Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Retro Pop

Today I am so full of anger. Many of my colleagues seem to want us to work as if it was 1970 rather than 2007. I am supposed to make sure we work in an up-to-date way in my business but they simply want to turn the clock back; clearly been watching too many episodes of 'Life on Mars' (a recent UK TV series in which a police officer from 2006 is transported back to 1973; a sequel called 'Ashes to Ashes' about a police psychologist going back to 1981 is following. The titles are from David Bowie tracks of the relevant years). Anyway, thinking about minds locked in the past, reminded me of a trend I have noticed in recent weeks for what I can really only term 'retro pop' music. I am sure there is some other term put around in the media but this is the one I'll use until I come across the one in common usage.

Three tracks illustrate my point 'Candyman' Christine Aguilera, 'Back to Black' by Amy Winehouse and 'Listening Man' by The Bees. 'Candyman' sounds as if it was written in 1942 and you can envisage couples jiving to it. It is reminiscent of things like 'Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy' with the only anachronism the line about this candyman making 'panties drop' which I do not think they would have got away with in a song 65 years ago. Amy Winehouse seems to have been moving through the decades for a while now, 'Rehab' her previous single sounded like a Blues track of the 1930s and 'Back to Black' is a kind of Nina Simone meets The Supremes, somewhere in the mid- to late 1960s. In the case of 'Back to Black' her video is in black and white with her looking like a gangster's mistress of the early 1960s. Joss Stone, similarly has raided the 1960s Motown and 1970s funk scene for her tracks.

You may ask, as I do, why is there this trend towards using the style of tracks recorded long before the artists were born [Aguilera - 1980, Winehouse - 1983, Stone - 1987; cannot find the age of either of The Bees members]. Is it because the biggest consumers of popular music are now in their 30s or 40s (even then that makes them born in 1948 at the earliest) with a nostalgia for tracks of their youth or the tracks their parents listened to? Is it because the music genres of the past decade notably rap and dance music have come to a dead end, simply self-referencing or almost parodies of themselves? Is it because you can listen to these tracks without them mutilated to remove the swearing? Of course these genres are not dead but it is interesting that older stylings can fight with them on equal terms for sales.

Maybe it goes back to the attitude seen in 'The Commitments' (1991) [in the book the hero - Jimmy Rabbitte is less devoted to soul music than in the film] when Rabbitte is telling the members of his putative soul band why soul music of the 1960s is relevant to Ireland of the 1990s, because it is about working class people 'riding' (i.e. having sex), it touches on an eternal theme in away that can be understood by people even decades after it is recorded. Maybe how well the two albums which came out of the movie sold shows there was a truth in this. The interesting thing will be, if the pop music consumers will follow it up and start buying stuff by Johnny Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, The Supremes, Jean Knight, Funkadelic or even the Puppini Sisters?! I suppose we should not be surprised. Pop music is often portrayed as being ephemeral, but in their day Beethoven, Handel and especially Strauss were seen as the pop music of the day but still sell centuries later.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Pacts and Tents - the Liberal Democrats and Labour

I was quite surprised to find out this week that prime minister-in-waiting, Gordon Brown has been in negotiations with the Liberal Democrat party to see if they would like some of their MPs to have seats in Brown's government which will be formed next week. Even though the Labour government's majority in 2005 slid from 165 in 2001 (and 179 in 1997) to 66, this does not seem small enough for Brown to be scrabbling around looking to form a coalition in order to get legislation passed.

The relationship between Labour and the Liberal Democrats (and their ancestors the Liberals) is a long one. From 1903-18, the two parties had an electoral pact which meant that the Liberals would not contest some seats where Labour candidates were likely to win. Many early Labour MPs had been former Liberals anyway. With the rise of the working class it was liable that Labour would eclipse the Liberals anyway. Liberal support enabled the first Labour government, a minority one (they were dependent on the votes of other parties to be sure of passing legislation) in 1924. In March 1977 the so-called 'Lib-Lab' pact was established between the two parties because James Callaghan's Labour government was now a minority one too. The country was facing severe economic crises due to inflation and felt obliged, through pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to drop Keynesian approaches to the economy (e.g. stimulating consumer demand and so reducing unemployment through creating public-backed works) for more Monetarist ones. Callaghan delayed the election until 1979 and the Conservatives won the power they would hold for 18 years.

Before the 1997 election which brought Tony Blair and his party to power, Blair was concerned that he might end up with a minority government. Labour had been out of power for almost two decades but memories attributed to them many negative attributes, most of them false, of being a 'tax and spend' party and in the pockets of the trade unions (which by 1997 had been basically destroyed by Thatcher anyway) so he approached the Liberal Democrats with what was called the 'big tent' suggesting some of their leading MPs would come into the government. However, when Blair won the landslide in 1997 he had no need of the Liberal Democrats and they and many of the policies they supported such as proportional representation for elections and other constitutional reform were forgotten.

