The dark tower

GrenfellAC14July2017

On Friday, I was given a lift to Barry Norman’s funeral in the Hertfordshire village where he lived for many years. We drove north from the Radio Times office in Hammersmith, West London, and although I wasn’t looking for it, I saw the corpse of Grenfell Tower for the first time. Forgive me for taking a picture of it, but it stopped me short; it was like glimpsing the Hollywood sign for the first time in Los Angeles, or Guernica in the Reina Sofia in Madrid (neither of which landmark did I attempt to photograph, incidentally – one occurred before the ubiquity of camera-phones, the other would have been inappropriate and they were selling postcards in the gift shop). My photo of Grenfell, as we all now know it, was taken quickly, on a bad, old phone, and in motion on a roundabout, but even in this non-prizewinning form, it still it chills my blood.

Unlike the other two famous towers that were destroyed, Grenfell still stands. And in this, is it powerful. It is a constant – if not, one assumes, permanent – reminder of what went on here, in my city, in a borough I often have cause to visit, one of the wealthiest boroughs in the world, not just in London. What actually went on here, the tragedy itself, happened in a relatively short space of time. The Twin Towers in New York were destroyed in approximately an hour and three quarters, between the first impact, and the second collapse (although thousands of tons of toxic dust, comprising asbestos and other contaminants, not to mention human tissue, lingered for days, weeks, months – in fact, 18,000 people are said to have been made ill by the dust and pre-9/11 air quality did not return until June 2002). Grenfell took around 60 hours to burn itself out, having started after a fridge freezer caught fire at around 1am. There is no point in pressing any further comparisons. The towers in New York were built in the 1970s predominantly for private enterprise and were designed not to collapse, or kill anybody. Grenfell Tower, and others like it, were built as social housing, and were run and maintained by the state.

WTC_collapse_before_and_after

Ironically perhaps, the Trade Center was not properly fireproofed, and in September 2001, replacement cladding was in the early stages of being replaced: only 18 floors of WTC1 had been improved before the planes hit and made that immaterial. (A fire in 1975 had affected six floors of one tower before being successfully put out.) The World Trade Center was clearly named. It was built to regenerate Lower Manhattan and around 40% of it would be leased to private, business tenants, with rent going to the Port Authority. (The rest would house government and federal offices.) Many who objected to the project felt it shouldn’t be “subsidised” (they hate that, messing with the market) and disputed the notion of a state body moving into private real estate at all. But the Port Authority, which basically controls everything that comes in and goes out of New York and New Jersey, runs on rents, fees and tolls for tunnels and bridges. It’s complicated, in other words.

GrenfellUpper_Grenfell_Tower

Grenfell Tower, a mere 24 storeys high, was completed a year after its taller, more aggressive New York cousins, in 1974. (The ribbon was cut on the WTC in April 1973, which meant it was up and running in time to replace the Empire State Building in a brash, oil-embargo Hollywood remake of King Kong, with the giant ape misleadingly able to put one monkey foot on either Tower and straddle it in the publicity materials.) Grenfell, named after an adjoining road, itself named after a Field Marshall who fought in the Anglo-Zulu War, was built in the Brutalist style, which I happen to rather like, as a style. (I wouldn’t want to live anywhere above three floors though.) It was nicknamed “the Moroccan Tower” by locals to reflect the ethnic bias of those who lived in it in the mid-70s. In the mid-80s, Margaret Thatcher encouraged council tenants to buy their flats and then vote for her. Only 14 of Grenfell’s 120 flats were privately owned when it burned down.

GrenfellTowerVictoriaLive

When I ghoulishly but instinctively took a photo of the husk of Grenfell from my friend’s car on Friday I didn’t need to. The husk is on the news – certainly Channel 4 News, and London Tonight – every night. It is now almost five weeks since the fire, but just as the charcoal parody of a tower block refuses to stop sticking a middle finger into the London skyline on a round-the-clock basis, the story will not go away. Nor, inconveniently, will the surviving residents, who seem to have solidified through community spirit into a permanent working party action group on behalf of all people who live in towers in this country. Many Grenfell residents raised concerns about safety, not least fire safety, in the months before the fire, but were dismissed by Kensington and Chelsea Council as trouble makers. (This is the Tory-run council that took £55 million in rent in 2016 but invested less than £40 million in council housing.) It is not forced or wishful to view the horrific demise of at least 80 people – a figure kept lower than the assumed 100-plus by lack of DNA evidence – as a class issue. (Some found it intrusive but I didn’t when Victoria Darbyshire hugged a grieving, shellshocked eyewitness, resident and survivor live on the BBC. For me, it melted away barriers.)

Grenfell_Tower,_London_in_2009

By “class” I don’t mean middle-class, or upper-class, or working-class, I mean a much starker divide: the one between people who can afford to live in London and people who frankly can’t, but stick it out and hope for the best as they have no other option on account of family, friends, local links, workplace and other fanciful factors that affect actual human beings. Suspicion was aroused among aggrieved and grieving Grenfell refugees when retired Appeal Court judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick was appointed to lead a public inquiry that even he forewarned wouldn’t satisfy everybody. (In November 2014 he’d upheld a judgment that Westminster Council could offer housing to a woman who, with her children, had been evicted from privately rented local housing and offered alternative accommodation 50 miles away. Not a great omen.) The killing joke about Grenfell is that its “refurbishment” had only ever been external; a way of improving the view for other residents ie. private ones.

