Sunday, 27 February 2011

The long unwinding road

Reading a book about the relationship between the British people and the roads they drive on sounds like as about as much fun as tucking into a tarmac sandwich. Even knowing that the book in question focuses on the period following the building of the first stretch of motorway in hardly sets your pulse racing; railways might be romantic, but roads are utilitarian and nobody wants to read about them.

As it turns out in relation to ‘On Roads’ by Liverpool based academic Joe Moran the old adage about not judging a book by its cover, or the perceived dullness of its subject matter in this case, is a truth so wise it should be displayed on a gantry over the fast lane. Out of a seemingly turgid subject Moran has fashioned a fascinating narrative packed with a whole atlas full of scenic diversions into the hinterland of British history, society and popular culture.

The narrative is of how Britain stumbled from the A of the brightly utopian vision of an affluent country where every family would have a car of the post war years and the B of the congested country afflicted by ‘road rage’, or as Moran adroitly points out the fear of it manufactured by the tabloid press, we are now. Along the way he says much that is of interest about the high aspirations and low levels of competence displayed by the politicians charged with delivering this vision and the peculiarly British blend of militant eccentricity displayed by the anti-roads movement that began in the seventies and reached its high point with the epic stand off between Swampy and his comrades over the Newbury by-pass.

This in itself would make ‘On Roads’ deserving of praise for examining with scrupulous fairness a neglected corner of recent history, however the book’s real charm lies in Moran’s eye for the odd little details lurking at the edge of the picture. The most quoted of these, usually with a degree of smugness, is that some 2.5 million unsold Mills & Boon novels were used as hardcore during the building of the M6 Toll Road, other facts he draws his readers attention to are equally interesting, whilst providing less of an excuse for literary snobbery.

For example when the first service stations opened in the 1960’s they were rather ostentatious affairs at which patrons were able to enjoy flambĂ© curry served to them by waiters dressed as sailors whilst a pianist played Chopin. All that would have been needed surely was Terence Stamp and Marianne Faithful to be in attendance and the picture of swinging grooviness would have been complete. The whole experience sounds a world away and a whole lot more fun than that of being charged an arm and a leg for a plat of congealed pap in an antiseptic bubble endured by modern travellers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book though is that for all his clear sighted understanding of the flaws behind the project Moran retains a noticeable and refreshing affection for the motorways and the strange, sometimes decidedly dystopian, world they have created. He even manages to write with surprising lyricism about the experience of driving on a motorway; the M6 may never be Route 66, but maybe you can get your kicks along it after all.
‘On Roads: A Hidden History’ is published by Profile.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Beware of a politician with a ‘mission.’

It’s that man again, David Cameron I mean, some time Prime Minister and full time evangelist for the ‘big society.’

This week he’s been out and about banging the drum for his pet project telling anyone who would listen and a lot of people who didn’t want to listen that the ‘big society is here to stay’, because it is his .mission in politics. It’s what I want us as a country to build and I’m going to fight for it every day.’

He told the press on Monday that he wanted the story of his government not just to be about ‘an economic recovery;’ fat chance of that Dave given soaring inflation levels and 2.5 million people out of work. He wanted, he said eyes alight with messianic fervour it to be a story about ‘social recovery too’, because as he has told we anyone who dares to doubt him before ‘our society is broken and we need to fix it- and the big society will help us to do that.’

Can NOBODY make this man see sense? Didn’t he even the smallest twinge of doubt when Dame Elizabeth Hoodless with forty years experience with the organisation Community Service Volunteers walked away from the project because she felt it to be fuzzy and lacking in direction?

Seemingly not, if there is a still small voice at the back of Citizen Dave’s mind telling him what he’s saying might just be nonsense it is pretty much drowned out by the bellowing of his ego.

I’d like to have been able to take our esteemed leader to the meeting attended by community campaigners from across my home town I went to one night last week, he might have learnt much that was useful from what they had to say about the ‘big society’ and its ever more deranged contradictions.

I wish he could have heard them talk about the funding on which their groups depend being cut to the bone by the same government that talks breezily about the voluntary sector stepping in to replace public services that are about to be cut. These aren’t wealthy people, most have made significant sacrifices for the good of their community; they’re good Samaritans and any society deserving of the name should applaud and support them, not trip them up as they cross the road to help those less fortunate than themselves.

