Tuesday, July 08, 2014

what's in store

what's in store? A lot. all currently in longhand, just waiting to be hungrily consumed by the waitiung, ravening masses. Er...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Elliott and Atkinson - they're back

The Gods That Failed - Bodley Head, June 12. The latest must-read from the two fearless buccaneers against free market madness. No money's changed hands. Not even a drop of beer - although that can change, guys - the extracts thus far printed, and the entries on www.thegodsthatfailed.co.uk suggest that the quiet and unrelenting logic continues to consume all in its path. Get it. I will.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Guardian 16.4.08 - Jenni Russell

Last week," said a friend of mine, "I read a list of the issues that Brown plans to take up after the May elections, so that he can seize the political initiative. And do you know what they were? Britishness and constitutional reform. I mean, my mortgage is going up, and I can't afford my petrol bills - for God's sake, what planet is the man on? What's that got to do with my life?"

As Labour slumps in the polls it's apparent there is a dangerous disconnection between the issues that concern voters and those the government thinks they should be worried about. This week, for instance, the government will be trying to push through 42-day detention for terror suspects, and combating a rebellion over the doubling of 10p tax. Meanwhile, election canvassers report that the biggest issues on the doorstep are post office closures, the loss of the 10p band, and the economy. Yet it was only on Monday that Gordon Brown finally managed to sound as if he understood he was meant to empathise with people's fears about the coming economic storm. The week before, in an impatient interview with Nick Robinson on the BBC, he had managed to convey only a resentful irritation with the electorate for being so anxious and irrational.

For the past 12 months, ever since the leadership election that never was, commentators have been warning uneasily that Brown needed to establish a connection with the voters by making it clear what he stood for, and what his government wanted to achieve. For the most part, that argument has had little traction. Brown has been able to shrug off complaints about his remoteness, his indecisiveness, or the political incoherence of decisions like the doubling of inheritance-tax thresholds, because the polls kept showing the Tories were unable to open up a substantial lead over Labour. The global financial earthquake has changed all that. Labour's last trump card was economic stability. Now voters are looking at the party with a much more unforgiving eye.

Labour's support has always been drawn from two key groups. One votes chiefly from self-interest - the party's policies match its social and economic needs. The second votes largely as an expression of values. It is drawn to Labour rather than the Tories because it believes that the party stands for a fairer society and a more rounded, generous view of what it means to be a human being. Brown's government is in trouble because both groups are becoming increasingly disenchanted.

MPs for marginal constituencies have been acutely aware of the party's vulnerability for some time. One minister I spoke to was frank about the tactics that are being adopted. Labour's national message was now so muddled, and its priorities so unlike voters' own, that some MPs were no longer selling the party's brand on the doorstep. "It wouldn't work. What people want to know is, what can you deliver for them in their daily lives? You can't knock on the door and give them some vague slogan dreamed up in Downing Street, 'Hello, I'm here to unlock your talent.' Instead I'm selling my own brand. I ask people, what are the issues that matter to you locally? And they want a CCTV camera, or a hospital to stay open, or their daughter to move up a housing list. And you act on it, and it's hugely time-consuming. But that's what people want. And it's only at the end that you say, we're just collecting some details here - and you say you're from the party."

The minister says about a dozen MPs have adopted the same personal approach to their constituencies, because trying to defend national policies is not what's going to get them re-elected. People are too confused and disillusioned. "We've created an ideological vacuum. All major political parties have abandoned ideology. The Tories have done the same; they've abandoned tax cuts. Then, when Brown came in and talked about his moral compass, you thought ideology might be coming back. But it wasn't. His actions don't fit his words - inheritance tax, ending the 10p rate. So you can't argue, this is what we stand for."
It is the disjunction between values and actions that is so damaging for Brown. He claims to believe in social justice, economic prudence and individual liberties, yet his record shows remarkable inconsistencies on all three. He presided over a boom based on cheap credit and mega City bonuses, while inflicting the giant mortgage on the nation that is the private finance initiative (PFI). His final budget snatched money from the poorest purely in order to score a quick hit against the Tories, but he never had the courage to bring in higher taxes at the top. His government found billions to bail out Northern Rock, but refused to find the £40m to refund the struggling families who had saved for Christmas clubs through Farepak.
As for freedoms, his instincts lead him to favour intrusion, oversight and control. Not only is he pushing ID cards and detention without trial, but his government has given councils and 318 other bodies unprecedented powers to spy on citizens suspected of the most minor offences. Even his introduction of tax credits to help working families has been fatally flawed, because the process of claiming them has been made so bureaucratic, punitive, intrusive and censorious that many of those who go through it end up hating the government and its agents.
This record in itself is enough to alienate millions of voters. It is made worse because although Brown is drawn to abstract ideas, he thinks public services should only be judged by outcomes that can be costed or measured. That obsession prevents him understanding the real impact on ordinary lives of so many official decisions, from shutting post offices to closing swimming pools or forcing people to go to giant GPs' surgeries. He doesn't grasp the fact that economic efficiency is not always people's overriding concern - that in their search for good lives, people expect that to be just one of the factors involved in making a political choice.
What Brown's supporters still maintain is that the man must be given more time and opportunities to set out his stall. That's no longer a credible stance. Brown has had well over a year to make an impact since Tony Blair announced his departure, and he has to be judged on his record. Reluctantly, those of us who hoped that the man had hidden depths have had to conclude that he's a man of hidden shallows. It's not a question of, as one MP put it, letting the nation see who he really is. We've seen it - the flickers of grim worthiness beneath the nervous, bumbling, indecisive arrogance - and on the whole we're not impressed. But since Brown is neither likely to acquire a new personality nor to be replaced unless the electorate throws him out, the only question is whether the party and the cabinet have got the guts or the mechanisms to push him into making the coherent and worthwhile decisions that will resonate with both the party and the voters.
Labour's chief politicians are currently divided between those who are pouring their energies into plotting their own paths to power, and those who are transfixed in the headlights of the impending disaster. The onus is now on them to start making collective decisions on Labour's future before they find that there isn't much of one left.