Despite the Blair party not needing them, the Liberal Democrats have prospered. In 2005 they gained 22% of the vote and 62 seats (the Conservatives got 32.4% of the vote but 198 seats, more than three times as many) which is the largest number they had achieved since 1923, rising from 52 in 2001 and 56 in 1997. Is Brown worried he will lose more seats at the next election now that the glamour of Blair has gone, the party is restructuring itself away from being the Blairist party to a modern form of Labour Party or that current Conservative Party leader, David Cameron seems the first credible one for a decade? So far the Liberal Democrats have rebuffed Brown, partly it seems they were embarrassed by press coverage. Sir Menzies Campbell, the least dynamic Liberal Democrat leader probably since the 1970s seems uncertain what he wants anyway. It is no suprise Brown turned to Lord Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader 1988-99 and supporter of the 1970s Lib-Lab pact, but he too has turned the prime minister down.

Are the Liberal Democrats still smarting about being wooed and then spurned in 1997? Blair's arrogance made him behave foolishly then, as even if he had no longer needed Liberal Democrat support he did not need to turn away from them so abruptly. The Liberal Democrats may be biding their time, waiting for a better offer or to see how Brown's regime turns out. Sometime in the early 1990s the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party passed each other on the political spectrum. As the 'centre' had shifted farther to the right with Thatcher and Labour moved to the new centre, the Liberal Democrats adhered to what had been characteristic of the centre back in the 1980s and indeed before. Now with everyone further right than them, they seem to be the radicals.

The Liberal Democrats' opposition to the Iraq War, their strong support for the European Union including introduction of the Euro currency to the UK, their strong green policies, their wish to reform the tax system to benefit the poorest, all of these things seem more left-wing than what Labour espouses. They also stand for a secular society which these days seems quite radical if one listens to the faith-supporting Christian Democrat core of Blair's party. Maybe Brown wants to inject some Liberal Democrat radicalism to counteract the rightist views of the Blairites who will remain numerous in his party. Maybe Labour is running out of ideas and to get the Liberal Democrats into the government will be less embarrassing than stealing ideas from them at arm's length. Labour has always had Liberal input. Its welfare state model of the 1940s was that of William Beveridge, a Liberal not a Socialist; its economic policy was first economic planning, again propounded by some Liberals in the 1920s then from 1948-76, Keynesian economics and again John Maynard Keynes was a Liberal, not a Socialist.

What gains and losses would the Liberal Democrats face from a working relationship? If Brown follows Blair's line and embarrassingly follows the USA into terrible wars the Liberal Democrats own members would condemn the party for being part of this. On the other hand it would be the first time Liberals were properly in the government for decades and might allow Liberal Democrats' views to get a greater airing and maybe they will gain credibility by showing they can serve in office. This is a game that has high stakes, but if the Liberal Democrats play it sensibly, the second decade of the 21st century may see a three-party political arena that is more dynamic than that seen in the second decade of the 20th century. Debate and choice are always to the advantage of the electorate.

Romantic Folk

Following my recent comments on the former politician, Tony Benn's tours and CDs, I read an interview with him today and realised I had missed half of it. It turns out he has been appearing at the Glastonbury Festival, the UK's largest and longest established music event since 2002 and he is back there this weekend talking about weapons of mass destruction and the environment, alongside leading performers from the charts. In addition, I did not realise that my comment about him resembling a performer you might see in a pub was so close to the truth as apparently he won 'Best Live Act' in the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards for a set he does with Roy Bailey called 'The Writing on the Wall' in which he reads radical statements from history. There has always been an overlap in the UK between folk music and radical politics, partly as the genre had a revival in the heated politics of the 1970s and because some of its songs were protest songs of centuries past. So, I acknowledge my error, Benn is not a rock performer, he is a folk performer and no higher authority than the BBC confirms this.

The other tiny thing in the interview that I found incredibly touching was about his late wife. He was married to her for 51 years. The park bench on which he proposed to her in 1948, he bought and it now sits in front of her grave. That is not a showy declaration of love, but it really touched me with its sincerity. That is the kind of attachment to another that few of us will ever achieve and showed me another side to this man.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Property in the UK 5a: Treated like a Football

Well, new twists in the latest saga of our landlord seeking to kick us out because we are simply an obstacle to his desire for money. I know you ardent capitalists out there argue I should simply accept my role in the economic system and allow myself to be manipulated by market forces and the people who embody them. However, it causes problems for my day-to-day life and I think I have a right to protest about that. After all, I am only asking to be treated with respect and be left alone. I fulfil my obligations but that is not enough apparently, I have to recognise my role as nothing more than an element in a bigger economic process and I should be grateful that someone deems to rent me a house to live in.

Anyway, it turns out that everything the landlord's representative told me and my housemate on the telephone was a lie. He is apparently well known in my town. He has never been a lawyer only a clerk (in the UK sense of the word, someone who does low level administrative work, not the US sense of a shop assistant), in a legal company. He does not own 47 houses, at most he owns 1 and maybe not even that. He said that there would be a 2-week pause in putting the house on the market while he was in the USA and that he would come and discuss it with us when he returned, but that turned out to be an immediate lie as the estate agents turned up after the weekend wanting immediate access to photograph everything and start bringing people through our house, when we told them to slow down, they got angry and telephoned the representative immediately. In addition, we were told that there would be 2 companies selling the house, our current letting agents who we know quite well (they are not very efficient but are not as nasty as these other people) and one other company. In fact this second company that we do not know has been given sole rights to sell the property.

