Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Beatles fans who have never come to terms with their break-up like, by way of a parlour game, to indulge in a spot of historical revisionism. What if the Beatles hadn’t split up in 1970? What if they had carried on for another five years? What would their twelfth album have sounded like? Put aside the fact that their early solo albums were by and large essays in exorcising the group they had lost, and I like to think it would have sounded like this:

WAH-WAH (Harrison)
IT DON’T COME EASY (Starr / Harrison)
WHAT IS LIFE (Harrison)
OH WOMAN, OH WHY (McCartney)
GOD (Lennon)

When the Beatles began to break up (or break down) is the subject of considerable debate. Only their first two albums are wholly group efforts, as they reprise their live setlist in the studio while trying to keep a straight face. By the time Beatlemania hit, Lennon was clearly the leader, taking the lion’s share of writing, singing and media duties. When his body became bloated and his mind shrunken from too much LSD, McCartney assumed the mantle of svengali, motivating force and (I use this word reluctantly) genius. The White Album, Abbey Road and Let it Be are solo albums in all but name. People generally agree that the end begun when Brian Epstein died, but McCartney’s and Lennon’s romances with Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono were equally liable (not to mention, after the Filipino leg of their 1966 world tour, a morbid fear that celebrity had dealt them a death wish).

That celebrity, that entrenched feeling that the Beatles are untouchable, complicates the task of listening to their records today. To do so unmediated would be ingenuous, though having Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the head as your companion helps the jaded fan to hear with fresh ears. The only album that I can listen to and thoroughly enjoy, the only one which transcends the notoriety and mythology, is Sgt Pepper. Marcello Carlin suggests that this is because Sgt Pepper is rooted in childhood, the hallmark of English psychedelia. That is true. But Sgt Pepper is not a childlike record. Indeed, now maligned for its widescreen production and overwrought concept, it is still blamed for stripping pop of its innocence, for canonising it, turning it into Art. If this is a return to childhood, it returns with adult eyes – by affirming fantasy and retreating from reality.

Whereas Revolver and Rubber Soul had opened with homages to black American music, Sgt Pepper begins with the nostalgic sound of an English crowd (recorded by George Martin with the Footlights crowd in Cambridge). Having recoiled in terror from live performance, it seems odd that the Beatles should immediately recreate the sound of an audience. But here the audience is manipulated – it laughs and cheers in the right places, it sounds conspicuously grown-up, a throwback to a bygone colonial age.

The Beatles had intended to depict the Liverpool of their childhoods (an idea that had been knocking about since “In my life”), until “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were snapped up for a single release. In the end, Sgt Pepper became a concept album in search of a concept, born from a band desperate to rise above its own constraints. “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities,” said McCartney later, “to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group.” This fake group would introduce a roster of acts: the affable Billy Shears; an LSD trip; three kitchen-sink dramas; a circus performance; a hymn; three short comedies; and a final, atonal, crescendous "orchestral orgasm".

But as the Sergeant’s first act comes on stage, the crowd mysteriously disappears and “With a little help from my friends” is unfurled. Over a Pet Soundsy drum and bass, Lennon and McCartney provide Starr with dreamy harmonies as they ask, “do you believe in a love at first sight?” Starr / Shears replies, all worldly-wise, that he’s certain it happens all the time. This is a wonderfully touching, fragile moment – there is a divine composition to the group (Roger McGuinn described them as having “combined minds”), as if (to quote Aquinas) their complexity is merely infinite simplicity perceived by the finite mind.