GrenfellAC14July2017

Theresa May, apparently still Britain’s Prime Minister, called Grenfell “a failure of the state,” as if perhaps “the state” was nothing to do with her, or her cabinet. It was a failure, but one that has killed over 100 people who had done nothing to deserve it except try to scrape a living in a part of London that neatly represents the poles of social experience within one arbitrary boundary. There are residential units owned in Kensington and Chelsea by billionaires in Singapore who will never step foot in them. They do not take advantage of local facilities, nor engage in local activities, for they do not live in their properties. They do not contribute to the local economy like the residents of Grenfell Tower, not even buying a packet of chewing gum from a local shop. This is the obscenity of capitalism. Not a failure of the state, but a failure of the private sector, with its tentacles into everything and its empathy for nothing. Capitalism is the bottom line. Grenfell Tower fell below that line: too full of people on the breadline, and from foreign countries, to care too much about with their petty complaints about exposed gas pipes, blocked fire exits and the “stay put” advice on each floor that might have had some credibility had the cladding used to smarten the building up from the outside not been made of petrol-soaked kindling, or something.

GrenfellAluminium_composite_material

Some experts and one or two Hollywood scenarists had predicted a plane crashing, accidentally, into a skyscraper. But nobody saw two hijacked passenger jets being deliberately flown into towers by synchronised suicidal madmen with pinpoint piloting skills, just after breakfast on a balmy September morning. A whole lot more people predicted a fire in Grenfell Tower.

We can only hope that the inquiry and the inquest, and whatever has to come next to compensate for the lack of clear answers and blame after the inquiry and the inquest, don’t drag this out for as long as Hillsborough. The Grenfell Action Group don’t even yet have a figure to put on their tragedy; a number to hammer home to anyone seeing their banners, or hearing their angry pleas on Channel 4.

GrenfellToweringInferno

People don’t regard the 1970s disaster movies as progressive, or socialist. But The Towering Inferno, released in 1974, the year Grenfell opened, and based on a combination of twin novels about the tallest skyscraper in the world going on fire, had a very simple moral: if capitalism insists of building taller and taller buildings, because that’s all that capitalism has the wit to do, it must improve fire safety at a similar rate. In The Towering Inferno, dedicated to firefighters with a righteous pride in the nation’s working men and women, the 138-floor Glass Tower in earthquake-prone San Francisco lights up on the night of its gala opening because economies have been made to cut costs in its construction. It’s not quite down to poor-quality cladding bought in on the cheap while scrubbing up the outside of the building in order not to offend the eye of the rich neighbours, but the warning from history is identical.

GrenfellToweringInfernoSMPN

When good-guy architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) discovers “duct holes that weren’t fire-stopped … corridors without fire doors … sprinklers won’t work, and an electrical system that’s good for what? I mean, it’s good for starting fires! … What do they call it when you kill people?” (Mind your inflammatory language, John McDonnell!) As with many Hollywood disaster movies made for profit at a time when faith in authority was ebbing away after Vietnam and Watergate, it’s a fable of the little man, or the lone voice, against the big corporations. Ring any bells?

It would be chilling watching the film again now. (I wonder how long before a TV channel in this country will dare to show it, in actual fact.) Forget that it’s future criminal OJ Simpson playing the part of the Chief Security Officer, at one point he is asked for a “complete list of tenants,” something he seems unable or unwilling to access. We live in an age where any borough council in the country ought to be able to supply a full list of tenants in any building on their watch, at the press of a computer key. The fact that this still hasn’t happened speaks volumes about the cladding of obfuscation surrounding this issue.

Grenfellablaze

According to a report quoted in Fire magazine: a third (35%) of the lowest income households renting flats say they have been given information on the emergency fire plan for the building where they live, compared to 88% of tenants on incomes over £100,000 a year. Those on incomes of £25,000 or less are much less likely to feel completely safe from fire (27%) than those on incomes above £80,000 (44%). But two out of every nine (22%) households with incomes under £25,000 living in rented flats who have concerns over fire safety are unable to move because they can’t afford to. It’s no wonder Kensington and Chelsea have emerged even more strongly than our weak Prime Minister as the villains of this piece. The council are the ones who contracted the £10m refurbishment of Grenfell to private construction firm Rydon, who, typically for a public sector contract, in turn subcontracted some of the work, in “an illustration of the rewards on offer to private firms from social housing projects”, according to a piece in the Guardian. Rydon, who will have to account for themselves and others in the parodic food chain, landed £8.6m to “upgrade” Grenfell, including the external cladding being investigated as a potential factor in the fire’s rapid spread. (It really did spread like wildfire.)

In the disaster movie version, when the fire’s been put out by geligniting the water tanks in the roof to create the world’s biggest sprinkler (at least the Glass Tower had sprinklers, they just weren’t working), Roberts muses to Fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) of the burned-out tower, “I don’t know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

O’Hallorhan gets the last word. “You know, one of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.”

Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson prepares to speak at the group's headquarters in London

You will have been reminded by social media, if not the MSM, that when he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson told a Labour member of the London Assembly Andrew Dismore to “get stuffed” when he questioned fire service cuts that were on a par with planned manslaughter. On his watch – a phrase purloined from the emergency services and NASA – ten fire stations were closed, and 27 fire engines taken out of service.

 

I read the news today, oh f**k

In Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters, the great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow channels Bergman as Frederick, the older, existentially curmudgeonly artist. When his younger partner Lee (Barbara Hershey) gets home from an illicit liaison one night, she discovers him in a characteristic funk, having watched a “very dull TV show on Auschwitz.” He continues:

More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?”

This line has never left me. It’s the wrong question. Why doesn’t it happen more often? Even if it was placed in the mouth of a fictional pretentious grump to satirise him and his sort, I detect Allen’s own voice in this declaration. It’s also a clearly loaded statement, as it was written by a Jew.

The reason I bring up this minor diatribe from a mid-80s Woody Allen film (one of his later, funny ones) is that I keep repeating that line over and over in my head. Our holocausts come in shorter, sharper blasts, with more imaginable numbers of casualties, but they really do seem to be happening more and more often. The toxic dust has barely settled on the previous attack or atrocity before the next one flares up in another part of London, or another part of the country, in a street that looks like every other street, except for the police tape and the news vans and the community spirit.

As I type, a “Day of Rage” protest is taking place across the capital city I happen to live in. That’s not its official title, it’s something to do with the Queen’s Speech, which this year came on a the back of an envelope. But barely a day goes by without me feeling some degree of rage about something or other. We’re having a heatwave in the South of England, too, which reminds me of the mid-80s Siouxsie and the Banshees album Tinderbox, one of whose standout tracks was called 92°, a reference to the temperature on the Fahrenheit scale at which human beings go mad  (“I wondered when this would happen again/Now I watch the red line reach that number again/The blood in our veins and the brains in our head”).

You wonder if the heat got to the dumb-f*** Islamophobe from Cardiff who drove his hired van into Muslims at prayer in Finsbury Park, North London. I mean, who does that? And why don’t they do it more often? Well, in fact, Frederick the fictional character, they now do. I can’t remember a time when I was more nervous about hired vans. (I was like this about planes flying overhead in the months after 9/11.)

These surges in negative cosmic energy, often leading to death or injury, and always leading to panic and overreaction, are not Holocausts. Instead we have major incidents, geographically labelled, and thrown into the 24-hour news cycle like it’s a tumble drier: Westminster Bridge, Manchester Evening News Arena, Borough Market, Finsbury Park Mosque. It’s the cumulative dread and the speed at which they line up that really take the breath away. I feel breathless as a kind of default setting in this escalating age of catastrophe. One death toll rises, when another, new death toll is started before the previous one has been finalised. (We have no idea how many people perished in Grenfell House, other than it’s more than we are being told.) I guess there’s no better word for what many of us feel in these special circumstances than terror. (The terrorists have won, by the way, whether they come in networks or cells, as martyrs or “lone wolves”. But maybe the tide will turn and we will win in the end.)

London skyline

I have lived in London since 1984. I arrived in the city full of hope and dreams. Those hopes and dreams have long since migrated away from London. It’s too crowded. It’s too divided. It’s too vulnerable. Also, it’s full of high-rise buildings that do have safety features, like sprinklers, because they are soulless stacks of glass units sold to foreign investors, who generally don’t even live in them, and who can blame them? Who would choose to live in a tower? If you take an overground train into Central London and pass the Thames, you can no longer see the Thames. All you can see is ugly, protruding glass and metal tubes. They block out the gorgeous old buildings on the other side of the river, and monstrosities nicknamed things like “the Walkie Talkie” and “the Cheese Grater” stand testament only to the excess testosterone coursing through the pinched veins of male architects who have no intention of living in them. (Grenfell Tower is not like these buildings.)

ToweringInfernoDanLorrie

I have a longtime fascination with disaster movies, in particular those made during the genre’s first cycle in the 1970s, when glamorous movie stars were half-drowned for our delectation and amusement. It was interesting to me that one of Grenfell Tower’s luckier residents – ie. one who got out with his life – spoke of wrapping his children’s heads in wet towels before they fled their flat. This is more than likely something learned through watching dramas about fires. I will never forgot Robert Wagner’s philandering PR Dan Bigelow adopting the wet-towel survival technique in The Towering Inferno – fruitlessly, as it happened, as the fire had got out of control due to corners cut with wiring and safety features, so he burned to death, while his lover, Lorrie (Susan Flannery) threw herself out of the window. The Towering Inferno was critical of cheaply built skyscrapers, and showed the dangers, but this was Hollywood fantasy, not the news, right?

Huw

When Huw Edwards sat in total silence at his large, round, glass desk last night, unaware, due to a technical issue, that News at Ten had started and filled the air with silence, it was a blessed relief. For four silent minutes and eight silent seconds, with no news. And no news is good news.

We may soon have to start planning moments of silence in advance, maybe every Thursday. There’s a daily need to stop and think and remember those who’ve suffered.

