Wednesday, March 31, 2004


(Scene: The Holloway Road in north London. Most famous for Joe Orton, in which period it was full of Irish immigrants. It has changed enough that he would not only turn in his grave, but he must be spit roasting over the fires of hell. It is early evening on a grey day. G marches along, trying to beat the buses caught up in the usual jam. The sound of kids rapping in a Jamaican style approaches him from behind. Prepubescent voices as yet untouched by the trouble of testosterone, the sound is unintelligible and less musical than a running diesel engine.
G's safety space bubble is attacked by these alien missiles. But in a split second, he remembers what he has learnt. To ignore them is to let them grow up into wild animals. He whirls about to glance at them, without breaking step. One brown kid and one slightly smaller white kid, rapping in a muzzy synchrony, maybe eleven years old.
One of them bursts out laughing, non-maliciously as if he'd seen a clown bump into a wall. The attention was so unusual in this selfish city, that it was funny for them.
G drops back to fall into line with them, acknowledging the ice-breaker. The kids are still rapping their mantra.)

G: What IS that?

Brown kid: It's MC, man, you should listen to it. (raps again)

G: You mean like the famous MC Hammer?

Brown kid: Oh NOOOO! That is way old stuff. It's MC. It's harder and faster.

G: It sounds like Mumbo Jumbo to me..

Brown kid: Noooo, you got to listen to it, man. You got to get with it. (they rap again)

G: It might as well be Arabic to me...

Brown kid: You got to listen to it, man. You GOT to get with it...

G: I've had to get with it for 42 years. You've only had to get with it for 13.

Brown kid: Why don't you listen to it, man? You GOT to get with it!!!!(they start to move ahead, rapping)

G: Hey, I tell you what, I'll GET WITH it if I can get some money out of it!

Kids (stopped): That's what we're going to do, man, we're going to do this for money!

(A little nonplussed, they start rehearsing again. We all shrug, we split)

And thus I may have reinforced whatever their parents and teachers try to tell them: that they are not likely to grow up and earn a living by 'getting with it by rapping'. If nothing else, I have wrested from Simon Cowell the pleasure of doing the honour, and from making more money off public humiliation.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

They were good for the British economy

Last year, if you mentioned the number of immigrant workers in Britain (the illegal, the asylum-seeking, and the legal), even educated socialists were mouthing the trite justification, "Demographically the nation is getting older, and we need them for the British economy". They were even getting this from the Guardian, the BBC, and not just from their chattering-class dinners.

Then last month, 20-odd Chinese illegals died in Morecambe Bay caught by the tides while cockle-picking. They didn't speak English, they were hopelessly underpaid, and the "nation" is outraged at the gangmasters that exploited them. Well, I commented back then that the inscription on their tombstones should be, "They were good for the British economy".

Yesterday, the Guardian finally headlined their Saturday printed edition with a brilliant expose into the world of the low-paid, usually immigrant worker. In a redeeming piece of journalism, the Guardian at last is shaking and stirring out of complacency. Finally the intelligentsia of Labour's conscience have clued in. As usual, people had to die before it hit home.Read Inside the grim world of the Gangmasters. I won't paraphrase it. How are you connected to this? The chicken you expect to be cheap at the supermarket (eg Sainsbury's) is butchered in Norfolk, where the food corporation (eg Grampian's) hires cheap labour. The temp agency (eg Pertemps) gives them cheap labour: the odd Brit, the Brazilians, the Portuguese, the East Europeans, and the Chinese. The gangmasters introduce and fleece the cheap labour when they are illegal and can't speak English.

Oh yes, and the businessmen (economists, bless them!) were moaning this week that Sainsbury's profits are down. Preaching economic models that use shillings and pence, undoubtedly, instead of broader measures of quality of life.

It was a mystery to me for a long time: what was keeping the British economy on its legs? Everyone has been driving around in new cars. Everyone has been showing off or getting a new kitchen. Few seem to have economically essential jobs, yet carry loads of debt with ignorant complacency.