The landlord's representative (who said he was the landlord's father but given he lied about everything else in his almost 2 hours of whining at us on the telephone I cannot even believe this) said that he could have us removed from the house in 2 months by giving proper notice. This is a lie too. As is increasingly common in the UK we are locked into a 12-month contract which we cannot break even if we wanted to; if we leave the house we are still liable to pay the rent on it even if they get new tenants in there. I encountered this kind of contract in Milton Keynes and got advice from the Citizens' Advice Bureau and they confirmed you can do nothing about it, even though it means paying thousands of pounds for a property you no longer live in.

Now we are anticipating that the landlord's representative will start playing all the tricks landlords do such as changing the locks and causing other problems for us; accessing the house when we are out and breaking or taking possessions of ours. Anything to force us out quickly, because he knows that a house (as opposed to a flat to which different economic rules seem to apply) with sitting tenants is unsaleable and even if it was not, we are not willing to have people tramping through what is our home, at any hour of the day. I know as tenants we should not become attached to a property, but in that horrible American phrase we are very much home-makers (and garden-makers) and treat where we live as a home, not a hotel room. I think we are going to suffer both emotionally and financially but my housemate has taken the lead and is challenging the landlord's representative. She has taken legal advice from Shelter (a charity to help homeless people, but it gives excellent free legal advice on issues around housing in an effort to stop more people being screwed by landlords and becoming homeless. Most people in the UK who are homeless do not live on the street, they are families put up in cheap hotels by local authorities) and so is ready to challenge what the landlord is trying to do to us for simple economic gain.

In contrast I am certain that we cannot win. The UK law is always on the side of those with money and power. An ordinary UK, even middle class person (we are not citizens in the UK apparently, just subjects of the Queen) has little chance of getting a fair deal, so I think we should cut and run before the landlord and his henchmen start doing nasty things to us. I think standing up to him will just make it worse and we will lose even more. It is increasingly clear that you have no rights as a tenant in the UK (unless you have the money to employ lawyers; one quoted me an hourly rate of £800 (€1184; US$1600) and now unless you are really poor you are no longer entitled to legal aid to fight cases of this kind). The difference in view on what to do is obviously causing arguments in the house and I was called 'Judas' today for not supporting the more aggressive policy towards the landlord.

I accept that my job which comes with responsibilities and my reasonable income have fooled me into thinking that I have some power over what happens in my life. This incident has proven me entirely wrong. I have no power even to decide where I live and for how long. Contracts are worth less than the paper they are written on when you face those with money and influence. So you will not be surprised that I feel like a football (for US readers, I am thinking of a soccer ball, unless the landlord starts thinking he is going to pick me up and dump me down somewhere like the river) on the pitch of the UK economy, feeling every kick that is layed into me.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

'Went the Day Well?' Movie (1942)

Like me your probable response to this question on most days is 'no'. However, it gives me an opportunity to talk about another old favourite film, partly as a remedy to all the car and housing problems.

'Went the Day Well?' (1942) (known as 'Forty-Eight Hours' in the USA) was unique among wartime films. It was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, his first film for the Ealing Studios, based loosely on a short story by the great author, Graham Greene, 'The Lieutenant Died Last' (an unfortunately uninspired title). It is set in a small rural English village called Bramley End, insignificant except that it is near an important communications tower. The film was made rather too late as by 1942 the threat of German invasion of Britain was clearly over, the threat had been genuine through the Summer of 1940 and even into 1941, but was effectively over following the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 and the outbreak of war between the USA and Germany in December 1941. The movie is sometimes portrayed as a simplistic film of good vs. evil, but as one would expect from something coming initially from Greene who also contributed to the screenplay, it is a lot subtler than that, something many people overlook. Do not read on until you have seen the movie as I give away a lot of the twists.

Uniquely for a wartime movie, the story starts after the war is over, it assumed that Britain has been victorious and an old man shows the audience a war memorial in Bramley End for 40 dead German troops and then takes us back to the incident that led to this. Portraying the war as over in this way was not done in any other film of the time, so this is one unique point. The story we are shown is that German paratroopers land in rural England and working with a local agent, the squire, Oliver Wileford aim to destroy a local communications tower ahead of the general German invasion. The film is filled with stereotypes of English rural life from the poacher to the post mistress to refugee children from London to local farmers and a sailor home on leave, yet a key figure of the village, the main landowner is shown as a traitor. Such division within the community was again not usually portrayed in this way. The German troops kill the local Home Guard platoon and begin to move on the communications tower which is vital to knock out to help the following German forces.

