Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower Fire

I am 50 years man and boy a Londoner. Let me paint you a picture of my once fair city. The West side has always been regarded as the richer part. People say they're going 'up West' when they're going shopping or out for entertainment. From the shops of Oxford and Regent Streets, the cinemas of Leicester Square, the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue, all in the West End of the centre of London. Keep moving west just beyond Marble Arch that marks the beginning of this West End, and you soon leave the borough of Westminster and arrive in the even more expensive borough of Kensington and Chelsea, known as a Royal borough because of a clause in a monarch's will, even though it only holds one Royal palace compared with Westminster's two. RBK&C has some of the most expensive real estate in London, in Chelsea, Belgravia, Notting Hill and Kensington, which are also supported by exclusive upmarket shopping areas in Knightsbridge, Sloane Square and the King's Road. Harrods is located here.

But in the northern margins of the borough, lies an enclave of poorer communities, around Ladbroke Grove, Kensal Rise and North Kensington. Densely populated, mainly in high rises. centred around a raised major trunk road the Westway, which carries you out of the area as fast as possible into the West End.

The raised Westway and tower blocks
This area is culturally diverse and vibrant. It is the creative heart and soul of the Notting Hill Carnival (the council are trying to neuter this, moving it inside an arena or commercialising it in other ways). It was the launching pad of punk rock, with members of the Clash living in squats off the Portobello Road, while Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren ran his shop "Sex" with Vivienne Westwood, located on the Kings Road. The Jam were not even from London, but affirmed their punk credentials with the cover of their album "The Modern World" being photographed under the Westway. While 'Dystopian Modernity' author JG Ballard's works are suffused with the Westway skyline, whether in "Concrete Island" (based on the Westway itself), or books like "High Rise" and "Crash". There was also in the 90s what was called London's frontline of drugs, on the infamous All Saints Road. North Kensington is a symbol of soulless urban modernity and blight, yet it has always forged a community who have used that to spark off their creative imaginations and to utterly transcend their surroundings.

I lived on Ladbroke Grove for two years (above a funeral director's) and worked in the area for about 16 years, splitting my time between a record shop just off the Portobello Road and their skateboard warehouse on Latimer Road (a stone's throw form Grenfell Tower). During my time there, the local Council twice waged war on parts of the community as they sought to further gentrify what was already an expensive area of Notting Hill. Portobello Road is the site of a world famous antique market, but it only runs over the weekend. For the rest of the week, a small section of Portobello Road plays host to a fresh fruit and vegetable market, who also ran their stalls at the weekend an island deluged by the antique stalls. The Council decided they wanted rid of the fruit stalls. First they shut the public lavatories so that the stallholders on their feet all day were inconvenienced to the maximum. Sympathetic shops and pubs allowed them to use their facilities instead. Meanwhile 7 minutes down the road the local residents commissioned a top architect to design them a public convenience and produced the so called "Turquoise Island" with a flower shop woven into its structure.

Compare & contrast, these are the Portobello toilets closed by the council

When the Council targeted the stallholders more directly, wanting to remove them in favour of more antique stallholders, I was involved in a community campaign to defend them. I volunteered our shop's photocopier for producing the leaflets (without seeking permission of my bosses) and stallholders came in and out frequently to get or drop off their petition sheets, standing out like a sore thumb among all the punks and techno DJs picking through the record racks. I attended local meetings and we won this particular round. I haven't been to Portobello for 10 years or so, and wonder if the fruit stalls are still there or not.

What has any of this got to do with the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy? It's indicative of the attitude of the local Council, who have for ideological reasons undertaken a policy of the economic equivalent of ethnic cleansing, to drive the poorer residents from the area, because its most valuable resource is land. Land for building houses on, in the costliest property area throughout the whole of the UK. But to restate, it's not solely an economic greed, it is also ideological. This all started in the 1980s, when Left and Right were diametrically opposed to one another on either of the far ends of the spectrum. The Right were in power under Margaret Thatcher, with a multi-pronged programme to change the face of this country. The Parliamentary Left were in no shape to offer effective opposition, instead their power base was centred on the major urban metropolitan local councils, including at the time, the Greater London Council which was a unitary body for all London. The Thatcher government disbanded the GLC and returned responsibility to each individual London borough. At the same time, they attacked the funding of local councils and starved them of the means of providing their services. The drive was to privatise everything, such as rubbish collections to traffic wardens. Councils were further starved of funds, through the Right To Buy policy, whereby their housing stock was sold off to those tenants who applied to buy it from them at discount. Councils lost the rental incomes from houses they no longer owned and although the sales income was initially given to the councils for building replacement housing stock at a level of 75% of sales proceeds, this was continually reduced so that councils received less and less return for their sold off properties. This was ideological in that a whole upper strata of working class people were creamed off by being invited to join the property-owning class, twinned with invitations to become share owners by buying the heavily underpriced stocks as nationalised industries were sold off and privatised. This was an ideology of converting traditional working class Labour supporters into middle class Conservative voters. Though it suggests a class egalitarianism, it was only achieved at the expense of those who weren't able to buy homes and shares, who were to come to subsidise their more fortunate neighbours through cutbacks to the services they needed. More of which below. The Conservatives also deregulated the housing market, lowering the standards for house conversions, having cheap money and credit to facilitate mortgages and constructors taking out loans. London had a housing boom which has changed its economic and cultural landscape forever, like Paris, New York and Tokyo making it almost impossible to own a house now without significant funds and turning it into a de facto city-state. My first flat was an ex-council property, we bought it off the tenant who had purchased it at a 30% discount before selling it on immediately to us, making a nice tidy profit on a windfall that fell in her lap.