I did working class jobs for six months last year, on the streets, and in the parks. At one firm I found 3 Russians, amongst the more regular students and working class. One worked in my crew for a few days: he didn't look a bit Russian. My curiousity soon won over my bigotry and I got to know him and like him. I soon found out he was an Azerbaijani Moslem. (He explained that his parents had never been inside a mosque, and that Azerbaijan's attitude to Islam was similar to Turkey's.) He had excellent English, and he was a university-educated mathematician. He had lived in Moscow, and experienced skin-colour bigotry there when trying to get into nightclubs. He and his other two white Russian mates were working directly for the firm, not through an agency, and it sounded like they were paid cash. He commuted the Silverlink train daily without a ticket, through 3 expensive Travelcard zones, and somehow had never encountered a ticket inspector! I never found out how much he was being paid, but it must have been less than the £5.15 per hour that the legal employees were making.

Today's bosses of the low-paid class have a more sophisticated version of the old motto, "The working class can kiss my ass, I've got the foreman's job at last". On the construction sites in London, you wouldn't have any trouble finding disgruntled East Europeans who might talk about it. At least some of them know enough English to go with their Caucasian appearance. (Nor are they complete suffering fools, because they learn quickly what is worth enjoying in London. I was astonished one dark evening to come upon a party of East Europeans having a Vodka fuelled campfire singalong in Whipps Cross Woods, Epping Forest)

The average British office jobber closes his eyes to all of this. They move from house to train to office to supermarket, excited only by their second home in Spain or by a threat to their pension. From their house they expect their rubbish to be collected by they-don't-care-who. On their train journeys they expect safe railways worked on by they-don't-care-who. In the office they expect cleaned carpets, desks and kitchens by they-don't-care-who. In the supermarket they expect to buy chicken that is cheaper than petrol, butchered by they-don't-care-who.

The British middle class might notice these things again, but they should also be aware that their own British low-paid honest hard workers have been experiencing this immigration phenomenon and have been suffering from the competition for a while.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Love and Sex & the City

Well, the last episode of Sex & the City showed in the States a few weeks ago, but it finally showed in Britain on Wednesday, and in Canada on Friday.

Sex & the City grew up, and Love finally mattered. The writers did a masterful job of squeezing the subject of Love into the single, final episode, considering that they have spent years expounding on Sex.

And what an earthquaking shift in popular culture. Sex used to be rebellious and cool: it used to mean that you were breaking the chains of a repressive culture and upbringing. But that was when the world around you was completely repressive and conservative, and church-going. In the West, it isn't as strangling as it used to be, unless you still live in the heart of Mormon country, or on the Isle of Man. In the Rest of the World, well that's the more challenging story.

As in everything, balance is the art, the science and the poetry. Sex isn't dead. It never was completely so, even in Queen Victoria's time. It's just that since the 60's it has been the primary emphasis of cultural progress. It finally reached its point of over-emphasis.

Sex & the City was about people who had sex first, and later learned about love. There are also people who love first, and later learn about sex. Both types of people have occurred naturally since the dawn of time. The predisposition to one or the other is almost a quantifiable genetic feature, subject to competition, survival, and natural selection depending on what is luckily successful.

Before the 60's, western Society used to only have official approval for people who loved first and learned sex afterwards. In recent years the pendulum had swung to the extreme end. If you arrived in the West from the mountains of Afghanistan, you would certainly think that western society only sanctioned people who learned sex first and never learned to love.

Whether the official sanction is one way or the other, there will always be some people carrying on in the opposite way, regardless of what social pressure exists around them. There are 6 billion people on the planet, and the only way they will ever completely march in step is when they are assimilated by the Borg. (The Borg is a concept from Star Trek, of a part-machine society where all members are mechanically wired and uniformly controlled. You can quickly observe that the Internet is the first incarnation of the Borg, and extrapolate to your mind's delight).

Love and Sex: everyone needs them both, and everyone can thank them both, for being alive, alive, alive, alive......