I’m sick of all the violence, and the hate, and the murder, and the name-calling, and the corporate greed, and the municipal incompetence, and the political dismantling of the public sector and the good it does for ordinary people when properly funded and looked after, and I’m sick of people in government being terrible at their jobs, whether it’s looking after the economy or having an empathy at all or knowing what the inside of Lidl or Aldi looks like. Some Tories are clearly just cruel, and uncaring, and mean. Some are merely useless at their jobs. Many of them are both. One of them, Theresa May, is what Frankie Boyle described her as on his New World Order show for BBC Two: “a f***ing monster.”

I hate it when politicians accuse other politicians of politicising terrible atrocities, the kind that happen on a weekly basis currently. Tragedy is political. Terror is political. Neglect is political. And greed is certainly political.

I am not on the Day of Rage, but I’m having one privately. I rage at 22-year-old men who are disaffected and bored, just like most 22-year-olds, but who choose to vent that disaffection and boredom by taking innocent lives. I rage at people who see harm done by individuals from one religious group on individuals from various religious groups and surmise that it’s all the fault of just one religious group, because a man or a woman with thin, purple lips and a tumour growing inside their soul said so in a newspaper opinion column, which, if written by a different man would see him accused of hate speech. I rage at the disparaging term “snowflake”. And I rage at members of UKIP still being asked onto BBC political discussion programmes, despite having no MPs. They made this mess and I would rather they f***ed off while the rest of us got on with clearing it up.

I have no answers. I’m like the beautiful short-sleeved bowling shirt bearing a Chinese dragon design worn by a contestant on a recent Pointless and met with admiration by Alexander Armstrong. He said, “It asks more questions than it answers.”

But let’s keep asking them. The right questions.

 

 

++++++STOP PRESS+++++

One national newspaper has found a way of cheering us all up! By ignoring all the terrible news and offering combined monarchism, voyeurism and objectification of women.

Sunbot21June

X

Here is the news. On 1 May 1997, I voted Labour.

C&MMovieClubNew2

This seems a long, long time ago now. It would be the last time I would vote Labour for 20 years.

Tomorrow, I will vote Labour again, with my head and my heart. I hope you will vote with yours, too.*

NMECorbynJun17

*I cannot, nor would not, speak for my friend. But he has just re-traced the Jarrow March.

 

Choose life

NMECorbynJun17MailMayElectioncover19Apr

I have been eligible to vote in eight general elections, two referendums and five mayoral elections in London. I voted in all of them. I have placed my cross next to a number of parties in that time. I have voted with my heart, generally, aligning with the party whose policies most accurately reflect my own. (I even gave my second-choice vote to Mark Steel in the 2000 mayoral election when he stood for the London Socialist Alliance and increased his vote from 1,822 to 1,823.) On Thursday I will vote with my head. I do no necessarily agree with all of the policies of the Labour Party, and I have had my doubts about Jeremy Corbyn, but Labour is the only party who can realistically unseat the Tories, and that, for me, is the priority.

This is what we are up against: a Prime Minister who thinks that people use food banks for “many complex reasons”, while Dominic Raab, MP for Esher and Walton, believes people use them when they have “a cashflow problem.”

TheresaMaychain

If you are of voting age and don’t vote on Thursday because of apathy, fear of terrorism or fear of getting wet (showers are predicted in some parts of the country), please think again. It was Labour leader Neil Kinnock, cover star of the NME in 1987, who summed up the dangers of Margaret Thatcher’s bulldozer free-market economics and her disdain for ordinary people lacking the entrepreneurial ruthlessness to become rich and successful, with a speech that is as resonant now as it was over 30 years ago:

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to grow old.

Look at the faces of May, Raab, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, Karen Bradley. Look at their disgust. It causes their nostrils to flare and their eyes to narrow, their foreheads to shine and their smiles to disintegrate.

VictoriaLivedebateDominicRaab

Apathy is no excuse. This is the big one. The country is poised to leave the EU, thanks to the will of 51.9% of the electorate, and even optimistic economists seem to agree that the initial effects will not be desirous. We can’t carry on cutting public services, cutting taxes for the rich, driving the NHS off a cliff to prepare it for privatisation, cutting tax for corporations behind the fig leaf of austerity, and driving the ordinary, the young, the ill and the old deeper into debt and despair.

SnapelectionJCWales

Despite negative briefing against Corbyn by his own party and a priapic right-wing press, he has found his tone and his feet during the rushed campaign for this snap election (called, lest we forget, by a PM who promised not to call one). A Labour candidate on the left – or what the right calls “the hard left” – is on a hiding to nothing before he or she starts, and Corbyn has targets on his back. However, his steady, approachable, non-violent campaigning style has seemed increasingly attractive as Theresa May has stumbled, blathered, stonewalled and u-turned, rocking up in a Jag by the back door and taking questions from plants, and Tory arrogance might just be their undoing. (She won’t even criticise that abomination Donald Trump for calling the Mayor of London “pathetic” days after the horrific London Bridge attack.)

Nobody would take any satisfaction from a terrorist atrocity affecting an election, but let’s face it, May has been exposed by her own record as Home Secretary, during which she called out the police for “crying wolf” and “scaremongering” when they predicted that her cuts and the reduction of police numbers would lead to attacks just like the ones in London and Manchester over the past three weeks. (“Enough is enough,” was the PM and former Home Secretary’s assessment. Did she mean three deadly attacks was enough? That rather suggests that two was acceptable.) For Tory thinking, try this, from former Health Secretary Edwina Currie.

