Comment isn’t free

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First, a few unpaid words from Stephen Hull, UK editor-in-chief at the Huffington Post, the newspaper that was never a newspaper and always a website which empowers its writers by not paying them. He was being interviewed by media interrogator Steve Hewlett on Radio 4 (as reported on the New Statesman website). If you are a writer, or someone hoping to make a career out of writing, make sure you are not holding any hot drinks. Ready?

“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

So, conveniently, payment robs comment of authenticity. All those words I’ve written for money – and indeed all those words written by Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Paul Morley for money – are in some way inauthentic. Oh, and paid writing’s only purpose is to attract advertising.

As an unpaid blogger, by choice, and a paid writer in other quarters – a line of work I have been pursuing for 28 years – this not only infuriates but saddens me. The Huffington Post is successful, innovative and decorated. It is a beacon for our times, when print, deserted by traditional advertisers, is choking on its own thin air. It offers a high-profile platform and shop window for its writers (it calls them bloggers to stop them getting fancy ideas above their station), and you can’t buy that kind of exposure. Except you are buying it. You are buying it with your time and your expertise; your ability to rearrange the English language into sentences. Writing is not a mystical art. All but the technically illiterate do it every time they fill out a birthday card or leave a note on the fridge. But increasingly, as those public outlets for writing dwindle – farewell, the printed Independent; hello, unloved piles of wafer-thin giveaway NMEs thrown back into cardboard gondolas at Sainsbury’s and railways carriages decorated in crumpled copies of today’s Metro as if in dirty protest – the once romantic idea of wielding a quill for money withers on the vine. People would rather watch a Vine.

I’m lucky. I was first paid to write my first ever review in 1988, a year out of college – and not a college where I studied journalism, or the written word: this was the 80s, a golden era of opportunity between the closed shop and the internet. I was paid £23.00 for this review by the publisher IPC, as quaintly typed out in the payslip above, which marks the day I became a professional writer. It seemed like an awful lot of money to me. I would have paid IPC to see my words in print.

ThisIsThisMy only qualification to write this review and see it published was a single copy of a fanzine I’d put together [left], and the skill of being keen enough to ask. This century, I’m often asked to give advice to people wishing to get a start in the media. I’m a media veteran. I’m always happy to tell people my own story, although with each passing year, it becomes less and less relevant to today’s literary and journalistic wannabes. For years I’ve been telling students that I envy them. In the mid-80s, I had to type up my fanzine on an electric typewriter, cut it out and Pritt-stick it down, and pay to have it printed at a high-street Kall-Kwik, then hawk it around in a shopping bag at gigs hoping to sell a copy for a pound. (I sold one by mail-order – it was mentioned in a magazine called Underground and two kids turned up at my flat to buy one, with cash. I was fucking cock-a-hoop.) These days, you need only a broadband connection to publish instantly to the world. No guarantee that a single soul will read it, of course, but it will look professional and you will by definition be a published writer. You can publish a novel in the same way. It’s liberating. It’s also demonetising.

I wrote about the curse of unpaid labour in the media three years ago. I wasn’t paid for writing it. I wrote it for free, here, on this blog. I commissioned myself to write it, sub-edited it myself and headlined it Keeping up appearance fees. If you have the time, you can read it here. Most of it is still true. I will precis the salient points here.

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When you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.

This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too. This will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)

However, it ain’t necessarily so. When, in 2013, James Gandolfini died, I was contacted on the day by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm the next afternoon. Having gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this TV show.

However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”

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Without wishing to come across as some kind of square, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I was at the time writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline, something I was being paid for.

I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the 28 years’ mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay a plasterer for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.

I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with – ones you would instantly recognise on the telly – but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path, but to borrow a phrase, I like to think I’m never the problem.

Now, if I had accepted the no-fee for the Gandolfini appearance on the current affairs show and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster that day at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:

  1. My face would have been on the telly.
  2. Some people might have seen it.
  3. The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
  4. The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.

Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have been. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.

