Monday, April 28, 2008


Lenin is right on several counts in his reporting of the London elections:

(a) Yesterday’s Love Music Hate Racism was a great success, despite the rain and the ban against bringing cans of lager in with you. The turnout was terrific (100,000 according to the organisers), the toilets were pretty damn fine (nobody endured a sub-5/10 ablution), Poly Styrene played “Oh bondage up yours!”, and we were treated to an apocalyptic, dubsteppin’ finale of “Ghost Town” by Jerry Dammers, his orchestra and Spaceape.

(b) For all the predictions that the fascists will secure the 5% share they need to win seats on the Assembly, Nazis are a rarity in London. The BNP is a rising force because it is given a diet of rising poverty, insecure housing, and scapegoating of the Other to feast on. Most people will not vote BNP because they are endemic racists (see here for a similar situation in a different continent), but because they feel scared, betrayed and are crying out for an alternative.

(c) Ken looks more vulnerable than he has done in his political career. He has fought a defensive, apolitical campaign, and has not been in a position to rebut the Standard’s slew of slurs with his usual brash confidence. In a Livingstone-vs-Gilligan punch-up, Ken should floor that most unprincipled of hacks every time – in fact, his own nose has been bloodied.

(d) Although Ken should get the vote of everybody whose skin crawls at the thought of the Tories getting in, only Lindsey German has consistently pointed to the elephants in the room: the war and its far-reaching effects at home, privatisation of transport and health, the yawning gap between rich and poor, and most of all....


Public / affordable housing is the biggest elephant in the room for people who live in poverty, or who live with serious disabilities or illnesses. Across the capital, council housing stock decreases while need increases. An increasing dependence on low-paid workers (especially labour imported from abroad) means that more and more people will need cheap, decent housing to rent. Where will it come from?

Three north London Boroughs that I can think of are grappling with this problem.

One took the option, some time ago, of transferring most of its stock into private hands. This remains the ideal option of most Conservative and Lib Dem local authorities (and some Labour ones), though they are too aware of tenant opposition to actually go through with it. In this particular Borough, it was a disaster.

Another Borough has a chronic (and historic) shortage of Council housing, and a lack of capital to invest into existing stock. Some years back, its tenants refused to comply with the government’s edict that housing management should be outsourced, so the government withdrew the funding needed to bring its homes up to a decent standard. It is now in the process of auctioning off hundreds of street properties to raise the necessary cash. Meanwhile, some of the most vulnerable people in the Borough, including those with severe mental illnesses and high risks of relapse, are being placed in shoebox-size flats owned by private-sector landlords who are either rank profiteers, or well-meaning people utterly unprepared for the challenges of providing housing to tenants with complex needs.

The third local authority gives people with mental health problems much higher priority than the second. Its housing shortage is also less acute, and its market rates for private-sector rents are lower. Nevertheless, the concentration of unwell, poor and socially excluded people on estates grows with every year that passes. As with any other Housing Register in inner London, new tenants will usually have extremely high health or social care needs; it seems like a given that “sink estates” will soon abound in this Borough as a result of short-sighted housing policies.

Three different options, all heading down a slippery slope - and why? Because the supply of social housing continues to fall behind demand. Cheaper rents in the private sector are not enough. Only public housing provides a combination of decent accommodation, security of tenure, affordability of rent and accountability of provision. There are more than a million and a half people on waiting lists for Council housing. While local government struggles for the most painlessly pragmatic concessions, the big question remains unanswered at the centre: what more evidence is needed before a nationwide programme of public housing is passed?



As any fule kno, the highest possible break in snooker is not 147, but 155. If no balls have been potted, and a player commits a foul which obstructs the other player from hitting a red with the cue ball, a free ball would be offered. The other player could pot any colour (which, as a free ball, would count as one point), followed by the black, followed by all 15 reds with blacks, followed by the six remaining colours in sequence.

