Thursday, 27 September 2007


Sorry, I'm not drinking until I finish shift on Monday morning, so see this as not-so-subliminal displacement activity!

Here for the beer: Against all odds, Britain's real-ale industry is thriving. Tom de Castella explores the regional brews on offer
New Stateman: 13 September 2007

On 22 September, the world's most famous beer festival begins in Munich. But just as there is a misconception about when Oktoberfest starts - September, confusingly - so, too, there is one about its status as a beer pilgrimage. In truth, it's a Bavarian knees-up beloved by tourists and devoted to established brands. You can't wander around and sample; instead, the visitor must choose a tent belonging to one of the city's big-name brewers, sit down at a table and drink the same thing all night.

Britain's equivalent comes far closer to being a real beerfest, although it, too, is built on a glaring contradiction. Every year in August, tens of thousands of people converge on a huge, soulless hangar in central London in search of the rich cosmos that is Britain's local brewing industry - an abundance of bitter, mild and stout with names like Shropshire Lass, Pit Shaft, Golden Lance and Roaring Meg. Each beer has been uprooted from its natural ecosystem, lugged hundreds of miles in a lorry to central London and served up in a building with all the ambience of a bus depot in Ceausescu's Romania.

It's about as far from the fireside pint at the local as one can get, but people love it. Set up by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1977, the Great British Beer Festival has become one of the capital's summer highlights since it moved to Olympia in 1992, and last year to the even more cavernous Earls Court, attracting 66,000 people over the five days. That's still only a hundredth of the attendance of the 17-day Oktoberfest, but not bad for a tipple that not so long ago was being read the last rites by drinks-industry analysts.

I'm a son of Burton-on-Trent, so really it's my solemn duty to go along. Real ale is special because it uses traditional ingredients that are left to mature in the cask through a process called secondary fermentation, which is what lends it its rich, complex flavours. So there I was again, on the opening day of the 30th festival, being issued with a pint glass and wondering which of the 700 brews to start with. I found myself at the stand labelled Central Southern England - CAMRA does love its confusing subregions - and began with a third of Moleton Silver from the Moles Brewery in Wiltshire.

Crudely speaking, my fellow drinkers could be split into three distinct groups - the demob-happy, after-work crowd in suits and shirtsleeves, the hardcore real-ale fans with the standard-issue paunch and facial hair, and last the tourists, delighted by what they had stumbled upon. It's usually a wider mix of ages than you get in most bars or pubs, and in ethnic terms there seem to be a lot of Chinese and Japanese drinkers, although real ale doesn't seem to have made many inroads with black Britons. But before the government starts drawing up proposals for an access regulator, it is worth pointing out that the festival's appeal is evolving organically. Although eight out of ten women have never tried real ale in the pub, there is a growing number of female enthusiasts and perhaps a third of drinkers in the hall were women.

This year CAMRA introduced the third of a pint measure to maximise one's opportunity to sample. And that is the event's charm: once you've paid your £8 to get in, you can, rather like an adult Charlie in the chocolate factory, explore every region of Britain at sub-London bar prices. The real fun comes in comparing notes with your fellow drinkers. My party variously decided that Burton Bridge's Golden Delicious was "seaweedy", Skinner's Betty Stogs Bitter was "sau sagey", 1648's Lammas Ale "would be good with chocolate cake" and Bushy's Pure Gold from the Isle of Man was "sessionable".

The picture one gets is of a brewing industry in rude health. But away from this one-off extravaganza, cask ale accounts for only 7 per cent of beer sales in the UK, with 55 per cent of all beer being sold at supermarkets and off-licences. The big four brewers - Scottish & Newcastle, Coors, InBev and Carlsberg - are global brands with more than 80 per cent of the domestic market that have ditched bitters to concentrate on buying up the world's most lucrative lager brands. Real ale is an irrelevance to them. But their lack of interest has left room for the larger regional brewers such as Marston's, Greene King and Fuller's, and beneath them hundreds of micobreweries.

Real-ale fans have mixed feelings about the medium-sized players. On the one hand they are serious about selling cask ale and investing in their breweries. On the other, they are predators, buying up the small and interesting and, in the case of Greene King, closing them down, moving production to their own Bury St Edmunds HQ, and forcing newly acquired pubs to replace local favourites with their own beers. The microbrewers are what the Great British Beer Festival is really about and on this score there are grounds for hope. They may account for only 2 per cent of the market overall, but they seem to be on a roll, aided by the trend for local food and drink.