Before I consider a specific initiative by Conservative local councils, I just want to finish the story of national forces on the state of housing. Once Thatcher left power and Tony Blair came in for Labour, make no mistake, he did very little - despite huge 100+ majorities in Parliament - to reverse the policies of the previous Conservative regimes. Right to Buy had run out of steam anyway, since those who could afford to buy had done so by now. Deregulation was not reversed, standards within selling property remained low. Credit was still cheap, so that now property was regarded as much as an investment as it was the place for you to live and call home. The budgets of local councils were not refloated, low public housing stock not significantly replenished. Let's be clear about this, Labour failed the most distressed communities that the Conservatives had created. And when the Conservatives returned to power under David Cameron, the UK economy and level of debt was in a very parlous state. Austerity became the watchword, with cuts to every aspect of the public sector. The commodification & privatisation under Thatcher was even more central to Cameron who looked to make budget savings. Rather than go after their allies in Big Business to make them pay appropriate tax, they trimmed and slashed services already at critical levels. This includes the many aspects that notionally fall under the responsibility of local councils, but had in fact been contracted out to private firms and agencies whose primary motivation is profit. Add to that that Cameron declared war on what he called the health and safety culture and standards slipped even more off the bottom of the scale. Everything was done on the cheap, with little scrutiny since the numbers of inspectors had been cut as a cost saving, while ideologically there was not only no appetite for due oversight, but downright hostility to it.

So now we return to the local council level. Despite its property riches, London is a Labour city. Consistently since 1997 it has voted for a majority Labour representation, with the sole exception of two terms as London mayor for Conservative Boris Johnson. The Conservatives are in the main restricted to the richest central boroughs and those well-off suburbs around the fringes of the city. Three of the central boroughs are Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth. In the 1980s, bolstered by Right To Buy and the property boom sending house prices shooting up, the Conservatives undertook the most ideological (and craven) of policies to try and ensure these boroughs remained Conservative in perpetuity. While the poll tax that replaced the local rates system of local taxation went up in most London boroughs to try and make good the shortfall of government funding, in these three boroughs the poll tax was at negligible levels. This was subsidised by an incentive from central government, allowing the councils to run a low level of local taxation. But in Westminster it went further. The then council leader Dame Shirley Porter ran a clandestine scheme of "Homes For Votes" , trying to socially engineer parts of the borough to make them guaranteed Conservative wards. This was a more naked, far-reaching expression of the class cleansing that RBK&C were envisioning in the next door borough. On the border between the two, was the Harrow Road tower blocks which were condemned for containing asbestos, yet still undesirables and the homeless were moved into them, immortalised in song in 1988 by RBK&C squatters World Domination Enterprises in their song "Asbestos Lead Asbestos". Eventually Porter's regime were taken to court for their flagrant gerrymandering and found guilty. Like all good patriots with a stake in their country, Porter immediately fled overseas to avoid sanction and financial punishment. Wandsworth at a Parliamentary level has two Labour MPs and one Conservative, RBK&C for the first time in history returned a Labour MP a fortnight ago as one of its two MPs. Westminster also has one MP from each Party. So the Conservative initiative has not taken, Londoners have retained their independence of mind.