I’d like David Cameron to have heard what they had to say, but I doubt very much that he would have listened. He shows every sign of being that most dangerous of things, a politician with a ‘mission’, but little or no idea how the other half live.

Nobody could make a realistic case for continuing with the bureaucratic, top down method by which New Labour dealt with local communities, civil servants based in London are notoriously unable to understand or respond to the needs of people in the wider country, but Cameron’s ‘big society’ is a disaster built on foundations of pure nonsense.

A few communities, notably those inhabited by the sort of people Dave and Sam Cam have round to dinner might benefit from the big society because they have the skills and the confidence to take over services threatened with closure. Poorer people living in communities will not be so lucky, they will find themselves at the mercy of the sort of ‘charity’ that predated the welfare state, handed out in an arbitrary fashion by authorities dedicated to keeping people firmly in their place.

I have always supported giving disadvantaged people greater agency in transforming their communities, after all they often know best what is needed to do so, but the ‘big society’ will not deliver on this. It is a dangerously misconceived project led by a vain man; it should be stopped before it does serious harm.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Divorced from reality

Marriage is the best antidote to the ‘celebrity self obsessed culture we live in,’ according to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. He claims that ‘over the years the political establishment has frowned if mainstream politicians mention marriage’, because they are perceived to be ‘stigmatising those who are not married.

Not so brave ex army officer Mr Duncan Smith, he thinks marriage is marvellous and doesn’t care who knows it, as for claims that his comments are in any way critical of the unwed he, that, he says is an ‘absurd and damaging assumption.’

Marriage is, in his view, ‘about understanding that our true value is lastingly expressed through the lives of others we commit to,’ and so it is too, apart from all the times when it isn’t because marriages like casual relationships can be built on selfishness and exploitation as easily as more noble sentiments.

Keen to avoid being tagged as a finger wagging killjoy Mr Duncan Smith went on to say that government ‘cannot and should not lecture people or push them on this matter’ but that it could and should spend £30million on relationship support and removing the perceived prejudices against couples within the welfare system. All of which is fine so far as it goes, or it is if you happen to be ignorant of what else has been going on this week.

After all that was the week when Chancellor George Osborne announced the ludicrously named Project Merlin that will raise the amount of money clawed back from the banks from £1.7 billion to £2.5billion, saying that ‘now the banks know where they stand with taxation’. In keeping with the pantomime spirit of the moment the big city banks were reportedly ‘livid’ about the antics of Robin Hood aka Chancellor Osborne and ready to take their ball home to Hong Kong, Wall Street or somewhere like that.

It was all so much sound and fury signifying nothing very much at all, when a politician gives something a silly macho sounding name like Project Merlin you just know it is going to be a damp squib. That’s just what happened too, George Osborne was right that banks do know where they stand with this government, squarely on its throat since the biggest donors to Tory funds just happen to also be big noises in the city. Robin Hood and his merry men at the Treasury are where they have always been, in the pockets of big business; and they’re even flogging off the forest to the highest bidder too.

This was also the week when ninety Liberal Democrat councillors from across the country signed a letter to the Times saying that the cuts the government claims will bring down the deficit whilst protecting front line services are ‘structured in such a way that they will do the opposite.’ A point further strengthened by massive cuts to services and job losses announced by councils in Manchester and Birmingham.

All of which makes Iain Duncan Smith look rather silly, partly because of what he said; but mostly because of what his party are doing.

All but the most unreconstructed of Tory backwoodsmen, and probably even they admit it in private, recognise that marriage whilst a valid option is only one of a number of options. To privilege it above all others is anachronistic and impractical, human beings and their relationships have always been more various and complicated than narrow moralists would like us to think.

Far more dangerous is the way that well meaning relics of the old Conservative Party like Iain Duncan Smith are, like the handful of Liberal Democrats who haven’t yet sold their principles for a red box containing a mess of pottage, being used as human shields by David Cameron, George Osborne and all the other public schoolboys who wish it was still the eighties. Their irresponsible dismantling of society and the embracing of greed did untold damage to this country then, not least because it encouraged the Labour Party to ape many of their policies in as a means of regaining power; it could do much worse this time round.

Tories of the type Iain Duncan Smith represents have always eschewed grand political theories in favour of an old fashioned British commitment to fair play and an active conscience. These cuts are not in any way fair; so what does their conscience tell them to do about it?