It's not just about taste. Drinking beer produced by a local business five or ten miles down the road rather than shipped from the other end of the country seems sensible: "sustainable", if we must. And the thousands of vertical drinkers at Earls Court demonstrated another virtue - handling their booze. Without academic research into this murky area one can only speculate: is it the real-ale drinker's nature or the qualities of the drink itself that make its effects more good-humoured than the belligerent feeling lager drinkers get? A bit of both, I suspect. Perhaps officials at the Treasury should look into the practicability of bringing in a variegated duty for beer, with real ale benefiting from lower rates than "antisocial" lager.

The champion beer this year was a Shropshire brew called Hobsons Mild. But for me Butcombe Bitter from Wrington in Somerset won the day. The whole process is subjective, of course - not only do I like its nutty bitterness, but there's the fact that I discovered it some years ago in a pub in Pilton before a rain-sodden Glastonbury Festival. In beer, geography, memory and taste are all intricately linked, which is why our local breweries are so important to the country's heritage. The Great British Beer Festival brings this diversity together and inspires you afresh, so that in the end the contradiction of paying homage to a local craft in a big shed in Earls Court dissolves into your glass with the hops and barley.

Sicko- it can't happen here can it?!

One of the things about going on holiday in North America is that you tend to see publicity about, and reviews of, films that were about at home months before you came over. Or you become aware of films that still have be shown back home. For example,Sicko, Michael Moore's film about the US health system, was on in Vancouver's cinemas when I was over there in June/July, but it won't be released here until the end of October. If the weather hadn't been so good and I didn't have friends to meet, I might have gone and seen it to pass a wet afternoon trying to keep out of bars. I couldn't say the same about, for instance, License to Wed , the latest dire Robin Williams "comedy", which just by reading the Vancouver papers I knew would be a turkey ages before it arrived in Limeyland's cinemas...

I(touch wood)rarely use the NHS, but I'm glad I don't have the system they have in the USA, where you have really excellent healthcare as long as you have the cash to pay for it. I don't think the NHS here is perfect (and one day I would like to see a health service here run on mutualist lines. Until then...). I have no problem with us taking up ideas from abroad. I've read pieces about Europe's other health systems and I think we could steal ideas off them. Other European countries are often cited when discussions about "reforming" the NHS take place. However, it appears to me that when NuLab and the Cons are talking about taking cues and cures from abroad they mean handing over the NHS to US health corporations for private profit. Maybe I'm being a tad cynical, but perhaps I shouldn't read pieces like the one below. Allyson Pollock has been a constant gadfly to NuLab's "reform" plans for the NHS over the last Ten Glorious Years and I thoroughly recommend her NHS Plc to understand why, despite more money than ever been spent on the NHS, patients and staff are often irate with its performance. Her review of Sicko is a timely antidote to those who dumbly glorify our health system over that in the US, when the Government would like ours to be more like that over the water.

What Sicko doesn't tell you ...: Michael Moore's film hails the NHS and condemns US healthcare. But behind the scenes the UK government has already started adopting the American model of health provision.
Allyson Pollock, The Guardian, Monday September 24, 2007

Viewers of Michael Moore's new film will come away convinced that the public healthcare system in this country is superior to its privatised American counterpart, where more than 50 million people are without any kind of care at all. But does the government agree? Or has it instead been taking ideas from the very system revealed in Sicko to be so iniquitous?

The film is very much made for a US audience. Moore does not go into the huge changes that are taking place in European healthcare - and the new, privatising project going on here. It might surprise many British people who see the film to know that, for example, the British government has for years been in contact with Kaiser Permanente, one of the big US healthcare corporations, and is actively trying to remodel the NHS along American lines. All the reforms carried out by the government over the past few years have been aimed at that.

In 1995, civil servants from the Department of Health, fresh from visits to the US, thought they had found the future of the NHS. They invited Kaiser Permanente to look at whether it could deliver health services as part of the new Private Finance Initiative in the NHS. The PFI is a building programme of public infrastructure that brings with it a long-term debt that the government takes out from a private company. But as the medical director of Kaiser Permanente, which is both an insurer and healthcare provider, told me at the time in her marbled headquarters in California, the NHS was not yet ready for Kaiser. Such a system, built on public ownership, control and accountability, was closed to commercial companies. And it was the same story for the whole of Europe. But Kaiser Permanente, which, along with the rest of the US healthcare industry, was known as one of the "darlings of Wall Street" because it made so much money, was restless. It wanted to make more, and had its eye on the rich pickings of European tax funds. And where better to begin than by conquering the UK's "socialised" NHS, so long the model for much of the world?
Kaiser Permanente didn't have long to wait. In 1997, the Labour administration swept away the last remaining obstacles to PFI and, in so doing, established the laboratory for the great market experiment in public services.