“Lucy in the sky with diamonds” is the only blemish on the record – like “Across the universe,” it is a poorly recorded dirge, a trip that goes nowhere. Its lysergic overdrive sounds (peculiarly for a psychedelic record) out of place here. The real heart of Sgt Pepper – and it is a hard heart – is to be found on the next three tracks, three of the greatest songs Paul McCartney ever wrote. “Getting better” is, in a way, typical of McCartney, all clever unorthodoxies and crotchet beats. His bass comes out of nowhere, underlying a brutal lyric which belies the typecasts of McCartney-the-blithe-formalist and Lennon-the-hardnosed-realist (though it must be added that Lennon had a hand in writing the lyrics and, in the midst of an LSD trip, singing them). In “Fixing a hole,” we are presented with a more ambiguous second act to this drama. Beginning with a descending harpsichord, the song is a slow-march made interesting by McCartney’s bass arpeggios, Harrison’s double-tracked guitar solo and the expression of a desire to be hermetically sealed off from the distractions of reality, so that the mind is free to wander. Perhaps this escape is what the protagonist of “She’s leaving home” has in mind, but we are never told as much. Over strings which in anybody else’s hands might be mawkish, Lennon and McCartney tell the story of a girl running away from home from the point of view of her mother. That in itself is extraordinary – who else would have taken up this position? An extraordinarily detailed and laconic lyric (the use of the word “clutching” has been much remarked upon) stops short of moral judgment, the mother blankly accepting (via McCartney’s artless vocal) that “fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.” This is, as Ian MacDonald says, “represents, with ‘A day in the life,’ the finest work on Sgt Pepper – imperishable popular art of its time.”

The curtain closes on Act / Side One with a trip to the circus, but this is the most bilious of light reliefs. Listening to the whirls and swoops of the carnival feels something like being churned around in a washing machine. Abruptly, the music stops and we are regurgitated, hosed down but soiled from what we have just witnessed. It is therefore fitting that Act / Side Two opens with a hymn: George Harrison’s “Within you without you.” This is didactic stuff, but performed with a grace and buoyancy that is rarely found in Harrison’s songs:

We were talking about the love that's gone so cold and the people,
Who gain the world and lose their soul
They don't know, they can't see; are you one of them?
When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.
And the time will come when you see we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you.

The Beatles have redeemed us, even if the audience is too stupefied with laughter to realise it. Thus rescued from the casual violence of Act One, we are ready for a comic trilogy: “When I’m 64,” “Lovely Rita” and “Good morning good morning”. If the first is winsomely nostalgic, the second and third sound like nothing else produced in 1967. Bulging with automatic double-tracking, heavily compressed and distorted, both shimmer in spite of their hollowness, and both are remarkable for their instrumental solos. “Lovely Rita” has a piano played by George Martin which is sped up and subjected to ruthless vibrato; “Good morning good morning” features drums so high in the mix that they might as well be soloing, and a searing guitar from McCartney. Fatuous doesn’t get any more thrilling than this.

A last hurrah from Sgt Pepper’s band brings us to – well, let’s just call it the most analysed pop record of all time. You know “A day in the life” as well as you know your own mind, and I’m loathe to say anything that has been said better elsewhere. Better to quote Ian MacDonald...

Made in a total of around 34 hours, “A day in the life” represents the peak of the Beatles’ achievement. With one of their most controlled and convincing lyrics, its musical expression is breathtaking, its structure at once utterly original and completely natural. The performance is likewise outstanding. Lennon’s floating, tape-echoed vocal contrasts ideally with McCartney’s ‘dry’ briskness: Starr’s drums hold the track together, beginning in idiosyncratic dialogue with Lennon on slack-tuned tom-toms; McCartney’s contributions on piano and (particularly) bass brim with invention, colouring the music and occasionally providing the main focus. A brilliant production by Martin’s team, working under restrictions which would floor most of today’s studios, completes a piece which remains among the most penetrating and innovative artistic reflections of its era.

...and to draw your attention to two further things. First, the moment at around 2.45 when McCartney sings “somebody spoke and I went into a dream” and Lennon then apprehends his friend’s innermost thoughts and sings his dream (this, for me, is the moment that encapsulates Sgt Pepper). Second, you have not heard this song until you have heard how it was put together. It’s a rough, brutal manner in which to end a piece about this painstaking masterpiece, but what better way to finish?

* a good album, for sure, but it sure as hell explains why they never got around to making it...


Speaking of the ghosts which may one day be exhumed from sites of great exhibitions, this is extraordinary:

By Entschwindet und Vergeht, who hosts a wonderful blog about hauntology and cadences and iron and glass and decay and all sorts of other things here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


James Meek writing about the Irish bank bail-out on the LRB blog:

You could be forgiven for not noticing it, but the new British government has just been forced to do what the old British government was forced to do: bail out Britain’s banks. The bail-out of Ireland marks a new stage in the privatisation of government by the financial system. Two governments, the British and the Irish, have been effectively taken over by a venal banking network which, using ordinary savers and productive businesses as hostages, forces the state to cough up whatever sums are required to save it from the consequences of its own greed and idiocy.