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So I declined, politely, and wasn’t on. I wonder who was? It doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee for talking about James Gandolfini offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Perhaps they could pay contributors with that instead? I’ve also been offered unpaid slots on TV and radio shows where my reward was to be able to plug something. This is actual bullshit. Literary festivals are currently under fire for not paying authors (and I mean really famous bums-on-seats authors, not authors at my level) for personal appearances, again, on the understanding that they will be able to flog a few books afterwards. I’ve promoted my books this way, and a) people who run festivals, bookshops and libraries where the event is likely to be tend to be really nice, and b) you do get to sell a few signed books. Should authors be paid a small stipend on top? Or is the platform – like the Huffington Post – enough? Are you being paid “in kind”?

Not all potential guests and contributors are egomaniacs. Given the choice between appearing as a pundit on Channel 4 News and getting home in time to watch Channel 4 News, I’d always choose the latter. I turn down roughly 75% of the offers I get to be myself on radio and TV. It may be more. Frankly, I don’t have anything to flog. And I have no deep need to hear my voice or see my face. I will always jump at the chance to be on Front Row on Radio 4, because I love the show and, oh, I will be paid. Not much. But enough to take a short detour via Broadcasting House and get to talk to the always amenable people who make Front Row.

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I was invited last week to mentor someone hoping to break into the media by an entirely admirable charity-based body that encourages that very thing. I’ve done unpaid work for them in the past. My choice. I like them. But I had to decline the mentoring gig, as I remain a self-employed freelancer and I don’t have the luxury of time to devote to this year-long commitment. (Others in the media who have taken it on seem to work for, or run, production companies or TV channels.) Also, I would, in a roundabout way, be training someone to steal the work that puts food on my table! After all, it may be tough to break into the media and earn enough to actually live on in a digital age where writers are called bloggers and comment is literally free at the point of sale, but at least the young have youth on your side. This is a valuable currency in the magpie eyes of a demographically myopic media. I was delighted to be asked to host the red-carpet coverage of the Bafta Film Awards for Bafta many years ago, the first time the august body had produced its own content for its own website; it was deemed a roaring success and as a result, the next year, I was replaced by a younger, more attractive and more famous host. It was the day I stopped dreaming of being a TV presenter. But even in this cruel Logan’s Run world, the one thing I can offer is something that money can’t buy – experience. It’s just that increasingly, broadcasters and content providers want it for for nothing.

DON’T WORK FOR FREE. UNLESS YOU CAN AFFORD TO. OR IT’S FOR CHARITY.

I will donate the non-existent fee for this article to myself.

 

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On a rubbish tip

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I’m not a serial restaurant user, as I rather resent how much they charge and I like cooking, but it’s nice to go out occasionally as a treat, and I have been to the large French eaterie chain Côte. They do an especially nice breakfast deal for a tenner. In fact, oddly, I went to the first ever Côte, before it was a chain. (Get me.) It now has 72 restaurants around Britain and is one of those brands that ensures that everywhere is the same. It was last year bought out by the statutory private equity firm. It is dead to me now.

If I ever use a chain restaurant and the service charge is not automatically included, I will ask the waiter if they still get the tip if I add it to my bill on my credit card and then start doing the maths. I assume they are not lying if they tell me that they do. Or at least I did. No longer. Because, thanks to an exposé in my local free newspaper, I now know that Côte, which adds the “optional” 12.5% service charge, does not pass this onto its staff. It goes straight to the company instead of being kept by workers at the restaurant where the diner dined.

The chain defended this practice in the article, saying it “allows them to pay restaurant staff an hourly rate of around £7.50-£8, above the national minimum wage of £6.50 for over 21s.” (Good luck with that in London, where the Living Wage is £9.15.) A whisleblower told the Evening Standard One that the staff are supposed to be “grateful, but most of us would prefer earning the minimum wage and take home our tips for the hard work we do.”