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Real Eastenders

My next door neighbour was a classic Eastender. He died at 84 in September, after living in the same council house (owned and provided by local government as part of the social welfare system designed after the Second World War) for over 40 years. He was a dustman all his life, and when I first met him, his son, and his house, I thought I was watching an East End version of Steptoe and Son. They were so disadvantaged, down-to-earth, humble, and so loved animals - they had 30 pigeons in the shed at the bottom of the garden. They had no money, the son loved to go fishing, the son had asthma, the son died of an asthma attack 5 years ago and the dad lived alone since then.

Now then, the house they lived in, even in its poor condition, would have been worth £170,000 today. And in England, there is a scheme called the Right-to-Buy, originally set up by Margaret Thatcher but now being phased out. This entitled the council tenant to buy the house they live in, at a discount of up to 60% (depending on how long they had lived there).

My neighbour also had another son and a daughter, but they were too fractious, too poor and not savvy enough to club together and help their dad claim his Right-to-Buy. Consequently they lost out on a potential inheritance value of £102,000. Of course, they also lost out on their history, because the house in which they had grown up had to be returned to the Council after their Dad died.

Thus once again, an East End family much disadvantaged in earlier times by the more priveleged classes, still loses out in today's England.

The Council is Newham which once was "the People's Republic Of", and for a long time was staffed by a weird mixture of Freemasons and Trotskyite Guardian readers. Today it also includes people whose poor command of the official language of the United Kingdom is simply obstructive to government.

Until recently the Council's policy was that it could "not afford" to fix up these council houses, so in fact they transferred these houses for the manorly sum of ONE Pound to a housing association. It took a while for people to notice that this was a crap idea. So now what they do is they grant a lease on the house for 15 years to a housing association. The housing association gets a grant from central government to do up the house, and also earns money as landlord and manager over that period, after which the property returns to the ownership of Newham Council.

The lucky housing association in this case is ARHAG (originally the African Refugee Housing Action Group) which is getting the majority of these housing lease contracts in Newham. Their success is apparently due to their performance, but is clearly enhanced because Newham favours ARHAG as a BME enterprise. Never mind the acronym, it is known as a Black and Minority Ethnic group enterprise. Why not "Yellow and Minority Ethnic", or "Brown and Minority Ethnic"? No, please note, it has to be "Black and Minority Ethnic", when ideally it should be just MINORITY GROUP Enterprise!

ARHAG did the house up reasonably well, and under the contract had to offer it to the Council's homeless waiting list. A pleasant English East End couple who heard about the vacancy knocked on my door and told me they were hoping to get the house after several years of trying desperately to get out of their existing one. They also came to tell me when they learned they did NOT get the house. Even more sadly, they tried to take their case higher up, but they lacked the erudition to convince anyone in authority to care. (Well, Stephen Timms MP couldn't help them)

Anyhow, my new neighbours moved in while I was away. Today I heard them, even before I have even seen them. I have never heard such a racket coming through my party walls, in 13 years of living here. The children were screaming, slamming doors, and shouting (in what sounds like a Middle Eastern language), and generally running riot as though their parents had no control of them.

So once again, I feel sorry for the original East Enders, and I want to apologise to them for not being able to help them despite all my years of living here.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The hardest aspects of getting older

Getting past 40. Gosh, I think people who do cosmetics, creams, hair colours and surgery, are plainly ridiculous! If they have to cling so desperately to a vision of youthfulness; if they are so afraid to give up the power of youthful beauty that they once wielded so callously: what a fragile box with shallow foundations they live in, and what terrors must await them beyond their cardboard walls.

A vast segment of the Western economy is devoted to maintaining the delusions of the vain aged. The hairdressers and dress shops may be obvious, but what about the expensive distractions of charity socials, art appreciation (where you indulge feckless artists to enjoy vicariously their reckless youth), and doing up the house with every accoutrement that the architect can sell you? Or owning vast ranches, or buying racehorses, or collecting cars that hide in a garage and are rarely ever seen let alone sat in? When you look at it that way, ancient and more realistic cultures (the ones least touched by Western values), must be horrified that they might get swallowed up by Planet U.S.A. So it is not surprising to have extreme religious fanatics embark on guerilla terrorism against what must seem to them to be a cancer.

