Thursday, 21 February 2013

openDemocracy: The price of principles

An article is a formula. Fabricating a good article from words is the same as fabricating a good table from wood, you take your time, you follow rules, it will stand. In order to do this, you start writing with a certain style, ease towards the subject that you mean to broach, something gentle, easy to read, so that before your reader realises it they're interested in your article and might as well carry on reading. This is what I'm doing right now, following a formula. I'm about to stop doing it.

openDemocracy is set to close. openDemocracy is set to close unless they can raise the last £30,000 of a £250,000 needed to clear the foundation's debts. I'm abandoning journalistic protocol and the subtleties of a good article because... well... frankly, this is important, and whilst hijacked oil tankers and horse meat and bankers' bonuses are also important, openDemocracy is more important because it is a media by which we can discuss problems in a way that seeks to address them, rather than merely to create real life cinema or high-brow gossip.

I've contributed around a half dozen articles to openDemocracy in the last two years... I've received £0 in return for my work. Over the years I've been paid to write for magazines and journals, and of all the work I've produced, it's that which appears on openDemocracy that means most to me, I'm most proud of, and is most important to the world. oD does not abandon an issue after the 48 hour window in which newspapers seek to profit from it, oD is committed to ideas that mean something to how we live, rather than only the quick titillation of a headline scandal. oD does not play to the lowest common denominator, and it believes humans are on this world to do more than just buy stuff... it is for these reasons that writers contribute their work for free, and it is for these reasons that oD does not make profit.

If you care about the world you live in, and are not a regular reader of openDemocracy, then start reading. If you want to go on reading openDemocracy, if you have enjoyed the articles I've written for them, then pay a little money for it. Our mainstream media resides in the gutter, it assumes the worst in people, tells them the worst about one another, and operates more as a bullshit carousel than as an integral component in a functioning democracy. You cannot have a high standard of democracy without a high standard of media, and if the mainstream media is to be removed from the gutter, or held to account for its promotion of organised ignorance, we need sources like openDemocracy. As much as anything else, that's the issue here... there is no other source like openDemocracy.

The current funding shortfall is the result of growth, but not growth for only the sake of growth, or growth for the sake of greed. Ten years after its foundation, with readership rising internationally, oD restructured with new sections, campaigns, and editors to manage the new interest and adapt to a changing world. It is evidence of just how oD pre-empts politics and news that growth has been greatest in such politically significant regions as India and north Africa. The organisation's finances have since been returned to a sustainable footing, with expenses balanced against revenues, but the debts of restructuring must be cleared in order for oD to continue. The world is constantly changing, and this crisis is the price of oD's willingness to take bold steps in order to stay relevant. Our media is funded by advertising revenues from supermarkets, banks, oil corporations, automobile manufacturers and purveyors of consumer goods; news intended to challenge a flawed world is intermingled with promotions by companies that will sacrifice all principles and human values in return for profit. Through our consumerism we pay for this to happen, and it does not need saying that the world will become a steadily darker place if the production of news is paid for by corporations. The cost of principled media, free for all to read, is a donation to openDemocracy. The £216,000 of donations raised so far shows how many people believe in this cause, and how strongly they believe in it.

You will not save a child from hunger, you will not take a rough sleeper off the streets, provide a blanket for an elderly person or stop a rainforest being felled. You will be paying for the ideas, and the promotion of the ideas, that can help us all deal with these problems before they become problems. You will be paying for media that is not worn-down by cynicism or distracted by hysterics, openDemocracy is written and edited by people who care deeply about the world, and who still have the courage to believe that world can be made better. You cannot put a price on these ideals, but they have to survive.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Hospices and other lessons from death

An Italian doctor once explained to me that hospices were a particularly British creation, designed to gently illustrate the inevitability of death for those getting closer to the inevitability. Hospices bring with them a new set of norms, helping the transition from what have been our everyday behaviours and thoughts. For our famously stuffy island nation, the Italian thought it a remarkably progressive approach to death. Whether or not this is so, it’s the sort of idea I’d have happily left untested, to have taken his word for it rather than to take a look for myself. This new year I had my first experience of a hospice, when I spent a few days with a relative suffering advanced cancer.

