Monday, 28 May 2007

Lichfield Calling!



Dr. Johnson statue, Lichfield


Off to see my parents and dogs for a couple of days. It'll be nice to escape London, even for a short time. Lichfield-born Samuel Johnson said "He who tires of London, tires of life" but it can get a bit mad, and not just in 28 Weeks Later!

A few doors down from where I used to live in Kilburn was a run-down disused vandalised scout building. A couple of weeks back it sold in auction for £400,000. Apparently it will be demolished to be replaced by a house or flats...worth £600,000! Utter madness...it will all end in tears.

On that cheery note...I hope everyone is well!

Monday, 21 May 2007

Hunting whales is bloody obscene!

Japan, Norway and Iceland want to kill whales and are up to all sorts of tricks to do this as legally as possible...there is an online petition you may want to sign at:

http://www.petitionthem.com/default.asp?sect=detail&pet=3869#sigs

Cheers!

Recent West Hampstead Book Group Books

I've been thinking about writing this for a while. The book I suggested, Of Love and Hunger by Julian McLaren-Ross, was discussed at last Thursday's meeting, and went down well. It is always good when something you like and suggest to others goes down well with them. I feared someone would say that it was the worst book they had ever read, and everyone else agreeing, but instead...phew!

Anyway, just a very quick guide to the books I've read so far with the Book Group (which meets at the Czech & Slovak bar/restaurant on West End Lane, West Hampstead, the 3rd Thursday of every month at 7.30pm. I think if you live or work anywhere in North West London you are free to come along. I can send further details if you are interested!)

Back in November we had Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro of Remains of the Day fame. I was rather disappointed, although I read it at breakneck speed, hoping to find the mystery behind the boarding school the main characters started at, and what their "donations" (which I think were personalities, not organs) really were. It wasn't revealed really, so I felt swindled. Plus if you not immensely irritated by the style of the narrator by the end, you are a better person than me.

December's book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (who, I've been told by someone female in the group, is a handsome blighter) I really liked, my favourite so far. I blasted through it in about three days, really wanting to know what happened next. I would say it was a pastiche of 1940s pulp fiction, but it goes much further, as any book about World War II, the destruction of European Jewry, McCarthyism and the history of American comic books should be. One I could easily read again.

January's book was Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which is a classic of African literature. I liked it, particularly as a portrait of West African tribal society as Western, particularly British, imperialism encroached. The problem I had was I had very little sympathy with the central character Okonkwo. I know it was a different time and a different culture, but basically his answer to everything was to hit the problem first, ask questions later. One thing I must say about the books we have read in the group since I joined last Autumn is that most of the central characters are deeply unsympathetic individuals!

The above comment applies especially well to David Lurie, the central character of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, February's book. Lurie seems to get his entire sense of worth from sleeping with women, the younger the better. You're in your fifties man, grow up! However, it is a decent novel, and can be seen as a commentary on post-Apartheid South Africa. One strong point is that throughout Disgrace everyone hides behind not communicating, or using euphemisms and evasive language. Issues are not addressed, if at all possible, which may be seen as a comment on a South Africa not able to address its history and differences which arise from them.

March's book, Ivo Andric's The Bridge Over The Drina was very popular with the group. It's a novel based on the bridge built at Visegrad in Bosnia by the Turks in the 17th Century, until its destruction during World War One. I must admit I found it hard going at first, but it got better after the Austrians seize Visegrad in 1878. The short stories that follow, based on the lives of the people of various ethnicities who live in Visegrad, are superb. One, involving a gambler and a mysterious man from out of town, reminds me of the hunt for death in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. Most are quite tragic- Andric seems to know his methods of suicide- and it all ends with the war wrecking the Bridge.

April's book, Voss by Patrick White, I hated, to be honest. Story is: mad German explorer sets out to cross Australia in the mid-19th Century. Meets repressed young woman, Laura, before he sets off, hardly speak to each other. He goes off with his followers, writes to her to ask for marriage, she says no, then changes her mind, a load of aborigines kills them, she can't stop thinking about him, blah blah blah, skip skip skip, has it finished yet?

It portrays a good picture of 19th Century upper-class Victorian society, where people don't like each other but they need to be "friends", but you only wish the aborigines had killed the lot of them in Chapter One.

So that's it, apart from my own book, Of Love and Hunger. This is what I said, more or less, to the book group's discussion forum:



The general consensus was that it was a good novel to read. It was
commented that the book really caught well the atmosphere of squalor
(and dampness) of 1930s depression Britain, particularly in the south
coast English seaside resort most of the novel takes place in.
Perhaps, it was suggested, that the novel was the first real
expression of "Britain is rubbish" in its cultural life. "Of Love and
Hunger" also caught well, through the sales tactics of the vacuum
cleaner companies Fanshawe works for, the first moves towards the
cultural Americanisation of Britain in the 1930s.

The novel was also praised at the meeting for MacLaren-Ross' ability
to captire dialogue, the subtle way that he is able to catch the build-
up to WW2 in the text without lettting it swamp it. There is some
politics in "Of Love and Hunger", but it does not dominate.

Of the main characters, Fanshawe was seen as a realistic character,
but not an particularly likeable one. He was criticised as someone who
felt no real qualms about taking advantage of others, such as his
landlady Mrs Fellows and tobacconist Mr Timms, by wriggling out of
paying his long-standing debts to them. His self-pity in such
circumstances- that people born lower down the social ladder expected
such trifles as money off him- was not one of Fanshawe's admirable
traits. There was a disappointment expressed that Fanshawe's
flashbacks to India and his father did not lead to an explosive
denouement at the end of the novel. Perhaps, it was suggested,
Fanshawe had deep feelings, and great hurt, that he kept suppressed.
It was suggested that the novel can be seen, through Fanshawe's
character, as a confessional statement by MacLaren-Ross, in the style
of Graham Greene.

Sukie was seen as a frustrating character, as we never really see the
emotions and motivations behind the games she plays with Fanshawe
during their relationship. As for her husband Roper, it appears that
he had a calm ability as a victim to take humiliation after
humiliation, from being sacked as a salesman to being cuckolded by
Fanshawe, which some people in real life are able to take.

As for the more minor characters, there was an appreciation of the
humour provided by the likes of Smiler and Heliotrope, who all treat
the vacuum selling business as one big swindle to be taken advantage
of. The one character some people like most of all was Jackie Mowbray,
Fanshawe's other love interest, who appears to be Fanshawe's means of
escape from the squalid life he leads. This offers the biggest contrast
between the trajectories in WW2 of Captain Fanshawe and the real-life
army AWOLer MacLaren-Ross.

That's just a brief summary of what people at the meeting thought
about "Of Love and Hunger". I'm sure I've missed bits out, and I hope
this summary corresponds at least in part to what people remember of
the discussion! Please add more thoughts, whether you were there or
not!


For more info about Julian McLaren-Ross, there is a website.

Comment Here- The Empire Strikes Back?

I write a biggie about the state of the world, and the comment facility disappears! I hope it's a short-term technical problem... in the meantime leave comments here!

To quote Nirvana, "Just because you're paranoid, don't mean they're not after you"...

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Actual Existing Capitalism- An Update



With some people in the City making silly amounts of money for doing eff-all (at least sportspeople, musicians, actors/actresses, writers and those in the arts entertain people on occasion), nearly every big company in Britain subject to speculation that it will be taken over by some body or other (more often than not a private equity firm), and radical opposition to the status quo apparently at sixes and sevens (the wipeout of the Scottish Socialists and the failure of the Labour Left to stick a candidate up to challenge Gordon Brown's coronation as Labour's leader suggest that British Socialism currently couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery) it might seem that all is going swimmingly for the collective behemoth of corporate capital, financial institutions, private equity and their numerous hangers on (not least in the major media) as it reduces the rest of us (ie blue and white collar proles, small businesspeople, the self-employed, the bohemians and everyone else who doesn't get a kick from ordering others around) to the level of chattel.

However, it doesn't have to be this way. When I was younger I was inclined to make some daft predictions about the future on the planet. Now I'm older, if not much wiser, I rarely dip into the water of political Mystic Meggism (although I will stick to my view that the next election will result in a hung parliament followed by a Government comprising an-all party alliance of "modernisers" "reforming" us all to death). Even when I fearlessly predicted the future I was not a fan of "futurology", which appears to me merely to extrapolate present trends and stretches them forward ad infinitum. Having said that, there was a piece in the news a few weeks back (I will track it down!) where amongst the usual predictions of more climate change, terrorism etc, a group of futurologists said that the early 21st Century will see the rise of Middle Class Marxism in the West.

The cynical may say that Marxism has always been middle class, right back from the days of Marx and Engels. However, for most of its history Communism in Western Europe managed to attract a following in heavy industry, such as the engineering and mining sectors. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote in a recent edition of the London Review of Books (April 26th- not online, I'm afraid) the CPGB was fatally undermined from the 1960s onwards by the expansion of higher/further education, as young intelligent working class radicals, who previously would have stayed in manual jobs and joined the CPGB to organise their fellow workers, went to university or polytechnic, and were effectively declassed. It is from the 1960s onwards that Trotskyism makes a noticeable appearance on the British political scene, as most Trot groups were able to recruit students in higher/further education. Those who stayed in Trotskyite groups then moved on into public sector jobs ie teaching, local government, the civil service. With the decline and collapse of the CPGB, very few Marxist groups on the British mainland had any real base in the old style working class, based around heavy industry and urban council estates. Militant, which lives on in the Scottish Socialist Party/Solidarity and the Socialist Party of England and Wales, and Red Action, which has transformed itself into the Independent Working Class Association, are the only two Marxist groups that have any real presence (and council seats) in traditional working class areas anywhere in Britain.

