Thursday, May 28, 2009


Crossing the north-south (London) divide is supposed to be a traumatic rite of passage, a journey into the unknown. I lived in North London (Wood Green, Bounds Green and Holloway) from 2001 until early 2009. Now, following our trip to Argentina and Brazil, I've moved in with DV, just around the corner from Brixton Tube.

There are posts to be written about what's different north and south of the river - posts which avoid the cliches of leafy avenues in Hampstead and fried chicken shops in Camberwell - but this is not one of those posts. This post is about something that's common to all of London (and, I dare say, most metropolitan areas in England): a crisis about where people live.

Camden's housing tenants made the news at the beginning of this decade for voting against the implementation of an Arms Length Management Organisation. The majority of Local Authorities in London persuaded their tenants to part-privatise the management of Council housing, and Camden mounted an aggressive "Vote Yes" PR campaign. But Camden's tenants stuck to their guns, and in a supposedly open referendum, they elected to keep the management of their properties in-house.

The Government then denied a large portion of capital funding aimed at bringing homes up to Decent Homes standards (funding dependent on tenants voting yes), and told the Council they must find other ways of raising the money. Camden now has a chronic housing crisis. There are 16,000 people waiting for Council accommodation, 2,000 in temporary accommodation, and 5,000 living in over-crowded homes. This demand will inevitably swell as homes are repossessed, and yet the Council is steadily auctioning off street properties to raise the money needed for maintaining the rest of its stock - this despite a rock-bottom housing market. There are even rumours of Council flats being rented to upwardly-mobile professionals on the open market to generate more cash.

Labour councillors blame the ruling Lib Dem-Tory coalition; the Lib Dems and the Tories say that Labour ruled Camden for nearly 40 years before 2005, and that the problem is of their making. Councillors could appeal to the Government for additional funding (and exasperated tenants groups are currently organising a deputation to the Housing Minister - see more here), but one should not be hopeful: Labour have shown not a hint of progressive thinking on housing whatsoever.


But what if Camden's tenants had voted for an ALMO? Other than surrendering the management of their homes to private hands, would everything have been ok? Would their homes now meet the Decent Homes standards? Would their rents have stayed low? The example of Lambeth suggests not.

Lambeth does have an ALMO. Unlike Camden, Lambeth Council has no housing management department. Its management arm is an organisation called Lambeth Living. Lambeth's housing needs are similar (in fact, a little higher, with 17,000 people on the waiting list) to Camden's, though it suffers less from exorbitant land prices.

Nevertheless, Lambeth Council is also selling off its properties, having identified 100 "smaller units" for auction in order to - guess what? - raise the money needed for Decent Homes. (In an echo of Camden, Lambeth's Labour administration blames the previous Lib Dem-Tory coalition for fucking things up...) Local activists from Lambeth's Defend Council Housing branch occupied a flat in Streatham for several hours before being removed by Police, and they plan to repeat this tactic with other homes.

Lambeth Living has recently announced a 20% cut in its workforce, and the emergency repairs team, concierge service (a fundamental service for social housing) and cleaning service in the north of the Borough have been set aside for privatisation. This goes expressly against what tenants say they want. It is also grossly inefficient: tenants have reported that a contractor will often make three or more visits to a property before finishing a repair job, claiming each visit as a separate job.

Perhaps even more significantly, there is talk of a rent strike, and why not? Rents have increased by 13.9% since April. Lambeth's tenants were told to pay £13.12 a week more than they did at the end of last year, and even after a Government intervention which shaved a little off this figure, but the £12.00 a week hike is still the highest in the country.


Saturday 30 May - Assemble 11am - Lambeth Town Hall

If you need help or advice or you want more info on our campaign against privatisation, overcrowding, high rents and for decent council housing for all – Contact Defend Council Housing 07834 828 292

Friday, May 22, 2009


Fantastic Journal wonders if W.G. Sebald visited Thorpeness in The rings of Saturn. DV thinks so too, but flicking through my copy today, I can’t find any mention of it. It doesn’t seem like the sort of place he would have visited, nor a place where he would found anything of interest. Thorpeness is too bright and breezy for Sebald I suspect, too chipper, too populated (both by man and elf). He does visit Orford Ness, but that is a different proposition altogether.