Guardian 16.4.08 - Christian Wolmar

The London mayoral debate has focussed to a ridiculous extent on what type of buses the two main candidates favour. Boris Johnson's admission that he underestimated the cost of replacing bendy buses with revamped Routemasters is belated but welcome - if only in that it may allow the hustings to move to more fruitful areas.

Bringing back the Routemaster is simply not realistic. There may be better alternatives to bendy buses, such as conventional double-deckers with more doors and fewer seats downstairs, but the main point is that there are far bigger matters at play in the election. The most pressing issue facing the successful candidate is what to do about the failure of the massive Metronet public-private partnership contract, and yet this has hardly featured in the discussions.

Ken Livingstone does seem to have saved a large amount of money by renegotiating the contract with Bombardier to supply trains for the Victoria line. There was certainly no shortage of fat in all the various contracts which Metronet brokered with its subsidiaries.

The way the contracts were organised raised some serious questions, and I find it surprising that the police have not been involved. It worked like this: Metronet was a consortium of WS Atkins, Balfour Beatty, Bombardier, EDF Energy, and Thames Water, which signed contracts with those same companies for track maintenance (Balfour Beatty and Atkins) and trains (Bombardier) that were hugely favourable to the suppliers. In effect, Metronet tried to hoodwink TfL and the arbiter of the PPP, Chris Bolt, into accepting that it was obtaining a fair price from these suppliers when, in fact, they were designed to make huge profits for them. Then, because the PPP deal was regulated by the arbiter who could make TfL pay for any extra costs provided they were "economic and efficient", Metronet would have been able to make a profit for itself, as well as for its owners.

However, the pricing was so excessive and Metronet was so bad at trying to ensure that the work it paid for was carried out with a modicum of efficiency, that Bolt inevitably spotted something was seriously amiss with the contracts. Tim O'Toole, the very capable American who runs London Underground, has now ensured that the renegotiated contact with Bombardier delivers much better value for Londoners, with Livingstone suggesting that as much as £500m has been saved.

All this is far too complicated for the hapless Johnson - why does everyone insist on calling him Boris? - who has never run more than a small heavily subsidised magazine and who has uttered barely a word on the subject of the PPP contract. Yet if he were elected, he would seek to oust Peter Hendy, the transport commissioner, who also has long experience of PPP deals. Indeed, Hendy is in the process of buying out the Croydon Tramlink private finance initiative deal, effectively nationalising the business, because it is poor value for money and the contract prevents TfL from expanding the number of services cheaply.

Livingstone, however, is also guilty of ignoring the big issues on transport as he concentrates on hitting Johnson's long hops for six. He needs to articulate a real vision for London that builds on the success of the congestion charge scheme. That does not mean simply charging £25 to "gas guzzlers" which is a laudable though cheap stunt, but going much further and genuinely trying to squeeze the private car out of central London. Articulating such a policy would offer a real opportunity for debate, rather than ridiculous slanging matches over bus types.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Time and mourning

An old friend has just lost his mother. I struggled for words, and then struggled to find why it should prove such a difficult task. Apart from the inability to share in an intimate bond I cannot ever know, I wondered why empathy breaks down when it comes to mourning.