Bit of a detour there! Back to possible Middle Class Marxism in the future. By the number of people who wear Che Guvera T-shirts around the place you could have said that the time is rotten ripe (Copyright Lenin/Trotsky Productions) for such a phenomenon. However Che and the ideas he represents will just remain a fashion accessory unless the material conditions encourage people to push matters further. It must said that the moment the Middle Classes (there is more than one, just as there is more than one Working Class, and more than one Ruling Class ie at least in countries of the Anglosphere, each ruling Establishment has its Tory and Whig wings) tend to look in horror at those below them ie those they see as the Lumpenproletariat. When they see those above them, those who benefit most from the continued existence of Actual Existing Capitalism, as the main threat to their way of life, Middle Class Marxism will be on the agenda. As this piece by Peter Wilby suggests that time is perhaps closer than one could imagine.

Peter Wilby on why inequality will top the agenda, New Statesman, May 21st 2007

Consider this headline from the Daily Telegraph business section: "The backlash has started against income inequality." Or this, from the Daily Mail leader page: "I deplore the billionaires who contribute so little to Britain." Or this, from the Washington Post: "Free trade's great, but offshoring rattles me." That last one doesn't seem so startling until you know that the article beneath it is written by Alan Blinder, a Princeton economics professor and former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve. A rough equivalent would be: "God's great, but the Resurrection rattles me." By a Vatican cardinal.

These three articles, along with much other evidence, suggest we are on the brink of a great political transformation, comparable to the worldwide shifts to welfarism in the 1940s and to neoliberalism in the 1980s. I do not think the assumptions that are now shared by just about every government in the developed world - particularly new Labour and now, following Nicolas Sarkozy's election, even the French - can survive another decade. Inequality is about to move back to the top of the political agenda. It will be put there, not by the working classes or by the socially excluded, whom we usually regard as poor, but by the middle classes.

They are about to suffer what hit the working classes 20 years ago: the effects of globalisation. As Blinder puts it: "We used to think, roughly, that an item was tradable only if it could be put in a box and shipped. That's no longer true. Nowadays, a growing list of services can be zapped across international borders electronically."

So far, this has involved mainly low-skill jobs such as telemarketing. But computer programming and accounting are already moving offshore. Architects' services, engineering design, radiology and some legal business (drawing up contracts, for example) could follow.

So could teaching and even journalism. For example, British GCSE and A-level students can use an online tutoring service from India this summer, while Reuters news agency has a thousand staff in Bangalore, including a hundred writing financial news stories. A California news website is recruiting Indian reporters to cover local council meetings through a live internet feed.

All this, says conventional economics, is for the best. The costs of services will fall, as the costs of goods have done, and productivity will rise. Western resources will be released for new industries, new products, new jobs. We'll be richer, and so will India and China. But think of the programmers and accountants who got themselves educated and trained as they were told to do, and now find their skills don't make them any more employable than assembly-line operatives.

Blinder reckons 30 to 40 million American jobs - between a quarter and a fifth of the total - are potentially offshorable. Not all will go, but the threat will send a shiver down the spine of Middle America and, Blinder predicts, transform its attitudes to social safety nets.

Combine that with the rise of the super-rich. This is another effect of globalisation: capital can ignore international barriers and drive down taxation by setting one country against another. Under new Labour, Britain has become a tax haven for the very wealthy and, as we are slowly realising, the distorting effect on the London-area housing market is profound. A generation of middle-class youth is moving into its thirties without the smallest prospect of owning a home.

That is what lies behind those headlines in the Mail and Telegraph, which might have been taken from the New Statesman. The Mail writer notes that "under new Labour, the worth of the 1,000 richest people in the country has soared by 263 per cent" and that many of them are foreigners. The Telegraph columnist complains: "The politically influential middle classes are missing out most. They pay proportionately more in taxes and are failing to benefit from the massive increase in salaries enjoyed by the super-rich." Something is stirring in the political undergrowth and Gordon Brown's chances of winning the next election depend, I suspect, on understanding what it is.

Globalisation and the super-rich: for ten years it has been heresy in new Labour's eyes to resist either. But these issues will shape the next decade, and Brown cannot escape them.


No-one has ever explained what people in the West will do when all the "old" blue-collar industries have been closed down and most of the "new" white-collar jobs have been exported "off-shore". I don't have a real problem with Western Europe becoming one big historical theme park playground for rich tourists from the emerging economic giants of China, India etc (if the Big One blows up between the USA and an Axis of Affluence the other side of the globe Europe might well be the safest place to be). However I can't see how millions of underemployed people in Europe, North America and Australasia can live on credit indefinitely. Something's got to give eventually.

I've worried about Britain's economic future for a long time. We've basically got very little industry left (thanks largely to that traitorous hypocrite Margaret Thatcher) and urinated the windfall of North Sea oil against the wall (ditto). We've become perilously dependent on overseas inward investment (ditto). If the world economy should go belly up at some point most overseas inward investment in the UK will pull out pretty quickly (most other countries still have some concept of the "national interest" meaning protecting their own economies first in bad times). Then we'll be on our own basically (although the usual useful idiots will probably use such a crisis to push for closer links with the EU and/or the USA) and do you think we have the gumption to pull through? The article below should make anyone question our ability to do so.

Talk is cheap: We don't manufacture anything any more. Most of the world won't buy our records or watch our films. Only our gift of the gab is keeping Britain's economy ticking over. But how long can the hot air last, ask Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson
The Guardian, Friday May 18, 2007


We all know what the Germans are good at. They do precision engineering: all those quietly humming washing machines and the cars with their sleek bodywork and gleaming chrome. We also know that Germany is a country in serious trouble, failing as it has to embrace the need for flexibility in the tough new global environment. We know this because Gordon Brown has told us many times over the past 10 years that the European model is washed up.

Germany was so abysmally competitive last year that it ran a record trade surplus and was the biggest exporter of any country in the world.

We know what the Japanese excel at also. In Tokyo and Nagoya there are world-beating companies in the field of electronics, designing the latest consumer gizmos. We know, too, that despite Sony, Panasonic and Mitsubishi, Japan, like Germany, is a country in serious trouble. It, too, has tried to stick its head in the sand and persist with an industrial model that may have worked in the 1960s and 70s but is an anachronism in 2007. Poor, washed-up Japan ran a trade surplus of around £50bn last year as it found a ready market in China for its exports.

And so it goes on. The French have an ultra-competitive manufacturing base that specialises in food and drink; the Scandinavians are a dab hand at mobile phones; the Americans do computers, aircraft and movies; even the poor, benighted Italians have upmarket designer clothes. So what is Britain good at? Where does the UK fit in this world of changing economic geography, in which nations will increasingly concentrate on the things they do best? The answer is simple. We count the money and we do the bullshit.

Britain, on the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair's arrival in Downing Street, is a place whose default mode for earning its crust is to employ the gift of the gab. The Germans may have the engineers, the Japanese may know how to organise a production line, but the Brits have the barristers, the journalists, the management consultants and the men and women who think that making up jingles and slogans in order to flog Pot Noodles and similar products is a serious job. It has the deal-makers in the City who make fat fees by convincing investors to launch bids for companies, and the corporate spin doctors who tell former pals in financial journalism that tycoon X will make a better fist at running Ripoff plc than tycoon Y. It has the publishers and it has the "film development" companies, some of which have actually been known to produce a film. The four iconic jobs in 21st-century Britain, according to a thinktank called the Work Foundation, are not scientists, engineers, teachers and nurses but hairdressers, celebrities, management consultants and managers.

Before he came into politics, Blair was a lawyer, as was his industry secretary Alistair Darling and the transport secretary Douglas Alexander. Brown's sole experience of the go-getting world of the private sector was as a journalist for Scottish Television. Not that the other parties are much different. David Cameron prepared for the task of repositioning the Conservative party by acting as PR for Carlton TV in the 1990s. He was described by one business editor, the Sun's Ian King, as a "poisonous, slippery individual" and a "smarmy bully who regularly threatened journalists who dared to write anything negative about Carlton". When you get down to it, this is a country that tries to make its living from talk, talk and more talk.

But how has Britain fared when it comes to paying our way in the world? Have the traders in the forex markets and the regulars at the Groucho Club earned enough to make the UK's age-old problems with the current account a thing of the past? Sadly not. Britain still has a world-class pharmaceutical industry, and still makes a tidy sum from selling arms abroad, often to some pretty unsavoury regimes. Yet the deficit in visible trade in goods - stuff we make - was more than £60bn in 2006. That's around 5% of GDP, far bigger than anything the UK has witnessed in the postwar period. Trade in services - accountancy, insurance, banking, architecture, advertising - brings the deficit down to around 4% of GDP. But for the past decade, the only thing that has made the deficit manageable is that Britain has been earning more money on its investments abroad than foreign investors have made here. One way of looking at Britain is as one big offshore hedge fund churning speculators' money while asset-strippers draw up plans for the few remaining factories to be turned into industrial theme parks.

That is not the way the government sees it, naturally. Labour believes Britain is at the cutting edge of the knowledge economy and that Britain's well-educated (sic), highly skilled (sic) and entrepreneurial (sic) workers are ready to kick German, American, Japanese and Chinese butt all round the global village.

The essence of successful bullshit is that the really top-notch exponents not only manage to convince others but also manage to delude themselves. Some explanation has to be provided for Britain's increasingly lopsided economy, dominated as it is by those not-so-heavenly twins, the City of London and the housing market. And the explanation is that the UK's future lies not, as might seem apparent at first glance, in the drinking factories, the estate agencies and the clothing chains that make up Britain's monochrome Identikit high streets, but in the knowledge economy.