However, the hallowed 147 is generally considered to be the maximum break a player can score in a frame. Steve Davis made the first televised 147 in 1982. It followed a thick break-off shot from John Spencer, but Davis's maximum is a far more relaxed and flamboyant affair than Cliff Thorburn's better known but rather laborious effort at the World Championships the following year (check out the cheekily doubled fifth red, and the exhibition-style blue-to-pink-to-black).

Davis was knocked out of the World Championships in the first round in 1982, but this maximum and his victories in '81 and '83 sent out a double warning - not only was Davis to dominate the 1980s, but he embodied the middle-class, professional, Thatcherite style that snooker was to embrace during that decade.

Nine years later, in 1992, the Crucible audience saw a second tournament maximum. Jimmy White, the previous year's runner-up, scored 147 in a frame against the "Maltese Whippet" (I kid you not) Tony Drago in a match he won 10-4. He reached the final again that year, losing 18-14 to Stephen Hendry, and was never quite the same again.

The five quickest maximums have all been scored by White's protege, Ronnie O'Sullivan. The quickest of all - 36 balls potted in the correct order in five minutes and ten seconds - was scored in 1997, against the now-forgotten Mick Price. It is a hypnotic break of free association snooker. O'Sullivan is an ethereal presence, gliding from one side of the table to the other, lacing each shot with blistering back and top-spin. And yet, for all its speed, its "smear of madness", it is a curiously old-fashioned sort of break - he waits until the last minute to split the reds, picking off the first seven reds and trusting to luck on the eighth. Whatever - it is, along with Alex Higgins's famous semi-final frame against Jimmy White, the creme de la creme of natural snooker genius.

Until today, Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stephen Hendry had each scored eight 147s in competition. This afternoon, O'Sullivan notched up his ninth with a deadly (and match-winning break). Watch this and weep - the 13th red and 13th black are two of the best positional shots you will ever see.


Marcel Duchamp gave up art for many years to represent his country in international chess tournaments. Lenin, on the other hand, had to quit playing chess to concentrate on leading the revolution. Is there not a place for snooker in radical politics? Will somebody cleverer than me use the rational strategies and careful, reactive positions of snooker to create a new game of war?

Monday, April 21, 2008


As if to prove Jean-Luc Godard's point that the bourgeoisie is so calmly barbaric that it will buy off mass brutality with the price of designer handbags and weekends with James Bond, the only scene in Week-End that made the NFT audience gasp the other night was the slaughtering of the pig. The rape of the woman in the ditch didn't seem to bother anybody in the slightest - no more, in fact, than it bothered her husband.

Is this merely because we don't see the rape? Because even if we did we would know it was only acted? Is it only the whack of the carving knife which carves open the pig's stomach, the unshieldedness, the unavoidability of seeing the slaughter face-on, its reality (the pig, after all, cannot act) that disgusts us?

Or is it because, as an animal, the pig is innocent, blameless for its own death, whereas as humans, we deserve whatever we get?

This latter idea is dominant today. It may explain why we give more to charities which support lame donkeys than those which combat abuse against women. Psychologically, it is based on a behaviouralist conception of being, according to which everything that happens to us, everything we do, every choice we make, is determined by our own individual behaviours. Economically, it is shaped by, indeed is a necessary condition of, capitalism. Our extreme version of capitalism, based on the American dream (so called, says George Carlin, because you have to be asleep to believe in it), entrenches the idea that our lives are entirely in our own hands. If we are successful, we deserve rich rewards. If we fail, we have nobody but ourselves to blame.

Godard shows this beautifully in the best scene of Week-End, that with the African binmen. Corinne and Roland sit on the workers' truck, their jaded, condemning faces showing the bourgeois viewpoint in all its finery. They see that these men are binmen because they are uncouth, uncivilised, uneducated, lazy, because they eat their rotten baguettes so noisily, and because they make our middle-class heroes sit in festering garbage. Corinne and Roland cannot see through this myth because it is not in their interests to see the truth: the Algerian and the Congolese in Weekend are not binmen because of a lack of gumption or initiative: they are binmen because they are Algerian and Congolese.