Losing your looks is the least of the problems of getting over 40. The internal physical decline is increasingly apparent and undeniable. You don't see any Olympic athletes in that age bracket, do you? The mental agility too is ever shrinking, although it can be fortunately replaced by wisdom and more structured thoughts and emotions. But for me, the very hardest part of being over 40 is realising that most of the places, people, things, processes, social attitudes and circumstances - the ones that you grew up with and felt familiar with - are already gone, disappeared, never ever to be seen again. This is the same kind of sadness that must have accompanied the death of the horse and plough, the steam train, the sailing ship, the vast tracts of virgin oak forests.

The music is gone, the pubs are gone, the dance clubs are gone, the way you let loose on the weekend is gone, the chums are gone (even if you still keep in touch, their priorities are different now). The abandoned plots are gone, the restaurants are gone, the way you have sex is gone. The food is gone, the farm animals are gone, the corporations are gone, the local shops are gone. The TV comedies are gone, the stars are gone, the lords and manors are gone. The filthy rich are gone, the desperately poor are gone, the Florence Nightingales are gone. The language is gone, the slide rule is gone, the bath water boiling on the stovetop is gone.

And instead you have to smile patiently when a teenager in all earnest innocence tells you something about now, which is everything to them because it is all they have ever known, and yet it is only another marginal fraction on your spectrum of ongoing experience.

Wow, my grandmother (now long dead) sighed at me when as a young boy I expressed surprise that she had schools to go to when she was a child. And how much more there was behind that sigh, for she was 75 then, and I have still so far to go......

Friday, March 19, 2004

An addict's second chance

A man.

A man in London.

A gay man in London.

A gay man in London who lives for sex.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy that worked on him.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy that worked on him and made him healthy.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy that worked on him and made him healthy so he took it for granted.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy that worked on him and made him healthy so he took it for granted and had lots of barebacking sex.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy that worked on him and made him healthy so he took it for granted and had lots of barebacking sex where he caught other strains of HIV.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy that worked on him and made him healthy so he took it for granted and had lots of barebacking sex where he caught other strains of HIV which were resistant to the drugs.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy that worked on him and made him healthy so he took it for granted and had lots of barebacking sex where he caught other strains of HIV which were resistant to the drugs, so he got sick with AIDS again.

A gay man in London who lives for sex and has HIV and was sick with Aids but got combination anti-HIV therapy that worked on him and made him healthy so he took it for granted and had lots of barebacking sex where he caught other strains of HIV which were resistant to the drugs, so he got sick with AIDS again and wondered why he had wasted his second chance.

An addict, akin to George Best's life with alcohol, getting his second liver, then drinking again.

Sad, but see them still on Gaydar.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Film: The Barbarian Invasions

Hooray the French, the Quebecois! It is so rarely you come across something intelligent that is also pertinent to the world around you. And such is "The Barbarian Invasions", the French language film from Canada that won this year's Best Foreign Language Film award in the Oscars.

Now how is it that a film should so coincidentally deal with two of my hottest issues, namely watching the dying of a parent and seeing the dying of society from the era of liberalism that was born in the Sixties? Are the French the only thinking intellectuals who try to understand the world that revolves around them?

Consider that the winner of the Best Screenplay (Original Writing) in the Oscars was "Lost in Translation". This is the English speaking world's best commendation of a clever and progressive-thinking movie? Lost in Translation's message was like a Sesame Street lesson: "depression is ok, and you can lessen its pain by sharing it with someone in a platonic way without any sex". This message is only shiny to a blinkered person ridden hard by their self-obsession. (Even as they live in a world that encourages every David, Steve and Susan to worship themselves through weekly visits with a psychotherapist. The silently expanding church of psychotherapy indoctrinates new missionaries and captures new converts into a pyramid scheme of masturbatory self-repression.)