Sebald does, however, visit the bridge over the River Blyth:

This slim iron structure was, he says, originally built as a railway bridge to connect the Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing with one of the Emperor's summer residences. The Guangxu Emperor, successor to the Tongzhi Emperor, who died without leaving an heir, was imprisoned in a corner of the Forbidden City by the Dowager Empress Cixi. Guangxu was fixated by the workings of machinery, and Sebald suggests that the railway was originally commissioned to be Guangxu’s plaything. After a long period of illness and neglect, the 37-year old Emperor died, probably poisoned by Cixi. Cixi herself died less than 24 hours later. The plans were for the railway were ditched, and the bridge found a new home on the Suffolk coast.

At the risk of spoiling a good story, this has no historical basis whatever. It is a bridge for pedestrians, not locomotives, and the railway line that connects Southwold with Walberswick crosses the river a mile or more upstream. This inaccuracy has its precedents in The rings of Saturn (see here for an even more brazen error), which is not really a book about Suffolk at all, but a obsessively restless search eastwards, to Holland, Germany, China, beyond...

From Walberswick, Sebald walks south to Dunwich, where Swinburne sought solace when his masochistic and alcoholic episodes came to a head. Swinburne’s life, says Sebald, was co-terminous with that of the Dowager Empress (actually he was born two years after her, and died one year after, but what the hell...), and he apparently wrote "By the North Sea" in Dunwich, overseen by his loyal friend and carer Theodore Watts.

DV and I are going back to Thorpeness tomorrow, and may walk past the nuclear power stations (one decommissioned concrete monolith, one very active giant golf-ball), through the Sizewell Belts, and onto Minsmere. On the other hand, we may find a pub somewhere and gorge ourselves on Adnam’s. Here’s a short film about Sizewell Nuclear Power station, from the Guardian’s Barton’s Britain series (she visited King’s Cross snooker club recently, so she clearly knows a thing or two about strange, secluded spots).

Sunday, May 17, 2009


The apex of Nu Labour’s politics of triangulation is its attitude to work and welfare. While unemployment soars and the incomes of the low-paid plummet and the people and the systems responsible for the crisis go unpunished while their staff are made redundant … still people like James Purnell claim that people should get off benefits and into work.

Labour have hectored the poor as Norman Tebbit used to, but they have glorified their tickings off with the glossy jargon of “wellbeing,” “social inclusion” and “citizenship,” as though stacking shelves for Tesco’s on sub-survival wages is some kind of tonic for misery and infirmity. It is no exaggeration to say that getting people off benefits is priority number one for the Department of Health and its agenda of promoting “recovery” for people with long-term mental health problems.


Reading Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work in 2009, six years after it was published, is salutary. Inflation aside, everything Toynbee writes about still stands, and then some. Early on in her book, before she swaps her comfortable Clapham home for a nearby Council flat and works as a porter, a dinner lady, a nursery support worker, a telesales operator and a care home worker, Toynbee reels out some statistics.

In 2002, the national median income was then £390 per week, and one in five people earned less than £240 per week. Unemployment was low then, but there were more people working multiple jobs and still not living life above the poverty line than people receiving benefits. These were boom times, but somehow, profits were available only to the very few. The majority fell further and further behind.

Of course this inequality had been growing since the late 1970s. In the last thirty years, executive salaries have grown exponentially, while those in low-paid jobs have vegetated. A regressive tax structure has redistributed wealth even further towards the rich. Child poverty has tripled since 1970, and the average Class 5 male worker won’t live long enough to qualify for a free TV licence.

So the proportion of the population living in poverty has increased while the UK economy overall has grown. The reasons for this are familiar to us, but it’s worth repeating them as they are still denied by the vast majority of people in mainstream politics.