The accumulated neglect and backlog in maintenance and repair became an excuse to sell off NHS land and assets at knockdown prices. The NHS is now a tenant in hospitals it once owned, leasing back buildings and services from private sector landlords at astronomical rents that are currently consuming £500m a year and will increase exponentially. The diversion of scarce funds from hospital revenues to bankers and shareholders has starved the NHS of cash, and the result has been a major downsizing. For almost every PFI hospital built, three hospitals close. Bed closures and staff reductions occur on an unprecedented scale.

Back in 1997, the NHS had major capacity problems. Waiting lists kept rising, accident and emergency wards were overflowing, public discontent was growing and staff morale plummeting. Tony Blair found a solution one night in 2000 as he was leaving the smart River Cafe. He was introduced to Tim Evans, external affairs director of the Independent Health Care Association, the body that represented the private healthcare industry, who convinced him that the private sector had all the answers.

But the Labour government knew that a public sector NHS was close to the heart of most Britons, and a spin operation was required. So, from the start of the Labour government, ministers dismissed the NHS as Stalinist, a 1940s relic of socialism, bureaucratic and rigid. Then, in 2002, the highly respected British Medical Journal published a paper purporting to show that Kaiser Permanente (them again) was more efficient than the NHS. Within hours, hundreds of emails had poured into the BMJ exposing the flaws in the paper, from the misleading nature of the claims to the authors' links to the company. But the BMJ's editor, Richard Smith, declined to retract the paper, correct it or publish a proper scientific rebuttal.

The paper had done its work. Its propaganda was cited and repeated everywhere by academics and policy-makers and, most crucially, by the government in its white papers and documents, including the Wanless Report. The much-despised US healthcare industry, of which Kaiser Permanente is a part, was to be the new model for Britain.

Not long after publishing the article, Smith left the BMJ for a lucrative post as chief executive of the UK subsidiary of the US health corporation UnitedHealth. There he joined its new European president, Simon Stevens, formerly adviser to every Labour health secretary, and Tony Blair, since 1997. The flow of ideas, from him and many others like him, was all one-way: from the US to the UK.

As adviser to Alan Milburn, health secretary from 1999 to 2003, Stevens and his American colleagues helped to shape the NHS Plan 2000. It promised to provide more money, doctors, nurses, beds and capacity. But in the event the funds were directed at building a new parallel system that would be owned and operated not by the people but by the private sector on behalf of shareholders.

Using the mantra of choice, the market was thus disguised. In primary care the government negotiated a new GP contract that would allow commercial companies to run GP services. There are now more than 30 corporations running GP services in England.

It was choice that was used to bring in the highly controversial ISTC (independent sector treatment centre) programme, spearheaded by Texan Ken Anderson, which provides mini- factories for elective surgery. Anderson headed the new commercial directorate of the Department of Health and quickly set about awarding £6bn worth of contracts to healthcare corporations, thereby undermining elective surgery, diagnostics, radiology and pathology provision in the NHS.

Local people from Portsmouth to Scarborough have been protesting against ISTCs draining scarce NHS funds, which has led to service closures and staff redundancies to balance the books. There is not an area of the country where services are not being cut and closed. Protests against the closures of accident and emergency departments and hospital services are happening in Surrey, East and West Sussex, Kent, Worcester, Manchester, Leeds, Durham and Huddersfield; and against the 150 community hospitals in places such as Norfolk, Cambridge, Leicester, Devon, Marlborough and Bromley. The NHS, the government says, has had unprecedented levels of funding - so where has all the money gone if it isn't into services? Is it really all down to bad managers and greedy doctors and nurses?

All markets need systems for pricing, billing and invoicing. Labour has introduced those: the electronic patient record, part of the £1bn IT disaster. The NHS too is being transformed from within. Foundation trusts such as University College London Hospitals Trust have been given new powers to enter joint ventures with commercial companies such as the Hospital Corporation of America and to spend millions of pounds on advertising campaigns, PR agents, mega-departments of finance and accounting, press officers, management consultants and profits. As in the US, billions of pounds, probably approaching 20% of annual NHS funds - estimated to be £20bn in England in a year - are being squandered on what are called the transaction costs of the market.

Earlier this year the US chief executive officer of UnitedHealth, Bill McGuire, was sacked along with other board members for repricing share options. His annual $126m package was not enough for him. Meanwhile more than 50 million Americans, including 10 million children, go without care - in the richest country in the world. Is this what we want?

Allyson Pollock is author of NHS plc: The Privatisation of Our Healthcare and professor and head of the centre for international public health policy at the University of Edinburgh.

