“It’s hard to believe that just a few miles can make so much difference…”

•August 28, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I happened to watch the BBC News earlier today and found myself intensely irritated by their reporting of the publication of a World Heath Organisation study noting huge inequalities in the relative health of the world’s population. It wasn’t the o-ver-ly care-ful and par-tic-u-lar e-nun-ci-a-tion of e-ve-ry sy-la-ble nor the strong stress on the most important words in each sentence which, whilst annoying, both seem to be prevailing traits amongst many of the BBC’s TV News journalists (seriously, I think many of Auntie’s finest have missed their true calling in life as infant school teachers). My ire was instead aroused by the stupid over-simplicity of the reporting. Do we get any mention of the conclusion that a “toxic combination of bad policies, economics, and politics is, in large measure responsible for the fact that a majority of people in the world do not enjoy the good health that is biologically possible”? Any mention of the recommendation to tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources? Nah, course not – we’re just told it’s all a matter of geography.

Go on, watch it yourself, and try not to come away with the impression that people who live in the wrong part of town die earlier simply because they are stupid and workshy. They probably just spend all day sat on their fat arses, shovelling junk-food into their mouths, smoking and drinking, pausing only to bring more children into the world into whom they can inculcate similar slapdash ethics. If only they had the wit to move just a few miles down the road, they could have access to great schools and housing and their children would live forever. Maybe we should just introduce a government policy to encourage people to move out of areas of poor health and into the areas of higher life expectancy. Hmmm, that kind of logic sounds vaguely familiar…

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Things I’ve learnt this week

•August 24, 2008 • Leave a Comment

1) Repeated and persistent use of the phrase ‘Team GB’ does nothing to render it any less wanky.

2) Never underestimate the incompetence of workmen: the flat upstairs from mine have been having some work done to their flooring – replacement or removal of laminate flooring or something. In order to do this, various items of furniture had to be removed. The problem was that the sofa was too big to go down the stairs, so the blokes carrying out the work decided to try to lower it out through the window. One slippage of the rope and loud crash later, I have a gaping hole in my bedroom window and shards of glass all over my bed. Nice work fellas…

3) Working in film/TV must actually be rather dull: they were filming some scenes of long-running police serial The Bill in our street this week. Even for such a regularly screened show, the pace of production seemed glacier-slow, involving a huge crew of people doing a lot of sitting/standing around, regular tea-breaks in order to film what looked to be no more than a couple of short scenes.

“It is time to stop pretending there is a bright future for Sunderland”

•August 14, 2008 • 1 Comment

The episode of The Simpsons shown on Channel 4 last night involved the Mayor resorting to Springfield’s ‘Plan B’ and picking up the whole town and moving it by five miles, after the original site had been completely messed up through the dumping of rubbish. It seems someone from the Conservatives’ favourite think tank, the Policy Exchange, has also been viewing this particular episode and has come up with a ‘Plan B’ of their own for solving urban deprivation: move lots of people from cities like Liverpool, Hull and Sunderland to the untold wealth and possibilities of Oxford, Cambridge or London.

As someone who grew up in the North East but now lives in London, I am probably indicative of a brain drain that draws many away, either to London and the South East or to the more successfully established regional cities like Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle. However, the suggestion that simply moving people from areas characterised by low incomes to the areas where the highly skilled jobs of the information economy are concentrated is going to solve anything seems rather misplaced. Are these people going to absorb the wealth and skills of their new locations by osmosis, or are they just moving to fulfil the requirements for low paid service sector recruitment in more prosperous areas?

The suggestion in the report seems to be that government policy has done all it can to resurrect areas like this through generous regeneration budgets, but as earnings continue to rise at a lower pace here than in the South East, all such efforts must be judged as failures and in future resources should be directed elsewhere. What this misses is the fact that government policies have, in fact, been overwhelmingly skewed towards the interests of high finance and multinational capital for the past twenty five years. In other words, they have created the situation in which London and the South East overheat (spiraling house prices, strain on a crumbling infrastructure in the areas of roads, public transport, water supply) but the industrial or manufacturing base that sustained large areas of the country dwindles and dies. Therefore any complaint with regard to high levels of government spending in the North seems to ignore the fact that success in London was only made possible through the decimation of Northern industry. So the notion that prettifying of city centres and troubled housing estates or adding museums, art galleries or other assorted cultural facilities is too great a commitment seems really ridiculous.