Even before coming to power the dominant Conservative side of Britain’s governing coalition was making Gordon Brown the scapegoat for the UK being broke, maxed out, skint, and claiming that only by savage cuts in state spending could Britain hope to salvage some vestige of public services among the ruins. Why, then, is this same British government about to lend Ireland, a member of the Eurozone, some £7 billion to see it through its current financial difficulties?

The answer is straightforward, although you wouldn’t think so from the way the story is being reported. The Conservatives have been remarkably successful in promoting a false version of the events of the past couple of years – that excessive government spending is the cause of the present mess.

The fact that the first great Eurozone financial crisis, in Greece, really was caused by crazily loose public purse strings has helped spread the lie. But the truth is that Britain and Ireland, like Iceland and, indeed, Spain, are in trouble not because these governments spent and borrowed too much but because households, businesses and banks spent, borrowed and lent much too much.

What is being presented as a loan by the British government to the Irish government is, in fact, a loan by the British government to the remnants of Ireland’s commercial banks, which are melting down. And the reason the British government is lending to the Irish banking system is because British commercial banks lent so much money to Ireland in the boom years. British banks hold less than £10 billion worth of Irish government bonds. But they hold something like £130 billion worth of other Irish debt – property loans, business loans and so on. George Osborne is not, as he claimed, helping Ireland because it is ‘a friend in need’. He is to all intents and purposes bailing out British banks.

It has been depressingly easy for the Cameron administration to hypnotise the British public into forgetting that our current economic plight is a result of reckless lending by the country’s banks rather than reckless Labour borrowing. £7 billion, the government must feel, is a small price to pay to avoid another British banking crisis, and to avoid the country waking up and remembering that we are much more like Iceland than we ever were like Greece.


An expedition

Sometimes, quite by chance, you find yourself in the right place at the right time. A view or an experience which might be quite unremarkable on any other day suddenly acquires a magic and takes you somewhere unexpected.

A short time ago, I took the day off work and went for a walk whose route was largely determined by where I needed to be that evening. It’s no good walking through Enfield Chase (my original plan) if you need to be in Bexleyheath early that afternoon. So I changed my itinerary, took the DLR from Bank to King George V and followed my nose. That route, overground through Canary Wharf, Poplar and Silvertown, is fascinating. No. 1 Canada Square; Robin Hood Gardens; Millennium Mills; the DLR stations themselves. There is no better high-level tour of London’s pluralist approach to architecture, nor a better series of contrasts between different versions of Britain.

I got off at George V and walked through North Woolwich, a district cut off not only from the rest of London, but from Woolwich itself. It consists of a few estates, some shops, a scruffy pub which advertises striptease nights and family nights from the same washed out blackboard, a surprisingly sylvan park, and the north terminus of the Woolwich Free Ferry. I’d intended to walk under the Thames via the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, but it has been temporarily closed because of structural problems, so I walked past the queue of cars and lorries, down the steps of the ferry, sat on the bottom deck and opened a packet of wine gums.

The Woolwich Ferry is a remarkable thing – it seems like a folly until one considers that there are no bridges between Tower Bridge and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford. It carries over a million vehicles per year (hence the queues) but passenger traffic is minimal. I shared the journey with a young man on his way back from the gym, another who downed a bottle of Becks in one gulp and promptly cracked open a second, and a middle-aged man with a pushchair who seemed rather lost. It is the only mode of public transport I can think of in London for which you need not pay a penny.

The south side of Woolwich is more bustling, though no less depressed. I stopped to look at the splendid art-deco buildings which house bingo and evangelical services at the end of Powis Street, then turned right towards the City. There is much to catch the eye here; not on the landward side, all late-era social housing resigned to the Right to Buy; but across the river, planes come and go from the City Airport, the factory of Tate & Lyle (sponsors of the glamorous galleries upriver) stands as an isolated bastion of industry, and the Thames Barrier fences off (and protects) Central London.

Built after the catastrophic floods of 1953, the Thames Barrier is made up of seven beady eyes looking towards the east, ready to protect the city behind them from surges passing south from the deep waters around Scotland and Scandinavia to the shallower parts of the North Sea. Forecasts of high water levels trigger the closure of the barrier, and all navigation routes to the Thames are blocked. In 1987, the barrier was closed twice; in the last decade, there were an average of eight closures per year. It is a work of art, a deconstructed Sydney Opera House which proudly flaunts its functionalism.