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine is a book I want to get, although I might leave it until it comes out in paperback (this side of winning the Lottery, I think £25 is a lot for pay for a book). For those of you with similarly frugal tendencies, there are good extracts at:,,2165953,00.html,,2165953,00.html,,2166586,00.html,,2167226,00.html

The extract which most struck me was this:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a powerful reckoning with the crimes committed in the name of communism. But what of the crusade to liberate world markets?

I am not arguing that all forms of market systems require large-scale violence. It is eminently possible to have a market-based economy that demands no such brutality or ideological purity. A free market in consumer products can coexist with free public health care, with public schools, with a large segment of the economy - such as a national oil company - held in state hands. It's equally possible to require corporations to pay decent wages, to respect the right of workers to form unions, and for governments to tax and redistribute wealth so that the sharp inequalities that mark the corporatist state are reduced. Markets need not be fundamentalist.

John Maynard Keynes proposed just that kind of mixed, regulated economy after the Great Depression. It was that system of compromises, checks and balances that Friedman's counter-revolution was launched to dismantle in country after country. Seen in that light, Chicago School capitalism has something in common with other fundamentalist ideologies: the signature desire for unattainable purity.

This desire for godlike powers of creation is precisely why free-market ideologues are so drawn to crises and disasters. Non-apocalyptic reality is simply not hospitable to their ambitions. For 35 years, what has animated Friedman's counter-revolution is an attraction to a kind of freedom available only in times of cataclysmic change - when people, with their stubborn habits and insistent demands, are blasted out of the way - moments when democracy seems a practical impossibility. Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture - a flood, a war, a terrorist attack - can generate the kind of vast, clean canvases they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world.

The Leninist fervour of Milton Friedman and his followers (who have as much to do with Adam Smith and David Ricardo as Lenin and Trotsky had to do with Marx and Engels) is recognised by John Gray in his review of The Shock Doctrine:

The end of the world as we know it: Naomi Klein's critique of neo-liberalism, The Shock Doctrine, is both timely and devastating, says John Gray
The Guardian, Saturday September 15, 2007

Over the past few decades, many of the ideas of the far left have found new homes on the right. Lenin believed that it was in conditions of catastrophic upheaval that humanity advances most rapidly, and the idea that economic progress can be achieved through the devastation of entire societies has been a key part of the neo-liberal cult of the free market. Soviet-style economies left an inheritance of human and ecological devastation, while neo-liberal policies have had results that are not radically dissimilar in many countries. Yet, while the Marxist faith in central planning is now confined to a few dingy sects, a quasi-religious belief in free markets continues to shape the policies of governments.

Many writers have pointed to the havoc and ruin that have accompanied the imposition of free markets across the world. Whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or post-communist Europe, policies of wholesale privatisation and structural adjustment have led to declining economic activity and social dislocation on a massive scale. Anyone who has watched a country lurch from one crisis to another as the bureaucrats of the IMF impose cut after cut in pursuit of the holy grail of stabilisation will recognise the process Naomi Klein describes in her latest and most important book to date. Visiting Argentina not long before the economic collapse of 2002, I found the government struggling to implement an IMF diktat to roll back public spending at a time when the economy was already rapidly contracting. The result was predictable, and the country was plunged into a depression, with calamitous consequences in terms of poverty and social breakdown.

Klein believes that neo-liberalism belongs among "the closed, fundamentalist doctrines that cannot co-exist with other belief-systems ... The world as it is must be erased to make way for their purist invention. Rooted in biblical fantasies of great floods and great fires, it is a logic that leads ineluctably towards violence." As Klein sees it, the social breakdowns that have accompanied neo-liberal economic policies are not the result of incompetence or mismanagement. They are integral to the free-market project, which can only advance against a background of disasters. At times, writing in a populist vein that echoes her first book No Logo, published seven years ago, Klein seems to suggest that these disasters are manufactured as part of a deliberate policy framed by corporations with hidden influence in government. Her more considered view, which is also more plausible, is that disaster is part of the normal functioning of the type of capitalism we have today: "An economic system that requires constant growth, while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial. The appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment has turned the stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines, as the Asian financial crisis, the Mexican peso crisis and the dotcom collapse all demonstrate."

There are very few books that really help us understand the present. The Shock Doctrine is one of those books. Ranging across the world, Klein exposes the strikingly similar policies that enabled the imposition of free markets in countries as different as Pinochet's Chile, Yeltsin's Russia, China and post-Saddam Iraq. Part of the power of this book comes from the parallels she observes in seemingly unrelated developments. In a fascinating and alarming examination of the underside of recent history, she notes the affinities between the policies of shock therapy imposed in the course of neo-liberal market reform and the techniques of torture that have been routinely used by the US in the course of the "war on terror". Klein begins her first chapter with a moving account of a conversation she had with a victim of a covert programme of mind-control experiments, carried out in Canada in the 1950s, which used people suffering from minor psychiatric ailments to try out techniques of "de-patterning" that aimed to scramble and reshape their personalities.

