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Subterranean

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

Whilst the nation has been obsessed with leaving the EU, an issue of such importance that for forty years it was viewed with indifference or irrelevance by all, apart from a tiny group of zealots, who might more usefully have been employed, like King Canute, railing against the waves crashing against the coastline of these Sceptred Isles, things have been happening, bad things, most of which have hardly been touched upon, let alone analysed, assessed or dealt with.

I studied social science at London University, sadly, it is rare for professors or lecturers to pop their intellects above the academic parapet to try to explain the structural changes taking place in society; life and death things, such as austerity-driven, crushing poverty, the breakdown of law and order in some urban areas and the establishment of a drug-fuelled, gang-ridden group of outcasts, unconcerned and unaffected by the hike in business rates or collapse of the High Street, inveigling their wares into a captive audience of young people, dragging them towards a crime-infested, violent future on the edges of society. That, and, of course, the catastrophic fire at Grenfell, are rather more important than Brexit, you’d have thought?

Three distinct groupings now exist, without a political philosophy, at least not one that needs a Chief Whip to enforce, part of a dystopian, existential dynamic that has burrowed into the nerve-ends of communities, whilst Downing Street has rolled its’ eyes, shrugged its’ collective shoulder and tried to control its’ wayward ragbag of ambitious and frequently resigning ministers; the thought of Nero fiddling, comes to mind. No major attempt has been made to deal with the housing crisis or homelessness – despite it being central to the crisis in society. How many Housing Ministers have we had since 2010? Is it six or seven? Don’t ask anyone in a pub quiz to name them, I doubt whether Theresa May could.

Amongst the various sub-cultures in loose-knit cabals are druggies and their suppliers and dealers, then there is the underclass, sadly, often dependent on benefits, stigmatised and stereotyped, lacking opportunities for social or economic advancement or educational attainment, deeply affected by cynicism, alienation and peer group pressure, but now, nowhere near to inhabiting the bottom strata of society. Thanks to Labour’s huge investment in schools, there has actually been some worthwhile progress, although it has been  stymied by cuts and the Government’s fanatical obsession with free schools.

Now, we have a subterranean class, often living on the streets, frequently beset by mental illhealth, vulnerability, homelessness and stress. They were not there during the Blair/Brown years, they’re a product of austerity, indifference and the incompetence of Tory-dominated administrations since 2010. Or in some cases, the very drugs being marketed and distributed by dealers and their cohorts, who live, of their own volition, beyond the fringes of social control, with their own group dynamic, codes of conduct and malign influences.

Those in the subterranean class are not to blame, they’re not responsible for being in the gutter, they were pushed there and sadly, will remain there until major changes are made, mental health services are properly funded, outreach projects include safe, viable housing and those who see them as an irritant, start accepting them as a communal responsibility.

Ironically, this didn’t happen during the Thatcher years, when it was alleged there was no such thing as society; it’s happened during the Cameron and May years, they’ve pushed those at the bottom off the edge, outside the social mores and societal norms of the rest of us. They can’t stay there because there is such a thing as society and they are part of it.

They are part of us.

Averting the Brexit Disaster – A People’s Referendum when Terms of Departure are Known

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

Brexit, if it happens, will be a disaster – the only question is just how much of a disaster. The siren voices of the Bank of England, every living ex-Prime Minister, “experts” and the vast majority of MP’s have been forgotten, dubbed fearmongers, or worse.

The process of extrication with its’ inexplicable twists and turns has been less of a rollercoaster, more a downward spiral – pity the farmers of Kent trying to bring in their harvest of strawberries with no Bulgarian pickers to help them, or their long-suffering neighbours towards Dover, who may face congestion caused by trading restraints and problems collecting duties, the likes of which they’ve never experienced before – a recurring nightmare which should, at least, keep psycho-analysts in business for a while.