If there is a complaint to be made about regeneration, it should rather be that it is largely just a superficial tinkering at the edges, which may improve the appearance of failing towns, or provide them with a Lottery-funded ‘showpiece’ cultural attraction, but does little to improve their long-term economic viability. So, in the case of Sunderland, they have been provided with the National Glass Centre and a number of large edge of town business parks that, for the most part, have been filled by large call-centres. It’s hardly surprising that development such as this has yet to compensate for the loss of the once dominant shipbuilding and mining industries.

For the most part, the Policy Exchange report seems to hinge on the fact that certain cities are likely to fail economically due, for the most part, to problems with their particular location: eg being on the coast, so at the end of transport lines. Surely one of the major benefits of modern communications technology is that a central location is no longer the necessity that it once was. Is it really necessary for so much government administration to be located in London, or could much of it not be located to the regions? Or, if a good location or close links to Europe are still of such great importance, should the government not be investing more heavily in our transport infrastructure – high speed rail links between major centres, much greater use of light rail or tram systems within our large towns and cities? In the case of Sunderland, one of the major tragedies for the city was that it took more than 20 years for the ‘Tyne and Wear’ Metro to actually reach the banks of the Wear – and even then the extension to Sunderland was such a half-arsed job, for the most part just using existing rail lines, that it remains largely ineffective and underused.

David Cameron has been quick to distance himself from these proposals, dubbing them “rubbish from start to finish”, but inwardly he must be seething. It has taken a long time for the Conservatives to distance themselves from the perceived image of them as being a party for London and the home counties. But now, after years in which admitting to voting Conservative in parts of Northern England would make you more of an outcast than admitting to devil worship, just as progress was being made the publicity over these proposals will once again raise suspicions over where the true heart of the Tory party lies. Although, perhaps that is actually not such a bad thing…

Framing of the Russia/Georgia Conflict

•August 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I am by no means clued up on the intricacies of the post-Soviet political situation within the Caucasus, but one thing that has seemed clear is that Georgia is making a deliberate attempt to present what is going on in terms of plucky little democracy struggling to stand up against the imperial aggression of a superpower. Hence Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili coming out with quotes like, “this is not about South Ossetia, this is not even about Abkhazia. It’s all about independence and democracy in Georgia. Putin is personally commanding this operation. The purpose is to depose the democratically elected government of Georgia.”

Whilst it may emerge that this whole episode was planned by Moscow to provoke Georgian action as the pretext for reasserting its authority in the region, and it is undeniably true that Russia has exploited the situation for all it is worth, it seems there is a danger that coverage of the conflict, coloured by fear of a resurgent Russian bear, may fall a little too neatly into line with the Georgian point of view. In such a situation, it should be remembered that it was Georgia who made the first move, militarily, and that ultimately it seems both sides have been reckless with regard to the welfare of the civilian population of the region in allowing the situation to develop as it has.

Things I’ve learned this week

•August 9, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Recent adverts on behalf of the Learning and Skills Council (one of them can be seen here) have taken a basic tautology (we are all capable of learning things) and put it to good neo-liberal use in claiming that ‘learning new skills is actually part of our DNA’, thus seeking to naturalise the attempt to get us all to turn ourselves into more attractive resources for the market.

As a response to this, I’m going to implement a new (semi-)regular feature here in which I will list things I have recently learned – interesting yet trivial facts, revealing statistics, skills that wouldn’t really fit in on my CV – that are unlikely to make me more appealing as an employment prospect.