Employing electroshock therapy, sensory deprivation and drug-induced comas, these experiments helped develop some of the "coercive interrogation techniques" that have been practised in Guantánamo Bay. Klein uses torture as a metaphor, and does not claim any cause-and-effect link between its re-emergence and the rise of neo-liberal shock therapy; but she does point to some disquieting similarities. Individuals and societies have been "de-patterned" with the aim of remaking them on a better, more rational model. In each case, the experiments have failed, while inflicting lasting and often irreparable damage on those who were subjected to them.

But has the free market experiment failed? As Klein sees it, free market shock therapy may actually have succeeded in achieving its true objectives. Post-invasion Iraq may be "a ghoulish dystopia where going to a simple business meeting could get you lynched, burned alive or beheaded". Even so, Klein points out, Halliburton is making handsome profits - it has built the green zone as a corporate city-state, and taken on many of the traditional functions of the armed forces in Iraq. An entire society has been destroyed, but the corporations that operate in the ruins are doing rather well. Klein's message, then, seems to be that - at least in its own, profit-centred terms - disaster capitalism works.

There can be no doubt that fortunes have been reaped from the Iraq war as they have been from other experiments in disaster capitalism. Yet I remain unconvinced that the corporations Klein berates throughout the book understand, let alone control, the anarchic global capitalism that has been allowed to develop over the past couple of decades - any more than the neo-liberal ideologues who helped create it foresaw where it would lead. Rightly, Klein insists that free market ideology must bear responsibility for the crimes committed on its behalf - just as Marxist ideology must be held to account for the crimes of communism. But she says remarkably little about the illusions by which neo-liberal ideologues were themselves blinded. Milton Friedman and his disciples believed a western-style free market would spring up spontaneously in post-communist Russia. They were left gawping when central planning was followed by the criminalised free-for-all of the 90s, and were unprepared for the rise of Putin's resource-based state capitalism. These ideologues were not the sinister, Dr Strangelove-like figures of the anti-capitalist imagination. They were comically deluded bien-pensants, who promoted their utopian schemes with messianic fervour and have been left stranded by history, as the radiant future they confidently predicted has failed to arrive.

The neo-liberal order is already facing intractable problems. The Iraq war may have allowed another experiment in shock therapy, but a failed state has been created as a result of which Gulf oil - which a former chair of the US joint chiefs of staff accurately described as "the jugular vein of global capitalism" - is less secure than before. Faced with defeat in Iraq, the Bush administration seems to be gearing up for an assault on Iran - a desperate move that would magnify the existing catastrophe many times over. At the same time financial crisis has reached into the American heartland as an implosion in speculation-driven credit markets has started to spread throughout the system. It is impossible to know how these crises will develop, but it is hard to resist the suspicion that disaster capitalism is now creating disasters larger than it can handle.

Finally, before I'm totally Kleined-out, an interview piece:

Brainwashed by the market: What drives Naomi Klein?
Naomi Klein's critique of 'disaster capitalism' will echo around the world – but its roots lie in a scandal close to her Canadian home
By Julie Wheelwright, The Independent, 14 September 2007

The author and activist Naomi Klein has just endured a gentle mauling on the Today programme. Klein had been speaking about her new book The Shock Doctrine, arguing that capitalism's latest incarnation is about profiting from – even creating – crises. Diane Coyle, an economist and BBC trustee (and former economics editor of The Independent), sniffed that this argument was "another example of American imperialism". When we meet an hour later at a Soho hotel, Klein seems unruffled. "I did some research about Diane Coyle," she says, rooting through a file. She hands me a paper entitled "The Role of Mobiles in Disaster and Emergencies", which Coyle wrote for a mobile-phone trade association.

"You can see," she says, "that I'm a bit of an obsessive." Ironically, for a woman who has been hailed as the author of a "Das Kapital of the growing anti-corporate movement", there's nothing grungy about Klein. With her sleek hair-cut, immaculate teeth and friendly but down-to-business attitude, she could easily be mistaken for a telecoms exec winding up a power breakfast in the lobby of a boutique hotel.

Having tackled the way our affluent lifestyle is a by-product of globalisation's devastating effects on the world's poor in No Logo (2000), Klein now deftly marshals another enormously complex subject into a series of elegantly argued chapters. In a damning critique of Friedmanite economics, The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism (Allen Lane, £25) uses thousands of documents and interviews to expose how governments and corporations have used or even invented disasters to push through laissez-faire market reforms before local populations can recover from the shock. Wars and disaster responses are now so fully privatised that they themselves have become the new markets.