Such attitudes are subtly reinforced, structurally and ideologically, every day the gap between the wealthy and poor increases - and that means each and every day of the vast majority of my life. This week Gordon Brown told the Scottish TUC, "We have done more as a government in the last 50 years for poverty than any other government." Yet last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found the gap between rich and poor was at its highest for 40 years, and that the number of "poor households" had risen in the last 15 years. The government believes that the way to address this is with a stick: we recall Caroline Flint's suggestion earlier in the year that Council tenants should "work or lose their home". Meanwhile, the abolition of the 10p starting rate of tax and the reduction of corporation tax to 28% (the lowest in the G7) further tilts the scales in favour of the rich.

The ideas we commonly hold about opportunity and personal agency are mistaken. We cannot all line up in a row, demonstrate our worth to the best of our abilities and get rewarded accordingly, like some benevolent episode of The Apprentice. Contrary to what Caroline Flint might believe, social housing tenants do not live on the breadline because they are bone idle and will only lift a finger to sponge what they can from the state, but because the party which is supposed to represent them scythes away at their incomes. Those who work often fare little better: this excellent article on "the London poor" shows that 1 in 7 Londoners earns a wage which is sub-poverty level.

So where does that leave us?

Corinne: It's rotten of us, isn't it? We've no right to burn even a philosopher.
Balsalmo: Can't you see they're only imaginary characters?
Corinne: Why is she crying, then?
Balsalmo: No idea. Let's go.
Corinne: We're little more than that ourselves.


1946 - the year in which the United Nations met for the first time, in which Italy and Bulgaria ditched their monarchies and declared themselves republics, when Juan Peron and Ho Chi Minh became Presidents of their nations and Churchill made his "Iron Curtain" speech. In 1946, you could buy a family home for £1,500, watch Olivier in Henry V, and buy the latest records by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby or the Inkspots.

1946 was also the year in which the Colorado Party joined the government in Paraguay. The following year, it assumed full power of the country, and continued to rule singlehandedly, via a neo-fascist dictatorship and an emerging democracy, for nearly 62 years. China, Cuba and Zimbabwe are seen as the world's one-party-state bad-boys, but the Colorado party's rule is the only one that predates both of my parents*.

Yesterday, the Colorado Party's monolithic rule came to an end. In a general election marred by vicious smears, the outsider Fernando Lugo, a former bishop, beat the Colorado candidate, Blanca Ovelar, with nearly 41% of the vote, enough to secure him the Presidency. Lugo has pledged to reform land in favour of the poor, give greater citizenship to indigenous Paraguayans, and demand higher revenue from its giant neighbour Brazil for hydro-electric power generated at the enormous Itaipu Dam.


The outgoing President, Nicanor Duarte, was sufficiently spooked to predict instability as a result of Lugo's campaign for change: "They want to burn properties, service stations and other resources to upset the social peace," Duarte said. "The one responsible for the violence and death is going to be Fernando Lugo and his band of delinquents and kidnappers." But Duarte, who had an approval of just 15%, did not scare Paraguay's voters. They wanted change, and now, for the first time in nearly 200 years of Paraguayan history, an opposition leader has won the Presidency peacefully, without a coup d'etat.

It's tempting to see this as further evidence of South America's radical leftwards shift. Lugo is a champion of the poor, and he was certainly not the preferred choice of the United States, which enjoyed very cordial relations with ex-President Duarte. But it is likely that Lugo's government will be firmly social democratic, and will not follow the lead of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador down the path of Bolivarian socialism.

Paraguay is a politically, socially and religiously conservative nation, without a strong history of social movements. Left-wing groups, including trade unions, were blacklisted from Paraguayan society during the long Colorado rule, and Lugo will struggle to wade through its entrenched corruption and nepotism. Unlike Morales and Chavez, Lugo is not a natural-born radical either - he is an ex-bishop in the liberation theology mould.