I walked on towards the Hope and Anchor. It was 4.00pm, and the scene through the window looked inviting, but this must be a pub for watching sailing boats, roaring planes and swooping cranes on summer afternoons, so I carried on walking. To my left, containers bunked one on top of the other to form prefab porta-cabins; to my right, brick walls were crowned with barbed wire. At Lombard Wall stood a twelve-foot high pile of rubble. A road to the left led to the safety of New Charlton, but I was more interested in what lay straight on: an aerial network of cranes and trolleys pitted against a darkening sky.

The CEMEX works are a reminder that the Thames was the engine of industry. The gentrification which was supposed to accompany the Millennium Dome never reached this stretch of the south bank. The artists’ impressions portrayed people walking down the tree-lined avenues here, watching movies in the multiplexes, shopping in the malls; North Charlton was to become a glamorous suburb of the City, within winking distance of One Canada Square. Instead, it remains beyond the perimeter of tourist London. Mountains of debris gather, waiting to be loaded into chutes, stirred into quicklime and sold as cement. The dust sticks to your clothes and catches in your throat, and at dusk the narrow paths that skirt the edges of the plant do not feel safe. But whether you arrive at it from the Dome or the Barrier, it is quite unexpected, and the shock forces you forwards.

Was this what the Greenwich peninsula was once like? The topography was different, of course – underneath the Dome is marshland, Bugsby’s Marshes to be precise, and the tube line at North Greenwich is built to float on the quagmire. Before the 17th century, the air around the marshes was not too different from that of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco – malarial, sulphurous, clammy, sickly. Later, its northernmost tip was chosen as the place to hang pirates in cages until they dissolved into the air. Later still, when London’s most contaminated land became ripe for exploitation in the name of Empire, the peninsula became the site for industry: cement, asbestos, animal feed and, of course, gas. But the East Greenwich Gasworks only blistered the air further, and the peninsula remained largely unnavigable, except for the Provisional IRA who bombed the largest of the gasholders in 1978.

The discovery of North Sea Gas rendered the gasworks obsolete, and the advent of Thatcherism in the 1980s destroyed the ashes of riverside industry. I remember, in the early 90s, standing in the offices of the Daily Telegraph in Canary Wharf (really, don’t ask) looking down on the site as some sub-editor crowed about the regeneration of Greenwich. And what has this regeneration bequested? The Millennium Village – a new suburbia where people have bought up riverside flats not, as was once the case, because there is any inferential reason that they should live there, but because the market demands that they must. The Millennium Dome, now badged as the O2 Centre, a glorified tent which, like Alf Garnett, has become loveable only because it has descended into pathos.

There is a strange story about the Dome, concerning Simon Dee. When Dee was expelled from Radio 1 in the 1960s and cast out of the Establishment, he reinvented himself as an architect, apparently commissioned by the Moroccans to design a dome for them. Up until his death last year, Dee maintained that his plans – never funded by the Moroccan government – had got into the hands of the Secret Service, who had passed them onto the British Government. The Millennium Dome, ostensibly designed by Richard Rogers, was in fact the brainchild of Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd, aka Dee himself. It is now a music-hall, hosting some of the grizzled acts whose discs Dee played 40 years ago.

Ten years on, it is difficult to loathe the Dome. Built on a foundation of mud and speculation, it is a bombastic monument to neoliberalism. After ushering in the new millennium a year early, it searched vainly for a purpose, its fundamental uselessness gradually winning over residents of London who, deep down, prefer folly to grandeur. Its millennial exhibits were so absurd that few bothered even to turn up: “Body” sponsored by Boots, “Work” sponsored by Manpower, “Learning” sponsored by Tesco and – best of all – “Money” sponsored by the City of London. Why would we pay to see that when we live it every day?