Even more laughably, some cling to the idea that the way ahead is the even more nebulous "creative economy". This fantasy, a particular favourite, is that while Britain may no longer carry the overt industrial clout it once did in the days when it was the workshop of the world, it can still be the world's creative hub. The country of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, of Chaucer and Larkin, still has a literary tradition of which to be proud. Rock'n'roll is an English-language medium and there are billions to be made by our cutting-edge bands. Britain's television is a cut above the rest, and the only reason the film industry has declined since the days of Passport to Pimlico is a lack of government backing, now happily remedied, for the inspirational new film-makers emerging from university courses.

Well, we did warn you that the bullshit merchants are good at what they do.

We'll return to the creative industries, but you have to admit that Britain as the world's creative hub sounds a lot more impressive than saying that Britain is at the cutting edge of the call-centre economy, even though the number of people answering phones and inputting data into computers in white-collar industrial sheds now stands at just under one million. And it really would not do to say that Britain is a servant economy, even though there are at least four million people "in service" and the proportion of the population employed by the well-off to do their cooking, cleaning, childcare and gardening is as high as it was in the 1860s.

This, in the modern political jargon, is not the right sort of narrative. The idea that millions of people are toiling away in menial, low-paid, low-skill jobs jars with the impression Blair and Brown wish to convey: that Britain is an exemplar of how vigorous and committed western nations can ready themselves to meet the challenge from Asia. This, though, has proved only a minor difficulty. In Bullshit Britain you simply come up with a different kind of reality that provides you with the sort of narrative you prefer.

The story as far as New Labour is concerned is that our failure in the second half of the 20th century to exploit the potential of higher consumer spending on cars, washing machines, hi-fis and personal stereos has actually left us better placed to exploit the sunrise industries of the 21st century - biotechnology, robotics, environmental protection, pharmaceuticals. Successful economies will require brains more than brawn, and Britain is full of smart people.

There is an element of smoke and mirrors in all this, however. It is true that as countries develop, the number of people employed in services tends to go up. The reason for this is that productivity growth in manufacturing is much faster than it is in services: it takes far fewer hours to make a car today than it did 100 years ago, but the same time to cut someone's hair. It is also true that each wave of capitalism since the industrial revolution has been based on a distinctive technology: coal and steam, then railways and electricity, then mass transportation and consumer goods. Although the vast numbers of poor people in India and China (let alone Africa and Latin America) suggest there will still be strong demand for consumer durables and machine tools for a good while yet, information technology and the human genome may be at the centre of the next long upswing.

But how do you square this with what's happening in Britain? It's simple: Britain has a long tradition of excellence in science, especially chemistry, and the government's commitment to the knowledge economy is evident from its target of ensuring that 50% of young people go to university. New Labour, therefore, has a neat syllogism. Britain is turning out more and more graduates. They are entering the workforce with the knowledge they have acquired through the education system. So, work is becoming more knowledge-based.

The problem, though, is that the syllogism is false. Many graduates are doing fairly menial jobs for which they do not need a degree (or anything like it). Research by Essex University's Institute for Social and Economic Research in 2002 found that a third of men and 41% of women were overqualified for the first posts they took up after graduating. As James Heartfield's study Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy found, most employment growth has been, and will continue to be, at the low-skill end of the service sector - in shops, bars, hotels, domestic service and in nursing and care homes. The fastest-growing occupation in the UK between 1992 and 1999 was hairdressing.

'Braining up" may not be a bad strategy for the UK, and there are undoubtedly areas of the knowledge economy where Britain excels. But the size and strength of this high-productivity, high-profit sector has been massively exaggerated. A case in point is spending on research and development, something that is seen as a vital ingredient in developing new product lines and is one of the government's economic priorities. Every year the Department of Trade and Industry publishes an R&D scoreboard to show how UK firms compare with the rest of the world. The findings are chastening, with Britain's presence virtually insignificant in seven of the 10 sectors measured. More than half of the UK's effort in R&D is spent in just two sectors, pharmaceuticals and aerospace - two sectors, incidentally, where support from the government via the NHS and the Ministry of Defence has been considerable over many decades.

Analysis by the Guardian showed that one factor in Britain's poor performance was the higher cost of raising funds for investment in the UK, a constant complaint from industry for at least a century and probably longer. In all 10 sectors looked at - automobiles and parts, IT hardware, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, electronic and electrical, software and computer services, chemicals, aerospace and defence, engineering and machinery, telecommunications, and health - the UK cost of funds was among the highest in the developed world.

A report last year from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) admitted that, judged by the traditional yardsticks, Britain does poorly. It devotes a smaller proportion of national income to R&D, and that investment tends to be heavily concentrated in just one or two sectors. According to one international study cited by Nesta, only 38% of British enterprises were engaged in "innovation activities" - three percentage points below the EU average and well below Germany (61%), Sweden (47%) and the Netherlands and Finland (45%). The picture was still worse when more radical forms of innovation were considered: only 21% of UK enterprises had introduced new or significantly improved goods or services over the previous three years, compared with an EU average of 31%.

Yet, according to Nesta, Britain still had "one of the strongest economies in Europe". This, said Nesta, was a paradox. If innovation was really so important, how come the UK had been growing robustly? Its answer was simple: the data were misleading. "The resolution of this paradox lies in the way in which innovation has typically been measured." Well, that might be one explanation. Another might be that growth in Britain had been boosted by a substantial expansion of the public sector, with Brown using the budget surpluses built up in the late 1990s to keep the economy afloat during a global downturn. Another might be that a colossal wave of property speculation was allowing consumers to borrow against their main asset and so live beyond their means.

Nesta's list of areas in Britain where innovation was alive and well only heightened the suspicion that it was scratching around for some good news. These included the National Cycle Network, regulations and incentives to improve social housing, networking among NHS scientists that has resulted in new genetic tests, and "aggressive" tax planning. Now, it could be argued that a National Cycle Network is a fine idea, but so was the idea to create the National Parks during the Attlee government. Similarly, NHS scientists have been working to alleviate pain and save lives since 1948. The idea that some of the smartest (and best-paid) people in Britain spend their time dreaming up ways for the super-rich to avoid paying tax would be fine economically, if not perhaps morally, were the proceeds of this innovation sufficient to make up the deficiencies elsewhere.

Still, the fantasy lives on that even if Britain eventually outsources all its manufacturing to cheaper countries abroad it will still be able to do the tough and lucrative bits - the design for new products - at home. In the days of Cool Britannia back in the late 90s, Blair called the UK the "design workshop of the world", while three years later, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport noted that "Britain is a top exporter of design worldwide and many design consultancies earn a significant portion of income from work outside Britain".

Not, however, as much as they did. Overseas earnings from design fell from £1.4bn in 2001/2 to £699m in 2004/5, while the number of people employed in the design workshop of the world fell from 82,000 in 2000/1 to 71,000 four years later.

Optimism, though, is what Bullshit Britain is all about. Some of it, to be fair, is justified. Britain has real and enduring strength in business services: in accountancy, banking and insurance it runs a healthy trade surplus. The City is one of the world's three financial hubs, and perhaps the most vibrant. Some of the claims made for the new knowledge economy are, however, nothing more than hype, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of the creative industries.

The idea that Britain could be the Athens to the rest of the world's Rome, compensating for its dearth of economic and political clout through intellectual and cultural superiority, first became popular around the middle of the last century. In 1996, David Puttnam took up the theme, writing that Britain was no longer the "island of coal surrounded by fish" that Nye Bevan had talked of. More questionable, however, was the second part of Lord Puttnam's analysis - that Britain was now "an island of creativity surrounded by a sea of understanding".

New Labour was only too happy to go along with this notion. Blair made much of the fact that he was a member of the rock'n'roll generation, inviting members of the Britpop aristocracy for champagne receptions and letting it be known he liked to play a few licks on his Fender Stratocaster. As New Labour's veneer of liberalism peeled away, rock stars quickly backed off. They soon worked out that the fact that Blair could play the guitar did not mean he was right on; it simply meant he knew the chords to Stairway to Heaven. Even so, the creative industries still feature heavily in government propaganda.

A large number of people work in the creative industries, broadly defined, although not nearly as many as the hype would suggest. There are three times as many people working in domestic service as there are in advertising, television, video games, film, the music business and design combined; the creative industries represent around one in 20 of the people working in Britain today. Between them they account for around 4% of UK exports of goods and services but, as the Nesta report made clear, it is hard to make serious money: "The UK's creative industries are facing increasing international competition . . . UK television exports have fallen for the second year running (despite an overall increase since 1998). In design, overseas earnings have halved since 2001, while the value of exports in music, the visual and performing arts in 2003 was down 20% from 2000."

The report goes on to note that employment in advertising had fallen by 20,000 in three years, after reaching a high in 2001. Film production spending was nearly a third lower in 2005 than in the previous year. The number of people working in games development had fallen by 6% since 2000.

Despite repeated attempts to use romantic comedies starring Hugh Grant to revive the British film industry, there is not the remotest sign of Hollywood's stranglehold on the UK market being weakened. In 2004, US-financed films accounted for almost three-quarters of UK box office receipts, while the number of UK films in 2005 released stood at 37, well down on the peak of 84 in the late 1990s. "The UK industry is vulnerable in structural terms," Nesta concluded. "It is organised primarily around individual film projects rather than sustainable production and distribution companies, as in the US."

That is, perhaps, one way of looking at it. Another way is to draw the conclusion that Hollywood operates like a proper industry; it makes films it thinks punters will want to watch. The UK industry, as Heartfield noted in 2000, is dominated by dilettantes who make films they think punters ought to want to watch: "Down-at-heel bohemians make films about the working classes. Unsurprisingly, mass audiences find these patronising diatribes uniquely unappealing."