Bit-by-bit people in the village begin to work out something is going on. Most of the German speak perfect English and appear to be a British army unit, but the clever locals work it out. Like many villages across Europe, the villagers are locked up in the church and have to engineer and escape and fight back against the invaders. There are typical wartime scenes indicating that sacrifice can save the community. The poacher along with a London refugee scallywag tries to get a message through to neighbouring village but is shot, the boy gets through ultimately bringing home, showing that he can be redeemed by working for the good of the community. What is striking though is the level of violence and much of it by women, in itself rare for the time. Daisy at the post office, when she realises it is a German rather than an British soldier in her kitchen throws pepper in his eyes and puts a hatchet in his head, then is bayoneted by another soldier. The two Land Girls (women drafted to work on farms - one acted by Thora Hird, the first role in her decade-spanning career) barricaded in the manor house keep score of all the Germans they shoot dead and notably the uptight middle class Nora shoots Oliver who she has had a close relationship with, when she finds out he is a traitor. Mrs. Frazer the local busybody and organiser of housing the refugees grabs a live handgrenade thrown into the big house and runs into another room with it to save the children. None of it is a spot on the violence in the movies today, but it was unusual to have that level of personal violence. Ultimately the Germans' plan is thwarted by the arrival of regular British troops, but a lot of the defence of the village is down to the locals, especially the women.

The story was reused in 'The Eagle Has Landed' (a book by Jack Higgins in 1975 and a movie starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Jenny Agutter and Larry Hagman in 1976). This time the plot is to assassinate Winston Churchill whilst he is staying in the village of Studley Constable (the village names in both films are typical of ones you find in rural England) with the force led by Oberst Kurt Steiner (Caine) who is being punished for defying the SS on the Eastern Front. Sutherland is an IRA man sympathetic to the Nazis, Liam Devlin, put in place to help, and has a sort of romance with Agutter's character, Molly Prior. As in 'Went the Day Well?' there is a local traitor, a South African woman Joanna Grey (South Africa was supposedly allied to the UK, being part of the British Empire, but many South Africans were sympathetic to Germany) who wants to punish the British for what was done to her family in the British concentration camps during the Boer War. Though ultimately Grey only kills the silly US Colonel Pitt (Hagman). It is interesting that through Devlin and Grey and having Steiner seem very human, there is criticism as much of the UK's history as of Germany's.

What this 'remake' shows, is that the basis of a good story is enduring and that war reduced down to a local level engages with more people than it does on the grand scale (see 'Saving Private Ryan' for another example of this). Even by the 1960s real war stories had been exhausted so the more fantastical ones were being explored (see 'The Guns of Navarone' (1961), 'The Dirty Dozen' (1967) and 'Where Eagles Dare' (1968) in particular). 'Went the Day Well?' was not a success at the time, but its story and characters have endured and it is probably better loved today than in 1942. Well worth watching if you get the chance.

Property in the UK 5: Caught in the Crossfire

I never intended this blog to simply be about houses, I expected a mix of politics and some personal observations, favourite films and books and things. However, I suppose the political and the personal are coming together in the latest instalment of my housing woes. Every time I encounter a problem, I think it must be tough for me, but there must be hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of UK citizens who are suffering this and worse and have less cash and family support to ameliorate it. I am solidly middle class, I earn 50% above the national average salary and yet I am being kicked around as if I was some homeless person. I am grateful that I am not homeless, but, maybe though, you will say I should not expect my comparative wealth to protect me from the harshness of people and the marketplace. This was the mistake the middle class made in the 1920s and so when all their money disappeared in the Depression they resorted to dictators like Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, etc.

As I have noted before, when you feel powerless you turn to despair or anger and this week it has been anger. With my car having broken down last week I was fortunate to get a lift from my boss who lives about 10 miles away to where I was working, about 46 miles away. I could have gone by train but in the rush hour it would have literally cost me as much as how much I spend for the family on groceries each week. Whilst in my bosses' car, as I have outlined in 'Property in the UK 4', I was telephoned by my landlord's lawyer father telling me the house we have been renting for three-and-a-half months is now going on the market. As landlords now have to pay council tax on empty properties they keep tenants in them until the week they sell the property and it seems clear now that it was the landlord's intention to sell the house as soon as he could. So we have to deal with people walking through our house looking at us as if we are zoo animals and for no personal benefit for us. We will effectively be sold on as part of the fittings of the house. The sale will likely to be quick, fortunately, it will probably go straight to another landlord. However, we have no guarantee that we will be allowed to stay because with 2 months' notice we can be kicked out (we can leave with 1 month's notice).

Now to complicate matters the letting agency who are supposed to run the house on behalf of the landlord rang to say that we did not have allow people to view the house and in fact our contract is one of these unbreakable leases (these are increasingly common in the UK and mean you are liable for 6 or 12 months rent even if you give notice and move out after one week). He wants us to refuse to let people see the house. It seems clear that the agency and landlord have fallen out. The agency are angry they are not sole estate agent on the property as selling it would earn them £5000 (€7,300; U$10,000) compared to £840 (€1225; US$ 1680) if they continue renting it (they only charge their landlords a 7% fee rather than the 13-16% which is usual among UK letting agencies), so being a small company are seeking to deny the sale fee to a rival company. The agency say no-one will be a family house with sitting tenants anyway.