The Barbarian Invasion on the other hand continues the contemporary French inquiry, into the late 20th century destruction of Christian civilisation by the adoption of sexual liberation. Hooray for the French, when Michel Houellebecq wrote his novel "Atomised", thence roasting the Sixties for creating the mess we see in society today. Hooray for the Quebecois, for taking the examination of our civilisation to the next level and making it palatable, optimistic and humane. The Barbarian Invasion weaves together wit, humour, humanity, the dying of a father, the dying of socialist and liberal ideals, the passing of sexual urgency and the defeatedness of corrupted institutions. Dad was a professor, a socialist intellectual into politics and history, who wined, dined, had mistresses and lovers of both genders, who lived the sexual revolution and now dies with a terminal illness. The late 20th Century's place in the history of Christian civilisation is chronicled while put into perspective as failing and short-sighted. But here we have a bit of French genius. Dad doesn't die stoically or heroically, but he does euthanasia with an overdose of heroin in the style of a Bohemian birthday party. By metaphor, those fabulous Gallic minds are advising that we should not wait for the liberal ideals of the Sixties to rot away our post-Christian society any more, but in the free spirit of the Sixties, we should joyfully and resolutely put those ideals to sleep for ever. Whether we recover discarded Christian ideals or find a new solution for the future of Western civilisation will hopefully be the subject of a sequel, so expect "Repelling the Barbarian Invasions", or "Taming the Barbarians". Enjoy this movie and watch its central idea spread into interpretations designed to make sense to wider, English and American ,mass-market audiences. Meanwhile, watch your world change.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Toronto the Trashed

Nowadays Canada is run by the generation that grew up taking their wealthy standard of living for granted. These were the children whom were taught that it was more important to defend their right to smoke dope, than to understand that social structure and order were essential to survival of the group.

In Toronto in the wild Seventies you could still see everywhere the controlling grip of Scottish Presbyterian asceticism. It was so firm and seemingly immortal that for the sake of humanity you had to rebel against it. Even as sex-hunting singles and drug addicts swarmed down Yonge Street, it was contained and kept under the watchful eye and the firm thumb of the Law.

Toronto the Good was so clean, that you could drop an ice-cream cone on the pavement and safely pick it up to finish eating it. Toronto the Clean was so good that outside of the downtown strip and immigrant districts, your spirit would be ground down by the oppressive weight of conservative atttidues.

Those attitudes are all gone, and it's still boring for geographical reasons, but it's definitely not clean anymore. Litter and trash has multiplied as the quality of Toronto's citizens has plummeted. Downtown streets are dirtier than in most parts of London. The local TV stations are flaccidly pointing their cameras at the problem as though they still have some influence on a citizenry who no longer share common values. Indeed even if through democratic interest they might get their politicians excited about the subject, they would find it hard to exact improvement from government services that are bloated with bureaucracy, self-interest, and obstructive, undeservingly-protected employees.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Fly Air Canada

Everybody from Britain notices it about 15 minutes after they've sat down on their first Air Canada flight. All the stewards and stewardesses are middle-aged. No trolley-dollies here! None of the youthful glossy-skinned lovelies flushed with hormones and innocence that you expect on a home air-carrier.

And what a superb reminder that although you are travelling to another English-speaking nation, you might just be challenged by cultural differences that you never imagined and couldn't understand without a translator.

This small Canadian cultural feature arises from two main differences to life in Britain. The first difference is that Canada began an active enlightened program of ensuring social equality much earlier than in Britain. Ageism was recognized to be as deserving of attention as the two more popular forms of discrimination: sexism and racism. The women's liberation movement was stronger here, and it acted to address the obvious fact that women suffer even more cruelly from age discrimination than do men.

The second difference is that Canada in general has become less conservative (ignoring the official colours of political parties) consistently over the last 25 years. The liberal descendants of the Trudeau era have grown up to become the establishment. Their parents, who championed the stoic qualities of colonial pioneers, are still fading away into nursing homes. So strangely enough, whereas in Britain the unions are ridiculous vestiges of a coal-mining age, in Canada you will find unions that talk and walk for the baby boomers.

Although it's different than in Britain, it's not ideal at all, or even better. True social equality in the workplace should show a mixture of people from 16 to 65. Additionally, it's no good having job protection if that means you're stuck with the same job for the whole of your life. A workplace should not be a prison or a fortress - people should be allowed to leave it or enter it at any age, not just enter it when young and leave it when they are old.