So, this week I have learned…

1) …that Stockton, California is the sub-prime capital of the US (interesting as I am a previous resident of Stockton-on-Tees);

2) …that by the rules of cricket the maximum length a bat is allowed to be is 38 inches (I know this due to the second place tie-break question from the pub quiz at a local pub. I had said 32, the other team said 36, so we didn’t win the prize of a case of beer);

3) …how to make a delicious bacon and bean risotto:

Ingredients: stock (chicken or vegetable), garlic, cubes of bacon, risotto rice, white wine (you could probably leave the wine out – but where’s the fun in that…), beans (I used a tin of butter beans – I may experiment with other types of bean in future), Parmesan cheese. You can figure out the quantities for yourself.

Method: Heat the stock in a saucepan. Meanwhile, fry the garlic in a little oil in another pan. Increase the heat, add the bacon and fry until it begins to crisp. Reduce the heat again and stir in the rice, ensuring all the grains get coated in oil. Add a good slug of white wine. Once the wine has been absorbed add a ladel-full of stock. Add another once this is absorbed. Move the rice around with a spatula to prevent sticking, but don’t stir too vigourously. After about 15 minutes of cooking, add the beans and some grated Parmesan cheese. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, keeping adding stock as required. It’s cooked once the rice loses any chalkiness, but it should retain some firmness to the bite. Season with black pepper to taste. Wolf it down with the rest of the white wine as an accompanyment.

The Ongoing Collapse of New Labour

•August 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment

“New Labour won three elections by offering real change, not just in policy but in the way we do politics. We must do so again.”

David Miliband’s ‘vision’ for saving New Labour from impending electoral devastation seems really to be much of the same. Plenty of talk about ‘modernisation’, ‘reform’ of public services and the need for citizens to act ‘responsibly’, along with many a proud boast of the government’s achievements of the past 10 years. The problem is that, throughout the rest of the piece, poor David seems to suffering from a rather delusional attitude with regard to the guiding principles of Labour. Just because the party’s mission is outlined on their membership cards does not give Miliband the right to be quite so self-satisfied in his claim that Labour policy always aims at putting “power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few.” Particularly given the OECD’s suggestion that social mobility is lower in Britain than in any other developed nation.

In fact, Miliband’s condemnation of Westminster’s other Dave-on-the-up for lacking principles or a clear guiding vision comes to seem like pure and simple projection. Also, given the way Labour under Blair ditched many of the principles that had guided the party for nearly a century, his line of attack seems utterly hypocritical. For, despite the occasional progressive policy moment and all the rhetoric that has animated the New Labour project, the actual outcomes have favoured one group – the rich and super-rich – above all others. And now the large sections of the electorate who may traditionally have been strong supporters of Labour have begun to send out the message that they are no longer prepared to go on making excuses for the failure of a Labour government to improve their lot.

In the turmoil that has been set in motion by the impending electoral slaughter suggested by recent polls and performance, one point seems to have been lost on all of the Labour figures having a say on the way forward: that is, for all Tony Blair’s missionary zeal, New Labour’s appeal to the centre was always a pragmatic electoral move designed to make the party electable after many years in the wilderness. The degree of success the party achieved in 1997 and 2001 was due far more to an intense dislike of the Tories than the radical pretensions of the New Labour project. But there is only so long you can go on saying ‘vote for us – at least we’re better than the other lot’, without tempting people to call your bluff and give the other lot another try.

So, sorry Stephen Byers, but there’s no way for you to “re-establish the coalition of support that has won Labour three elections”, as there is no way for a party that has been in power for eleven years to seem fresh, or to be able to blame the other lot for the problems faced within society, the economy, etc.

The situation at present is coming increasingly to resemble the last days of the Conservative government under Major, when those loyal to the previous leader consistently undermined the figure at the helm of their party – a character transformed into a figure of ridicule for much of the country – all the while harking back to a supposed magic formula that had led them to previous successes. Which goes to suggest that over a decade after the new dawn that broke (did it not) in 1997, we are now watching the sunset for New Labour.

“Put a Donk on it…”

•August 1, 2008 • Leave a Comment

You’ve got to love a bit of smug, metropolitan sneering, haven’t you? Nice to see someone in the comments advocating sterilisation for people based upon their music taste, as well.

Personally, I found this brought a big grin to my face with its irrepressible, dumb charm.