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The worst part of all this – and it’s probably occurring in every restaurant chain run by a fucking loveless, food-hating, bottom-line-chasing private equity firm – is that Côte staff are “told to tell customers who ask where the service charges goes that it is given out between workers.” They are being instructed to lie in order that they don’t get to keep their tips. It’s like living in Ripper Street times. I know, you can technically ask for the “optional” charge to be removed, and then put your tip, in cash, into the palm of your waiter’s hand. That’s the only way to get round it. Except that in Côte, management have got this covered. They said that waiting staff can “decide” whether to keep any cash tips left on top of the service charge or put it into a general pot to be shared with other members of staff. So the service charge doesn’t cover service.

One staff member told the Standard they were “told to hand over cash tips”. I’m sure there’s small print in the waiting staff’s contracts to cover this, otherwise it would be theft. One sympathetic politician failed to see his own joke when he told the newspaper, “This seems to be the tip of the iceberg.”

Or the tip for the iceberg lettuce. Côte’s profits rose 27% last year to £16.3 million. I bet private equity firm BC Partners went out for a nice meal at somewhere other than Côte. It’s all bullshit. Pizza Express, Strada, Zizzi and Ask Italian charge between 10% and 8% to staff to claim back their tips paid on cards, making up some flimsy excuse about having the pay for the administration of taking credit cards. Don’t take credits cards then and see how many customers you lose. Does anybody care about their staff? Of course they don’t. Staff are expendable units of labour

Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t stand for it.

 

Whatever | April 2010

Whatever | 3D or not 3D
Will Avatar take Hollywood to the next dimension, or are those glasses making us blind?

WhateverAvatarApr2010 Just before Christmas in 1952, United Artists released a functional African jungle adventure called Bwana Devil. The first feature to be exhibited in Natural Vision 3D, its publicity made the famous promise, “A lion in your lap!” Advertising standards would take a dim view of the flimsiness of this leonine proximity claim today, but desperate times – as the 1950s were for Hollywood during TV’s first boom – called for desperate measures.

Just before Christmas in 2009, 20th Century Fox released a functional Pandoran jungle adventure called Avatar. The first feature to be shot in 3D using various bespoke gizmos in the field of motion-capture, its publicity revolved around special tie-in bottles of Coke Zero and director James Cameron talking the film up big-style at sci-fi conventions. No explicit promises were made, but Avatar might have been sold with the guarantee, “Little floaty specs of ash caused by an air strike raining down around your shoulders like dandruff!”

This is not meant as a facetious comparison, even though I have carefully written it as one. In actual fact, not that much has changed between the lion in the lap and the dandruff down the back, except that 21st century audiences are less gullible and more reticent to tear themselves away from small glowing boxes. Bwana Devil did well enough at the box office, as did the knock-on 3D flea circuses that propagated in its wake – House Of Wax, It Came From Outer Space, Robot Monster, The Creature From The Black Lagoon – at least until the sums stopped adding up. But none of them performed like Avatar, even if figures are adjusted for inflation, which they never are or else Gone With The Wind would always be number one and the all-time box office charts would cease to act as a team-building exercise for studio accountants.

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The tin-hat difference between Bwana Devil and Avatar is that the former was conspicuous by its absence at the 25th Academy Awards – it was all 2D confections like High Noon and The Quiet Man that year – while the latter scored nine nominations at the 82nd. By the time you read this, you’ll know whether or not it took home Best Picture. If not, having already shamed his last film Titanic into second place with a world-beating $2.3 billion take (at time of going to press), Cameron will be able to dry his eyes on hundred dollar bills and toss them into a waste paper basket woven from the eyelashes of angels.

