask an insurer if cycling to Istanbul would require travel insurance.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Left turns - France

France is exactly the same. Completely different. With the Tour de France just over for another year, you can sense the national respect for cycling in the distance with which cars overtake, the patience with which they wait for safe passing opportunities. In France, a citizen remains a citizen even on a bicycle, you have to unlearn the mentality of road vermin that becomes engrained in London. I buy my pastries in the boulangerie, walk next door and eat them at a table with the coffee I buy from the cafe. It still makes me happy each time a cafe owner assures me that of course this arrangement is fine. You see it in the big, blue elephant that advertises the national car wash chain, in the tractor magazines on sale in the newsagent, and in the shabby, lived-in countryside a million miles from Britain's increasingly gentrified villages, where house prices skyrocket only to lie empty when the new owners are not on holiday. As I cycle slowly up a hill, a white van pulls alongside with the window winding down. In London this tends to be a bad omen, in France the driver starts to shout 'allez... allez... allez'... pumping his fist in the air like a directeur sportif with his rider going under the flamme rouge. As always, France seems to have a little more of its innocence intact.

I know how all this sounds. Orwell always made fun of the British middle classes for their ability to feel patriotic about almost anywhere but Britain. He has a point. Ten days ago I was cycling through Suffolk, rolling my eyes at the Union Jacks fluttering above lawns. I knew then that in not long I'd be riding through France, completely at ease with the tricolor in every town. And yet I'm comfortable with my preference; republics and equality strike a chord with me that empires and kingdoms never will... the British establishment will have to meet me in the middle if it wants a little more of my patriotism. It goes without saying that France is far from perfect... an 18% showing for Marianne Le Pen underlines an uglier side of the traditional, in the seaside town of Dieppe teenagers ride scooters with loud exhausts that piss off everyone but the rider. The outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in his last ditch election effort to court far-right votes showed that France - like anywhere - knows exactly how to betray its founding ideals. When you're only pedalling through, however, all this has a habit of feeling like someone else's problem.

It is not surprising that the election of Francois Hollande still dominates the political landscape - the new president remains an unknown entity. From Britain's arm's length you could sense as much in our own election coverage; before the election we had Hollande the unassuming 'pizza boy' who insisted on riding his scooter to the office, promised to take a pay-cut, and who had a journalist partner dubbed 'Twittweiler'. It was easy to create the personality, but now the invented personality of likable underdog needs elaboration. It was depressing that the first step in painting a picture of the man was not political scrutiny, but a look at Hollande's messy separation from former presidential candidate and leading socialist, Segolene Royal. The fractures that this might create within the French left have made for pretty irresistible political gossip.

The French seem little more certain about him than the British. A woman in a suit sits down to the next table outside a Paris cafe, just off the metro from La Defense, Paris' finance district. She shrugs as she tells me "the French think the crisis will never come... they will do the ostrich and bury their heads." In expensive clothes and a well-paid career she seems to overlook the resentment of people being told that the party is over, when the majority feel they were never invited to begin with. As ever, it's telling to note her apparent remedy to the crisis - cuts and 'streamlined' job losses - are the very things we are told to fear the crisis will bring. In a bar in Pigalle, a young graduate tells me he's happy Hollande won, "he'll be good for France's social divide." But. And he confesses. "I voted for Sarkozy... he's the man to save us from the crisis."

Sarkozy certainly didn't fail to bolster this image on his way out of office. The symbolic but noble "in this together" move whereby Hollande and his cabinet took 33% pay cuts was met with accusations that the increased size of his new cabinet would eat-up any savings. The big government boogeyman remains an effective weapon in the free market arsenal. Hollande maintains that deficit reduction is a priority, but even his supporters question the wisdom in his kept promise to restore a retirement age of 60 after Sarkozy had done the hard, unpopular and dirty work of getting it down from 62.

Perhaps it's this issue that sits at the heart of Hollande's election victory. Of course there is no such as a free lunch, but should twenty-first century lives really be so nasty, brutish and short? If deficits are the most important thing in public policy then there is a case to be made for 62... 65 ... 70. If there is more to life than that - and cycling through France certainly makes it feel like there should be - then 60 means something more than two years, it's like a tiny kick against the End of History, and leftists far from France will be hoping this election is some sort of Reaganomics watershed. This week's meeting with Labour leader Ed Milliband, and talk of a European summit of the centre left, will do nothing to dampen these hopes. It's no shock that the markets have been proportionately unimpressed, dipping as trading resumed the day after Hollande's victory. It's a measure of our Stockholm syndrome that despite general consensus that the unfettered powers of financial markets are ruining our societies, we still hang on those same markets for signs of their approval. You can't escape slavery without upsetting a slave master, and the French deserve credit for refusing to return a brash, unpopular president who threatened financial brimstone without him. Hollande must now hold true to the ideals for which he was elected, and his public must resist the very human tendency whereby we make politicians scapegoats when they cannot be panaceas.

Over the course of a week I ride south, away from the rains of a summer no better than Britain's, though the French don't seem to share our certainty that we have been cursed by the weather. The road starts to kick upwards as I pedal out of society for a while, first into the Jura, with the Alps waiting on the horizon and Italy just beyond. In the picturesque town of Cluny a woman summarises her take on French politics from outside the laundrette. She tells me that she got to a comfortable life from humble beginnings, and with a smile and gentle uncertainty her words cut to the chase of much debate. "I recognise that you can't just help people all the time, but people need support when they can't help themselves... and for this the state is necessary."

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