The biggest problem will not be shortages of doctors and nurses for the NHS, we can recruit them from outside the EU, which might not please every former UKIP voter with an ingrown toenail; the major risk is not even the border in Ireland – it’s quite possible a fudged solution can be found  – though to risk the Good Friday Agreement in any way is so irrational, future historians will have to grapple with it, should any universities have the funds to employ them. The biggest risk is to the economy; it could, literally, collapse. We have an enormous national debt and public sector borrowing requirement, our economic insulation is about as good as a tarpaulin during a hurricane.

I estimate there’s a 30% chance of catastrophe – house prices in London and the South East collapsing by about 50%, parity between the pound and dollar, food prices doubling, car manufacturers moving to more fertile shores and interest rates rocketing. Of course, that is the worst-case scenario, but what major company fails to carry out a risk assessment, before taking the risk? The best-case scenario would be if our invisible earnings hold up, tourism flourishes, or we find a niche market as an offshore tax haven, something that’s anathema to most of us, but could appeal to a few Russian oligarchs.

When the referendum was held in 2016, there was little talk of the customs union, European Free Trade Association, even the Irish border was hardly mentioned; all we saw was that famous battle bus with its’ promise of a huge NHS dividend if we left, like going into a restaurant without looking at the menu, we then discovered as we sat down, there was nothing palatable, in fact, the menu was blank and hadn’t even been written.

We all have a much better idea now, we understand some of the options more clearly. The vitriolic anti-immigrant vote has crumbled, UKIP has been through so many new leaders, they’re starting to advertise the position at the local Job Centre as a regular vacancy. Sadly, those being made redundant by the swathe of high street redundancies as numerous retailers go bust, may not think it’s much of a job.

Moderate Tories who supported Remain must show some backbone, standing up to their whips office, making clear their concerns,  rather than quibbling over trifles. Donald Trump is hardly angling for custom from us should we leave, rather, he’s put up barriers and promoted protectionism. So much for our great hope of more world trade outside the EU. When circumstances change, politicians should take note and learn from them, rather than burying their heads in the sand.

Once the terms of our potential departure are known, we need a People’s Referendum to make a final decision, let those who were too young to vote before, but whose lives will be more affected than anyone’s, have their say, even those 16 plus should have a vote – they did in the Scottish Referendum.

Its not too late to make our voices known, now we have an idea of the song we’re singing, nothing in a democracy is set in stone – apart from the perceptions of those Little Englanders David Cameron kowtowed to, that got us in this mess in the first place.

Surely, with apologies to Laurel and Hardy, it’s one fine mess we need a chance to get out of: the clock is ticking; we need another vote soon.

We Must Reduce Knife Crime and the Carnage It Causes…

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

I was recently asked by Anti-knife UK to speak at their demonstration outside Downing Street; meeting relatives of victims, seeing the training shoes of some laid out in front, made a profound impact on me – and all of the others attending. We cannot allow hatred, violence, bitterness and revenge to tear us apart: here are the main points from my speech:

SPEECH ON KNIFE CRIME, OUTSIDE DOWNING STREET, SUNDAY, 3rd JUNE 2018

  • The Nightingale Estate, Clapton which I represent on Hackney Council recently experienced a terrible incident; a gang of youths fighting with knives and machetes, one was so seriously injured, he stumbled into a doctor’s practice adjacent, dripping blood, which understandably frightened the staff and other patients.
  • Such scenes have become almost common place this year, gang fights, tit for tat reprisal stabbings, drug dealers’ feuds, issues of “respect” – or just, for some, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • In April, the murder rate in London overtook New York! That’s one record we do not want to hold.
  • We held a meeting on the estate where there’d been the gang fight and stabbing, some parents said their children were too frightened to go out to play, the GP surgery dealt with the injured boy, but there was blood all over the place – on the floor, on the counter. What a sight for waiting patients to see!
  • There are answers to the current problems, we don’t need to wring our hands and put up with this.

Firstly:  Theresa May must reverse the police cuts she made as Home Secretary. In 2010 she agreed to Treasury demands to reduce the police budget by 18%; police numbers fell from 144,353 in 2009 to 122,859 in 2016. That is not acceptable. The first duty of government is to defend and protect its citizens.