The idea that the same may be true of British television has gradually been percolating in the national consciousness over the past few years. Jimmy McGovern, who created one of the better TV series of the past two decades, Cracker, went on the attack at the 2006 Edinburgh Television festival against "latte-drinking, pesto-eating middle-class" TV executives for their patronising and offensive treatment of Britain's working classes. "I am delighted to see the state ITV are in," he said. "It is simply because they have utter contempt for their audience. These executives don't sit around and say, 'What kind of intelligent, informative, thought-provoking programmes would we like to watch?' They think, 'What will the ignorant plebs that watch our channel want to see?'"

When TV executives are not pushing at the boundaries of trash TV, they are importing programmes from abroad to fill the gaps in the schedules. Although the UK television industry employed more than 111,000 people in 2004 and spent more than £2.6bn on original programmes, it was still not enough to meet demand. In 2005, Britain had a deficit of £332m in TV.

Finally, there is music, a sector that has been a real breadwinner for the UK ever since the Beatles arrived in New York in February 1964. Here, too, the recent signs have not been encouraging. A month after they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles filled the top five places in the US charts; in 2002, for the first time in the subsequent 38 years, a year went by without one British artist making it into the US top 100. The same trend applied to albums.

So, to sum up, the film industry is in trouble, the television industry is in trouble and the music industry is in trouble. The creative industries, for all the attention lavished on them by New Labour, were actually in a much healthier state when Harold Wilson and James Callaghan were in Downing Street in the 1960s and 70s. One way of looking at the British economy of today is to say that there are clusters of excellence around science, finance and the arts. Another way of looking at the economy is to say that the pharmaceutical industry will eventually migrate to the United States, where the money is; that big finance would come a cropper in the event of a bursting of the debt-driven speculative bubble; and that Bullshit Britain reaches its apotheosis in the lionisation of the cultural industries.

It is conceivable, just, that Bullshit Britain really is the future, but that those of us wedded to traditional measures of success are not sufficiently hip to cotton on to the fact. But consider: China and India are churning out more graduates than the UK; science departments in British universities are being closed down; the British band that attracted the most attention in the United States last year was not the Arctic Monkeys but the Who.

It would be comforting to think that Sir Paul McCartney had passed on responsibility for fixing the hole in the balance of payments to his fashion-designer daughter, Stella. The reality, though, is that the iconic figure in modern Britain is neither Sir Paul nor his daughter, but his second wife, Lady Heather Mills McCartney. She managed to woo one of Britain's richest men into marriage and claimed a share of his £800m fortune when the blissful partnership strangely went sour after four years. And she understood the essence of the bullshit economy: with luck and attitude, you can make a tiny amount of talent go a very long way.




Extracted from Fantasy Island, by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, published by Constable, £7.99.

Found some holiday reading there!

Of course, if everything here goes belly-up there will be clamouring for "strong" business leadership to get Britain back on its feet. Some of that clamour will come from the same simple souls who think that Anita Roddick, Alan Sugar or Richard Branson would make a "great" PM. The fact that running big businesses, which are hardly paragons of democratic virtue, is not the same as running a country (at least no-one could accuse the owner of Virgin Trains of making them run on time, a la Mussolini) seems to escape the grasp of some. There is also little evidence that the cliched concept of "strong" leadership in business is in itself a good thing.



Strong leadership in action, Part 473...

Why fearless leaders are something to dread
Simon Caulkin, The Observer, Sunday May 6, 2007


The painful unravelling over the last year of the public and private lives of one of the UK's most iconic businessmen, Lord Browne, is a sobering example of the pitfalls of the cult of leadership. Raising expectations far beyond the capacity of one human to fulfil them - neither BP's successes nor its more recent failings were ever down to Browne alone - hero leaders often end up destroying themselves and wounding the companies that helped to make them.

The love affair with Leadership - capital L - is deep-rooted and pervasive, as a look at almost any copy of Harvard Business Review or Fortune will confirm. April's HBR establishes both the tone and the assumed relationship with 'What Your Leader Expects From You'. February offers 'Discovering Your Authentic Leadership', while January 2007 - a special issue devoted to 'The Tests of a Leader' - sports a cover picture of a shirt-sleeved executive (male, naturally) pumping press-ups on the boardroom table. 'Leadership is for lone He-Men' is the clear message: leaders are managers on steroids.

Of course, we need leaders to focus, decide, rally and sometimes inspire. From playgrounds to football teams to political parties, human groups do not remain leaderless for long. But the business need for heroic leadership - and its corollary, the lament for the lack of it that kicks off most articles on the subject - is something else again.

Where does the desire for heroes originate? One source is the quest for certainty. This intensifies as the world becomes more uncertain; perversely, by raising expectations it also increases the likelihood that they will be dashed. Another source is the way the leader's job is specified. Theoretically, the need for hierarchy, with a strong leader on top, stems from the idea that employees' and companies' interests differ, so a strong boss is needed to ensure the workforce does what is required for shareholders. The boss must also decide what they should do. Obvious, really: in any case, the alternative - running a company from the bottom up - is surely a recipe for chaos and anarchy?

Except that these notions are dangerous half-truths. In theory and in practice, hierarchy doesn't work, and no one put the reason better then GE's Jack Welch, himself an iconic manager. Hierarchy, he said, defines an organisation in which people have 'their face towards the CEO and their ass towards the customer'. The more charismatic the executive, and the more centralised the power, the more perverse the effect.

Centralised power and decision-making, central planning by another name, is not only bad news for the customer. It leads to a cult of personality that wrecks good management. In Ego Check: Why Executive Hubris is Wrecking Companies and Careers (Kaplan), Mathew Hayward notes that chief executives who become celebrities are a danger both to themselves and their followers. They believe their own press, attribute success to their own brilliance and failure to the incompetence of others, and vastly overestimate their decision-making prowess. Success only supercharges this process, generating feelings of invincibility that make an eventual fall inevitable.

When CEOs become celebrities, their firms' performance starts to decline, Hayward finds. Before their downfalls, Martha Stewart, Enron's Ken Lay, Hank Greenberg at AIG, Sunbeam's Al Dunlap, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco, and WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers all figured in laudatory cover stories in prominent business magazines. He also discovered that companies with starry CEOs pay more for acquisitions. And consider this: by acting as positive feedback, stellar pay can reinforce executive hubris and its damaging effects. Hayward writes: 'By fostering false confidence, greater compensation can actually diminish our resourcefulness and productivity.'

At bottom, the cult of leadership is based on a false opposition. The opposite of top-down hierarchy is not bottom-up anarchy. It is what John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting calls 'outside-in', or, to reverse Welch's image, turning the company through 180 degrees to face the customer rather than the boss.

Making the organisation demand-led instantly changes the role and requirements of the CEO. Of course, courage and judgment are still necessary. But they are no longer arbitrary, the product of supposed omniscience. Nor is the job any longer one of coercion, but rather to support front-line employees in serving customers. In short, the leader sets the context in which the interests of company and employees can, as far as possible, coincide.

As ever, be careful what you wish for. Outside-in, demand-led companies don't need hero leaders, we should beware of creating them, and they should beware celebrity's duplicity. As for investors, when a CEO makes the front cover of Fortune, or appears at the head of a 'most admired' list - sell.


So strong leadership may be not it's all cracked up to be. The same with Actual Existing Capitalism. My big fear is that if it all goes belly-up for A.E.C. the beneficiaries here will be the BNP, as well as other ROROs (Racially Or Religiously Obsessed) here and elswhere. My big hope is that something decent vaguely on "the Left" will emerge to challenge both A.E.C and the ROROs. (Message In A Bottle by The Police has suddenly come into my head, for some reason!) Perhaps the collapse of the vote for organised socialism in the Scottish Elections, combined with the failure of "a Left" candidate for Labour leader to get nominated, may shake things up at long last over the summer. It would be a triumph of hope over experience, but, to coin a phrase, it's coming some time (maybe).

Friday, 18 May 2007

1,000 views of this blog!

This calls for a round of drinks to celebrate chaps!



Blimey, it sounds impressive...There will be a fair bit of new stuff over the coming weekend. If you're bored, I have been going into slight rave mode about 28 Weeks Later on My Other Channel at Myspace.

Here's to the next grand!

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Blogging and publishing

A couple of pieces which may be of interest. One is from today's Indie:

Cyberclinic: I want to start a blog. But will I just be writing into a void?
Rhodri Marsden, The Independent, May 9th 2007


"It's nothing personal," begins Independent reader Carole Hayes, "but please don't start a blog. If it's any good, it'll be just another one that I fail to keep up with reading."

Carole is not alone in her hair-tearing response to blog overload; news has emerged recently of a book by Andrew Keen which indicts the gigantic blogging community for "destroying culture", and for "undermining our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary".

It's a harsh accusation to lay at the door of, say, a 13-year-old girl who's merely writing a few sentences about the deteriorating health of her pet rabbit, but the fact that she is doing so at all demonstrates how easy blogging has become. You can start publishing online within seconds by using services such as Blogger or Wordpress; the search engine Technorati reports a staggering 175,000 new blogs started every day, and a grand total of around 75 million.

So why would you bother, given the inevitability of your blog disappearing into a sea of political posturing and wearisome whining? Some are attracted by the prospect of joining a like-minded community of people who write in a similar style, or about similar subjects. "Using social-based blogging services such as LiveJournal helps to round up an audience," e-mails Vicki Macintosh, "rather than giving you the feeling that you're bellowing into a void."

Obsessing about the size of one's readership is a common issue for bloggers. While gaining a short-lived peak in audience size is relatively easy, retaining those people over a period of time is managed only by established blogs, such as BoingBoing.net, that are often maintained by a team of writers.