Is it to do with time? Our perception of time, shaped by our progression from birth, the mental tabulation of our memories, anmd their chronological ordering? If our parents divorce, or we lose a valued sibling, a first lover, there is a caesura in time, insofar as that, like viral cells queueing to invade a healthy one, at any one moment there is an ordering of time around a still centre.
Is this still centre seconds, minutes, hours, days? Is it a heartbeat? And is it ever a still centre? Or just an idea of one?

Review: NYO/Petrenko


If this was supposed to be a birthday party, the presents were all lousy and someone’s Dad started dancing. If I have ever heard the NYO, the 60th anniversary of whose founding this marked, ever play worse, I’d be surprised. If I ever hear a worse performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, I’d shoot myself.

The curtain raiser buoyed everyone; a razzle-dazzle piece of rabble-rousing postmodernism by James Simpson, 2006’s Young Musician Of The Year, which displayed a sinewy muscularity and a brash command of light and shade redolent of late Soviet music. It was executed with as much élan as Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, although one could already sense maestro Petrenko looking forward to supper. The anonymity of his pacing transmitted itself to his young charges, but they were simply perplexed with what he did to the Strauss, which resembled nothing more than a drunken cartographer’s sketching of Alpine contours. Beim Schlafengehen passed so slowly one could only fumble after some interpretative irony, and at one point I seriously thought the final song, Im Abendrot, had stopped. Nobody really seemed to care by then – ragged, half-hearted solo and ensemble- especially not with the characterless, mazily-intonated and sometimes scarcely in tune soprano of Gabriela Fontana upfront. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was noisy and rumbustious, but when wasn’t it? By this time it was hard to feel anything but feeling more than one year older. Less a celebration - more a wake.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Green at the gills

I take a morning constitutional. In doing so, I usually buy some cheap, tacky sweet substance. Rowntrees' Fruit Gums. Lucozade. The other day I Tango'd myself. At the end of the circular walk I pass a recycling centre, with an orifice into which the socially-conscitneitous can insert drinks cans. I went to do so, and then...

The 18th HGV in as many minutes roared along the narrow B road that bisects my village. These vile machines are aggregates carriers, plying to and from two brick/cement works nearby, often on journeys connected with the absurd redevlopment of the 'Celtic Manor' golf course, a horror whose traffic is slowly destroying the historic town of Caerleon. I looked at the can in my hand and thought: 'why bother?'

Most public discourse in the UK built around dissembling - from the folderol parroted by the backhander-pocketing pillocks of civic disgrace that are sweeping Newport into the gutter of chavviness and gimcrack anonymity to the garbage that the Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor will somehow create 8 million jobs within a few seconds. Green issues are much the same - here was I, gullibly conscientious with my tiny attempt at environmental goodwill, an example Mr Brown and co contionually exhort us to set and yet here was a road choked with roaring juggernauts dutifully attending the destruction of more acreages of virgin countryside.

It's as cheap a con as notices adsvertising 'real ale' outside pubs who don't stock a drop of it, the phrase 'your call is important to us', the insertion of the word 'gourmet' on menus when gastronomes would only enter into a contract with the 'chef' on the promise he paid them and provided a bucket. As Paul Fussell writes in BAD (1991) we live in the Age of Publicity - the Age of Disinformation, not of Information.

But to interfere would be to interfere with business, the ultimate heresy for New Labour. And worse, to ionterfere with the road transport business, that accursed boil on the backside of British social and economic life since the 1950s. After all, the fate of the planet might be important, but loosening the shackles on hauliers, cowboy and choirboy types alike - takes precedence. They are, as those obscene 'Fuel Protest' clowns of 2000 realised, 'the lifeblood of the country' - because the destruction of the rail and canal networks has allowed the development of social and economic infrastructure to make this status secure.

I used to like lorries - the scalloped lines of the face of Fodens, and of Scammells - one cab designed by none other than Pininfarina - of AEC's Ergonomic cab. Now they are not only toxic avengers, they don't even look attractive. They have, in the words of the song, crashed the gate doing 98. I say let them truckers rolll, 10-4! And we have.

I stood, foolishly, the crushed can in my hand, and watched another four barrel by.

Then I put the can into the recycler. Fuck 'em. Anything to fight back.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Why? There's always a why.

'The Whole Goddam Mutha's Gonna Blow' may never have been said in a movie. But it does climactic shorthand for any number of musclebound disaster and crimefighting'epics', the latter usually featuring Steven Seagal leaping from an exploding oil refinery, volcano, etc. In slow motion.

So now you know. All 2 of you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Battleship Potemkin

“Myth,” the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, “is language.” Insofar as that language develops exponentially over time, so do components of a story, and can be individualized as ‘mythemes’. But, what Levi-Strauss only hints at, is that at the kernel of myth is – however murkily, and however mediated – a truth. It becomes a primal means of language to describe history and the present and the human condition.