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Beneath London’s Mean Streets

When seventeen year old straight A student Megan Carver missing persons investigator David Raker is called in by her distraught parents after the police investigation has hit a dead end. Megan, he soon discovers is no run of the mill teenage runaway, her disappearance is linked to a brutally inventive serial killer with connections to the Russian mafia.

Despite weighing in at over five hundred pages The Dead Line is the sort of book where not a single word or opportunity to set the reader’s nerves on edge goes to waste. Weaver uses of London’s seedier neighbourhoods and the city’s long and bloody criminal history to brilliant effect, sending Raker not just down the capital’s mean streets but into its fairly nasty (physical) underworld too.

The plot is relentlessly inventive and even though some of the violence may be a little strong for some tastes it is seldom gratuitous. In David Raker Weaver has created a suitable conflicted hero, tortured by grief for his dead wife and the endless round of misery associated with his job he is also, as events prove, a little too like the man he is hunting for comfort.

Understandably given the similarity of their subject matter comparisons have been drawn between Tim Weaver and Mo Hayder, this is mostly fair, although Weaver’s voice is sufficiently distinctive for him to claim a place at the top table of British crime writing in his own right.
The Dead Tracks
Tim Weaver
(Penguin, 2011)
Shots, Thursday 3rd February 2011.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Big Society- Frankly Mr Cameron you can shove it!

There are some people you warm to without even having even met them, and Joe Anderson, the leader of Liverpool City Council is, for me, one such person, because this week he told David Cameron where he could shove his ‘Big Society.’

Last year Liverpool was chosen as one of four areas in which the coalition’s big idea, some might say its only idea apart from cutting everything in sight, would be trialled ahead of a national roll out. The experiment has come to an early and undignified end because, as Mr Johnson pointed out in a letter to the PM, the cuts he was obliged to make were threatening the survival of the community groups that are the bedrock of the Big Society project.

In a letter written to Mr Cameron he asked ‘how can the city council support the big society and its aim to help do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of vital and worthwhile groups.’ The council he leads was, he concluded no longer able to support the big society because of the consequences of the cuts for which it is little more than a smokescreen.

The cuts Liverpool City Council has been told to make total £100million, in my own home town of Stoke-on-Trent the council has been instructed to slash £40million from its budget in the first year of the cuts alone; the amounts may be different, the consequences will be the same.

As a result of the budget cuts Stoke risks losing two swimming pools, one of which has provided a valuable resource to local disabled people for decades, and two libraries. All this despite well known social problems in relation to health outcomes and educational attainment; hang the consequences just balance the books. The local children’s centres, respite care for the disabled and Stoke Speaks out , an award winning programme to help children with speech problems, have been saved, but it is more of a temporary reprieve than a guaranteed long term future.

The city council in Stoke doesn’t have a leadership with fire in its belly; their response was to troop down to London to ask Eric Pickles politely if the city’s deep seated social problems could be taken into account when targets for cutting spending were set. Predictably Pickles, a man who looks like a fat workhouse beadle and has an attitude to match, sent them away with their collective tail between their legs.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council, led ironically by a coalition even more dodgy than the one in Westminster, will answer to the electorate in May, some prominent members will certainly lose their seats as a consequence of the spending cuts. That is par for the democratic course, in politics you have to take the brick-bats along with the bouquets. They shouldn’t be made to shoulder all of the blame though.

Yes there is a deficit crisis and yes Britain has to bring down its debts or risk the sort of problems faced by Greece and Ireland, but the pace at which the cuts are being made is manic and, as George Osborne freely admits, there is no plan B. So where does the Big Society come into all of this, at the very heart of the government’s dangerous agenda.

When the idea was first floated I, like most people, mocked it as the sort of blue skies nonsense parties in opposition talk about because it generates the maximum amount of media coverage for the minimum amount of effort. It is nothing of the sort; it is a dangerous and cynical plot.

Services that are vital to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in Britain today are being dismantled for reasons that have more to do with ideology than economics. Saying that people who are either struggling to hold onto their job or desperately trying to find another one whilst keeping a roof over their heads are going to step in and take over running the local library or swimming pool for free is wishful thinking.

Once upon a time David Cameron used to prattle away about ridding the Tory party of its ‘nasty’ image and letting sunlight win the day; now we know that was all an act. What he wants to do is drag public services back to the dark ages.