Simon Hartnell believes that worrying about readership distracts from the whole point: "You have to enjoy writing for your own pleasure, otherwise blogging is going to feel like a chore, and you'll probably give up pretty quickly." It's a warning that many would no doubt offer on their own blogs, had they not abandoned them; it's estimated that more than 200 million blogs lie dormant, many just tailing off without so much as a "cheerio".

Indeed, the American IT company Gartner has predicted that the number of active blogs will peak this year at around 100 million, as the number of those giving up starts to outstrip those keen to give it a go.

The final word comes from a reader, Jason Day, and I'm tempted to agree: "Give it a try. But be prepared for a feeling of overwhelming futility."


The other, on more traditional forms of publishing, is from Sean Gabb:

A Brief Guide to Self-Publishing by Sean Gabb

As you ought by now to be aware, I have written and published a novel. A
close friend has told me that my plotting does not compare with that of
Marcel Proust, nor my characterisations with those of Dostoyevsky. But he
assures me it is otherwise a decent novel. He says he enjoyed reading it.
He is, moreover, buying copies to hand round as presents to his friends
and loved ones. This is, you will agree, a better indication of what he
thinks than any amount of written or spoken praise.

Of course, I invite you to do likewise. I think we have missed Eid and
Diwali—I am not prejudiced in these matters—But Christmas and Hannukah are
approaching; and I will, for the trifling sum of £8.99 each plus £2
postage and packing, send you any number of copies of The Column of Phocas
signed and inscribed with any message you may desire. I will even get Mrs
Gabb to gift wrap them.

You can take advantage of my offer by following either of the links at the
foot of this article.

But here is an end to my advertising. Several people have asked me in the
past few weeks how I managed to publish a book that looks like a real book
and can be sold on the Internet and via Amazon. So I will go now into the
whys and hows of self-publishing.

I begin with why. As said, I have written a decent novel. It only took a
few weeks to write on my various railway journeys; and though it is taking
longer because of my other commitments, the sequel is just as easy. My
problem was not with the writing, but with getting someone else to publish
me.

From my reading of literary biography, there was a time when you could
write a novel, and then send it off—perhaps under a pseudonym—to a
publisher, who would carefully read it and then bring it out in a limited
edition to see how it might sell. If it ever existed, that time is passed.
Most publishers nowadays are members of large conglomerates. For them, a
novel is a commodity, and the lower the speculative element in
publication, the better it is for them. They want something in a style
that is currently popular, and preferably from an author who is already
known. So what if the product is ghost written trash fathered on a
television personality? Their object—and I do not think it fair to
complain—is not to promote literature, but to make a profit. If, like me,
you are unknown as a writer of fiction, and if you write a novel that does
not easily fit into one of the established categories, you have very
little chance.

And you have very little chance even if what you have written is
manifestly outstanding. I do not think much of the Harry Potter books.
But, plainly, many other people disagree with me. Even so, J.K. Rowling
took years to get her first novel accepted for publication. If, like me,
you are merely decent, the outlook must be gloomy.

Indeed, in recent years, publishers have tended to refuse all manuscripts
submitted directly. The spread of word processing has made it easier than
ever before to write fiction, and publishers have been overwhelmed by
submissions of variable quality. They have therefore taken to considering
only work submitted through a literary agent.

But this has simply transferred the flood of initial submissions to the
agents. These also cannot cope; and so they have adopted policies as
restrictive as those of the publishers before they stopped accepting
submissions directly.

The result is that, unless you are unusually enterprising and persistent,
or lucky, you will not get your first novel—or your first book, for that
matter—published so easily as you might in the past.

The answer is not to sit about, lamenting a state of affairs you can do
nothing to change. It is to do the whole job yourself.

This is much easier than ever before. When I first looked at
self-publication in the 1980s, I had a choice between spending an ocean of
money and producing something that looked like a school newsletter. I
could use a manual typewriter to punch holes in a stencil, and then run
off jagged and whimsically faded copies on a duplicator. I was once told,
let me add, that they only way to avoid getting ink on your clothes is to
strip naked within a yard of any duplicator. I can tell you this is good
advice! This done, I could staple the sheets together, and hope what I had
written would be read without too much prejudice against its format.
Otherwise, I could put myself into the hands of the vanity publishers.
These might produce something vaguely resembling a book. But they might
not. Whatever the case, they would run off thousands of copies and charge
a prohibitive unit price. No bookshop would stock them. No mainstream
publication would review them.

The technological revolution of the past few decades has made all this a
distant memory. Using Microsoft Word, or any other word processing
software, you can format a book in any style that takes your fancy. My own
preferred style is the "Everyman" series. This may not be suitable for a
new novel. But that was a matter of my own possibly defective judgement.
You can format an archetype in any font you please, justified as you
please, with headers and page numbers. You can even generate an index if
that is what you want. This requires some familiarity with computers. But
it is probably less difficult to acquire than to use a sewing machine
effectively or to learn how to drive.

Next, you need a cover. You can do this also in Word, though I prefer to
use Publisher, which comes with the more expensive versions of Microsoft
Office. This gives much greater freedom with positioning text and pictures
and the spine. Again, getting the cover right is a matter of judgement
that some people have and others have not. This being said, there are
templates for book covers all over the Internet; and anyone can produce a
basic cover.

Then there is the matter of an ISBN. I believe these were introduced in
the 1960s by the British publishing trade as a means of identifying a
stock of new publications that was already expanding beyond manageable
limits. An ISBN is made up of eight digits that remain constant and
identify the publisher, plus two digits that identify the publication, and
a final checksum digit to ensure soundness of the whole. The numbering
system—it will soon contain 13 digits—is now used in just about every
country. It allows books to be traced more effectively than would
otherwise be possible.

The problem emerging is that book shops tend to refuse anything that is
without an ISBN. Certainly, on-line booksellers like Amazon will not touch
anything without one.

But this is a problem easily solved. When Chris R. Tame and I started the
Hampden Press in 2001, we obtained an eight digit ISBN and a sample eleven
digit ISBN for free. We were then expected to buy further numbers. I
believe this practice has now changed, and you must pay for this. I do not
know where you should go for your ISBNs now, as the company we used has
been bought by Nielsen Bookdata. But in England, you can try Carolyn Timms
of Nielsen Bookdata. She will point you in the right direction. In
America, there is bip.bowkerlink@bowker.com at RR Bowker Books in Print.

As for buying subsequent numbers, there are websites that will
automatically generate them for free once you have the initial eight digit
number. The one I use is provided by The College Park Press.

You may also want to translate your ISBN to a bar code with another number
the function of which escapes me. There are also free services on the
Internet that will do this. The one I use is provided by Robbie's ISBN Bar
Code Generator.

It is not enough, of course, to generate an ISBN. You must also register
this with the various bibliographical agencies. Without this, your book
will not appear on any of the databases, and might as well not exist. You
can register by approaching the English and American companies given above.

Now, there is the printing. My experience is that an initial print run
should be around a thousand copies. Fewer, and your unit costs will be
high, and you may run out of copies. More, and first delivery of boxes may
get you into the divorce court. Printing remains expensive, whatever your
print run, and it is worth shopping round for quotations. Some of these
can be prohibitive. The cheapest printer I have been able to find in
England is Biddles. These print the "Modern Masters" series and provide a
fast and professional service, so long as you provide them with the right
kind of pdf file. My unit cost for The Column of Phocas was only £1.30.
Assuming a unit price of £8.99, this leaves a tidy sum to cover other
expenses or to be regarded as profit.

We come finally to the marketing. Here, I must confess, I am not very
good. I have generated some publicity in the local media, and have had
some flattering reviews placed on Amazon. I have also nagged all my
friends into buying copies. But my distribution of copies to friends in
the national media has resulted so far in no publicity. Nor have I been
very enterprising at getting my novel into the bookshops.

But this is something of which you may have greater knowledge. Indeed,
since I have shared all I know of publishing, you may care to reciprocate
with some advice on marketing.

So, there it is—self-publishing made easy.

I regret that, unless I am one of your close friends, or have some
reasonable expectation of services from you, I will give no personal
advice to authors beyond what I have given above. This is not because I am
particularly unfriendly. It is a simple acknowledgement of the fact that I
am both busy with earning a living and profoundly idle when it comes to
replying to e-mails. By all means, write if you must. But do not be
disappointed if you hear nothing back.

Monday, 7 May 2007

What are Camden Council up to now?

Good to see they have their priorities right. First, persecute dog owners, then this:

SUMMER BBQ BAN: Health and safety fears stop outdoor cooking by RICHARD OSLEY
Camden New Journal 3 May 2007


A SIZZLING row has erupted after Camden Council banned coal barbecues in public areas on health and safety grounds – affecting dozens of summer fetes and fayres.
Officials have been branded “fun-busters” after ruling that using coal is far too dangerous for untrained cooks.

Instead, the Town Hall has advised that organisers of all community festivals this summer should use professional caterers instead.

Keith Bird, who has run the barbecue at the annual Primrose Hill community festival in Chalcot Square for 20 years, has been told that he must go on a training course if he wants to continue in the role.

Even if he did pass the council’s tests, Mr Bird would have to use a gas alternative instead of traditional coals.

He said: “I’m not doing a test. I know how to run a barbecue. I’m not going to go on a course to tell me how to do it. Nobody has ever been hurt and we usually sell 500 or 600 items in a day. It’s another example of the nanny state telling us what we can and can’t do. This is ridiculous.”

The ban on coal barbecues applies to all public spaces and parks run by the council across the borough – but the fieriest opposition so far has emerged in Primrose Hill.
The festival is run by the Primrose Hill Community Association every year in the square, partly with the help of a council grant. The barbecue is considered one of the most important and popular stalls.