So, now we are in the crossfire. Do we go with what the landlord says and face being moved out in a couple of months (the third move in 23 months) or go with the agency and deny the landlord ability to sell the house meaning he will move to kick us out anyway? We are just a football in the argument between the two sides. No-one considers that this is our house where we have put in work keeping it clean and have lots of crops coming up in the garden. It is clear we are counted as nothing by either side, despite paying £1000 per month rent, we are just here to be disposed of as fits with the plan of the landlord or the agency. Despite my income and status I have absolutely no power over what happens to my family this year. Each time we move it costs us about £1000 and we have already paid that this year just moving four streets to this house in February. Everyone thinks about their profits and squeezing a few thousand more, what about our basic cost of living? It counts for nothing.

People keep saying to me: 'well why don't you just buy a house?' as if I had never thought of it, but with a good salary like mine struggling to afford to buy a two-bedroomed flat let alone a family house, that is just getting annoying. An increasing number of people in the UK are becoming tenants and it is clear we are just counters in some economic game, not perceived as humans trying to live a quiet life in a half-decent house. I have never started a campaign, but I feel someone should to give tenants some rights.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Property in the UK 4: Return of the Rentier Class

I had thought that maybe I had run out of things to be angry or frustrated about which was why my blog was moving over to nicer things like movies and books I find interesting. However, there is always the unexpected. This week my car broke down and I found I can only afford to buy and older or smaller one; it turned out someone had been misusing my credit card but weirdly only for sums of £10-20 and once just for 52p; then my landlord's father said his son (currently in the USA) wanted to sell the house we have been living in for the past five months. This fact, combined with what I heard from an estate agent at a barbecue recently, provoked me to return to the British obsession - property.

Up until now myself and the people I live with have had to move house on average every 16 months. We reckon we lose about £1000 (€1460, US$2000) every time we move. Now, however, the gap between when we are forced out of our houses seems to be decreasing. This is coming about because of interest rate rises to try to slow inflation in the UK. They make mortgages more expensive and there is a fear as in 1990-3 house prices will fall sharply and lots of people will have 'negative equity', i.e. they owe more on their house than it is now worth. Since the 1990s with so many companies stealing pension funds or closing them to workers UK people feel that the only way to secure their old age is to buy property and rent it out then sell it off when they retire. 'Buy-to-let' has been so common in the UK. In some ways this is good as it has put much needed rental property into the system, though this has not come without costs.

Many people, like me, rent a house but own a smaller property that they rent out as their pension scheme. I bought a flat having lived there for a while got work far away from it so I was not 'buy-to-let' but I moved into that class when I put it up for rental. It has now become such a liability because of random, arbitrary charges from Newham Council that I am selling it. I am not alone. Those buy-to-let people are finding the mortgage payments get harder to meet, especially as their rent is rising quickly (about 20% per 18 months in my town). The 'for sale' signs are appearing everywhere now and this is likely to trigger the crash in prices that they are all trying to avoid. For tenants it is proving a nightmare as with us, a few months after you move in, you find you have to leave when the house is sold. In the case of a couple I know, the house they rented once they married a few months ago, apparently was already on the market but the landlord never told them. His greed meant he wanted to keep getting rent up until the day he sold the property. (This is encouraged by the fact that the landlord since 2004 has had to pay council tax on empty properties). So much for their new home together, four months down the road they have to move again and have no guarantee they will not be treated the same at the next house they rent. This has happened to another local couple I know too and I imagine it is occurring across the UK. UK tenants have few rights and little comeback.

I was under the impression that a lot of rental property fell into this category, that as tenants these days you tend to rent from someone who owns one place. Often, as I thought was the case with my current landlord, they get work somewhere else abroad and rent the house out just in case they need to come back and live there again in the future. However, when I found out the landlord's father has bought 47 (forty-seven) houses since 2001, I realised that I had been missing a whole situation. The buy-to-let people are small fry, there is a whole 'rentier' class above them who distort the economy in many towns. In fact I then realised I had seen more examples in the newspapers. You may ask what is so bad about people expanding their businesses in this way. The problem is that it is them who are driving up both house and rental prices. This was where something else I had been oblivious to comes in. Talking to an estate agent recently she said that in her office they never advertise around 50% of the houses they are asked to sell, they just contact landlords directly and offer the houses to them. This restricts the supply of properties coming on to the market and so artificially inflates the prices. In addition landlords are not as fussed as owner-occupiers in getting the lowest price as long as the rental income can cover their mortgage, they would in fact like quicker rising house prices and it increases their equity faster. In addition, they get a pick of the properties meaning people actually trying to get a place to live in are simply left with the rejects. I know one family who are now searching over a 40 mile (64Km radius) to try to find a decent house.