Secondly, we must take a stronger line on drill music and incitement to violence. Inevitably, as young people’s attention span reduces, catchy, sassy lyrics with jokes about revenge and stabbing can get their attention. They are sick and evil. They need to be stopped.

Thirdly, Councils have hundreds of civil enforcement officers who issue millions of parking tickets – around 3.5 million a year in London alone. The Community Protection Scheme incorporated in the Police Reform ACT 2002 enables them to deal with a range of environmental offences – they should work with the police and protect the community. It’s appalling that the millions earned by Councils punishing motorists for parking on a yellow line or outstaying a permit are prioritised over the safety and needs of the community. Public safety must come first.

  • There is insufficient research into the causes by academic institutions – although I agree with a professor from Birmingham University who reflected that Benjamin Franklyn’s axiom: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” should be a guiding principle of 21st Century crime policy.
  • We need to look at all related issues – group dynamics, parental control – and, yes, punishments: I saw a gang of youths jogging down the street last month having – presumably – been looking for someone they wanted to attack, apparently holding weapons, nonchalantly getting into their cars and driving away, when they couldn’t find him.
  • Let those who use knives fear the consequences. But let them also understand and perceive the implications: mothers losing sons, sisters losing brothers, a knife is a personal form of weapon, a gun – however bad – is a mechanism which can be used to kill. To stab someone, is a horrendous act which shows a contempt for life and humanity – not just the victim’s; their family, YOUR family and society.
  • Those here today who’s families have suffered bereavements or who have children who’ve been seriously injured know the pain. We must counteract hatred by instilling values of decency, respect – and also the notion of proportionality.
  • It’s fine to argue with someone, not to stab, maim or kill them. Life is precious.
  • We need to encourage all communities to take responsibility for their young people – but equally – for young people to take responsibility for their own actions.
  • They do know the difference between right and wrong. Let’s stop all the hatred, violence and bitterness and move towards a more peaceful, civilised society

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Conversation

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

What do you talk about? Work, the weather, love, sex, tv, music? Do you enjoy juicy gossip about celebrities or friends? How much do you even remember of what people say to you – or you say to them?

It’s alleged that women use 20,000 words a day, men 7,000. How many in a lifetime? Apparently in the region of 869.3 million. Which is quite a lot.

With the onset of social media, the art of conversation has taken a downward turn, often as not, you’ll type a meaningless platitude to a mate, rather than stimulate or interest a new friend at the bus stop of life. I spoke to an architect on the tube the other day – quite nonchalantly, really, which led to a further friendly conversation with an elegant French woman. The architect probably designed elegant buildings, mind.

It was unfortunate I had to get off before the conversation really took hold, but it was pleasurable saying interesting things to interesting people. About politics, recent tragedies, Brexit – in three minutes, several columns of a decent Sunday newspaper could have been filled, not only was I interested in what they had to say, they were equally keen to hear from me.

In our throwaway society, conversation has become disposable, but it shouldn’t be: it should rest within our conscientiousness, halfway between lust and hunger, a combination of intrigue, inquisitiveness and nosiness. I normally don’t have the faintest idea who anyone is on the underground or overground, a scintilla of info is inordinately satisfying. Not for any particular reason, other than this:

Many of the millions of words we utter are spurious, repetitive, forgotten, almost from the point they spring from our lips; but if you strike up a dialogue with someone you don’t know about something you’re thinking about, you are far more likely to feel the burr walnut warmth of a social glow, rather than the staccato plastic of vacuous waffle.

Try telling your partner or a close friend something different from the norm, they’ll wonder what pub you’ve come from.

We need to reinvent and re-energize the art of conversation; as social animals, if we continue typing into our smartphones ad infinitum – as I am now – our evolutionary direction will be towards platitudinous rhetoric, as incongruous as a wet biscuit dunked in a hot drink, and as soggy as the outcome.

Would YOU want a special relationship with Donald Trump?

Monday, January 30th, 2017

Over a million people petition Parliament objecting to the new, accident-prone, US President being rewarded with a State visit to the UK. Does the Queen really want to entertain him? True, she’s put up with a variety of questionable characters in the past, ranging from Nicolae Ceausescu and Saudi potentates to a Chinese Communist leader with a slightly different idea of human rights to our own.