Government ministers David and Ed Miliband, who live in the area, are regular attendees and have been informed that the barbecue is under threat. One volunteer said: “David and Ed come along every year. They will be very disappointed. They always stop by.”

Ward councillor Pat Callaghan has grilled officials over the ban.
She said: “For the council to back professional caterers over local people almost defeats the purpose of having a festival. It’s about local people getting involved in their community. I don’t understand why Camden see professionalising festivals as a priority.”

Cllr Callaghan, who alongside other Labour councillors have been seen flipping burgers behind the barbecue over the years, added: “It’s another example of Camden’s obsession with fun-busting.”

The ban comes from a tightening up of rules which the Town Hall said have been an “unwritten policy for many years”.

A council letter to festival organisers said: “There are significant risks to members of the public as well as to the site itself if coal barbecues are allowed. As a policy we do not allow coal barbecues as we would be unable to police safe use of coal across our parks and open spaces.”

There is no suggestion that organisers of the summer barbecue in Primrose Hill have put any of the festival-goers in danger in the past.

Mr Bird said: “This is another needlessly illiberal step from the Town Hall which will affect the community festival season. Citing health and safety reasons is really over the top.”.”

Camden’s leisure chief Councillor Flick Rea, who last week described her own executive role as ‘Camden’s minister for fun’ at a corporate event, said that the council had little choice but to insist on professional caterers at events.
She said: “My personal, personal view is that I don’t like being told what to do but I can understand why the council has to do this. It comes out of the blame and claim culture. It is the council that insures these events, so if somebody gets hurt it is the council that is liable. Coal barbecues have actually always been banned but it was an unwritten rule and now we are tightening things up and we can’t have one rule for the Primrose Hill barbecue and another rule for the rest of the borough.”
The council said that it could recommend professional caterers willing to pay for a pitch at community festivals.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Film news



I went to see This Is England the other day. A very good film. It gets the period (1983) spot on. All the actors are good, particularly Thomas Turgoose as the central character Shaun, and Stephen Graham as the charismatic and violent Combo. I thoroughly recommend it, although there is some seriously racist language and some heavy violence (the latter I found harder to cope with than the language: "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me", or something along those lines). Shane Meadows is a good director, and this piece by him gives some idea of the world that This Is England is set in:

Under my skin: Forget shoulder pads and Rick Astley - growing up in the 1980s was a riot of great music, fashion and subcultures, as new film This Is England shows. Here, director Shane Meadows recalls a youth of ska music, scrapping and a time when people 'still cared' about politics
The Guardian, Saturday April 21, 2007


It's easy to laugh at the 1980s. Many people base their memories on the stuff they see in those I Love The 80s TV shows: massive VHS recorders, Atari consoles and rubbish digital watches, all shown against a backing of Now That's What I Call Music Vol 2. Then there was the way that people dressed: your mum with a deranged perm, your dad in a pair of grey leather slip-ons and your sister with a "Frankie Says Relax" T-shirt and a stack of love bites round her neck.

But my memories have more meaning than that. As a kid growing up in Uttoxeter, Staffs, it was a time of great music, brilliant fashion and a vibrant youth culture that makes today's kids look dull and unimaginative by comparison. It was also a time of massive unrest when British people were still prepared to fight for the stuff they believed in. My new film, This Is England, is about all of these things.
Set in 1983, this is the first period film I have made. A great deal of it is based on my own childhood and I tried to recreate my memoirs of being an 11-year-old kid trying to fit in. It was a time when Uttoxeter, like the rest of the country, was awash with endless different youth tribes. There were new romantics, heavy rockers, smoothies, punks, goths, skins and mod revivalists who were into the Specials and 2 Tone. Then there were those pop culture kids who came into school wearing one green sock, one pink sock and some deely boppers on their head. People often looked daft, but were genuinely committed to their chosen denomination and would wear their identities on their sleeves with immense pride. In a town as small as Uttoxeter, though, there weren't enough people for each sub culture to fill their own parties or clubs, so most weekends everyone would turn up at the same village hall disco and end up fighting.

Like most 11-year-old kids who wore jumpers with animals on, I got bullied by the older kids at school. So I looked for my own tribe to join. It was the skinhead movement that enamoured me the most. I remember seeing 10 or 15 of them at the bus shelter on my way home from school one summer night and thinking they were the most fearsome thing I had ever seen. Even though I was terrified of them, I was instantly attracted to them. To be a part of most of the other factions you had to be a little rich kid. But to be a skinhead, all you needed was a pair of jeans, some work boots, a white shirt and a shaved head. You could be transformed from a twerp into a fearsome warrior in 15 minutes. Skins appealed to me because they were like soldiers: they wore their outfits like suits of armour and demanded respect. There were playground myths that surrounded them and especially their Dr Martens boots. It was feared that a single kick from a DM boot would kill you or at the very least give you brain damage. I can remember kids refusing to fight unless the skinhead agreed to remove his fearsome boots first.

My older sister was going out with a skinhead who took me under his wing and taught me about the roots of the whole culture. He was a nice bloke who bore no relation to the stereotypical racist yob that people now associate with that time. It was him that I based the character of Woody on in the film. I learned from him that skinheads had grown out of working class English lads working side by side with west Indians in factories and shipyards in the late-60s. The black lads would take the whites to blues parties where they were exposed to ska music for the first time. Soon, Jamaican artists like Desmond Dekker, the Upsetters and Toots And The Maytals were making a living out of songs aimed directly at English white kids. This was where the whole skinhead thing came from - it was inherently multicultural. But nowadays when I tell people that I used to be a skinhead, they think I'm saying I used to be racist. My film shows how rightwing politics started to creep into skinhead culture in the 1980s and change people's perception of it. This was a time when there were three and a half million people unemployed and we were involved in a pointless war in the Falklands. When people are frustrated and disillusioned that's when you get extremist groups moving in and trying to exploit the situation. That's what the National Front did in the early-80s. Skinheads had always taken pride in being working class and English so they were easy targets for the NF who said that their identities were under threat. They cultivated a real hatred of the Asian community. In the film, Combo represents the sort of charismatic leader the NF used to turn skinheads into violent street enforcers. Suddenly, all skinheads were branded the same way. But most of the real old skins who were into the music and the clothes went on to be scooter boys to separate themselves from the racism. I always wanted This Is England to tell the truth about skinheads.

As I started to make the film, other themes started to interest me. We had a relatively small budget so we couldn't afford to recreate every last detail of the Uttoxeter of 1983. Instead, I set the scene by using archive news footage at the start and end of the film. Going though footage of the Falklands war really made me think again about the whole thing. As kids, we thought it was like going into a World Cup campaign. It was exciting and we were cheering on our lads to go and do the Argies. But the scenes of soldiers' coffins shocked and appalled me.

In many ways the country was a mess. The miners' strike was massive.... You had all the protesters and unrest at Greenham Common. But remembering all of these things made me nostalgic for a time when people were ready to stand up and say something. People cared about where the country was going. As the 1980s ended we had the poll tax riots which turned out to be the end of an era. Afterwards, it was like the nation lost its backbone. People were bought off. They were given a little bit of land, the right to buy their council house and put a little satellite dish on the front of it. They became content and lost their will to rock the boat.

The big difference between now and the period in which my film is set is our level of isolation. In 1983, people still cared about society as a whole but now they'll keep their mouth shut as long as they've got the house, the job and the car they want. If you were a kid in 1983, you wouldn't have a PlayStation to sit indoors alone with. You got your entertainment from mixing with a variety of different people. While making the film, I realised that all of my fondest childhood memories surrounded human contact: mucking about with mates or going camping. In 2007, people put less emphasis on that sort of thing and more on planning their careers and their TV viewing. As far as I'm concerned, if you're working from nine to five then coming home to watch shows that your Sky box has recorded for you while you were out, you might as well be on a fucking drip.

This Is England is a snapshot of an era and a life that seems very dated now. It's about sticking up for mates and beliefs.




A film almost on release here is 28 Weeks Later. I thought 28 Days Later was in a long line of Horror/Dystopian films the English do so well (compare 1980s nuclear warfests The Day After and Threads; the latter reaches a level of bleakness the American version of WW3 never approaches). A good guide to British horror is provided by Mark Kermode:

A capital place for panic attacks: 28 Weeks Later, the terrifying sequel to Danny Boyle's apocalyptic hit about zombies roaming the empty streets of London, has distinctly modern relevance. But, says Mark Kermode, it joins a brilliant tradition of British horrors that turn familiar sights into killing fields
The Observer, Sunday May 6, 2007


Red-eyed, rage-fuelled monsters; flesh-ripping special effects; murderous military interventions; helicopter-powered mass decapitations - 28 Weeks Later has all this and more. Yet for British audiences, the scariest thing about this voraciously meaty horror sequel could well be the fact that all this chaos happens on London's Isle of Dogs. In director Danny Boyle's innovative 2002 sci-fi shocker 28 Days Later, a catastrophic outbreak of a virus ('Rage') left London's streets deserted, with hauntingly empty scenes of Westminster Bridge, Horse Guards Parade and Piccadilly Circus. Now, in the sequel, Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who made the acclaimed thriller Intacto, revels again in bringing a plague horror home to instantly recognisable London locations.

After the frenzy of the first film, this second instalment finds battle-scarred evacuees returning to repopulate London, among them a father with a guilty secret (powerfully played by Robert Carlyle) and his two children. Assured by the occupying American forces that normal service is being resumed, the family is duly installed in a swish, high-rise apartment in Canary Wharf. It's not long, however, before the Rage virus starts to spread once more through the streets of London. At several moments, the film knowingly evokes the ongoing battles of Iraq, with the peacekeeping forces turning out to be every bit as dangerous and destructive as the insurgent infection they are struggling to contain.