I didn’t have any pre-existing opinions of hospices, only what I’d deduced from their heroic reputation as places where humanity secures moral victories over death. The other side of the experience and I’m still not entirely sure what I think; as with many issues surrounding death, a dominant theme is a general sense of confusion for those left behind. Foremost it is obvious the patient’s peace of mind becomes the primary concern in the healthcare on offer. There is a drinks trolley, so a patient who has spent three years under a strict diet aimed at resisting the spread of cancer can have a gin and tonic again. I know of a woman who spent a year with her husband in a hospice, but for the most part, with hospices the thinking is that the struggle is over and the patient should be able to enjoy the last of their living. Despite the very human intent, however, there is no escaping the fact that hospices are still institutions. There are the endlessly repeating tiny triangles on the floor of a carpeted lobby, the disinfected smell, the corned beef sandwiches and the pneumatic mattress that hisses on the bed beneath you. That a bank can profit from making lives harder, and then sponsor the bed in which you die, seems like a particularly impersonal touch. It’s not hard to see why statistics show people prefer dying in hospices to hospitals, but most of all would like to die at home.

Since the new year, Baader-Meinhof style, hospices seem to be jumping out at me. There are the change boxes on the newsagent counters, chosen charities behind supermarket checkouts, what grabbed my attention most was a headline in a local paper, announcing that hospices had the highest satisfaction rates of any area of the NHS. Looking into the statistics, I find that 20,000 of us will die each year in a hospice, about 4% of all deaths. Although heart and kidney failure present a small minority of cases, almost all these deaths will be the result of cancer. The charity, Help the Hospices, corroborated the newspaper headline for me, they cite research showing 97% satisfaction rates amongst those whose loved-ones have received care in a hospice.

Judging by what I saw in the hospice I visited, I don’t find this surprising. The reception desk was covered in ‘Thank You’ and Christmas cards, I heard the relatives of another patient talking of how they felt the staff had become their new family. I have to agree that the staff were very attentive, they were very nice, they could have done better with my relative’s requests that his soup be bought in a mug rather than a bowl, but it would be a cruel critic that judged them for as much. At the same time, I wasn’t exactly blown away in the way the reputation might lead one to expect; to be honest, the style and standard of service didn’t seem particularly removed from that I’ve experienced and seen elsewhere in the NHS. Hospice staff have the advantage of a less urgent and less expectant working environment, but in saying so I’m not trying to either elevate the staff of the regular NHS or criticise those of the hospice.

It’s the part about expectations that I find most interesting, and the satisfaction statistic actually reinforces what I felt in a previous job delivering flowers in London. Delivering flowers involves a lot of hospitals, probably about one a day on average. Over the course of eighteen months I became familiar with both London’s NHS and private hospitals, in the latter of the two you find the undignified spectre of a cashier, and one indication of the high-end clientele is that signs will sometimes appear in Arabic as well as English. In both types of hospital, however, and overwhelmingly in the case of the NHS, I was aware that I found most of the traits that people generally bemoan the loss of from our daily lives. Of course there are also the posters that warn graphically against abuse of staff, but I never witnessed any abuse, while what I saw regularly were places where people hold doors for one another, where people take the plunge and start the conversation with the stranger in the lift, where people smile – uncertainly, but a smile nevertheless – at the unknown stranger walking the other way down a corridor. As a society we can be so disgustingly impatient where even the most inconsequential seconds and milliseconds are concerned, and in a hospital you will find people waiting two patient hours for a heart scan because they understand the hospital is short staffed. As much as it is the staff that form the atmosphere of hospitals and hospices, it’s the patients and the visitors who make them remarkable places.