Nevertheless, in Paraguay a statement like "I have taken a preferential option for the poor" is positively revolutionary. And it cements a further move away from the economic liberalism and sham democracies supported by Washington after the fall of the USSR, which brought many Latin American countries to their knees during the 1990s. One of the biggest failures for neoconservatism under Bush has been an erasure of support in its own backyard. It can only muster two allies in the region now: the beleaguered Colombian government, and Peru's Alan Garcia.

The Partido Colorado website is very quiet today, making no reference to their historic defeat (its headline, "Election passes without major incidents", must be understatement of the year). Lugo, meanwhile, is looking towards the future: “I believe the people are ready for a real change. I believe they are ready for a change not just in personal, parties, but a real structural change in Paraguay and its institutions.” With a bit of a push from below, Lugo may just realise that radical vision.

* a bag of Paraguayan soya to anybody who can name any countries with an existing one-party rule that is longer than the Colorado Party's...

Monday, April 14, 2008


The return of Portishead has squibbed into something of a non-event. Their third album, Third, is released next week, but anybody who is anybody has gotten their hands on it already and offered their opinions on it. It’s by Portishead, so no doubt it will get 4-star-8/10-A reviews – but one wonders whether anybody will read them. Sometimes, leaking music onto the internet before it is formally released creates a ripple-effect of expectation; in this instance, the effect is more of a fizzle.

Third has polarised its fanbase. As a non-committal Portishead admirer, my opinion on Third lies somewhere between two poles. I don’t think I’ve ever been moved by Portishead – I was played “All mine” recently and asked to admire its bunny-boiling obsessiveness, but I couldn’t really hear it. Dummy is an easy-listening record in essence – the trademark crackle and Dietrich vibrato was there to add film noir gloss. I liked the effect, but I couldn’t take its contrived despair terribly seriously.

But Derek Walmsley’s review in the Wire really excited me:

Opening track “Silence” begins with a crackle of static, before a ragged, lean and urgent rhythm suggests This Heat or even the Last Poets, with guitars which grate and distort as if they’re trying to mimic this percussive attack.

This Heat! The Last Poets! They ain’t names you see quoted too much in reviews of pop albums, not even in the Wire. And Walmsley is right - the out-of-place, out-of-time snatch of Portuguese that opens "Silence" confuse and unsettle. A grey drone of drums, straight out of This Heat’s “Repeat”, enters the fray. Squeaks of guitar fall behind the beat, then overtake it, and a sombre bass plods underneath. But the problems with “Silence” – and the rest of Third – begin about 50 seconds in, when a single line of strings enter, adding an unwanted lushness to this bleak rumble. The entry of Gibbons’s “habitually introspective vocals” only compound the problem.

Portishead’s sound is defined by Gibbons’s voice, but I find it rather laboured. For all its quivering, bird-like angst, it hampers any connection to their work. It’s not the contrivance itself which is problematic as much as what it is trying to contrive: a soulfulness, a lived-in-ness, that simply isn’t there. Compare it with Martina Topley-Bird’s blank delivery on Maxinquaye, or the samples of unknown girl-singers on Burial. Those two records are viscerally complicated, despite the flatness of the vocals. They are, to quote Christgau, “the audioramas of someone who's signed on to work for the wages of sin and lived to cash the check.” With so much more industry, Beth Gibbons at her worst achieves only an ersatz blues.