One particularly spectacular scene involves an Apocalypse Now-style rain of fire delivering death from above, the difference being that it's not the jungles of Vietnam that are torched, but the buildings of Canary Wharf. Blending thought-provoking moments with heart-stopping scares, the film is both terrifying and thrilling: a worthy successor to 28 Days Later.

'There's definitely a political subtext to the action,' agrees Robert Carlyle, who was attracted to the project by the heady mix of full-blooded Saturday-night chills and pointed sociopolitical satire. Danny Boyle, who served as executive producer (and occasional second-unit director) on 28 Weeks Later agrees, comparing the film's post-apocalyptic vision of the Isle of Dogs with the Green Zone in Baghdad - a self-contained 'safe haven' ('It even has a pub!'), stranded in the middle of a conflict-riven no-go zone, teetering on the brink of calamity.

Such claims will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the traditions of radical gore cinema, epitomised by George Romero's Living Dead movies, a quartet of films spanning four decades, in which marauding zombies became powerful metaphors for the horrors of racism, consumerism, vivisection and class war. Yet there is something particularly resonant about such nightmarish phantasms when placed within uncomfortably familiar British sites, a juxtaposition which has long been exploited by purveyors of the uncanny.

In the 19th century, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker established Britain as the natural home of Gothic horror - with Frankenstein being first published (anonymously) in London in 1818, and Dracula later bringing its eponymous vampire across the waters from Transylvania to darkest Whitby. When HG Wells wrote his classic tale of extraterrestrial invasion The War of the Worlds, he instinctively understood the eerie appeal of having monsters from another planet land on the outskirts of somewhere as ordinary as Woking. Tom Cruise might have battled valiantly against giant tripods reaping post-9/11 chaos in New York in Steven Spielberg's recent blockbuster adaptation, but Wells's late Victorian novel places its first otherworldly appearance squarely in the soils of Horsell Common, a location renowned for its quaint English beauty. Somehow, these outlandish ideas seemed more credible - and disturbing - when played out against the down-to-earth backdrop of Britain.

As a fan of scary movies, I've long been aware of the appeal of horror on the home front. One of the creepiest experiences of my childhood was watching a TV rerun of Wolf Rilla's black-and-white chiller Village of the Damned, a typically domestic tale of alien terror based on John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos. Wyndham had first established himself as a master of strange English science fiction with The Day of the Triffids, famously filmed by Steve Sekely in and around a number of memorable London locations including Charing Cross and Marylebone stations, Piccadilly Circus, and Westminster Bridge.

According to Boyle, it was the opening sequence of The Day of the Triffids, in which a man wakes up in hospital to discover that a meteor shower has blinded his fellow countrymen, which first inspired Alex Garland to write 28 Days Later.

Village of the Damned is altogether less cosmopolitan, centring on a sleepy English village whose womenfolk are discreetly visited by procreating aliens and subsequently give birth to a brood of blond-haired neo-Nazis from space. In Rilla's film, the children are handsome telepaths who can cause people to kill themselves simply by giving them the evil eye, hence the haunting tagline: 'Beware the stare that will paralyse the will of the world!'

This all was worrying enough, but, as a child, the real terror for me came from the fact that the children's stamping ground was Letchmore Heath, a rather twee little enclave which happened to be up the road from my school. This meant that I was being educated next door to the children of the damned. No wonder I turned out the way I did.

And then there was Quatermass and the Pit, the film which convinced me that taking a trip on the underground would lead you into the very bowels of hell. Originally broadcast as a six-part BBC serial in the late Fifties, Quatermass and the Pit was remade by Hammer in 1967 with a ripping screenplay by original writer Nigel Kneale. The plot concerns a string of ominous discoveries (skulls, skeletons, spaceships) during unspecified 'Central Line extension work' at 'Hobbs End' station.

As demonic artefacts are uncovered, a riot of violent madness erupts, climaxing in an apparition of Old Nick himself over the London skyline. The ingenious twist is that this 'devil' is actually a Martian, an intrusive extraterrestrial ancestor from whom mankind has inherited his innate propensity for violence. ('We are the Martians!' concludes our hero.)

According to Kneale, the inspiration for the story came from watching news footage of the Notting Hill race riots in the late Fifties. But it is the sense of the underground as some kind of portal to the underworld which haunts my memories of this creepy classic.

Since then, umpteen movies, including 28 Weeks Later, have capitalised upon the unsettling potential of the tube, a brooding labyrinth which has come to embody the morbid subtextual groanings of horror's repressed psyche. According to the tagline for Gary Sherman's 1972 oddity Death Line: 'Beneath Modern London Lives a Tribe of Once Humans. Neither Men Nor Women ... they are the Raw Meat of the Human Race!' Recently reissued on DVD, this oddly cronky tale of cups of tea and tube-dwelling cannibals has become an established cult classic, and remains (strangely enough) an inspirational favourite of Brit-art provocateurs Jake and Dinos Chapman.

John Landis surely had Death Line in mind when he let his American werewolf in London loose at Tottenham Court Road station. It's here that an unsuspecting passenger is stalked and ravaged by the eponymous beastie, providing one of the most memorable sequences in a film which trades heavily on the frighteningly funny disjunct between quaint English locations (Yorkshire pubs; West End porno cinemas; Tower Bridge; even London Zoo) and lycanthropic fantasy.

It's significant that the long-awaited sequel An American Werewolf in Paris proved to be a total flop, mainly, I think, because once you cross the English channel, who cares whether there's a monster on the prowl? Over in Europe, anything goes; it's only here in uptight Britain that the magic formula of horror and humbug really makes sense.

This geocultural quirk perhaps goes some way to explaining the runaway success of Shaun of the Dead, the bastard offspring of American Werewolf, which was described by its creators as the world's first 'zom-rom-com' (zombie romantic comedy). Humorously transposing the zombie riffs of Romero's Living Dead films from Pittsburgh to north London's leafy Crouch End, Shaun of the Dead struck a chord not only with UK audiences, but also with the American cinemagoers who had previously embraced the picture-postcard portraits of Britain peddled in international hits such as Four Weddings and Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary.

Many UK critics were surprised that this quintessentially English horror-comedy, whose central refrain was: 'Let's go to the pub', had fared so well across the Atlantic. Yet in its heyday, the British film industry was renowned the world over for exporting both comedies and horror films. Indeed, Hammer, whose output ranged from Dracula to On the Buses, was given the Queen's Award for Industry, proving that international cinemagoers have always enjoyed either laughing or screaming at the Brits, sometimes both.

In recent years, there has been an encouraging resurgence of dark-hearted, British-set fantasies which have acted as a cadaverous counterbalance to the endless diet of comfortably middle-class Hugh Grant staples. An adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd's terrifically seditious graphic novel V for Vendetta ran into unexpected controversy when its explosive, tube-bound finale chimed too closely with the real-life horrors of the 7 July bombings. The film's release was postponed (officially for 'other reasons'), but scenes of the Houses of Parliament being triumphantly detonated from below by a heroic latterday Guy Fawkes remained intact, alongside images of anarchists merrily swarming across Trafalgar Square.

One of the most impressive films of last year was Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, a gripping, dystopian nightmare adapted from a novel by PD James (via the legacy of Nigel Kneale) which posits a desolate vision of a near-future world in which human reproduction has become a dying art. Beautifully filmed in battle-scarred, colour-drained hues by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron's apocalyptic vision of this grey and unpleasant land charts a grim map of Britain which includes haunting footage of the once-magnificent Battersea Power Station, and climaxes in a Hadean vision of Bexhill-on-Sea which most closely resembles wartorn Bosnia.

Danny Boyle agrees that Children of Men exists within the same tradition as 28 Weeks Later, and points out that both films are significantly directed and photographed by non-British film-makers who are able to observe the strangeness of this land and its culture with the intelligent empathy of an outsider's eye.

'In the end,' says Boyle, 'I think the key thing about Britain is that it's built on this deep, dark ocean of history. There are grassy, picturesque areas of London which you still can't put train tunnels through because they're actually covering plague pits. You just don't get that in America - that dark abyss of the past. And it makes Britain, as a location, very fertile ground for horror.'

Top five homegrown horrors

Village of the Damned
(Wolf Rilla, 1960)

Telepathic kids from hell form an alien fifth column in a quaint English village in this pre-Asbo sci-fi gem, adapted from John Wyndham's chilling 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos.

Quatermass and the Pit
(Roy Ward Baker, 1967)

Demonic Martian relics are uncovered in the London Underground, unleashing a wave of otherworldly madness. No wonder Paul Weller didn't want to go down into the tube at midnight.

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
(Jorge Grau, 1974)

Corpses are revived by dangerous new pesticides in this cult Italo-Spanish oddity which capitalises on the creepy potential of Mancunian landmarks Deansgate and John Dalton Street. Weird chills, even weirder soundtrack.

The Wicker Man
(Robin Hardy, 1973)

A British policeman sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl on a remote Scottish island is gleefully burned to death by pagan yokels in thrall to Christopher Lee's sinister Lord Summerisle.

28 Days Later
(Danny Boyle, 2002)

From the deserted streets of London to war-torn Manchester, Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and The Beach writer Alex Garland conjure an apocalyptic vision of Britain ravaged by an outbreak of 'rage'. Things get bleaker in the new sequel.

·28 Weeks Later is released on Friday


PS As those of you who follow me on My Other Channel know, I was warned off Curse of the Golden Flower, since it doesn't have a lot going for it once you stop staring at Gong Li's cleavage (she's a good-looking woman for someone in her 40s, but I don't need to pay through the nose at the cinema to confirm that!). Since then someone else who has seen Curse has told there is only one big spectacular battle scene a la Helm's Deep in The Two Towers (and which dominated the trailer I saw), so I'm rather glad I didn't go now.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Pretty Vacant by The Sex Pistols



"an admirable celebration of not caring": Tom Hodgkinson How To Be Free, (Hamish Hamilton, 2006), p.333.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Almost a year ago today: Socialism not Statism

I'd almost forgot this by Larry Gambone. Of course, it will probably take more than yet another bad night at the polls for the English, Scottish and Welsh Left to reconsider their ideas...