TweetEdwinaCurrieApril17

I’ve gone into elections with hope in my heart before, and I’m realistic enough now to distrust my own optimism. But as the gap has narrowed in the polls, and I’ve read about how many people have registered to vote since April 19, I’ve dared to dream. In the month after it was called, almost 1.2 million voters between the ages of 18 to 35 signed up. About half of them were 24 or younger.

The young are our Obi-Wan Kenobis this week. It’s the old who voted for Brexit, the old who think Theresa May is strong and impressive, the old who think bringing back fox hunting is a splendid idea, and the old who fear Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism of the heart. Help us, young voters – you’re our only hope!

PS: Corbyn rally, Gateshead, yesterday (courtesy Paul Mason):

GatesheadrallyCorbyn

Snap! (You’ve got the power)

SnapelectionTMwide

Actually, technically, she’s got the power. For she, Theresa May, or Mrs May as they call her and May, as I call her, is the unelected Prime Minister of Great Britain now seeking to become the elected Prime Minister of Great Britain with a snap election that she promised never to call. Politicians and promises, eh? Cuh.

I guess it’s called a “snap” election because it’s going to be identical the last one. Snap. In which demoralising case, if the Tories are kept in power for another five years by a Labour party weakened through its own in-fighting and long-term muddle-headedness about Brexit, and the apparent unthinkability of a progressive coalition, there’s a very real chance that this country will snap in half, if not into three pieces.

A snap election is a sneaky bastard trick to pull. The Tories had their strategy and buzz-phrases planned, while the rest of the parties have just a few frantic weeks to catch up and decide on important matters such as whether sex between two people of the same gender is or isn’t a sin, and whether we need Trident or not. (The answers to both of those questions are opaque at this stage.) So we have the unedifying sight of May striding through seas of vetted Tory supporters to stand at a podium and answer no questions as she doggedly and bloodlessly repeats the phrases “STRONG AND STABLE LEADERSHIP”, “THE NATIONAL INTEREST” and “COALITION OF CHAOS” (the latter written and printed up on placards before the chaotic parties announced that they would not coalesce). Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn does what he always does, and does best, which is loosen his tie, leave Westminster behind and walk the earth, engaging with people who would benefit from Labour policy but who are still more likely to vote Conservative.

SnapelectionJCWales

Good lord, we are in a fucking pickle. Tory austerity and “hard” Brexit seem to play much better in the wider populace than Labour focus on workers’ rights, the NHS and bank holidays, never mind the Liberal Democrat sort-of-anti-Brexit stance, which seems to annoy most people outside of big, complex cities, who accept the fate of a referendum in which 51.9% of the country voted to accidentally cast their beloved sovereign nation as a global pariah and push it to the back of every queue. (Still, at least all the immigrants have disappeared since last June. You just don’t see foreigners any more, do you?)

My total lack of confidence in Labour after Ed Milliband’s dismayingly weak challenge in 2015 (“Hell, yeah!”) was lifted when the membership voted outsider Corbyn in on a thrilling mandate. But the failure of the party to get behind him – or to field a single credible candidate to stand against him – left them in disarray. But I truly believe that now is the time to put squabbles and snipes aside and vote for whichever party can get the Tories out. If Labour are in second place in your constituency, vote for them, for the greater good. If it’s the Lib Dems, vote for them and hope that Tim Farron makes up his mind about the gays at some later stage. If you’re lucky enough to live in a ward where the local Greens speak to the people, vote for them and we’ll sort out bin collection later. (I’ve made no secret of my fundamental support of the Green Party’s policies in the past, but unless there really is a coalition of chaos, it’s more important to oust Theresa May and her privatising PPE asset-strippers than worry about bins.)

I believe this is called tactical voting. Vote with your head, not your heart, and we’ll sort out the details later. Clearly, this would be a lot simpler if the Lib Dems and Labour weren’t too arrogant to pool resources, but we are where we are. And this is where we are:

Snapelectiontable

Personally, if I were in charge of Labour, I would waste no further time campaigning in Scotland. It is an act of hubris. The electoral equivalent of banging your head against a wall. But it’s also a distraction from the job in England and Wales, which are very likely, I think, to be what’s left of the United Kingdom within the next few years. I still wish I could vote for the SNP, but I’m going to have to come to terms with the cold, hard truth that I can’t. Unless I move to Scotland. Which is a temptation. (If I were in charge of any political party, I would ensure that my party leader did not run away from reporters.)

As for UKIP? Are they still going? Seriously, give them no thought. They’ve come in, smashed the place up, and we’re going to be cleaning their mess off the walls for generations to come. Unless Theresa May has a vicar’s-daughter epiphany one night before the month named after her and remembers that she campaigned to stay in the European Union, and calls a snap EU: Sorry About All That referendum based on facts and projections that are too complex to get on the side of a bus, or paste over a photograph of non-white migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015, but that’s magical thinking, I know.