Firstly, Margaret Thatcher’s decimation of Trade Unions means that workers have fewer rights and less bargaining power than ever. Atomisation has weakened workers dramatically. They have no bargaining power, no organising structure to support them, and often little sense of belonging. Jobs where a high proportion of workers belong to Unions generally have higher wages than non-organised workforces. But Unions need to do more than simply reform pay and conditions: they need to challenge labour’s absolute lack of presence in financial policy formulation, and take up the opportunity for change presented by the collapse of the global economy (for more on this, see here and here).

Secondly, the UK’s welfare provision errs towards the US, rather than the European social democratic, model. Its lack of social security means that more and more people are forced to look for work, and this mass search for employment helps to suppress wages. As Toynbee says, “America may be working, but the US has double Europe’s poverty rate.” Britain has the lowest social spending in Europe and the highest poverty; Sweden has the highest social spending in Europe and the lowest poverty.

What’s more, the old Tory trope that employment provides an opportunity to escape from the benefits trap and rebuild one’s life is contradicted by the old Tory (and New Labour) policies that mean it is often impossible to move from welfare to work. Once you get a job, you can no longer claim benefits – but a new starter will often have to work two or even four weeks before they receive their first pay check. If you are living on the breadline, how are you supposed to pay for bills and groceries without borrowing?

Thirdly, the salaries of people in low-paid jobs have been hit hard by the privatisation of “ancillary” (more on this word later) public services. When a private company takes on a cleaning contract for a hospital, they must reduce wages in order to generate a profit. When a private company takes over the running of hospital portering, residential care, or meals-on-wheels, the terms and conditions of existing workers are protected under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment), or TUPE, regulations. But new workers receive no such protection. In 2002, Unison found that 62% of new starters were paid less than TUPE-protected workers; 73% had less holiday; 51% had worse pensions.


In the public sector, and in the low-paid sector generally, women have primarily been the victims of neoliberalism. It is really impossible to be a feminist if you do not oppose the capitalism of the last 30 years. The professions associated with women – the five Cs of cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work – are among the lowest-paid and the hardest-hit by privatisation. They are the jobs known as ancillary (from the Latin word meaning ‘maid’ or ‘slave-girl’), which may explain how a stockbroker justifies paying a pittance to the woman who looks after his demented mother, or the women who works in his child’s classroom.

Aside from curbing salaries for the jobs that women do, the unwillingness of successive governments to provide state-funded childcare leads to what Polly Toynbee describes as “an impossible cycle of women’s low pay leading to women unable to work because they cannot afford childcare, and therefore a shortage of women to work in childcare because so many who would like to are trapped at home looking after their own.”

And of course, as a consequence of all this, the prejudice that women love doing caring work, that they would pay to do it given the chance, and that they shouldn’t expect much of a wage in return, is perpetuated.


There are many who think this is a God-given state of affairs. If I had space, I would re-produce the conversation Toynbee has with the chief executive of a care-home company verbatim – without the usual party-political sympathies blunting her analysis, her dissection of the free-market rhetoric used to sustain the repression of low wages is forensic.

Her chief executive claims that Local Authority staff are “feather-bedded.” He decries their “pensions, holidays, sick pay, overtime pay,” and saves money by withholding these from his own workforce. He pays his care staff £4.25 an hour (2002 rates). Most of them work a 48-hour week and cannot make ends meet, yet it is their work that feathers the beds of his shareholders. Care workers, Toynbee says, are simply not paid enough:

“We are not paying the market price.”

“But the market price [he replies] is whatever you can produce and sell something for.”

“No. It is a distorted market if it depends on sub-survivable wages. It is a below-market, fraudulent price, not the true price. The result is the government has to give out tax credits to subsidise low wages [...] Why should the tax-payer subsidise the services you and I purchase? [...] But above all, how do you and I justify earning large salaries while these hard-working people struggle?”