And finally to the Grenfell Tower fire. All the above factors feed into this tragedy. Private management of housing, austerity and cutbacks (though RBK&C has a contingency fund of £300 million so that it has no excuse for being too cash strapped), and class cleansing. RBK&C didn't have to be as blatant as Westminster, since it was under less threat of losing control to Labour and its poor and impoverished were already grouped together in a specific locale of the borough, that of North Kensington. Every council has a legal requirement to house the 'unintentionally homeless' and because those that could buy their council homes have, this means that all councils now only really house the most vulnerable and needy members of society. Look at the survivors of Grenfell Tower on TV, or consider the list of names of the missing and unaccounted for and this is abundantly clear. In some places such areas might be considered ghettos, but not here so diverse was the local population, truly representative of all continents of this earth. But they were vulnerable, mainly economically rather than social and cultural. The Council just did not care or value them like it did its private householders. Local residents had warned for years about the deficiencies of their housing, including safety issues. No sprinklers. Shortage of lifts and so on. They were ignored and palmed off as troublemakers. The Council allowed their private contractors to 'upgrade' the fire safety of Grenfell Tower with a cladding material that saved the measly sum of £6,250 on the total budget. If the death toll is of the likely order of 100, that works out to be £625 saved at the cost of each life. Read that and weep. Really really weep. The sight of people waving for help on the top floors and babies being thrown out windows to those down on the ground, echoes the imagery of the Twin Towers during 9/11. Our terrorism was not based overseas and the low level campaign against residents was to unsettle rather than terrorise, but our terrorism is named corporate manslaughter. It is a campaign waged for profit and ideology that has been running since the 1980s and the people responsible must be brought to justice. It is time for all people's lives in this country to have a genuine equal value, rather than this faux rhetoric of Thatcherite egalitarianism, or Cameron's "we're all in this together". If Britain isn't moved by this tragedy towards a whole different way of thinking and regarding of our fellow citizens, then we have not only missed an invaluable opportunity, we are actually lost as a nation for good. 

Friday, 16 June 2017

Spires And Minarets - Flash Fiction

The Spires and Minarets of pre-war Sarajevo

Music had ceased emission from both campanile and minaret. The bells had been melted down for bullets, one of which had carried off the muezzin from the neighbouring turret.

But neither tower was bereft of more atonal sounds calling people to god. Gunfire's syncopation had played hell with the resident bats' echolocation and driven them from their belfry. Soldiers launch their slivovitz empties towards the minaret as further desecration, the tinkling of smashing glass as brandy drops impregnate the ancient brick. Down below devout and non-devout alike laid out in rows, summoned not by the Iqama, but by Death.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Tome Raider considers Georges Perec's Infamous novel "A Void" & asks whether it's gimmicky

The lipogram is a piece of writing that omits one or more letters. Imaging 285 pages of a novel without a single letter 'E' in it! Then imagine it in translation. Such a book is Georges Perec's "A Void".

I consider whether the lipogram is just a gimmick, a stylistic flourish to no particular effect by comparing "A Void" with two other books using the same literary device.


Monday, 5 June 2017

A Maggot - Flash Fiction

“I pluck the last apple from the fruit bowl. I wash the apple then have it sit, presenting spherical in the palm of my hand. The water globules shimmy shimmeringly as I turn the apple by its stunted stalk in the course of my inspection. They seem to draw up the apple’s red hue within their vesicular protuberance. An osmotic trompe-l’oeil. The skin appears pristine. I move into the study and am struck by a thought, what if a water droplet is precisely aligned over the wormhole caused by a boring larvae, so as to diffuse beyond my sight? I shake the apple vigorously and watch the spray of moisture fly off like a swarm fledging. There remain fewer, but more tenacious drops, elongated by their smearing perturbation on the surface of the apple. I briefly think of Newton. The stem bowl, already a recessed tunnel of sorts, is particularly hard to descry, being of similar hue to larval frass. However this whole morsel does indeed seem untouched and virginal. Apart from the chemicals waxing it verglas of course. Confident that there would be no codling moth larval Amundsen defeating my caterpillary Scott in the race to the core, I sink my teeth into the red peel. A mist of the apple’s own juices flies out into the air. Too fine to echo the beads of water purged by the action of my earlier convulsion, also they leave no darkening umbrage on the carpet. As I chew the pulpy mixture of soft rind and crisper pome, I inspect the lacerations in skin collapsed like a mine shaft and see the borders picked out by the indentations of my teeth. Ordered like a file of marching insects. Why are my mind’s associations with this fruit always insectival? Liquid beads on red skin could so easily conjure up the flesh of a mate emerging from the shower, or a swimming pool. I blame my mother. Or Eve. Or the serpent. I take another bite which has a more percussive sonance, presumably because there is no muting by the softer outer casing. My teeth impressions have vanished, as has the red skin to reveal the white seam beneath. I revolve the apple to its south face in order to offer me its unscaled scarp, but in doing so I must have pincered it too hard and the pads of my fingers are sunk into the tender flesh. I pick at the puckered rind with the point of my fingernail until I have abraded it away. Sure enough the cells beneath have bruised under the imprint of my digital pressure. I marvel at the celerity of the discolouration, even as I am disgusted by my clumsy adulteration of the fruit. I reduce the span of my bite to nibble the flesh either side of the blemish, as the appetising pleasure falls away, reducing to just the chore of consuming it. I'm beginning to think I would have been better off with a glass of draught cider. By its end, the habitual aesthetic satisfaction of scrimshawing to the hourglass core, remains still denatured by the canker of the bruised protrusion. Like a chrysalis awaiting to hatch the apple’s seeds buried beneath. I throw the core into the recycling bin. No, that’s the wrong appellation. Into the organic waste receptacle”. 