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage launches UKIP's new EU Referendum poster campaign, London, UK - 16 Jun 2016When are we going to reach breaking point? It seems to me we’ve had it with Farage and Banks and Nuttall and their cobbled-together saloon-bar fascism. And Farage’s oily ambitions to be a shock jock inside Donald Trump’s bum have now been revealed, so we really should move on. But my worry, among many worries, is that UKIP voters (many of whom were said to be ex-Labour voters) will return not to Labour, but to the warm embrace of the Conservatives, because their leader, who was firmly in favour of REMAIN before she succumbed to “the will of the people”, is seen as “STRONG AND STABLE” in “THE NATIONAL INTEREST” and will stop the non-existent “COALITION OF CHAOS” from prevailing. How? In the traditonal Tory manner: by laughing hard and exaggeratedly in its face like she does to all questions of equality, rights and decency raised by Corbyn at PMQs. She is laughing at you. She thinks food banks are funny. She thinks I, Daniel Blake is a knockabout farce. She thinks an energy freeze is different to an energy cap. She is not shaking with mirth, but self-interest.

TheresaMaylaughs

Like you, probably, I wish there wasn’t a general election. I wish there was more time to prepare, and some different people in charge (it’s a shame that Nick Clegg counted himself out of the leadership with his betrayals, as he’s a very clear speaker and persuasive advocate of commonsense). The opposition is nothing like as strong as the might of the Scottish National Party makes it look. We ended up with the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010 because Labour were too arrogant to countenance a Lib Dem/Labour/Green coalition. We may end up with another Tory government this time if nobody has the guts to collude for the sake of the country.

I hope the pundits are right, and that this is not an election about Brexit, but an election about the future of the NHS. That the future pharmaceutical industry consultant Jeremy Hunt is still in his job after five years shows just how low down the priority list public health provision is for this bloodthirsty government. All the post requires is to keep running the NHS down by stealth, placing negative stories in the press, and economic and statistic inevitability will do the rest, eventually. A few feckless poor people might die in the process, so it’s win-win for Theresa May.

This partly political broadcast is almost over. If you’re not registered to vote, register to vote. If you think your vote will make no difference, think again. It might make the difference between a library and no library, which is stark, even if it’s a library you don’t ever plan on using. Would a world without libraries be better or worse? If you can bear to vote for a party you don’t passionately believe in, in order to unseat a party you passionately despise, do that. Nobody is going to mind.

If you want a crystal example of the disconnect between Tory thinking and cold, hard reality, spend a second or two considering long-retired former Tory health secretary Edwina Currie’s recent Tweet.

TweetEdwinaCurrieApril17

She seems actually to think that obesity is caused by over-eating, and not by malnutrition. She also seems actually to think that malnutrition, which means bad nutrition, only applies to starving people in what she probably still thinks of as the Third World. Did I mention that she used to head the Department of Health? This is not just ignorance, it is wilful misreading of the facts to fit a prepared placard. It is also rooted in hatred. Currie is sure to be one of those people who thinks poor people shouldn’t have tellies, and that food banks are a lifestyle choice.

As Billy Bragg always rhetorically asks in such situations: which side are you on? Are you on the side of Edwina Currie, and Jeremy Hunt, and Aaron Banks, and Nigel Farage, and David Davis, and Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson (yes, let’s not forget him just because he’s been put in Big Yellow Storage for the duration of the campaign) and Theresa May? Or are you not?

Eh?

 

 

Your country needs EU

EUDaily_Mail_30_5_2016EUDaily_Mail_28_5_2016EUDaily_Express_30_5_2016EUDaily_Mail_3_6_2016EUDaily_Express_28_5_2016EUDaily_Express_2_6_2016

Nigel Farage, a man who is not even an MP, and whose party only has one MP in the House of Commons, is the most influential politician in Britain. Farage need only sit in a snug bar somewhere on the Kent coast, telling stories of his days as a commodities broker to other members of his golf club over a succession of pints, between now and the EU referendum vote on June 23 and his supreme power will be unabated. He did this.

Welcome to Europe: The Final Countdown. Our dearly beleaguered Prime Minister, David Cameron, sort of accidentally made a manifesto pledge before the general election to hold an EU referendum in this parliament, solely to stop those on the right of the Tory vote from emigrating to UKIP, whose leader continues to be the kind of bloke you’d like to have a pint with, something no Tory can claim to imitate. If ever a man can congratulate himself on undue national and international influence from a position of relative electoral obscurity, it’s Nigel Farage, without even being electable in South Thanet in 2015, where the oast houses have spikes mounted on them to repel parachuting foreign invaders. Farage has forced the Conservatives to hold a referendum that their leader, their chancellor, and 25 members of their 30-member cabinet did not want to hold. Well done, Nigel. Mine’s an imported European lager.

EUCamSky2

And yet opinion across the country – crucially among the tiny percentage of the electorate who will bother to drag their arses out of bed on June 23 to place their democratic cross in one of two boxes and change the future of the country forever – still seems evenly split. In which case, there is a very real chance that this country will vote to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership, in a couple of weeks’ time because of one powerful, elected politician’s fear of another one, whose only mandate is to be a member of the European Parliament he wants not to be a member of with every fibre of his being . The whole thing is a giant pisstake. And the joke’s on us.