You might say, well, with these rentiers owning so much property there must be a lot available for rent. Yes, that is true, but effectively in each town you get a cartel. There is no ability to shop around. In a town of say 150,000 people at any one time there are likely to be no more than 30 properties of a particular type, for example 3-bedroom houses, to rent across the town, these may all be owned by just 5-8 people. There are obviously seasonal fluctuations, the bulk of the agencies we visited in January had no properties at all to let, and if you want a 2-bedroomed flat there will always be more available than say 4-bedroomed houses. Anyway, they set the prices and you have little choice because there is no free market and little true competition. Inflation in the UK has been running around or below 3% for years now and interest rates below rising to a little over 5%. So how come rental prices are rising at 10-12% per year? With all the people who own one buy-to-let property now selling up, competition will shrink further as these will be snapped up by the big rentiers with the money to weather any financial squall.

Despite all the rhetoric since the early 1980s of the free market meaning competition and that meaning better service and lower prices, in fact the UK has ended up with capitalism working in a different way with a few individuals manipulating the market, unfettered by regulation to ensure that they grow even richer at the expense of the bulk of the population financially beneath them. Maybe we have got the flexible labour force Thatcher wanted, but unlike what the Thatcherites envisaged of workers moving where there is work, we are shackled by unbreakable long-term contracts and then are kicked out when the sale price of the house becomes worth more than keeping you living there. This is a labour force which does not move on its own accord, it is one that is driven like a flock of sheep by the rentiers.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Politicians as Pop Stars - Two Examples

With the leadership of the Labour Party and by default, the premiership of the UK decided, the competition now is who is to be deputy-leader and it is assumed Deputy-Prime Minister (assuming Gordon Brown sticks with Blair's system, he is under no obligation to do so). One of the candidates Hilary Benn (a man, Hilary used to be a man's name, but like Lesley and Robin even, has increasingly become a woman's name in the past 40-50 years) has said he wants to be deputy leader of the party but not the other roles likely to go with it. Other candidates such as Peter Hain and Harriet Harman have not declared a position on that.

What strikes me about these candidates, (and all of them are likely to end up with senior posts in the Brown Cabinet and I would put Benn at the Foreign Office and Harman as Home Secretary, Hain could probably do either, and we seem to be lacking a candidate for Chancellor of the Exchequer) is that aside possibly from Hain, they all look very ordinary. Brown himself can hardly be described as attractive; Benn looks like a grammar school teacher from the 1950s, Harman a comprehensive school teacher from the 1970s. They look like people you could meet in the street and they may, as John Major did, capture votes because of that. As Major successfully followed the big personality of Thatcher, maybe it is Brown's more down-to-Earth approach that appeals after the bustle of Blair. I welcome this development as I feel it counteracts the tendency for senior politicians to appear like celebrities. Blair was particularly prone to this. His youth, his style, his history of playing in a band was added to by inviting the leading lights of Brit culture to Downing Street and even this year appearing on television with popular comedian Catherine Tate, with Blair doing one of her characters, for the benefit of charity. To some extent he was a man of his time, with the sound-bite culture becoming dominant in politics across the World. Funnily enough too, he looks like George Bush's cool friend and if it was possible added the US President some credibility.

So what are the problems with premier as pop star? Well, pop stars love themselves. They have to in order to be able to perform in the front of thousands. They surround themselves with sycophants and people who do their bidding. In these days of the 'celebocracy' when most people can name the current occupants of the 'Big Brother' house more easily than members of the Cabinet, it is not surprising that politicians behave the same. For many pop stars, though, their lifestyles and their day-to-day behaviour are more important than the occasions on which they perform. More column space online and in magazines, is spent on who they marry, go out with, etc. rather than their actual music. This is the danger for the politicians themselves who behave this way. One can look back over Blair's career and probably remember more about his various suits and whose island he holidayed on than you can about his policies. This is why the Blair years seem light on policy. There have, as I have noted before, been some good ones, but not nearly enough for 10 years in office with huge majorities. I accept that Blair has been a bit of a prisoner of his times and how politics are handled, but I feel it is an approach he loves and has added to greatly.

Now I turn to my other example: Tony Benn; Hilary Benn's father. He was a Labour MP from 1950-2001 and served as Postmaster General, Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Industry and Secretary of State for Energy under the Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-9. Though Benn is represented as shifting towards the left in the late 1970s, many of his policies such as economic planning, the involvement of all sides of industry in decision making and increased democracy were actually all Labour policies from the 1940s that became marginalised as Labour dropped Keynesian economics from 1976 onwards. However, it was convenient for the media to present him as some kind of crypto-Communist, a method of attack they used on Labour right through the 1980s. Benn still follows the same lines of policy. On Europe he has come to accept the European Union, though he presses for it to be made more democratic; its parliament, the only directly elected part has few powers and most policies are made by the Council of Ministers, a club of prime ministers from each of the member states, who tend to let the blame fall on other parts of the EU.