But America – Leader of the Free World – has been hijacked by a man who does not see humanity as we do, who believes in “America first” when we live in a world that should come first. In ceremonies for new immigrants in the UK, I’ve talked about the importance of family, community and country; not just country. Global warming has no borders, nor does respect for victims of war, abuse or injustice. Refugees are not pawns to be traded as part of a businessman’s powerplay, they are the desperate result of fanaticism, hatred, callousness and intolerance.

Britain has a proud tradition of accepting refugees, asylum seekers and victims of persecution, we have Nobel laureates who came from that background, people of integrity, substance, intellect and erudition. Unlike a US President, willing to turn his coiffured head away from them. Being a businessman may involve doing deals, but you cannot deal with a nation’s conscience by overriding it’s tradition of tolerance and justice.

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, captured the pain, anguish and suffering of farm-workers migrating to California from other US states, dubbed as “Okies” (ie from Oklahoma), by intolerant Californians, starving in migrant camps, lucky to earn a dollar a day picking peaches or cotton. Prejudice knows no bounds between countries, continents – or even within a country. Has Donald Trump read that great book? Maybe, I’ll send it to him as a gift, possibly delivered through Amazon, by a migrant employee.

Theresa May wants a special relationship with someone to replace our valuable one with the EU. It would be better to have another referendum than shake hands with a man for whom decency seems forgotten and tolerance a form of weakness. What is the world coming to when a xenophobic Trump/Farage axis is able to make such headway? As Edmund Burke famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Nuff said, Donald?

 

 

Have Your Say!

Monday, October 17th, 2016

On Thursday, 20th October 2016 we are holding another HAVE YOUR SAY event in the Lecture Theatre of BSix College, Kenninghall Road, Clapton, E5 8BP: 12.30pm – 1.30pm.

Amongst those on the panel will be Hackney Council’s Speaker (civic Mayor), Ken Warman, Principal of the College, Lee Sterry, an Environmental Health Officer and a senior police representative.

A lot has been happening recently: Brexit, Donald Trump (sic), England’s football team defeated by Iceland, the Marmite shortage….there are lots of serious (and not so serious) things to talk about. We’ll also be launching our Song for London competition.  Come along and make your voice heard.

A Song for London

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Let”s face it, the Eurovision Song Contest is an exercise in masochism, we know we’re not going to win, or get anywhere near winning. But we slavishly watch it, usually offering a pretty crummy song,  moaning in defeat as if we’ve discovered a new syndrome – not Society Syndrome, maybe Iceland syndrome, after our infamous football capitulation against them. True, voting can be biased and no one loves us – strange, the Millwall catchphrase has now become synonymous with the nation – don’t expect any sudden change, now we’ve further antagonised close friends and neighbours (sic), by voting for Brexit! We must do better, we have the talent, ability and history to put forward a great song and show what we”re made of. Maybe selection of the song has been under the thumb of the BBC for too long, after all, it is our country being represented, not just them as broadcaster.

More easily sortable – and closer to home, is London; yes the old smoke. The Big Apple has Sinatra’s New York, New York, Alicia Keys more recent belter and many more; what have we got representing the greatest city in the world? Not much, apart from Hubert Gregg’s 1940’s classic Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner. It’s not exactly contemporary – or quite what’s needed in the 21st century.

We’re asking composers and performers to come up with a real show-stopper, one that truly reflects London’s multi-racial, multi-cultural, sporting and social heritage. Maybe it is because I’m a Londoner, I see such an urgent need for it. We’ll be asking Sadiq Khan and commercial sponsors to provide something for the winning entry – but let’s do this for London, we could do with a dramatic, emotional, vital, passionate song to cheer us up, just as Hubert Gregg’s, written to combat war fatigue, showed the world doodlebugs wouldn’t beat us, let’s show everyone we’ll not be frazzled or knocked out by the ludicrous Brexit!