EUleavelineup

We have the sitting government, “officially” neutral but no such thing, with its electoral mandate, desperately trying to get the voters of Great Britain and Gibraltar to vote “remain”. (I am a big fan of lettuce, and I wish to vote “Romaine”.) But some rather noisy and famous members of the Tory bloc – including one of the noisiest men in Britain, Boris Johnson; the ghoulish IDS; the one who can’t stop laughing, Michael Gove; the man with a cardboard box full of his belongings ready on his desk, John Whittingdale; grey Chris Grayling; entitled Zac Goldsmith (who has gone mysteriously quiet since throwing the London Mayoral election away by pretending to like Bollywood films when he hasn’t seen one); Liam Fox; Priti Patel; and assorted former Chancellors now in the Lords – are currently, and persuasively, filling their compliant parish magazines ie. the Eurosceptic news media (specifically: the Times, the Telegraph, the Sun, but most pantingly the Mail, the Express) with stories of “CRISIS”, “HARM”, “INVASION” and “EU KILLERS AND RAPISTS”, which work on a very primal level, and have little to do with the “leave” campaign’s refrain, “We want to make our own laws, and not have them made for us by a coterie of cheese-eaters in Brussels.” They have largely to do with fear. Fear of foreigners, specifically Turks and Albanians currently. Fear of invasion. Fear of our “way of life” being threatened by boatloads of Bulgarian pickpockets.

EUflag

A sensible debate needs to occur on immigration, and our role in the current global displacement crisis. But there’s no time to do this properly between now and June 23, which is under three weeks away. And while Cameron fairly sensibly but never passionately states the case, as he did over and over again on Sky’s EU Debate last night to an audience who wouldn’t stop shouting out before the roving mic arrived, that leaving the single market would damage the UK economy (something most economists pretty much agree on in principle), it’s not getting through to those in zero-hours jobs or less-than-zero-hours no-jobs, or indeed those in actual jobs that don’t cover the cost of living (“the working poor” is a phrase that should strike fear into the hearts of all of us). Or people who live on the south coast. One photo of a row of tents battered by the coastal winds on a clifftop in Calais, each one containing at least one Albanian with an eye on the coffee shops of Dymchurch, beats a hundred statements from the Treasury or letters in the Telegraph signed by a slimy coterie of CEOs.

EUvoteremainsigns

Personally, I’d stay in, if only for the employment rights enshrined into European law that the Johnson regime would rip up within days of entering Parliament. I have nothing personal to gain from the EU, but it feels better to be in it than not in it. This country is small-minded and insular enough already, without literally becoming an island. (It was during the dangerous George W Bush years that I really started to believe in Europe as a necessary political counterweight to US neocon insanity – which hasn’t exactly gone away, has it?) I have no love of the financial services industry, or of “big business”, and I certainly have no love of David Cameron and his chums, and as such it feels weird to agree with them on anything, but that’s how I feel in my bones. I despise the Tories. But I actually fear Boris and the “leavers”. And if there’s one thing that seems to be driving this debate, it’s fear.

A great leap forward

Squeeze are a band who were formed in 1974, when I was nine and the eloquent East Midlands firebrand Grace Petrie was around ten years away from being born. They were invited onto BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday to perform their splendid song Cradle To The Grave (the theme tune for the splendid BBC comedy of the same name), and a few days before, singer and co-songwriter Glenn Tibrook found out that they were going to be on the same edition as the Prime Minister. But not until ten minutes before the live performance did he decide he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t slip in a new verse. So, without the rest of the band knowing, he did. It was sung, live, to a visible audience of two: Andrew Marr and David Cameron (who’d been on to smarm about how his government’s dismantling of council housing wasn’t that at all, even though it is).

I grew up in council houses
Part of what made Britain great
There are some here who are hell bent
On the destruction of the welfare state

As an act of protest it was calm, collected and heartfelt. You can read Tilbrook’s full account of why he did it here. Even if Cameron wasn’t paying attention, we were. (It was Danny Baker, old pal and co-writer of the series that bears the song’s name, who tweeted about it, and interest among the righteous snowballed from there.) I think the fact that it went a bit viral is due to a broader thirst for protest in the arts. I have loved Squeeze since Cool For Cats, and although their best known songs are beautifully observed social documentary, rather than out and out socialist anthems, a beating heart is always audible, and anyone who had a heart would surely be on the side of people who can’t afford to buy their council houses rather than the side of the developers and landlords who will cash in on their blameless misery.

My blood was stirred by Tilbrook’s stand. It must have been even more exciting to catch it as it went out. What a thrill such subversion provides. If he’d sworn, or thrown down the mic, or stuck two fingers up at Cameron, it would have been less of a moment. To instead attack him with poetry, which is what it is, is poetic. This government will cut the subsidised arts down to the bone if they have their way, as they believe, in the space where their hearts might beat, that if the arts can’t pay for themselves in a free market, they have no place in the public arena.