Klein traces this Dr Strangelove world back to Milton Friedman, who turned the University of Chicago's economics department into a hotbed of free-market radicalism. With the complicity of the US government and its intelligence services, Friedman and his "Chicago Boys" brought their doctrine to Latin America in the Seventies. Where democratically elected leaders like Salvador Allende were ousted by military dictators, the Chicago Boys moved in to help privatise, de-regulate and clean up. Their greatest weapon, argues Klein, was shock. After their success in Chile, the roadshow moved on to Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay. Later, Friedman's star graduate, Jeffrey Sachs, was parachuted in to Poland and Russia, where democracy was sacrificed for market interests. The rumours that sparked the "Asian Flu" financial crisis of the late Nineties saw the dismantling of state-owned industries.

The list goes on, culminating in the new disaster economies that have turned Thai fishing villages into high-end beach resorts, post-tsunami, and New Orleans public schools into privately funded "charter" schools after Hurricane Katrina. But does Klein believe that the often faceless operators believe their rhetoric about free markets being the cornerstone of democracy? She pauses. "There are some true believers who really think that trickle-down economics is the best way to improve the lot of all humanity," she says. "But I think those people are few and far between."

Among the most haunting chapters are those dealing with the dismantling of Iraq. While the Bush presidency now seems mired in scandals, Klein takes little comfort in the comeuppance of his closest allies. "I wrote the book because I think we need to be talking about systems rather than individuals," she says. "My worry is that the danger of the Bush years is that these guys are so outrageous that the focus has just been on the bad apples. You gun, gun, gun to get Rumsfeld to resign; you gun, gun, gun to get Cheney to resign, and then do we really think this is going to change things?'

Klein recently attended a congressional hearing on private-sector security in Iraq, where military support services are being contracted out to corporations such as Blackwater, Bechtel and Halliburton. The number of private contractors in Iraq now outstrips the number of US forces in the field. Klein found that the politicians were relying on the journalists for their information. "It was amazing how little they knew – they were asking us, 'What's going on?' It was kinda nice that they were asking," she says, widening her eyes with astonishment, "but it was also a little late."

What the Bush administration has created are no-go areas for private contractors. Klein relates how two former employees at the security firm Custer Battles accused it of defrauding the government for work at Baghdad International Airport. Even though a federal court found Custer Battles guilty, the verdict was overturned when the company argued it wasn't a part of the US government. So the Bush administration had indemnified US corporations in Iraq from liability under Iraqi or American law. For Klein, "Iraq represented the most extreme expression of the anti-state revolution: a hollow state."

I ask Klein if she feels grateful to have spent her childhood in Montreal during the tail-end of prime minister Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government. "Oh yeah," she says. "I feel very fortunate to be a Canadian, and when I talk to my American friends about these issues, it's very abstract for them. They don't really know what 'public' means because this agenda has triumphed so completely." Klein's parents had left the US in protest against the Vietnam war, and headed for a country where public services were flourishing.

She had impeccable "red diaper" credentials. Her grandfather Philip Klein, an animator at Disney, was blacklisted for organising a strike in the Fifties. Her father, Dr Michael Klein, taught at McGill University's medical department, while her mother Bonnie Sherr Klein became a celebrated feminist film-maker. But if Canada proved a haven, Klein has drawn on a sinister episode from her neighbourhood as a central metaphor for the book.

The Allan Memorial Institute, a psychiatric hospital at McGill, had been a place that people had whispered about, says Klein. A family friend was a chief intern who refused to participate in the experiments of its director, Dr Ewan Cameron. "I never knew the history, even though I had these close connections." Since the Eighties, there have been revelations about the horrific abuse of mostly female patients, who were subjected to a regime of drugs, ECT and sensory deprivation to erase and "repattern" their personalities.

Further research revealed that Cameron's experiments were funded by the CIA to create a handbook for torture. Known as Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation, the techniques – first used on women suffering from post-partum depression – became standard torture practice: sensory deprivation, stress positions, hooding, electric shock. But it was only as Klein was leaving Iraq in 2004, when photos documenting the torture at Abu Ghraib prison were being leaked, that she made the connection with Cameron.

"There's something about putting populations into a state of shock that these architects of war are drawn to," she says. "So it made me want to understand what happens when a brain goes into a real state of shock." Klein interviewed Gail Kastner, a former McGill nursing student who had sought psychiatric help for anxiety. After receiving a cocktail of drugs and ECT, Kastner left the clinic with a badly damaged memory and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. After their meeting, "it was as if I'd been talking about a photocopy and now I was talking about the real thing".