The twinkling aura of success that fizzes and pops around Avatar provides a welcome firework display to momentarily distract from an inconvenient truth: that the movies are in trouble. In posh film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James made his own prediction: that the Oscar will indeed go to Avatar, because, as he foresaw it, “this year the industry will vote for the financial, not the aesthetic Best Picture … The business will cheer the money, because they’re scared and they hope that 3D can save them.” In the same issue, Nick Roddick, writing as “Mr Busy”, penned a de facto obituary for Hollywood as we know it: “the studio system is like a dinosaur in a tar pit.” With execs being fired on a daily basis – two of them, Universal co-chairmen Marc Schmuger and David Linde announced that we live in “an era where brands have become the new stars” just before they received their redundancy packages – the impression is of an industry in panic. Why? Didn’t some film called Avatar just make, like, more money than any other film ever except Gone With The Wind and who cares about that old thing? Yes it did. In 17 days. (Now there’s a block graph on an overhead projector that’s going to make up for the lack of croissants at the News Corps shareholders meeting.)

Just as the success of Nirvana led to the signing of Tad, post-Avatar, film studios are literally sending completed blockbusters back to the menders and ordering up an extra dimension, from Clash Of The Titans to the final Harry Potter double-bill Deathly Hallows. The Times reported that LA’s celluloid-to-digital conversion labs are fully booked (“We can turn an older film into 3-D in around 16 weeks,” said the man at one such, Legend Films in San Diego), while super-geeks Peter Jackson and George Lucas are salivating at the prospect of running their respective sagas through the machine, just as Pixar have done with Toy Story. “2D or not 2D?” – that is not the question.

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I wish it was a passing craze, like Sensurround™, Illusion-O™ and Vinnie Jones™, but with 3D tellys being rolled out, 3D Blu-Ray on the horizon and 3D football matches bringing new meaning to collecting up the glasses in pubs, it may be that the man from cinema chain USC was right when he told the Times, “It’s no longer a gimmick, but an expectation.” Not in my house. And I speak as someone who queued up to see Friday The 13th 3D as a teenager in order to experience a pitchfork handle in my face. Nick James is astute when he describes Avatar as “a film for 15-year-olds that grown-ups enjoy for its technological breakthroughs.” I also worry that all this tech-fetishism makes gawping idiots of us all.

Hey, I’m all for the industry being saved – I really like films – but Avatar is not exactly a quick fix. It took years to make and cost $310 million, plus $150 to market. It would be cheaper to release an actual lion into every punter’s lap.

Having said that, those wraparound 3D specs did create the dazzling illusion that Camerons one-dimensional characters were two-dimensional.

The morning after

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We are still picking up the emotional pieces in the immediate morning after the disaster before. Dazed, confused, barely able to appreciate the long, insurmountable task ahead. But if, amid the actual chaos, you want to understand why the election result is such a grim and terrible thing, check the stock market.

The “markets”, that celestial sphere of imagination and speculation where no actual goods are sold, reacted with nervousness before the election results were in, as the “markets” feared a Labour victory. They need not have worried.

Cameron’s smarmy victory calmed them all down and offered a happy finish, and all the bad guys got rich. The luxury property market for foreign investors; the large corporations who employ slave labour; the arms dealers; the private rail companies; the foreign-owned utility companies. See how many times you let out a triumphant cheer and effect an air-punch when you learn that Sports Direct, which has 15,000 of its employees on zero-hours contracts, added £95m to its share price overnight; the private rail operator Stagecoach added £140m to its stock market value as the “threat” of putting the East Coast mainline back into public ownership vanished; Babcock International and BAE Systems, war hawkers by appointment, celebrated the disappearance of the “threat” to Trident with rising share prices to the tune of £460m added to Babcock’s; shares in estate agents Savills, the London-based Foxtons and “upmarket” housebuilders Berkeley jumped upwards; surprisingly British-owned energy giant Centrica went up 8%; RBS and Lloyds added £5.5bn to their combined value (the Tories plan to sell their shares in both) and “cheers” were heard on the trading floor of the City when Ed Balls lost his seat (mind you, I cheered too, for different reasons); perhaps most galling of all, useless outsourcing companies G4S and Serco all benefited on the stock market as the Tories are gung-ho for farming out more public services to private companies, who will fuck them up; oh, and Ladbrokes, those arm’s-length destroyers of men, added £96m, as Milband had been planning to cut down on the number of fixed-odd “betting terminals” allowed in betting shops – and a continued Tory Britain will guarantee more people desperate for money, the bookies’ best customers.