Why do I put Benn alongside Blair in this particular post? Benn has been an ardent campaigner against the war in Iraq and the UK's close links with the USA, in total contrast to Blair. The reason is because of his media life. He has produced seven volumes of diaries. Interestingly in 2003 working with Charles Bailey he had some of his speeches set to dance music and you can buy CDs of audiobooks. He also went on tour around the UK, probably the most unusual, low-key show you will have seen, him sitting on stage drinking tea (he has one cup every hour) talking about his views on current politics to packed audiences, answering their questions and signing books and CDs. What was heartening about this is that it harked back to an earlier age when people engaged much more closely with their politicians and could challenge them without merely being dismissed as irrelevant or inappropriate. I have seen Blair do televised audience shows but you always feel they are very managed.

Blair, then, is the stadium rocker, for whom image is everything and all publicity is carefully controlled and only authorised merchandise is permitted. For him the music is less important than the image. Benn is the solo guitarist you see in the pub, selling some of his CDs after the performance. He does not care what you think of his appearance, he may look like your grandad, though he dresses smartly it is not showy garb. I would argue that his songs are worthwhile listening to if you want your brain stimulated rather than simply to be awed by the glamour. I just hope we find more pub performers in the next government and fewer stadium acts; the UK will be better for it.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Is Rick in the Movie 'Casablanca' a Communist?

Anyone who reads this blog, and I have doubts if there is anyone, well, if they happen to do so, then they will notice I have a particular taste in terms of culture. I know lots of movies and my tastes in reading are either old fashioned or of particular genres. This posting might appear to be very much a niche one. I know the movie 'Casablanca' (1942) is a classic and is often cited in movie writing, but I guess not that many people these days watch it. If they do it is for the romantic elements (in particular the song 'As Time Goes By') and for (mis)quotes from it, rather than the political aspects which I am going to focus on now.

For those of you who do not know the movie or its background, here are some details. The film stars Humphrey Bogart famous for many detective movies notably 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'The Big Sleep' and a movie set in the First World War 'The African Queen'. He was renowned for starring with leading female stars of the time such as Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn. In 'Casablanca' he co-stars with Ingrid Bergman. In addition there is a strong supporting cast including Claude Rains, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt who between them made hundreds of films. Also noticeable is Dooley Wilson who plays Sam the pianist. This cast rather lifts the movie above the majority of wartime films made at the time. It was made in 1942 but is more reminiscent of a film made in 1940-1 to encourage the USA to join the Second World War. Though the USA was sympathetic to those countries fighting the Nazis since 1939, it was not until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and then Germany's declaration of war on the USA that the country joined the war. However, since the outbreak of the fighting films had been made to try to interest the Americans in fighting Nazis, to some extent because a lot of refugee writers and film-makers from Nazi Germany had fled to Hollywood to escape persecution.

The movie is unusual in other ways too. It is not about the fighting nor about the Home Front in Britain or really about the resistance movements in Europe as other films of the time were. It is set in Casablanca which is in Morocco. Morocco was a French colony and when the Germans overran the North and West of France, the collaborationist regime which ran the rest of France, the Vichy regime, was left control of France's colonies. Some went to the Free French movement, but most like Morocco continued to be run by France. So Casablanca was in 1942 theoretically a territory allied to Germany but not directly under its control. This is why people from across Europe (German and Bulgarian refugees amongst others are shown in the film) use it as stepping stone to reach the USA, which at the time the film is set is still neutral in the war. The Germans and the Vichy French authorities interfere to a greater or lesser extent.

Bogart's character, Rick Blaine, runs a bar and casino 'Rick's' and pretends to be neutral, as America is at the time. The film is set in late 1940 or early 1941. Rick fled from Paris when the Germans invaded France in June 1940 and in doing that was separated from his lover, Ilse Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman), a Norwegian. Then one day she turns up at the bar with her husband Victor Lazlo (played by Paul Henreid). Lazlo is a resistance leader who Ilse thought had died, but he had managed to escape from a Nazi prison and has been reunited with his wife. This creates the love triangle, made even more poignant by the fact that Rick has come into possession of permits which would allow Lazlo and Ilse to escape to the USA very easily. I will not spoil the ending for any of you who have not seen the film. It was written as it was being made and even the actors did not know the final outcome until just before it was filmed. It is the kind of film many people nowadays would find dull. There is action and tension but it is generally low key. It is more about people and the ending could never be used in a movie made in Hollywood nowadays.

Now, in all the analysis of this movie over the past decades, I think one issue has been neglected and that is whether Rick Blaine is actually a Communist. Even at the time this would be very controversial, but I think there are numerous clues in the film to suggest that. The local (corrupt and lecherous, though charming) French police office Captain Renault (Claude Rains) and Lazlo, note that Rick was involved in various political events before the war, notably supplying guns to the Abyssinians (Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia was invaded by Mussolini's Italy in 1934-5; the Italians used aerial bombardment and poison gas against the poorly armed Abyssinian forces) and in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) he had fought on the side of the Republic (this was the elected government that General Franco's Nationalists tried and eventually overthrew; both sides got volunteers from around the World including from the USA and the UK; the Republican side included Democrats, Socialists and Liberals but also Communists of different types and Anarchists) against the fascist Nationalists. Both these actions were not typical for an American at the time and suggests someone convinced of the need to fight Fascism.