Now, New Labour’s version of the Festival of Britain has found its function: as a venue where people buy inflated tickets to see inflated egos, usually playing on a stage so far away that they are invisible to the audience. Sponsored by a mobile phone company, it exceeds the wildest dreams of its grim trio of auteurs: Simon Dee, Richard Rogers & Peter Mandelson. All have moved on, men of an earlier era. The Dome, too, seems every bit as anachronistic.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Monday, November 15, 2010


Nestor Kirchner, who died suddenly of a heart attack last month, was the only Argentine President since the coup of 1976 who left the country in a better state than he found it. Today’s tourist who stands in Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo, pointing his camera towards the Casa Rosada, might scarcely believe that less than a decade ago mounted police were beating back elderly ladies on the ground on which he stands .

But in December 2001 it was a place of seething anger. Fires swept through neighbourhoods, and the streets rattled to the sound of thousands of people angrily banging on saucepans. Their immediate complaint was the freezing of their bank deposits, following the International Monetary Fund’s suspension of loans to Argentina, but this was a broader eruption after years of passivity. Police on horseback stormed the plaza, whipping workers, pensioners, housewives and students with their truncheons. They fired tear gas and killed five people. But the siege did not work. The people did not leave. They staged a sit-down protest, while President de la Rua quietly resigned and fled the Presidential Palace via helicopter.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, there was more poverty and more premature death in democratic Argentina than there had been during the dictatorship. An economic model which had been forced upon the people had combined with an uncontrollable debt and extreme corruption to bring Argentina to its knees. How had a country which was once the richest in Latin America managed to bankrupt itself?

The story begins in the early 1970s. Although Argentina generated much of its own oil, the 1973 crisis hiked its foreign bills and wiped out its trade surplus. Across the world, petrodollars funded cheap loans to developing nations. By the early 1980s, interest rates had risen to 16% and Argentina awoke to the legacy of a brutal dictatorship. Inflation reached 300%, wages were frozen, domestic industry had been destroyed by neoliberalism and the country was saddled with a foreign debt of nearly $50 billion.

In 1983, Argentina returned to democracy, but almost immediately the government used public money to bail out debt speculators and by 1989, when Raul Alfonsin resigned amid instability and hyperinflation, foreign debt had reached $54 billion. Much of this debt was what we might call nationalised debt – i.e. loans that had been made by parent companies to their subsidiaries, which had then been added to the public debt.

Alas, during the 1990s, Argentina’s foreign debt more than doubled. The new President, Carlos Menem, all dashing sideburns and celebrity stardust, had campaigned on a traditional Peronist ticket to raise living standards, tackle corruption and default on the foreign debt. But as soon as he took office, Menem betrayed his electorate and changed course, proclaiming that there was no alternative but to align with the neo-conservatives and sign up wholesale to the Washington Consensus.

By 1992, Menem’s tactics became starkly clear: he would negotiate with the US to pay off Argentina’s debt by selling state companies at a fraction of their actual value. Privatisation met with little resistance from unions, and the medicine appeared to work: Argentina was credible again. The economy grew and foreign capital – much of it repatriated – flowed back into Argentina. Privatisation yielded more than $30 billion to the nation coffers, and helped to reduce the deficit.

But these gains were short-lived. Profitable state companies were sold for a pittance, and suffered massive downsizing and asset-stripping. When Argentina’s railways were privatised, for instance, much of the rolling stock and lines were simply decommissioned, leaving the provinces economically isolated and the population forced to move to the cities. The reserves of the massive state oil company, YPF, were sold on 25-year contracts for a price equivalent to nine months of production. Towns built to house YPF workers were abandoned, the new owners leaving behind vast deserts of inert machinery. Gas del Estado was sold for 10% of its actual value to Repsol, who polluted the local water supply so that local people now extracted pure gasoline from their water pumps.

To understand how Argentines were beginning to feel, we might imagine the NHS being sold at 10% of its value to a fraudulent conglomerate which then ran it into the ground and was compensated for its lack of productivity. While politicians and business people alike profited and allowed privatised industries to under-perform, hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off. In northern Argentina, per capita income was on a par with Bangladesh by the end of the 1990s.

Menem and his neoliberals may have accepted this as a sacrifice for economic boom, but when the global economy contracted in the mid-1990s, Argentina’s monetary policies ran out of steam. In order to keep the peso strong against the dollar, Menem had been forced to borrow from abroad. Argentina lacked the power to use high interest rates to attract foreign investment, and peso-dollar convertibility became increasingly difficult to maintain.