That’s who’s going to benefit from five more years of this. If you’re happy about that, fine. Actually, no, if you’re happy about that, fuck off.

See you at the bottom.

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Areas of outstanding booty

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I was being both playful and deadly serious when, last night, after the watershed, I Tweeted:

I fucking hate fracking.

I added a PS in brackets – (I waited until after the watershed to Tweet that – it doesn’t work with dashes or asterisks) – a hint of levity beneath the hard crust of protest. Hey, it’s a stupid medium. Sometimes only a stupid joke will do. It doesn’t mean that serious intent is out of the question: attention-grabbing is half the battle. Anyway, a number of like-minded folk re-Tweeted my 15-certificate statement. Also – and I was sort of expecting this – one man objected to the basic underlying implication of my Tweet. He wrote:

if you’d been born in the late 1800’s would you have hated underground coal mining?

There’s no apostrophe in “1800s” but I wasn’t going to pick him up on that and be a prick. So instead I petulantly replied:

Yes.

I have no way of knowing what I would have hated in the late 1800s, as it was a very different time. Anyway, then I went to sleep. It was after 10.30. This morning, I found that the man had not let it lie. He’d responded, with a trace level of passive aggression, I felt (and no initial capital letter again):

presumably you have a masterful alternative to fracking up your sleeve, that the energy companies have failed to note

So I gathered my thoughts and, with about 15 years of being very interested in green issues behind me, I typed:

Use less energy.

Touché? Who knows. I only publicised my aversion to fracking in the first instance to reflect the fact that, far from being a destructive, money-motivated process only being perpetrated in faraway North Dakota and East Texas, it’s coming to the UK with an awful lot of political will behind it (and by that, I mean corporate will, obviously, as waived through by politicians with financial interests in energy companies). I care about this, and not because it’s literally going to happen in my urban backyard.

National parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, world heritage sites, all will be fair game for exploration and drilling for shale gas across this land once the bids are in for “onshore oil and gas licences”. But don’t worry, ministers are asking energy firms to “submit an environmental statement” before they are allowed to start tearing the arse out of Britain in the name of cheap energy and profit. This statement has to be “particularly comprehensive and detailed” if they want to frack on or near a protected bit of the map. But since when did a bit of paperwork stop big business?

I’m glad this brutish form of gas extraction actually termed hydraulic fracturing comes colloquially giftwrapped as “fracking” from its heartland in America, which nobody seems to have noticed is a bigger country than the United Kingdom. You just know that the marketing departments of the energy giants looking for a piece of the action, or “fracktion”, will be tearing their hair out trying to come up with a way of rebranding it. Too late. The word fits.

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Here’s the truth: I don’t have a magic solution to the country’s energy problems or the world’s, but I do know that the people in charge (by whom I mean the people who run the private corporations that run our governments) have known that the world’s oil was going to run out for decades. In 1956, Shell geoscientist (ie. not a hippy) M. King Hubbert predicted that “peak oil” would be reached in 2000. They named a curve after him. It certainly looked pretty dicey by the Millennium, although other experts have adjusted the end of days to the more palatable 2020, by which time the world will have solved the problem, apparently. Forgive me if I have zero confidence in that happening. The Market has failed to sort everything out previously. Why trust it this time, when so much is at stake?

It’s the Shale Of The Century! Just as Ed Miliband’s compromise solution for the railways is to allow the public sector to bid against private companies, it’s always a “competition”, as that’s how free market economics works, even when an apparent “Labour” party is tinkering with it. (It’s capitalism that led us to this precarious point where the massive oil-consuming nations have encouraged everyone else to consume more oil in order to compete in the global market and thus, we are running out of the stuff.) The “competition” for UK fracking licences is, we’re told, “likely to attract significant interest from energy companies keen to explore Britain’s new-found shale reserves.” Of course it is. There’s money to be made. It’s a gold rush where individuals with a pick and shovel may not apply. (This is a shame for all those fashionable men who have massive beards, as they already look like gold prospectors.)