If film is a language, Sergei Eisenstein’s brief, urgent masterpiece uses myth as its logical centre but has also become a myth in itself. And, as Levi-Strauss posits, at the heart of both is truth. The truth of brutal struggle against oppression, and in the film’s afterlife and Eisenstein’s memory, the truth of its furious, bracing genius.

Eisenstein’s reputation is largely unassailable; the only quibbles are about what was his greatest film (Strike (1925)? Potemkin? Alexander Nevsky (1938)?). Briefly setting aside the politics (to totally separate this from Eisenstein’s vision is dissimulation of the worst kind), Battleship Potemkin is a visually stunning essay in the montage techniques pioneered at Mosfilm by Lev Kuleshov in the extraordinarily bizarre ferment of creative energies unleashed by the Bolshevik October Revolution, which gave the world visual artists such as Tatlin and Malevich, composers Shostakovich and Roslavetz and the theatrical innovators Stanislavski and Meyerhold.

The film is a straightforward bellow against oppression, with a rising of matelots on the eponymous ship against their Imperialist bosses in the signature year of 1905, the year of the failed Russian revolution that first Kerensky and then Lenin set out to avenge.

It’s in your face. Of course it is. But it’s an embrace you don’t mind. The grotesquely-treated sailors take control of the ship, the port city of Odessa mobilizes its poor and hungry who are shot down by Tsarist battalions in one of cinema’s iconic moments – and it is here that myth takes hold. Apart from a stream of superbly composed images, devised on the hoof in partnership with conematographer Eduard Tisse - there is the still-stunning Odessa Steps sequence, the tumbling baby carriage, the smashed specs of the screaming babushka, the jump-cutting from this to that agonized figure, hard-pedalling of the dehumanizing banality of evil – even 80 years on, this grips like a vice. The savagery, for 1925, must have reduced cinema audiences to silence, but the harsh contrasts of light on the steps lent film an entirely new language, and thus the visual patois of the last century. The massacre never happened – although Tsarist troops did commit atrocities in the town. The triumphant peroration as the squadron of ships sent to destroy the Potemkin join in its revolutionary fervour is another myth, as naïve as the Socialist-Realism of smiling peasants with huge shiny biceps atop collectivized tractors. And yet, while it is a great big clenched fist, it retains its own individual, inimitable beauty and integrity.

The American cultural critic Garry Wills railed against the ‘fist’ approach of Hollywood blockbusters, telegraphing images and creating its own mythology but Eisenstein – no matter how one views the USSR – did this with good taste and a visual language that simply had not been invented until he did so. Not by Méliès, not by Griffiths. There are period references – the florid gestures of the players, for example – but Eisenstein reinvented the cinematograph in the same way that George Martin reinvented the recording studio.

Watch carefully. Kuleshov and his pals were schooled in revolutionary idealism and their experiments in montage technique were aimed at measuring emotional response in viewers. This is not to diminish the extraordinary pacing of Eisenstein’s cutting from the face of a sailor to a terrified Odessan – the continuity of Hollywoodian visual narrative, still so familiar today, was cut to ribbons, as vital scenes (the slash of a sabre, for example) were reduced to nanoseconds – or the beauty of his sometimes homoerotic dwelling on military hardware. It’s easy to see why Goebbels admired this visual language, as it prefigures his vision of stahlende Romantik – steely Romanticism, as a metaphor for the elemental struggles of the 20th century. But Eisenstein is no totalitarian patsy. Far from it. Indeed its very success – it was an international sensation, not just among communist or even leftist critics and audiences – helped create cinematic myth, in the same way as Citizen Kane (1941), or Triumph of the Will (1935) or Psycho (1960). It used a form of mythology to create its own.

In the last years of his life, Eisenstein stood in ever-increasing isolation, accused of formalism, or the deliberate promotion of style over revolutionary content, and while Nevsky was a masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible (1942) remained a tantalizingly unfinished monument to Stalinist nationalism. Other great Soviet directors followed him through the Party mill – Tarkovsky got into the crap too, and even Elem Klimov, whose 1985 WW2 film Come and See is widely considered to be the most harrowing war movie ever made, never quite made it past the commissars. We should be grateful that Eisenstein’s pre-eminence entered western consciousness before Stalin’s dead hand regimented USSR cultural life. This is not just one of the greatest films ever made, but, along with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Joyce’s Ulysses and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, one of the defining cultural works of the past 100 years. Potemkin is a myth. But as with all myths, there’s truth in the reasons for its fame.