Entries for our Song for London competition will close at midnight on Sunday, 21st October 2018 and be judged the next day. Get composing, start singing, London needs YOU!

Only Connect – nothing vaguely interesting or worth connecting….

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Directed by a brouhaha about Victoria Coren Mitchell’s clothing, I dipped my toe into the tepid waters of Only Connect, barely glancing at her dress, nor the nerdy ensemble of garments worn by self-righteous eggheads exposing their eccentricities in earnest, trying to connect motifs, paradigms and superficial subject matter – or rather, subjects that didn’t matter – but had to leave after twenty minutes of the worst television quiz I’ve ever seen, venturing to more fertile territory for amusement, a 40 year old Dad’s Army repeat on catch-up.

How could commissioners agree to take on such vacuous, sad, rubbish? What was Chris Stuart thinking when he divised it? “What have apples and pears got in common? Oh yes, teeth, people with teeth sometimes eat them.” That sort of supposedly intelligent thing. Great!

We must save the world from clever people, so clever they know almost everything, but understand nothing. Not that stupidity is good, you only have to look at the Leader of North Korea to know that. A quiz show should reflect perception, cognisance, insight…this merely reflects self-indulgence and blandness.

There was about as much atmosphere as you’d find on a lunar landscape, which would have provided more fertile territory for whimsy, wit, erudition and stimulation. This was drab, elitist, nonsense without rhyme or reason. Who CARES if any of the banal clues connected, they certainly didn’t connect with me!

As for Victoria, normally warm, convivial and – when needed, with a poker-face. I really don’t need to think of Michael Portillo naked – I certainly don’t connect with HIM in THAT way – or this tripe in any way.

Wit

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

We need a few more bon viveurs, raconteurs and wits, to help make the world a better place – or at least, take our minds off its’ worst faults. Yes, there’s the saintly Stephen Fry, he can’t keep it up (only a metaphor) for ever, he needs help. From all of us. Let’s amuse each other.

Chatshows used to be awash with anecdotes, avid anecdote-tellers and rapacious wit, even politicians once showed commendable good humour: Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, following a bout of illness: “Die, my dear doctor! That’s the last thing I shall do.” Another at death’s door, asked how he felt replied: “Better than the alternative.”

Disraeli, accused of unparliamentary conduct by The Speaker, was asked to withdraw his assertion that “half the House were mad”. “Very well,” he declared, “half of the House are not mad.” And of course, Churchill’s historic riposte to Bessie Braddock, after being accused of being drunk. “Madame, you’re ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober.” Not quite as well known, is the continuation: Infuriated by the exchange Braddock said: “If you were my husband I’d put poison in your drink.” To which Churchill retorted: “Madam, if you were my husband, I’d drink it!”

Suave David Niven and debonair Robert Morley, must have talked the hinges off the Gates of Heaven upon arrival, at this moment, they’re probably regaling some devilish story of demonic decadence to a coterie of listeners, none, hopefully, sporting horns. It’s one place fancy dress is inadvisable.

Wit is different from humour, it is unassuming, almost accidental. Joyce Grenfell: “Happiness is the sublime moment when you get out of your corsets at night” was quick-witted in what was, at the time, very much a man’s world, more recently Julie Burchill reflected: “Sex without using is like eating without chewing”.

On one occasion I complained to a young woman during a visit to Budapest that no one had said anything even vaguely amusing. “Say something witty”, I implored. Looking around, seeing several deposits of dogs mess on the pavement, she responded instantly: “There’s either a lot of dogs here, or one dog with a big problem!” Not bad, you try doing better, though not if it necessitates canine deposits outside my modest terrace.

Mark Twain was a great one for wisecracks: “Man is the only animal that blushes….or needs to” being one. King of wit, Oscar Wilde, said of Twain’s birthplace: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation inbetween”.

To get contemporary, let’s end with another Fry-up: “It is a cliché,” said Stephen, “that most clichés are true, but then, like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.” Like the snake that swallowed itself, Fry’s bon mot leaves no obvious conclusion. But it’s certainly witty.