It’s a shame, because some of the music on Third is really exciting, what Walmsley aptly calls a “primitive, dust-dry funk built of fragments, teeth and bone.” The spaces between the ammunition-beats of “Machine Gun” seem to be filled by the thrum of an accelerating heartbeat. “Hunter” is a spooky, Lynchian lullaby, with beautiful, de-stylised vocals from Gibbons, whose lilting spell is harshly interrupted by (first) a gigantic, cleaving chainsaw-guitar and (second) a skittish, subterranean arpeggio. And its finale, “Threads,” is perhaps the album’s true masterpiece: as a quietly screaming violin plays coldly over Gibbons’s hesistant monologue ("I'm worn, tired of my mind, I'm worn out thinking of why I'm so unsure"), she is slammed aside by a nightmarish, synth-guitar barf. This vile alarm closes the album with so much affect, you almost forget the lacklustreness of its middle section.

But nevertheless, I am with Mark Fisher when he recalls the dated forced-miserablism of This Life. I can't imagine the Nathan Barley bars of Hoxton spinning Burial or Tricky too often, but "The rip" and "Deep water" and "Magic doors" could get their more reflective punters in quite a spin.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Don't worry, haven't given up, just being a lazy bum.

Actually, I'm doing a lot of wandering around and swotting up on the King's Cross / St Pancras International development at the moment, so expect a post or two on this soon. The area just north of KX is among the strangest places one can wander (fairly) freely in at the moment: a place destined for commercial development, but desperately clinging onto its few remaining tenements, granaries and gasholders.

For now, a link to a short PBS film entitled "The new nazis: Hitler's unlikely followers." It follows Cesar, a young Chilean Nazi who is unusual for the colour of his skin - he is a dark-skinned, indigenous Indian Chilean. Why would Cesar look to the Third Reich for ideas for how to change the world? Because the rise of Naziism in Chile is only nominally about race. Fundamentally, it is about class.

Chile was the first nation in the world to fully apply a neoliberal economic policy. When Augusto Pinochet established total control of Chile a couple of years after Salvador Allende was deposed in 1973, he invited a group of young Chilean economists nicknamed the "Chicago Boys" to neoliberalise Chile's economy. All natural resources other than copper were privatised, there were no limits to repatriation of profits outside of Chile, free trade was established, and anything which impeded the accumulation of capital - unions, state intervention, national ownership - were dealt with harshly.

Neoliberalism jump-started the Chilean economy until a slowdown in the early 1980s, but fundamentally it had the same effect as similar policies in Britain and the US from the 80s onwards, in China from the late 80s onwards, in Russia and Mexico from the early 90s onwards and (we can predict) in Iraq currently: a massive accumulation of wealth for the richest in the country, and a diversion of national income away from the poor. As a result of neoliberalism, Chile is the second most unequal country in the continent after Brazil.

This explains why Cesar's search for scapegoats is about class rather than race. This massive accumulation and concentration of capital has been accompanied by class conflict (one could say that they are one and the same thing). The top 1% of Chileans have only increased their wealth through the dispossession of those they exploit. Working-class kids like Cesar, whatever the colour of their skin, can see extraordinary wealth every day of their lives (in Latin American cities, wealth sits brazenly and openly alongside poverty), but they cannot grasp it.

They cannot confront those who accumulate at their expense, because as well as being antagonistic towards them, they are also dependent upon them. Being under-paid is, after all, better than not being paid at all. And so, powerless to confront the real cause of their poverty, people like Cesar turn to easier scapegoats: immigrants, left-wingers, degenerates. It might be most palpable in Chile, but it's a pattern we can see all over the world, including at home.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


Ah - it's election time again. And if you're a Londoner with a thing for representative democracy, you must be having a right old jamboree. All the ingredients are there:

(a) an incomprehensible electoral system to defy all logic,

(b) breast-beating white men fighting for your attention like hyperactive children, and

(c) an hysterical media reminding us that, really, this is what separates us from the savages - a real chance to have your say about how your city is run - of course, nothing too radical, just a cross in a couple of boxes ... but still! ah, ain't democracy just grand?