As debt service costs soared, panicky investors withdrew their capital and Argentina fell into recession. By April 2000, a beleaguered new President, Fernando de la Rua, was staring down the barrel of a default. He asked the IMF for help, and was offered a deal: a $40 billion loan in return for cutting welfare in the provinces and further privatisation (a joke, since by this time there was little left to privatise). By late 2001, the voices of the Argentine people rang out loud and clear: they rejected all the political parties at the ballot box and withdrew from their bank deposits (at one point, $1 billion was being withdrawn per day from Argentine bank accounts). When Finance Minister Cavallo froze deposits in December, the streets filled with people who had worked hard, saved all their lives and could only watch helplessly as their savings evaporated.

Argentina was now forced to stare the legacy of neoliberalism in the face. The last days of 2001 and first of 2002 saw Argentina – under the leadership of interim President Saa – default on $132 billion worth of debt, the largest default in history. The pego was unpegged from the dollar and allowed to devalue. Inflation surged, GDP plummeted, 19 million Argentines were officially in poverty and 7.5 million couldn’t afford food. In the rural provinces, children starved while hospitals and schools closed their doors.

In 2003, Nestor Kirchner was elected President of the Argentine Republic. Realising that any deal with the IMF would be utterly compromised, he issued a challenge: the IMF, he said, had changed “from being a lender for development to a creditor demanding privileges” and must be fundamentally reformed. Looking closer to home, Kirchner built up ties with other left-leaning Latin American governments. In late 2005, Venezuela agreed to buy $1.6 billion of Argentine bonds which Kirchner used to settle Argentina’s debt to the IMF once and for all. Kirchner also clamped down forcefully on tax evasion and invested increasing revenues into welfare.

Meanwhile, some semblance of financial stability had returned to Argentina. This was in large part due to the “fabrica recuperado” movement, an innovation whereby workers took over premises where businesses had gone bankrupt and managed them co-operatively. As well as generating growth, these “recoveries” have initiated progressive networks of left-leaning groups determined to reverse the decimation of industry under neoliberalism. A devalued peso has also meant that traditional Argentine exports – soy, cereals, meat – are highly competitive again. Between 2003 and 2008, Argentina recorded $77 billion of trade surpluses.

Kirchner’s legacy is not without blemish. Wealth inequality has fluctuated in the last ten years, and people in the Buenos Aires slums and many of the provinces still live in dire poverty. He did not managed to eradicate the graft that seems to be part and parcel of Latin American politics, and he and his wife (the current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner) are accused of establishing a “shared presidency” in which they allegedly planned to rule, if elected, until 2020. This last accusation, in particular, has the taste of sour grapes. But Argentina is undoubtedly a healthier place than it was in 2003, economically and psychologically. For the first time in its recent history, it is a major player on the world stage, at the heart of the Latin American progressive left, and beholden to no one. That, in large part, is down to Nestor Kirchner.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Iain Duncan Smith had some of us fooled there for a while. After his ejection from the Tory leadership back in the early 2000s, he laid low, set up a thinktank called the Centre for Social Justice, visited estates, met some of the poorest people in society and emerged as a quasi-progressive figure who would sort out the iniquities and complications of the welfare system.

Such was the shock at seeing a Tory taking an interest in the plight of the poor, some on the left even gave him a cautious welcome when he was appointed as Minister for Work & Pensions. Imagine their deflation today when they read IDS's White Paper, entitled Universal Credit: welfare that works. The general thrust of its contents will have taken nobody by surprise, but its lack of nuance, its wanton warping of reality and its clodhopping crudity are remarkable.

The Centre for Social Justice always contained a strong Protestant strain. It linked poverty with social malaise and moral deficiency, which in turn was linked to welfare itself. It said that people don't work because they have been made apathetic, indolent, fatalistic and dependent by the existence of a welfare state. Hence the headline-grabber: three strikes and you're out. There is no indication of how many benefit claimants have refused offers of work; indeed, commentators have noted that most jobseekers would jump for joy if they got a single job offer, never mind three. With 18 people applying for each job vacancy, how many applications would you have to complete to stand a realistic chance of getting three job offers?