Bad luck if you’re in the Bowland basin of the north-west, a central belt of Scotland and the Weald in the south-east. We must hope that the protests that sprang up in Blackpool and Balcombe about the potential for environmental damage will be replicated in these new areas of outstanding profit. The licensing round was announced while the MPs were on holiday, so they can pretend they didn’t know about it.

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The Tory Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon told the other Lords and Ladies, “We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons.” Planning consent is going to be a pushover. Eric Pickles is going to bypass the usual channels and sign it off himself.

And yet … there may be hope. From Conservative voters. Who live in many of the areas that are to be fracked. If they don’t actually live in rural constituencies, there are the exact types to aspire to do so (fantasy Countryside Alliance members who actually live in the suburbs), and they don’t like it up ’em. Quite why Cameron is prepared to put the interests of the corporations that fund his party above the actual individuals who might vote him back in without the pesky Lib Dems is beyond me. He is, if nothing else, shallow, self-serving and bloodless. Dozy, platitudinous twat that he is, surely even he can see that this is a potential electoral timebomb. (Unless, of course, he never really was in it to help anyone, and is only an ideological zealot up to a point. I’m not sure which is the more skin-crawling: a rightwing bastard, or someone pretending to be one.)

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Greenpeace are not happy (“The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside”), nor are the Green party (“Many campaigners have campaigned for decades to get national park status, and they are given for a reason. The idea that they could be offered up to the fracking firms is a scandal”), but, according to the Guardian, Shaun Spiers of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, seemed fine with it, assured by the government’s “highest possible safeguards.” (Good luck, rural England, with this bloke backing your protection.)

In the interests of balance, I would say that the British Geological Survey has estimated that shale gas deposits under your house and garden could supply the country with energy for up to 40 years. And luckily, in order to extract it, all the energy companies have to do is sit near it with a tanker and it will magically evaporate out of the rock under the soil and fill the tank, which can be then safely and noiselessly driven away.

The Institute of Directors said three cheers for “a dynamic, productive and well regulated shale industry in the UK.” Pardon me if I sit on my hands and save my applause for later. The man on Twitter who thought he was being very clever probably thinks I am a lily-livered, bleeding-heart, anti-business Guardian-reading lefty with no answers to his difficult questions. He’s kind of right. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be furious about the fact that nobody has done anything about our untrammeled consumption of energy thus far except invent energy-saving lightbulbs. Why didn’t we – and why don’t we – just turn the lights off when we leave the room?

 

 

London sucks

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Sorry, failed to announce last week’s Telly Addict (and the one before) on this blog, due to crashing deadlines, so here, in the traditional manner, is the alert for what is, in code, TA145, that’s the 145th weekly TV review I’ve done since April 2011. Coming up to its third birthday! And still basically dancing the same jig: what I have done watched on the telly during the week previous, discussed, with myself, in a manner than cannot meaningfully be transcribed and run as text on the Guardian website, despite constant, whining calls for this service. (The same folk must often complain to a dog that they’d rather it was a cat.) Here we go then: Mind The Gap on BBC2, a nuanced look at the way London sucks talent and money away from “the rest of the country” from Evan Davis; Gogglebox, of course, on C4, although rationed doses for this third series, as as not to do myself out of a job; Shetland on BBC1, a detective drama almost as bleak as Hinterland; the delightful Great Canal Journeys with Prunella Scales and Timothy West on More4; the misleadingly titled Michael McIntyre Chat Show on BBC1; and a clip from Astronauts: Living In Space on C4. Normal service resumed.

Lost in the stupid market

I cannot tell a lie. I chanced upon this blog entry, originally written in August 2011 at the cusp of the UK’s “double-dip” recession, and realised that it is all still true, and all still relevant, which is quite depressing after 18 months of the world turning and money coming in and going out, so please forgive me if I republish it for anyone who missed it, or remembers it. I’m glad I wrote it. (If, at the end of it, you wish to read the 20 or so comments left under it at the time, they’re here.)