That "real thing" was a method of shocking individuals and nations into a state of submission, wiping out memories and filling them with what doctors saw fit. This emblem of Klein's book has also become a through-line for a short documentary film she has made with Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican director of Children of Men.

"We sat down and wrote the script in one day," says Klein. "I loved this process because Alfonso is so creative and he sets the bar so high." The Cuaron film, screened at the Toronto and Venice film festivals, was also released on YouTube. Her book will be published in 10 languages. She'll spend the next year travelling the globe to promote its message. Whatever her critics might say, Klein's work is taking a generational pulse, and possibly lifting the veil on a perilous post-Bush future.

Biography: Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein, 37, grew up in Montreal, the daughter of activists who had moved from the US to Canada. A journalist who began as editor of the University of Toronto's newspaper The Varsity, in 2000 she published No Logo: taking aim at the brand bullies.

It became a "movement bible" for anti-corporate protesters, translated into 28 languages. In 2002, she published her essays, Fences and Windows. She has collaborated with her husband Avi Lewis on a film about factory workers in Argentina, The Take, and writes a syndicated column. She was ranked 11th in the 2005 Global Intellectuals poll – the highest-ranking woman. Her new book is The Shock Doctrine (Allen Lane). She lives in downtown Toronto.

London Films

Working at the moment, I want to sit down and really blog. However, I think I will have to leave it until next week when I have the time. Gordon Brown is still playing hard to get on a General Election date, so until he says yay or nay definitely about an Autumn election I am in limbo a bit.

However, I will post a few pieces of others now, just to keep things ticking over.

I've started to consciously seek out films set in London and try and spot the famous and not-so-famous (ie the parts of London I wander around near-ish to where I live) areas where they were filmed. David Cronenberg has a film out called Eastern Promises very soon, which brings film noire to contemporary London. As the article below indicates, it is the latest of a long line of films which present London as the Big Nowhere.

Sin City: David Cronenberg's 'Eastern Promises' shows a gritty, violent London. If only more films did the same
By Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent, 17 September 2007

There are many ways of showing London on screen. Often, filmmakers depict the city from a tourist-eye view. Endless romantic comedies have name-checked notable landmarks while showing shiny double-decker buses and friendly policemen. The ghost of Stanley Holloway never seems far away. There is a self-conscious attempt to show off the city in the best possible light, regardless of the type of film being made. London now has its own agency – Film London – which prides itself on helping film-makers use such locations as the Houses of Parliament (V For Vendetta), Tate Modern (Children of Men) or Hyde Park (Stormbreaker).

The city has a chameleon-like ability to shift shapes. "You want 18th century, you want medieval or you want 21st century flash – it's all here within a couple of miles," Film London's boss Adrian Wootton recently boasted. But all too frequently, the London that appears on screen seems unreal or stuck in time.

You don't much associate London with film noir. From The Long Good Friday to Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, there have been plenty of gangster films made in the city, but only rarely have film-makers delved into what the critic Robert Warshow called "the dangerous and sad city of the imagination".

Audiences will shortly have the chance to see two brilliant films, both made by North American directors, which explore the seedy underbelly of London in a poetic and atmospheric way. The first, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, is about Russian gangsters on the prowl through the city. The London it depicts is unremittingly grey. Scripted by Steve Knight (who also wrote Stephen Frears' Dirty, Pretty Things), it is a film about outsiders. None of the main characters are Londoners. The lead characters are assassins, like the mysterious and ruthless Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), or girls sold into the sex trade, or Chechen thugs. Even the heroine, played by Naomi Watts, is from a Russian background.

After Alexander Litvinenko, Eastern Promises has a topical resonance. The idea of killings taking place in broad daylight (for instance, the young Chelsea fan in the film who has his throat slit outside Stamford Bridge) no longer seems fanciful. Even so, this is as much a mood piece as it is a thriller. For all its extreme violence it's as much about bereavement, loss of identity and family ties in a strange city as it is about infiltrating the Russian mob.

Eastern Promises offers a more "realistic" portrait of London than that found all those romantic comedies about Notting Hill booksellers or lovelorn singletons. Using what film-makers call "creative geography", Cronenber g has taken just as many liberties with his locations – the difference is that his sensibility is so much darker. Shooting at Three Mills Studios in the heart of the East End, choosing locations like Smithfield, using Turkish baths rather than well-known tourist sites, he depicts a London that has a brooding sense of menace. The Thames looks filthy, and its main use for the Russians is as a place to toss corpses.

London is shown in an equally forlorn light in Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950), which portrays a post-war London in the grip of hoodlums and racketeers. Thanks to the Blitz, there is rubble all over the place. Dassin throws in several sequences in which his lead character, the small-time US nightclub tout and would-be wrestling promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is seen scurrying like a beetle across grey, decaying cityscapes with heavies in pursuit. Again, the Thames is where the bodies are dumped.