Defenders of these reforms (and how that word has been bastardised in recent years) ask: well, if there are so so few jobs around that this policy won't actually affect anyone, what is there to worry about? The answer is the rhetoric, the idea that the unemployed deserve to be unemployed. The White Paper sets up this idea; the Comprehensive Spending Review, with its massive cuts to benefits and public services, will punish the undeserving poor by hacking back benefits, by stymying growth, and by creating disincentives to finding work (see my earlier post).

There is one other important point to make. These policies will leave vast numbers of people with medical conditions and disabilities in poverty. Duncan Smith has said the DWP's Work Programme scheme will provide tailored support for people with disabilities who are looking for work. The Tory Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller, has said she wants to see a million more disabled people in work; yet the number of places available on the Work Programme for disabled people had just been cut by George Osborne to 16,000 per year. Perhaps a greater mathematical mind than mine will explain how you get 1,000,000 from 16,000.

Furthermore, a group of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have just blasted Pathways to Work - a similar scheme on which the Work Programme is based - for failing to provide disabled people with sufficient support. The private sector, they said, had performed particularly badly. The Work Programme, of course, will be delivered by the private sector.

Local Authorities have known for several years that Pathways didn't work, which is why extra funding was ploughed into support provided by local charities which had expertise in working with people with learning disabilities, mental health problems, single parents etc. With a 28% hole in their budgets, some Councils may be forced to cut this funding, leaving the most vulnerable and stigmatised in society without the support they need.

Labour is in no position to oppose these measures seriously. It was they who introduced Pathways, they who contracted ATOS to assess people with serious medical conditions as being fit to work. They must abandon the cautious line that Douglas Alexander took today and return to first principles. Universal Credit is based on making the most unwell and financially disadvantaged people pay for capitalism's mistakes. These cuts are unnecessary, and they will create poverty on a massive scale. Yesterday gave a sense of the public's anger towards the Coalition. The cuts may go through, but in time they will be the undoing of this government.

Friday, November 05, 2010


Nairn’s London by Ian Nairn is long out-of-print, but I have just borrowed a copy from my wife’s uncle. Published in 1966, and with his name and family home written in careful loops on the inside cover, it is the perfect antidote to Pevsner. Pevsner’s guides are a stunning body of work – an almost comprehensive inventory of the buildings of England – but they are technical, architectural, concerned primarily with the buildings themselves, rather than what they bring to the feel of a place. Nairn’s book is witty, subjective and journalistic. In a few choice phrases, he reveals a place's character without denuding it. He is often extremely funny but never trite, and a short entry on a familiar building or street makes one hungry to re-visit it, to loiter around it, and to soak up its moods.


Here he is on Muswell Hill: “a period piece of unruffled cheerfulness; when the suburbs were new, there were green fields next door and war was still rather jolly.” On Hampstead Village: “Hampstead is a bit of joke, though many of its inhabitants are deadly serious about it. As soon as a picturesque street or alley gets well started and you can begin to live the refined life, along a great hospital or board school or block of tenements ... it is not an amusing or exciting contrast either, just head-on conflict which ends in stalemate. But socially, it has undoubtedly saved Hampstead from becoming intolerably precious.” On Battersea Power Station: “this is one more London building that sticks in spite of the architecture rather than because of it. The timid fluting on brickwork and chimneys, novel at the time, would have made Telford or Rennie throw up.” And on the King’s Head in Upper Tooting Road: “a great, lucid, late-Victorian pub between Tooting and Balham ... the plan is a tour de force, with a central elliptical bar counter and the relative bar areas worked out so that there is never crowding or claustrophobia ... very rational and discriminate.”

Nairn is especially good on pubs, because he clearly spent an awful lot of time in them. They were where he got the real gist of a place, and where he slowly killed himself with Guinness.

City of Sound has a fine article on Nairn’s London, with pictures and more quotations. Many of the buildings he describes have gone, many of the streets – especially those around the river – have been compromised or emasculated. The streets around King’s Cross and St Pancras stations certainly have been, but the kernel of what he says in the entries for these places is still pertinent today. I will copy them out in full:

St Pancras Station
St Pancras is the most Continental of London train sheds. By comparison, the others are put together additively, like an English cathedral; this is one huge all-embracing sweep of the same family as Hamburg or Cologne. A vast throbbing hangar; the phrase needs to be repeated sixteen times to make enough weight in the book and convey the overwhelming solid force of this beginning or end to journeys. It is painted light as some kind of campaign to 'brighten the image of British Rail', but its only true colour is jet black.