None of this is very much like empirical research, and I certainly don’t say it to lessen the dedication of the staff, but even more than their tenderness I’d say something else is at play in our hospices. In hospitals people still have expectations, still have demands, patients might still hold-out on the magical disappearance of their every ailment. To paraphrase the French novelist-physician, Louis-Ferdinand Céline; they want us to make poetry from their every fart, Céline remarked that nobody ever got sick the day before a long weekend. Come the hospice it’s past that, hope fades into reality and the dark truth is that death is good for people, it brings out the best in us all, it’s only a shame it can’t happen more often and a little less painfully. If life constituted our dying at the age of forty but somehow resurrecting to live out the rest of our days conscious of that first death, I’m sure the world would be a better place for it. Hospices in particular benefit from the blessing of diminished expectations, when life becomes little more than continuing to live, and the material worries and rituals we allow to ruin so many years of our lives have all evaporated into the nonsenses they always were.

Inadvertently it’s impossible not to learn from the dying and the sick. Forget yourself, consider someone else’s situation a while and they show you what a miracle your own life is. Whether that miracle is perceived in scientific or religious sense, anyone determined to analyse all shred of beauty out of human existence should hurry up and donate their organs to someone a little more appreciative. In a hospice you see clearly how vulnerable we humans are, you become grateful for what you have, empathetic towards others, and if our society wants for many traits then perhaps we lack these two most of all. The dying give us pangs of mortality guilt, a suffering to show up our own and put it in its rightful place. It’s only right that we work hard to allow our loved ones to die with dignity, but perhaps the most fitting way to honour their memory as a society would be to try as hard to live with it. Generosity of spirit is implicit to human beings, the biggest tragedy is that we wait for death and suffering to bring it out of us.

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Heygate Estate

The Heygate Estate was conceived of under a Labour administration and implemented under a Tory one. The sceptical would still maintain that the final building was an act of sabotage against the principles of social housing. “Ideology ruins lives” should be stamped by the chief medical officer on all party political communications.

The three remaining tenants of the estate are sitting in a meeting room at Southwark’s council offices. Already they have faced remarks that their attendance throughout the four day hearing would be helpful; who knows what the attendance of developer and council lawyers would be were they required to take time off work to pursue the case, whether they would’ve devoted their entire lives to fighting a money-no-object legal onslaught bent on their defeat. If David Cameron ever meant one word of his Big Society, then sometime before Friday’s out he should visit Southwark and check the health of his vision.

I’ve walked through the Heygate Estate from time to time over the past few years. Lost around the Elephant & Castle, I first found it by accident and couldn’t believe it was London; Heygate is barbed wire railings and boarded up windows, drifts of dead leaves, an urban ghost village with wheelbarrows from the communal garden left unemptied, cabbages still growing eerily where they were planted by humans who have long since gone. Of the many articles of apt graffiti on its walls, one has run out of spray paint before it could finish the word Governm-. Dystopic films have had scenes shot amongst the concrete of the estate, a real life social collapse with which to help the audience in visualising a fictitious one. It is not development that the tenants are resisting so much as the terms of that development, as ever we are to be told that an economic crisis caused by property can be put right by property.

Lend Lease are back in town, five years since the Australian developers received their £1bn taxpayer bailout to build the Olympics when they failed to raise the money, as initially promised, on the open market. They swagger with all the dignity of car salesmen, land capitalism, corporate feudalism enacted between private sector and council. One suit stands to champion Lend Lease’s plans to build the largest park London has seen in seventy years, it’s longest length at 200m. The audience raise that nearby Burgess Park is bigger than 200m, was also built within the last seventy years, and actually – come to think of it – 200m is not very big at all. Wind from sails but not deterred, Lend Lease assure us, nevertheless, that this will still be a great park. In the chilling language of regeneration we hear of radiance, of breaking down barriers, the felling of trees and demolition of garages so that the development is integrated into the streets around it. Tim Tinker, the original Heygate architect is present in the audience, the trees and garages were a barrier he says, a barrier between residents and the endless roaring traffic of the New Kent Road. At least here we have an early indication of precisely where in the new complex the social housing might be found. The initial agreement, with its talk of sustainability and inclusion, is not legally binding, and it is the planning process that will determine the final environmental and social credentials of what comes next. Campaigners say only 71 of nearly 3000 units will be social, Lend Lease boast that 25% will be affordable, but in central London housing that notion is more a source of humour than comfort. The most potent four-letter word in British politics is back in use, mingling with the remarks I see circling through Twitter. Scum.