Dassin – who knew he was on the verge of being blacklisted in Hollywood because of his Communist associations – made the movie at a ferocious pace. In interviews, he has talked about the outrage and disbelief that it provoked in Britain. The UK press refused to believe that his London had any basis in reality. Dassin, who had researched the film meticulously, was amused by their scepticism. A Scotland Yard officer had taken him to all the most squalid dives in Soho and introduced him to the chancers and low-lifes upon whom he based his characters. "The British press didn't treat this film kindly, saying that this London of mine – I had made it up!" Dassin recalled. "Well, everything that was in the film was shot there. I invented nothing."

Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the British liked to think that their gangsters were less ferocious than their US counterparts. British police didn't carry guns. When PC Dixon (Jack Warner) was gunned down by Dirk Bogarde's young spiv Tom Riley in The Blue Lamp (1950), it was portrayed as a one-off act of unspeakable violence. The criminals were so appalled that they helped flush Riley out. In fact, as Night and the City showed, there never really was a golden age in which cops and thieves shared some secret code of honour.

It is surprising how few films over the years have shown this other side of London life. Wootton, who is director of London's Crime Scene Film Festival as well as the boss of Film London, argues that it takes outsiders to expose this hidden side of the city.

Night and the City and Eastern Promises are not unique. Periodically, other film-makers have also tried to bring noir to London. There have been such B-movies as John Lemont's The Frightened City (1961), starring Herbert Lom and a youthful, pre-Bond Sean Connery, which deals with protection racketeers in the West End, and Street Of Shadows (1953), featuring Cesar Romero as a nightclub owner.

Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986) likewise shows the squalor and pathos of a London underworld where – as in Eastern Promises – young, drug-addicted women are forced into prostitution. Further back in time, films like EA Dupont's Piccadilly (1929), didn't shirk from showing racism and sexual violence, while the original version of They Drive By Night (1938) evoked a world of tawdry glamour and brutality.

New York's murky alleyways and LA's seedy glamour, have always lent themselves to film noir more readily than London. In recent years, we have become accustomed to London-set rom-coms, period dramas or sci-fi films that use the city in a predictable way. That's why Eastern Promises and the re-release of Night and the City are so refreshing.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Public service announcement of sorts.

I've been busy. This week gone, during my week off work on nights, I went on a 4 day First Aid course for work. It was a very challenging course, I had a lot to learn, but I passed, so I'm now a qualified First Aider! It also meant early rises for me 4 days on the trot for me, which I am simply not used to! I've been trying to catch up on my rest this weekend, just in time for work starting tomorrow night.

My head is full of stuff about politics at the moment. However, I have held off major postings on it all as I don't want to be overtaken by events and look a complete idiot. That is, there is still speculation that there might be a UK General Election this Autumn. Last weekend there was fevered speculation in the media, but it has cooled off a bit over the last week. It is still unlikely. However, I will take a plunge next time I'm off. On Facebook I have joined one group (which I think is Lib Dem inspired) called "GORDON BROWN, CALL A GENERAL ELECTION NOW!" or something v.similar, and that's exactly what I think. I don't think I can stand a whole six months-plus of endless speculation about whether we will have an Election in the Spring/Summer of 2008. Then the Autumn of 2008, then the Spring/Summer of '09 etc etc.

I have a feeling this could be General Election (whenever it comes) that will break the log-jam of British politics for either good or ill (or a bit of both). Either there will be a decisive Lab or Con victory, which will lead to the disintegration of the Labour Party (not having enough ideas or energy left) or the Conservatives (having far too much ideas and energy left). Or we will have a hung parliament and a de facto "National Government" coalition. The way that Gordon Brown has recruited individual Tory and Lib Dem politicians to help his Government since becoming PM seems to me indicative of a possible future for British politics. Anyway, I want the future and I want it now!

I will say more about this in a week or so. I have also been thinking about how I am going to juggle my various thoughts in cyberspace between my 3 places on the Net ie this Blog, Facebook and Myspace. I think from now on the general of thumb will be stuff that is heavy and/or "political" will get posted up here. Personal and/or light stuff will tend to go on Facebook. As for Myspace, it will suffer from benign neglect. I won't get rid of it, and if people contact me via it, I will answer them back, but Facebook has simply superceded it for me as far as social networking goes. Plus I like the design minimalism of Facebook. With Myspace, every page seems to take an eternity to open, and I don't like to read stuff off backgrounds which seem to resemble psychedelic wallpaper!

Here endeth the lesson for now...