Gasholders loom up at the far end of the platform. They are worth a closer look, and to get there turn right out of the station. The concoction in front of the shed is by Sir George Gilbert Scott, incredibly clever in composition and incredibly heartless. No Victorian quaintness here, in this competent reckoning up of fees-per-crocket. Right again, and you are in Midland Road. You might as well be round the backside of New Street at Birmingham or London Road at Leicester. It is one of the most astonishing transformations in London, a jump of a hundred miles in a few yards, achieved with the unemphatic red brick and hypnotic arcading of the Goods Station. London for a moment - and just for a moment - seems fussy and flurried, using two words where one will do. Anyone whose heart was lost to bricky Leicestershire would find this place unbearably nostalgic.

Up Midland Road to the traffic lights, turn right under the railways bridges; then, in Goods Way, the gasholders come back, a cascade of intersecting circles, a shout of sheer joy from the most unlikely place. All of them come to the party equipped with classical columns, simple Doric and a kind of gasholder Composite. The nineteenth-century equivalent of a Baroque angel is not a Victorian angel but a Baroque gasworks.

The whole of this place at the back of St Pancras is incredibly moving: tunnels, perspectives, trains on the skyline, roads going all ways. If you get nothing from it at first, stay there until something happens: it is really worth the effort.

King's Cross Station
Overwhelming honesty, taken to the point where it is something far more than a component virtue. The shape is the building, a point made straight away by comparison with the clever fribble on the front of St Pancras, next door. The defects are the building, like a drawback in someone's character which flows inevitably from their good qualities. Cubitt provided two identical train sheds side by side and scorned any of the deceptions which the nineteenth century would gladly have provided to disguise the fact. Nothing but yellow brick, grand proportions, and in the last few years the eerie other-worldly whinny of big diesels. Outside, two sheds, hence two huge brick arches. A clock, hence a turret perched in the valley between them, spoiling the composition in an academic sense, yet right on a deeper level. Cubitt wanted a brick tower here, which would have satisfied both. It was cut out of the budget, and he scorned subterfuge. The railway reorganisers need their noses rubbing in this quality until they feel it as impossible for the station to go (it is due to be replaced in the 1970s) as it would be for the Church of England to demolish St Paul's.


Wednesday, November 03, 2010


Read this excellent interview with Hugo Radice from Leeds University at the New Left Project. These two responses are particularly helpful:

The cuts are being justified in order not to spook the financial sector – in particular the bond markets. How accurate is that? Is the financial sector really desperate for these cuts?

Well I don’t think they are. I think the support of the city for the cuts is part of a more general ideological offensive. As far as the bond markets are concerned, my view is that throughout this crisis there has been clear evidence that there is a global savings glut. In other words there are funds available that are looking for a safe and well-remunerated outlet, and what we are seeing is that countries like the UK have actually been able to borrow with very little difficulty throughout the crisis. And this is largely because over the last thirty years or so there has been a very substantial redistribution of income from labour to capital, from wages to profits. What that has generated is a massive amount of capital available for investment in all sorts of activities. With the collapse of business investment after 2008, investors simply transferred their funds to the government bond markets instead; and in the course of this year UK bond yields – in other words the costs of government borrowing - have remained at remarkably low levels. There doesn’t seem to be any difficulty in meeting the expectations of the bond markets.

Even if this claim about the bond markets is unfounded, as you say, what does it suggest about the power of the financial sector over the political sphere that this claim is even made?

I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to see it in terms of a power relation or a power struggle between the two. The political sphere has been moulded over several centuries around the primary task of maintaining the power of private property, maintaining the power of capital. Now there’s no honour among thieves, and so because certain sections of the ruling classes benefit from certain policies and other sections benefit from other policies there are always going to be arguments about how to move forward. It has often been argued that the city somehow has excessive power vis a vis industry, but really there is a symbiotic relationship between the city and industry, making up a more general business interest – the interest of capital as a whole. And the same applies to what we can call the political class: the system of government, the main political parties, the state apparatus, will only break with the basic interests of private property in the most exceptional circumstances.

Monday, November 01, 2010


This song goes out to my dad, who has been playing this to me for years, and to my wife, who made realise it's ok to like it.