Price is at the heart of the controversy. In a fifty-fifty profit-sharing venture between Lend Lease and Southwark, these 22 acres of central London real estate have been sold for £50million, just over half the sum that Real Madrid paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo, less than 1 per cent of the annual global television rights to the Premier League. Either Southwark Council have failed in their legal obligation to secure value, or the properties in which they will eventually share profits will be expensive, very expensive. Of the three remaining residents, one says she was offered a replacement flat in nearby Strata Tower, Elephant & Castle’s first skyscraper. A monthly service charge in the hundreds of pounds means she had to turn down the alternative property, and in case anyone needed reminding of the place of the poor in modern London, the tower has a separate lift for its social housing tenants.

A member of the audience makes himself known, a local resident set to lose his sunlight to the fifteen-storey blocks Lend Lease plan to build outside his window. A former soldier… “I fought for this country!”… and what he sees disgusts him. The man is asked to desist, reminded to show respect for procedure. I think of this week’s parliamentary victory for the supporters of equal marriage; the optimist in me says that once our society has stopped troubling itself with marriages and bedrooms we can work together to remove other injustices. The cynic in me says people only care about persecution when they are the one being persecuted.

Everything the campaigners fear is already on show, the consultation bears witness to all that critics say is part and parcel of contemporary urban regeneration. Wenda Fabian is chairing proceedings, her site visit to the Heygate comes complete with bodyguard and earpiece, early testimony to the high-security, surveillance culture of the communities that will come. Visitors to the first day of proceedings had to request that Lend Lease representatives turn to face the members of the audience; the room had been arranged so that Lend Lease sat in the front row, their backs to the community that had come to make their voices heard. Beginning to end this will be faceless. The seats are stratified, someone conscientiously printed “Objectors” on pieces of paper laid out on seating for the party poopers amongst us.

Perhaps this is why the community can’t win… they have met bureaucrats with feeling, and the two will remain incompatible until we learn how to codify human emotion. The three remaining residents valiantly make their case, shunted endlessly between a legal team cross-examined one at a time and refusing to be drawn outside their specific areas of expertise. It is through the spaces in between that morality slips and is lost. We hear that an early report detailed human rights considerations in pages 42-45. Southwark Council paid for advertisements in local papers, gave double the minimum notice required of the compulsory purchase orders that would take away these people’s homes. “This inquiry,” affirms the lawyer, “is consistent with our human rights obligations.” 

Repeatedly the tenants ask what assurances the council have been given that Lend Lease will complete the promised redevelopment of Heygate. What will stop the potential use of land banking tactics seen in nearby Oakmayne Estate or Battersea Power Station, plots to be left derelict and sold when land values have risen to secure a free profit? The terms of the agreement that cover these details have, it would seem, been redacted.

After you leave you need to wash, there is a tingling somewhere between scalp and brain so that it hurts, it hurts to think what is being done in your name. Buried under a mountain of amendments and clarifications and new memorandums and protocol, the poor corpse of justice slowly gives a kick and then dies. In case you’ve forgotten where you are and what it is you belong to, outside Southwark’s offices you emerge into the shadow of the Shard. The privatised space of More London Place rests with City Hall beside you, and here we stand in the inaugural year of Orwell Day, surrounded by monuments to the unheeded warnings of his words, Orwell himself no more than a cultural institution in our End of History. We are postmodern, we are post-politics and we are post-love. In me are no more militant tones, in what will happen at Heygate there is no saving grace. I will continue to care, I will continue to do all that I can, but there is no hope, the only reason to resist is because resistance is the one antidote, the only way to feel any better, to take any comfort at all from this terrifying, this devastating. This powerless.

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