Let's start with (a) - the system. The way votes are calculated for the London Assembly is bewildering - some Members will get in via first-past-the-post, the rest via PR. The important thing is that a party must get at least 5% of the overall vote to be eligible to gain seats. So if a large number of voters in, say, the Dagenham and Redbridge area vote BNP, the BNP would have to get at least 5% of the total London vote in order to win a seat. The idea being that very localised issues should not be allowed to dominate the pan-London picture. What this means is, if you are appalled by the idea of fascist representation in your city's Assembly, you must get out there and vote. The fewer moderates or progressives who vote, the larger the BNP's share of the vote will be.

The system of electing the Mayor is rather simpler. To win outright, a candidate must win 50% or more. Even in his golden years, Ken Livingstone only ever won 39%, so an outright victory is virtually impossible this time round. It's more likely that the election will be decided by adding the second-choice votes to the first-choice votes - whoever wins this, will be Mayor of London.

Part (b) - the candidates. The best of the candidates is Lindsey German - she has the policies, the correct philosophy for London, and an inclusive style which can win people over (not always the case with senior SWP figures). Sian Berry looks good on paper - though I can't say I've ever heard or seen her speak. Of course, neither of these will win.

The main objective, negative and pragmatic though it may be, is to stop Boris Johnson becoming Mayor. Johnson is a slippery customer, and Livingstone has obviously debated whether to lampoon him as a hopeless buffoon, or paint him as a more sinister, far-right figure. He has opted for the latter, which I think is sensible. Johnson supported the war in Iraq, supported the election of Bush in 00 and 04, opposed the Kyoto Treaty, opposed the minimum wage, wants to reduce the development of affordable housing in a city where demand already far outstrips supply, referred to black people as "picaninnies" and the Stephen Lawrence enquiry as "Orwellian". And from his absurd little Lend me your ears, he writes:

It was mesmerising, in April 2003, to stand in Baghdad and look at the contrast between the Americans and the people they had liberated. The Iraqis were skinny and dark, badly dressed and fed. The Americans rode in their Humvees (a vehicle that is eloquently bigger than our Land Rover: more slouching, bigger tyred, cooler). The marines had the shades with the slick little nick in the corner. They were taller and squarer than the indigenous people, with heavier chins and better dentition. They looked like a master race from outer space, or something from the pages of Judge Dredd…


Here is a statistic that you should be aware of, all you Fisks and Pilgers and Robin Cooks, who prophesied thousands and thousands of deaths. I went to see Qusay Ali Al-Mafraji, the head of the International Red Crescent in Baghdad. Though some nametags have been lost, and though some districts have yet to deliver their final tally, guess how many confirmed Iraqi dead he has listed, both military and civilian, for the Baghdad area? He told me it was 150, and he has no reason to lie.

150. Apparently, 42% of Londoners would vote for this guy as their first choice. Unbelievable.

Ken Livingstone is hardly flawless - his position on property development, on housing for working class people, on taxing of non-doms, on the role of big business etc has grown more conservative in recent years. But the congestion charge, his efforts at unifying London in all its diversity and his opposition to the war in Iraq from the start earn him my vote. If you plan to vote for another party as your first-choice, I think you should give Ken your vote as second choice.

As a postscript, the Lib Dems could have done well this year on the back of second choice votes, had they not picked such a poor candidate. Presumably Brian Paddick - the liberal copper - was picked for integrity and recogniseability. Alas, that's not enough (he's currently on 10%) - however visionary he was as Lambeth's Borough Commander, he has no vision for London that I can detect and is a deadly dull speaker. Of all the campaigns in 2008, the Lib Dems' appears the most pointless.

And (c) - the media? Well, for those of you who live outside of the capital, we have a number of free papers here in London which some people read on the tube, and most people use to wipe their bums. The Evening Standard is the grandaddy of these sordid little rags - unfortunately, it is not free, so it is for bourgeois bums only. The Standard has always hated Livingstone, and is supporting Johnson. The others run polls on which candidate's partner looks best in capri pants. London's a real shithole sometimes.