At which point, our chief executive bleats about freedom of opportunity and the debate descends into defensive platitudes which, when countered by statistics about stagnant social mobility, fail to stack up. And anyway, what does freedom of opportunity amount to when, for the last 15 years, executive pay has risen by more than 100% while frontline pay has risen by only a third?


Last week we learned that inequality has risen under Labour. Britain now has a more imbalanced economy than it ever did under Major, Thatcher, Heath or MacMillan. Those in the bottom 10% of earners have seen their incomes fall by £9 a week since 2005, while those in the top 10% have seen their incomes rise by £45 a week.

What is to be done? We must first admit that people are not poor because they are feckless, but because society has conspired to squeeze their wages until the pips squeak. Secondly, we must admit that the disparity between the wealthy and the poor is immoral and illogical, whether you believe in socialism or the free market. Thirdly, we must carry out a radical redistribution of wealth, whereby a market value is judged by whether those generating that value can survive through their labour, and via progressive taxation: in other words, wages must increase, and so must benefits.

This is pretty moderate stuff. It is neither Communism nor Socialism. It is just a fairer form of capitalism, and Polly Toynbee makes its case as logically and eloquently as it is possible to do. That was supposed to be the aim of the G20 summit: to make capitalism fair. But the G20 leaders, and the lobbyists who influence them, are interested in profits, not people. They will not make capitalism fairer.

It is we who must take charge of society – by opposing the irrational and dishonest arguments that working is, by definition, virtuous; by setting up and joining unions; by taking to the streets and protesting; by forming political alternatives to the tenable status quo; and especially by following Visteon’s example and standing up to the shadowy authority of capital.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


...of seeing God...

(seen here with a very young "Blood" Ulmer)

...and one of his disciples...

Seeing Yoko too, with the ever-conceptual Plastic Ono Band (not expecting to see Clapton or Starr any more than Voorman, Harrison or Lennon...). V v excited.

Monday, May 04, 2009


As I have gone on at some length here about the hidden radical histories of King’s Cross, I ought to attend to the eastern side of the station, the area now in the Borough of Islington (always a more progressive Authority than Camden). A tour around a couple of Berthold Lubetkin’s social housing schemes (which are dotted along the Pentonville Road) would do the theme some justice, I thought, but alas Entschwindet und Vergeht has beaten me to it. No matter - his piece is excellent, and introduces the inter-relationship between the architect, the revolutionary and the city.

The presence of Lubetkin and Lenin in this area of London repeats itself. Lenin himself moved to London from Switzerland in 1902, to continue editing Iskra from Clerkenwell Green. (Note to drinkers: he was a regular in the Crown, though you are more likely to share beer-space with baying media types these days.) Although Lenin moved back to Geneva that same year, he returned to London for subsequent Congresses of the Russian Social Democratic Party. In 1905, he and Nadya Krupskaya stayed at 16 Percy Circus, just off the Pentonville Road, where a Travelodge now stands. It is now the site of what E&V correctly describes as the sole “sanctioned memory” to Lenin: a blue plaque.

Lubetkin grew up in Russia while Lenin was exiled in London, and was an eyewitness to the Revolution in 1917. In 1922 he left the USSR to travel Europe, roused by the revolutionary call to bring Art into Life. Absorbing Constructivism, Classicism and Le Corbusier, as well as industrial technique, he arrived in England and immediately set up Tekton, the first architectural practice to be commissioned by a politically accountable body: the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury.

The marriage of Tekton with Finsbury offered Lubetkin the opportunity to apply the models developed at Highpoint and elsewhere to public health and social housing. The pre-NHS Health Centre (see here for background and some contemporary photos) is Lubetkin’s most famous pre-war Finsbury creation, and after 1945 Tekton built three decisive social housing schemes in the Borough: Spa Green, Priory Green and Bevin Court.