I woke the next morning and readied to edit the manuscript. I picked up a red biro and steeled myself that this draught would involve no proofing, but solely focus on a purge of the metaphorical element. For I had tossed and turned half the night, concerned that the piece contained too much symbolism, rendering it far removed from the actual experience I was trying to harvest. Having said all that, the very first amendment I made, was to add a comma within the second sentence. Sure enough in no time at all the paper was soon spotted with red warts. But these were all superficial syntactical markers. I was irritated with my own ill-discipline. I had plumped for the surface soft rind rather than the crisper pome beneath. I plucked the sheet of paper and wafted it in the air away from me, by way of symbolic gesture to have the spray of red corrigenda fly off like a swarm fledging. That in my imagination the paper would return to its untouched and virginal state, prior to this premature waxed verglas edit. My head now cleared, I reapplied it towards fresh inspection of the text. However it was as if my little ritualistic conceit had taken actual form, for I seemed to have been left with a mote in my eye. The characters on the page, both the red and black, started to diffuse. They shimmered shimmeringly. Momentarily confused, I shut my eyes trying to clear their wateriness in order to return the apple of my eye that was my own writing, to its pristine, stable state. But the caterpillary convulsion continued. The ink, surely dried from yesterday’s initial application, was beginning to run. The letters elongated by their smearing perturbation on the surface of the paper. Re-ordered like a file of marching insects, peeling themselves right off the folio. A few, more tenacious letters clung on in place, while their neighbours bored tunnels of their escape. I imagined that I could almost perceive a mist of deliquesced letters flying out into the air. The few remaining letters looked stunted, pit props vainly trying to brace a collapsed mine shaft. Lacerations amid the text wherever you looked. The red and black inks now blended and merged into an unsightly discolouration. An ever-darkening umbrage, my script had the appearance of nothing less than insect frass. My ideas were evanescing in front of my very eyes. The paper regressed back to its pulp. Even the pen’s indentations formerly filled and occupied by ink, were smoothing out their puckered selves and returning to first flush of a pristine white seam. An unscaled scarp. How do I know this? Because I rushed to seize a pencil from my writing bureau and began to shade across the grain hoping to reveal the vanished letters. But to no avail. I pincered the paper hard between the pads of my fingers and shook it vigorously. This only ruptured the tender tissue, as if it really had become degraded through moisture undermining its integrity. This pulpy chrysalis had no seeds of creativity left to hatch. My text denatured by the canker of words. I balled the leaf up wrinkled spherical, sat presented in the palm of my hand where it proceeded to unfurl some of its serpent coils. Its insectival wings. I threw its empty core into the recycling bin. No, that’s the wrong appellation. Into the organic waste receptacle. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

People Just Don't get It - The British general Election

This election like recent votes, will be decided by a mindset that I just don't think people have cottoned on to. Folk who are doing okay for themselves just don't care about anyone else. The old social ties that bound us together began to be dismantled in the 1980s and now that process has come to fruition.

Ironically for a party that stand for traditional values, the Conservatives are benefitting from one of those values being utterly torn up and discarded; that of religion. If anyone attends a religious service in the UK today, chances are they are from a recent immigrant background. Active Christianity is a negligible force in the UK. No one believes in heaven and eternal life. We all know we're here for a one-shot deal on earth and this has contributed to the sensibility of making the most of your one terrestrial spin. People don't care about the future beyond their lifetime. The state of the planet; the preservation of a Welfare State and the NHS in particular (if people can afford private health cover, then they're not bothered about the NHS, despite the fact that it will still bear the onus of treating their cancer or stroke rather than a private hospital); talking about pressing the nuclear button in a way that no one has broached since the 1980s, where's the future in that?

But surely people are  concerned with the legacy to pass on to their children you say? Well rather than a class divide, we now have an age divide. As long as you can leave money and or a house to your children, then you credit that is legacy enough. Parental job done. The planet and our welfare can just go and rot, our kids will be buffered by money just as we are. That's why the dementia tax caused such uproar, it threatened financial heirlooms. With rising house values and protected pension locks, the aged have done very well in the 21st Century, despite low interest returns on their savings. Their children and grandchildren on the other hand, have seen the prospect of home ownership disappear, their education cost them dear when their parents probably had the state pay for theirs and a shrinking job market with no jobs for life anymore and all manner of exploitation such as unpaid interns, zero-hours contracts and the like. 

People just don't care about anyone other than themselves. That's why they vote Tory who service this sensibility. The sooner you realise that, then you can stop railing ineffectually about media bias and start to think creatively how to combat this.