I tweeted in the heat of the moment about Squeeze, but was defeated in my constant aim of clarity by the 140-character limit, and it didn’t quite come across, which is why I’m expanding upon the fire in my belly here, and will keep typing until I’ve finished! Anyway, out of a self of righteous dismay with the generally apolitical malaise of today’s mainstream pop and rock music, this is what I wrote:

SqueezeTweet

I called Squeeze “old” because, well, they are. The band itself is 42. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are 58 and 61. They have been around. And the truism goes: you get more right wing as you get older. I have personally found this not to be the case, but you do see people’s priorities change when they have children and find themselves inevitably sucked into the system, with less time for the luxury of dissent. (Do you know that quote by literary critic Cyril Connolly? “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”)

I find myself getting angrier and angrier about injustice, cruelty, materialism, privatisation and lack of compassion. Some days I wish I’d calm down. I may not have been on a march since 2003, but this is chiefly because that particular protest’s failure to change the course of history knocked the protesting stuffing out of me. (I even tried writing letters to my MP and to the PM but they had no effect either, and Iraq was duly invaded, as planned long before anybody tried to stop the war.)

GracePetrie

So the sight of a band who’ve been around since the mid-70s seizing the moment on a live political discussion programme and having their say warmed my heart. My tweet was not aimed at “young bands” who are politicised. I’m well aware that a pocket of young artists are as pissed off as I am. I may not know all their names, or be au fait with their politically charged music (as I’ve long since stopped going to gigs on a regular basis), but as Billy Bragg’s official biographer I keep abreast of political music via him. We collaborated on a new chapter to my book only two years ago, and in writing about Billy’s endorsement of Jake Bugg, Grace Petrie and others, I felt a connection with them. Having first heard Grace Petrie through Josie Long when we did a 6 Music radio show together, it gave me enormous pleasure to type “Petrie, Grace” into the updated index of Still Suitable For Miners. (I still wonder to this day why Josie and I were not invited back. We were told that the station had loved what we’d done, but the call never came.)

SeanMcGowan

Anyway, true to form, my Tweet was read by some as a sweeping generalisation against all “young bands”. It was nothing of the sort. But Twitter can be a cruel interpreter of raw feeling. To me, there is no difference between what Squeeze did and what Petrie, Seán McGowan and Chris TT do. I remembered this dispiriting moment from a 2011 article by Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian. We join Grace Petrie onstage at the University of London:

“You guys at UCL,” she says. “You’re pretty political, right?” A handful of students raise a feeble cheer, and Petrie’s face falls. “That’s not quite what I expected.”

She wins them over in the end, but the message is: it ain’t easy being political. One of her first songs was Goodbye To Welfare, so it’s easy to see the link with Squeeze. My dismay was clearly never with her, or the others who fight the good fight. It was with the general state of pop and rock music made by the young and aimed at the young, but to my ears bereft of struggle or friction. I actually sometimes think that the mobile phone age has bred an intractable complacency. You can’t blame a generation for succumbing to the touch-screen intimacy of the smartphone and taking their eye off the bigger picture – after all, nobody even looks forward when they’re walking along now. Their face is in that little glowing oblong, their ears plugged, their attention all used up. This victory for the system makes political artists all the more rare, and all the more vital.

SDuckworthTw

Sam Duckworth (formerly Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly), who raises a “Stop Bombing Syria” placard in his Twitter avatar, wrote to me of “the death of the counter culture in the under-30s.” It sort of breaks my heart. In a better world, protest artists would be on television. Maybe not on Andrew Marr, but somewhere on the BBC, with its public service remit (although I guess the BBC has bigger fish to fry, what with the Tories bearing down hard at charter-renewal time). When I was a teenager, we had Something Else on BBC Two, a “youth” magazine show that introduced me to so many things, not just Joy Division live (something it’s now famous for doing), but also political poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke and Craig Charles. I may be remembering it – and the subsequent Oxford Road Show – through a rose tint, but I was a “youth” and somebody was speaking to me. Also, there was nothing else on and no mobiles, so I went out on my bike and listened to records with my friends, and talked.

JoyDivSomethingE

Nothing more boring than a man in his fifties hymning his childhood, but I hold the youth of today to a high standard. I don’t expect Adele (whose music I like) to bring down the government. But I don’t hear any politics in the dreary music of Ellie Goulding or Florence Welch either (and they seemed to come up via 6 Music with a certain degree of credibility), or in any of the acoustic singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran, or James Bay, or whatever the other ones are called. They’re the worst; they come on like troubadours, one man and a guitar, and they say next to nothing.

KingBlues

People on Twitter started listing bands and artists who are political for me, and the fact that I’d not heard of many of them tells you a lot. Enter Shikari and the King Blues I’m familiar with, but (and I’ll try and put links in to their websites here) less so Tim OT, Against Me!, Gecko, The Lagan, Josiah Mortimer, Dru Blues, Brigitte Aphrodite, Chas Palmer-Williams, Ducking Punches, Perkie, Colour Me Wednesday, Onsind, Will Varley, Itch (from the King Blues), Grant Sharkey, Beans On Toast (thanks to Seán McGowan for most of those, but others chipped in).

It’s an underground movement, as it has to be. But the very technology that seems to be turning the populace into zombies, unable to communicate verbally or emotionally, also empowers unknown or unsigned artists to get their music out there, often for free, via Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Squeeze are a well-established band from another era of contracts and distribution and copyright and Walkerprints, and for them to make their stand, on live television, in the daytime, on the BBC, puts them in the same boat at Grace Petrie and the others mentioned here.

That’s what I meant.

I’ll end with a self-referential couplet from a song by Billy Bragg written and recorded in 1987 for the Workers’ Playtime LP:

Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses …

Now form a band!*

 

* Sorry, another ancient reference.