Bevin Court is metres away from Percy Circus, and Lubetkin chose to honour Lenin with a memorial: a piercing likeness set against a plush scarlet backdrop, and bordered by a curving frame. Bevin Court was originally going to be an “entire town planning unit,” made up of a school, restaurant and community centre, but the exhausted economy of the late 40s put paid to Lubetkin’s plans, and he decided to build housing on Holford Green rather than a mixture of buildings around it. (Lubetkin had wanted to call it Lenin Court, but in the Cold War era of the late 1940s it was decided that the then Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, might be a more suitable inspiration.) Its checkerboard design was a way of turning the repetition inherent in mass housing into something aesthetically appealing, and his biographer John Allan has suggested that the motif may have arisen from Lubetkin’s earlier studies of carpet design.

Apart from the Lenin memorial, the Court is most famous for its stairs. John Allan claims that “only in the central tower that connects the three wings of Bevin Court is the pervasive sense of austerity annihilated by the sheer force of Lubetkin’s sculptural imagination; the spectacular staircase dances skyward upon a series of tricorn mezzanine perches threaded up a single central pillar.”

There is a secret history to be unpicked from these postcodes - of Lenin, and of revolutionaries before and after - and its traces can still be found. Lubetkin was forced to take drastic action when National Front thugs vandalised his memorial, and unilaterally buried it underneath Holford Square. Where is it? Does the gaze of its subject remain as acute as ever? Is it Lenin's fixed eyes which give King's Cross its subterreanean defence against gentrification? Or will the developers finally win out?


This is the story of a Suffolk farmer who had lived in his village throughout his life, and of his only visit to the capital.

"Oi've oonly bin t'Lunn'n once in moy loife!" he say. "Doon't want t'goo agin! Went t'see a solicitor - bowt thutty, forty year agoo. Oi got on th' tray'ne t'come hoom, sat 'air, awl t'moyself."

He described how there weren't any inter-city trains; it was practically all stops from Liverpool Street Station to Ipswich - about a two-hour journey. There were no corridors along the train, just a door one side, a door the other and bench seats, the width of the carriage, facing each other - a picture of Southwold above one seat, and a picture of Aldeburgh above the other.

"Tray'ne start'd off, 'n' awl of a sudd'n, a fella in a pin stroipe suit, booler hat, brolly 'n' a brief case, starts racen th' tray'ne. Th' door floy oopen 'n' 'iss 'ear fella falls in, slams th' door 'n' sits oppers't."

The farmer relived the following conversation:


"Oh! Good evening. Where are you going?"


"So am I; it takes about two hours, you know."

"Is 'at a fact."

"Why don't we play a game of I-Spy - help pass the time?"

"No! Oi just wamt t'goo t'sleep 'n' wake up in Ipsidge."

"Why don't we play Twenty Questions - help pass the time?"

"No! 'N' wee'd need more 'an twenty questions twixt heaya 'n' Ipsidge!"

"We must do something - let's have a general knowledge quiz."

At which point the farmer told him what he could do with his general knowledge quiz.

"Let's make it interesting - I ask you a question, if you get it right, I give you ten pounds, but if you get it wrong, you give me ten pounds, and vice versa."

"How menny toimes dew Oi need t' tell yew?"

"Okay, okay, okay, if you get it right, I give you a hundred pounds, and if you get it wrong, you give me ten pounds. Any questions you ask me, I get it wrong, I give you one hundred pounds, I get it right, I get ten pounds."

"Mmmm ... Awl roight ... yew goo fust."

"What were the closing prices of Rowntrees on the stock market this afternoon?"

Well, the farmer didn't know the answer and he handed over ten pounds.

"Your go, your go."

"Don't hurry me - Oi'm Suffolk ... What goos up hill with forwer legs, 'n' comes dow'n hill with three?"


"What goos up hill with forwer legs, 'n' comes dow'n with three?"

The city man didn't know the answer and he handed over a hundred pounds to the farmer.

"Well ... what does go up hill with four legs and down with three?"

The farmer waited a while, thought, and gave the city man ten pounds back. He also reminded the city man that it was the farmer's go again...

(from Charlie Haydock's A rum owd dew!)