This is a picture of a market. I understand it. On this market, people sell things to other people and the people who sell the things make sure that they sell them for a bit more than they paid for them, so that they can make a profit by which to pay for the opportunity to have a stall on the market and with enough left over to pay for things that they need to buy at other markets. What could be simpler?

All the newspapers today are reporting meltdown in the market. But it is a more complicated market. It is the stock market. It is not based upon things being sold, it is based upon the idea of things being sold. It is based upon selling the idea of something. The people who sell these ideas do not meet the people that they sell them to. In fact, most of the selling of ideas is done by third parties, who buy and sell the things that do not exist on behalf of the people who actually own the things, and are paid to do so. Already, this is a more complicated market than the market in the picture.

I am not very good at economics. I understand how much money I’ve got, which is a minus figure, as I owe money to a bank who foolishly lent it to me to buy a house I cannot afford, on the understanding that I will pay the money back to them by a certain date. Unfortunately, I have to pay them back more than the sum they lent me. This is how they make money. I make money by rearranging the English language, mostly by hand, occasionally by mouth, and every month I hope that enough people pay me to do this for me to pay the bank what I owe it for lending me a sum of money. Any money I have left over after paying the bank, I am free to spend on whatever I like, although because I have a house, and a car, there are certain things I have to pay first, to insurance companies and to the council, for instance. It sounds pretty stupid when you lay it out, but I do at least understand it. Once I have bought food and household goods, I might have enough left over to go to the market and buy something nice for myself.

Because I am self-employed, I do not have a boss, and cannot be sacked, but neither do I have any security. Those who pay me today are under no obligation whatsoever to pay me tomorrow, or ever again. Because of this, I tend not to go to the market to buy nice things as often as I’d like. Why? Because there is a recession on.

The recession started in 2007 and really started to get serious in 2008, when house prices fell and people who had been lent more money than they could pay back defaulted on their mortgages, meaning that the whole house of cards came crashing down. The banks and building societies had been lending money for years to people who couldn’t pay it back based upon the idea – another idea – that house prices would just keep going up. They stopped going up and started going down. It turned out that all the countries that thought they were rich and doing well, were only rich and doing well because they expected house prices to keep going up, thereby making everybody richer without actually doing anything. If you watched Property Ladder with Sarah Beeny in the mid-2000s, one thing you knew was that the amateur developers who tried to increase the value of a property but spent too much in doing so by buying stupid taps could have made money by just doing nothing for three months. Because the market went up anyway while they were mucking about with taps.

There was a banking crisis, which I understood, because it was to do with the banks having lent money that wasn’t theirs to people who couldn’t pay it back, so they ran out of money, and the money wasn’t even theirs. It was our money that they had lent to other people. Some people tried to get their money out of the banks but many banks had to be lent money by the government, who used the money we had given them through tax to help the banks. I’m not stupid, but I couldn’t really work this one out. Since 2008-2009, the best thing I could think of doing to beat the recession was spend less of my money. So I did.

Now, we read the news and find that America, the richest country in the world, cannot afford to pay money back to the people who lend it money. Why is America rich if all its money is borrowed? It is rich because of an idea. The idea is: if everybody works really hard, especially the poor, and if we allow the rich to keep all their money, they will create more money. The stock market deals in ideas. Wealth is an idea. If you do not own the house you live in, your house is an idea. You might own some of it, in that if you ran out of money, you could sell it to pay off the money you still owe, but it’s not yours. Because Greece and Spain and Portugal and Cyprus and Ireland are all in financial trouble based upon an idea – the idea being: all the money we have is borrowed but we might carry on making more money if house prices continue to go up – there are fears that the Eurozone will collapse.

As I believe I’ve mentioned, I’m not very good at economics, but I know that the single currency for some but not all European nations was introduced so that money could be simpler. Instead of lots of currencies which have to be exchanged all the time, some but not all European countries would have the same currency, which would make trading between some but not all European countries easier, and fairer. However, this Utopian ideal seems to be in trouble. Because Greece, which doesn’t really make anything, or Ireland, which doesn’t really make anything, or Spain, which doesn’t really make anything, built the idea of their wealth upon the idea that house prices would continue to go up, and they have gone down, almost an entire continent using the same currency seems to be in more trouble than it might have been if it still had lots of different currencies.