The Myth Of Socialism As Statism, Saturday, May 06, 2006

What did the original socialists envision to be the owner and controller of the economy? Did they think it ought to be the state? Did they favor nationalization? Or did they want something else entirely? Let’s have a look, going right back to the late 18th Century, through the 19th and into the 20th, and see what important socialists and socialist organizations thought.

*Thomas Spence – farm land and industry owned by join stock companies, all farmers and workers as voting shareholders.

* St. Simon – a system of voluntary corporations

* Ricardian Socialists – worker coops

* Owen – industrial coops and cooperative intentional communities

* Fourier – the Phlanistery – an intentional community

* Cabet - industry owned by the municipality (“commune” in French, hence commune-ism)

* Flora Tristan – worker coops

* Proudhon – worker coops financed by Peoples Bank – a kind of credit union that issued money.

* Greene – mutualist banking system allowing farmers and workers to own means of production.

* Lasalle – worker coops financed by the state – for which he was excoriated by Marx as a “state socialist”

* Marx – a “national system of cooperative production”

* Tucker - mutualist banking system allowing farmers and workers to own means of production.

* Dietzgen – cooperative production

* Knights of Labor – worker coops

* Parsons – workers ownership and control of production

* Vanderveldt – socialist society as a ‘giant cooperative”

* Socialist Labor Party – industry owned and run democratically thru the Socialist Industrial Unions

* Socialist Party USA – until late 1920’s emphasized workers control of production.

* CGT France, 1919 Program - mixed economy with large industry owned by stakeholder coops.

* IWW – democratically run through the industrial unions.

* Socialist Party of Canada, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1904-05 program – common ownership, democratically run – both parties, to this very day, bitterly opposed to nationalization.

* SDP – Erfurt Program 1892 – Minimum program includes a mixed economy of state, cooperative and municipal industries. While often considered a state socialist document, in reality it does not give predominance to state ownership.

Well? Where’s the statism? All these socialisms have one thing in common, a desire to create an economy where everyone has a share and a say.

Why The Confusion

The state did play a role in the Marxist parties of the Second International. But its role was not to nationalize industry and create a vast bureaucratic state socialist economy. Put simply, the workers parties were to be elected to the national government, and backed by the trade unions, cooperative movement and other popular organizations, would expropriate the big capitalist enterprises. Three things would then happen: 1. The expropriated enterprises handed over to the workers organizations, coops and municipalities. 2, The army and police disbanded and replaced by worker and municipal militias. 3. Political power decentralized to the cantonal and municipal level and direct democracy and federalism introduced. These three aspects are the famous “withering away of the state” that Marx and Engels talked about.

The first problem with this scenario was that the workers parties never got a majority in parliament. So they began to water-down their program and adopt a lot of the statist reformism of the liberal reformers. Due to the Iron Law of Oligarchy the parties themselves became sclerotic and conservative. Then WW1 intervened, splitting the workers parties into hostile factions. Finally, under the baleful influence of the Fabians, the Bolsheviks and the “success” of state capitalism in the belligerent nations, the definition of socialism began to change from one of democratic and worker ownership and control to nationalization and statism. The new post-war social democracy began to pretend that state ownership/control was economic democracy since the state was democratic. This, as we see from the list above, was not anything like the economic democracy envisaged by the previous generations of socialists and labor militants.


In Britain, the Left will get nowhere until it declares: NEITHER LABOUR NOR LENIN!

A Godless Western Degenerate Writes...



I remember a few years ago being in Wood Green (it's a long story) one Saturday afternoon when a bunch of Islamic militants were giving their spiel about how a religion which bans beer and the bacon sandwich would be good for all of us. I have distinct memories of a bloke on the megaphone getting particularly worked up about the idea of semi-naked women being used to sell motor cars. I thought that he was simultaneously sexually repressed and excited.

This memory came back to me after several Islamic militants were jailed for planning a bombing campaign which would have targeted, amongst other locations, nightclubs. I'm not a big fan of nightclubs these days (except the good ones, of course!) but the thought of blowing one up is beyond my comprehension. Furthermore, although (as long-time readers of this blog know) I have my doubts about the official story (or stories) about the events in the USA on September 11th 2001, I have no doubt that there are various lunatics who do want to kill Westerners on a mass scale, simply because they are Westerners. One of the reasons I was opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and think British forces should be pulled out as quickly as possible) was that I thought it was a distraction from the fight against the sort of evil scum who caused the Bali, Madrid and July 7th 2005 bombings. Western societies do have their problems, but I fail to see why they should embrace extremely authoritarian and violent interpretations of religious ideas to tackle these problems.

With all this in mind, I liked the article below.

Why should we have to justify ourselves to the people who want to bomb us?: There are calls for self-examination, as if we brought the stash of weedkiller on ourselves
Catherine Bennett, The Guardian, Thursday May 3, 2007


Although we shall never know how the Prophet would have received a plan to blow up "slags" in a London nightclub, there is no avoiding the feeling that for some of today's more respectable non-Muslims, this particular target might appear more . . . how shall we say - understandable? - than others. People who would not countenance the Iraq war as an adequate pretext for domestic jihad seem strikingly open to the idea that a pure-minded revulsion from our filthy western ways might, in some cases, prompt extreme disaffection leading to social exclusion followed by the emergence of individuals such as the thwarted terrorist Jawad Akbar who fantasised thus about slaughter on the Ministry of Sound dance floor: "No one can turn around and say, 'Oh, they were innocent', those slags dancing around. Do you understand what I mean?"

Some people do. Ed Husain, author of a revealing and alarming account of his experiences inside radical Islam, said of the "slags" comment: "That was me, man. That's classic Hizb-ut-Tahrir rhetoric." In his new book, The Islamist, Husain identifies a professed horror of western decadence as the next, infinitely promising excuse for Islamist murder. "When the political pretexts of Palestine and Iraq have been dealt with," he writes, "Wahhabi-inspired militants will turn to other social grievances. Drinking alcohol, 'impropriety', gambling, cohabitation, inappropriate dress - these and a host of miscellaneous others will become excuses for jihad, for martyrdom, feeding the tumour of Islamist domination which grows in the Wahhabi and Islamist mind."

Since - as Husain suggests - there can never be enough modesty, celibacy and sobriety to placate Islamist critics of our national slaggishness, you might consider their complaints on this score no more worthy of investigation than the precise adjustments that might make our free and easy voting system more acceptable to paternalist fundamentalists, or the amount of tweaking that would bring the British legal system into line with that of, say, Saudi Arabia.

But where Islamist complaints about immorality and women's sexual behaviour are concerned, there are calls for self-examination, for all the world as if we brought the stash of weedkiller on ourselves. On the Today programme yesterday, Patrick Mercer, formerly the Tory homeland security spokesman, said: "We have got to understand why we look offensive to those who choose to suborn our society." Why have we got to? It's like an innocent woman asking what she did to incite her rapist. Was it the short skirt?

We heard it before, after 7/7. "I feel a growing sympathy for so-called 'radical' Muslims who reject western civilisation," Norman Lebrecht wrote in the London Evening Standard that summer. "It does not take much to see where things have gone wrong. Binge drinking is accepted as a teenage norm, promiscuity as preferable to chastity, and wealth as something to be flaunted in the face of the poor." Around the same time, Bel Mooney, displeased by a bikini advertisement, sought a kind of enlightenment from the acts of sociopathic Islamist fundamentalists (who would certainly have disapproved of her having any views at all). "Surely," she wrote in the Mail on Sunday, "it would be useful if we could use the current crisis to train a searchlight on the way we live now."

Leave aside the disgustingness of taking moral instruction from the advocates of mass murder, or those from the Saudi Arabian school of sexual etiquette, and there is still a problem with their qualifications. For some reason their very outrage seems to confer authority. Writers whose suspicions would be instantly aroused by, say, a smarmy TV evangelist who seemed obsessively interested in fornication, or a politician who relied on divine inspiration as a justification for war, seem to have no difficulty listening to the strictures of angry young men whose primary moral interest appears to be in telling women what to wear on their heads.

In The Islamist, Ed Husain confirms what you might suspect: his former colleagues included sexual hypocrites, as well as offenders, thugs and homophobes. Many preferred ranting to prayer. The same activists who banned discos and western music at his London college, and who bullied homosexuals and Brick Lane's prostitutes and inadequately covered female students ("Hijab - put up or shut up"), would decide, having thoroughly reviewed the theology, that pornography was acceptable. And concubines. "I prefer blondes from the Balkans, personally," announced one hammer of western decadence.

Following a period in modestly dressed, porn-loving Saudi Arabia, Husain concluded that the Islamists' depiction of the west as morally inferior was nothing more than "Islamist propaganda, designed to undermine the west and inject false confidence in Muslim minds". And whether through accident or design, the propaganda is working brilliantly, as it coincides with an epidemic of binge drinking, super casinos and intermittent moral panic.

Even if it does not want them to be killed, the Daily Mail is very upset about women who enjoy ending their evenings with their knickers showing, being sick in the gutter. Even if they don't want to wear one themselves, many liberal feminists are happy to make believe that the male-enforced hijab is a modest, feminine response to a materialist, oversexualised society that judges women by their appearance. And of course, like lots of things in this decadent society, that is not very nice. Many of us share the Crawley terrorists' dislike of Bluewater. But that is not to say we have any interest in their plans to improve it.