I love Ireland. It is my favourite country. I have been there a lot, and regularly, over the past 20 years. It used to be a small, modest, rural economy, self-sufficient, surrounded by water, and with enough tourism to give it a bit of spare money to buy nice things at a market. It joined the EU, became eligible for all sorts of grants and funding, and built better roads. These were really good roads, and they joined the place up a bit. Having joined the Euro, Ireland started advertising itself as a great place for foreign businesses to move to. So lots of foreign businesses did indeed move there, as rent was low, tax was low, services were almost free, and labour was cheap. And money came in. And Ireland started building houses, which people who couldn’t afford them borrowed money to buy. And people from other countries moved to Ireland to work for the businesses, and rented houses from landlords who had bought too many houses. Then, when it stopped being a good place for foreign businesses to be based in, the employers and many of the employees moved out again, to find a cheaper place to work and be based in, and Ireland’s wealth, based on an idea, disappeared. This is how quickly ideas can disappear. Now the people of Ireland are moving out, which means less tax, and tax is not an idea, it is real. This is why U2 moved their business to Holland. This is what happens if you have actual money. You move it to where people can’t get at it. (This involves not caring about the country you are moving it from, which U2 clearly don’t.)

If the current “whichever-dip” recession tells us anything about wealth is that it is only real for the wealthy. The rest of us might feel wealthy because we have credit cards and big tellies, but we are just as poor as we were when we didn’t have them. Men in stock markets are moving money that doesn’t exist around a huge, global market, and it’s not our money, and yet the success or failure of the men who move it around affects us all. Why? Because global meltdown affects the amount of extra tax we are expected to pay on goods, and the amount of interest we have to pay the institutions who lent us money we can’t afford to pay back.

The previous government in this country ran it on the basis of an idea, and that idea turned out to be a bad idea. They spent all our money, which was not even money we had in the first place, and then borrowed against money we had not yet paid them to save the banks which had lost all of our money. Luckily, this money didn’t exist, so in a way, we had lost nothing, but we had lost nothing twice. Does that sound ridiculous? It should do. The current government didn’t actually lose our money as they weren’t in power when it was lost, but they have decided that the best way to pay it off is to put quite a lot of us out of work, so that employers won’t have to pay us. But when we are out of work, other people who are in work have to pay us not to be in work, and it’s not very much money, so we can’t afford to go to the market and buy nice things, which cost more because the government have put up tax on nice things in order to pay themselves back for losing all our money, twice.

The bad thing about our government is that is that it is run by men who are rich. They were rich before they went into politics and don’t know what it is like to be poor. (Poor being what nearly all of us are, in reality.) So they have come up with a Plan A that protects people who are rich, but hurts people who are poor. It is a shit plan.

If you are actually rich – in other words, you own the house you live in, something only the rich actually do – you can pay people to prevent you from having to pay the government what you owe them in tax. This is a luxury only the rich can afford. So the rich, the very people who should be paying tax, don’t pay it. While the poor, which is nearly everybody else, pays tax that it can’t afford, but can’t afford not to pay. This is also an idea. This idea is called capitalism.

So all these sweaty men in coloured jackets and on phones we keep seeing on the news – who are, at the end of the day, just men with jobs they could lose as quickly as you could lose yours – are the most powerful men in the world, but unlike the people who work on the market in the picture above, they don’t have anything to sell. They don’t even have a stall. If you went up to the desk and tried to pay for the idea that they trade in with cash, they wouldn’t have anywhere to put the cash, and you wouldn’t have anything to show for it.

I wish the cakes weren’t so pricy in the British Library. But the British Library, which is a public service, pays a private company to make and sell its cakes. This is not a market, as there is only one place to buy cakes inside the Library.