Communists across the World at the time were dominated by the USSR and from 1934-9 Stalin advised Communists to ally with Socialists and Liberals to fight Fascism. In 1939 though the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and took parts of Poland and Finland and conquered the Baltic States while Germany moved into the rest of Poland, then Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium and France and later Yugoslavia and Greece. In this period Communists across Europe were left rather bewildered unwilling to go against commands from Moscow not to fight Nazis. In this period resistance was carried out by conservative and nationalist forces in the occupied countries; the Communists remained passive until the USSR was invaded itself in July 1941. So, Rick displays the same kind of behaviour as a typical Communist in this period, being active when Moscow said and passive when it commanded too, despite his ongoing unease about Nazism. Despite his Communist connections the Nazis cannot arrest him because he is the citizen of a powerful neutral state, the USA.

There is another tell-tale sign. Lazlo, (we assume he is a Norwegian though his name could be Hungarian even) is portrayed as a leader in a resistance movement running across Europe which is why he is so important. The only resistance movement which had connections in every occupied country was the Communist resistance. All the other resistances were nationally focused, e.g. run by French or Dutch or Polish or Yugoslav people, whereas the Communist parties had close contacts across borders helped by Comintern run from the USSR as a linking body. This would explain how Rick knows Lazlo so well and is willing to accept him as an important leader across Europe because they are both part of the same international political party. Rick welcomes nationalities of all kinds in his bar, some to work as staff. We have no idea where his money has come from, he may have been a successful businessman or he may have been funded from Moscow.

Anyway, this adds just another element to a movie which moves along briskly and touches in a way which straddles both modern and old fashioned attitudes. It is a romance and a war movie and probably a political movie too. Well worth watching despite its age. Ironically the only attempt to do a remake was 'Barb Wire' (1996) set in a free port in a futuristic authoritarian America, it rips off the story entirely, with eyeballs used for retinal scans replacing the passes of 'Casablanca'. I guess it shows a good story is always valued, if not always treated with the respect it deserves.

Friday, 8 June 2007

The Turbulence of Climate Change

Following on a little from my posting about the G8, I remembered I wanted to write something about the histoy of climate change. Back in April of this year, there was much in the British media about whether climate change was a problem or not and certainly whether it was an issue to the scale as it has been presented in recent decades. I hear people say that it is not as grim as some specialists make out.

Part of the problem seems to be that different processes are going on. The depletion of ozone in the sky (excess ozone created by cars at street level is another problem but does not help) means more harmful UV rays penetrate to Earth and you cannot contest this when you are sunburnt through your clothing in Australia. On the other hand CO2 and particulate pollution are putting a thick layer around the Earth which prevents the rays bouncing back off (and this is yet another problem from what would have happened in terms of a nuclear war in which the material thrown into the atmosphere would have blocked sunlight reaching Earth leading to a so-called 'nuclear winter', an artificial ice age) and the Earth would heat up in the way that Venus, surrounded by thick cloud does, the so-called 'greenhouse effect' (the rays bounce back off the glass rather than escaping and so keep more heat inside than, say, in a canvas tent). This has knock-on effects, notably the rise in sea level as ice caps melt and in turn this shifts various ocean currents. In the UK global warming will have mixed effects as it will mean wetter weather (warmer air can carry more water) but our climate would become more like continental Europe as the Gulf Stream coming up from the Gulf of Mexico warms the UK and Eire a great deal and we would lose this as it will be pushed farther South by colder currents coming from the North Pole as ice melts) and we would move to a colder current as they experience in Belgium and the Netherlands. In parts of England it rarely drops below -2oC in Winter whereas Belgium often experiences -10oC in the same period. So it is not a simple pattern. Some people say, however, that it is all part of the natural cycle of the world and by implication, nothing humans do can prevent such a change.

My argument is simply, that it does not really matter what is causing climate change, pollution of the air, soil and water, in whatever form is bad in itself. With the emphasis on climate change people have forgotten the dead lakes and forests of Scandinavia killed off by pollution. They forget the immense soil erosion in parts of China which is making them uninhabitable. These reasons alone are enough to warrant cutting emissions and these are things known about for decades already.

Putting that aside, the history of the world, even in the last 2000 years has been one of climate change, something many people on both sides of the argument forget. At the time of the Ice Age you could walk around what is the North Sea (off the East coast of the UK). In Roman times water levels rose and the Zuider Zee which had been land, because sea (it has been reclaimed by the polders created in the Netherlands). In the year 1000 Greenland actually lived up to its name and cereals were grown on it by Viking settlers, something that is impossible today. In contrast in the 17th century the Winters were so cold that 'frost fairs', with fires lit, were held on the frozen River Thames in London and the sea offshore also froze, something impossible nowadays. In the 1970s there was fear that we were coming to the end of the 'inter-glacial' and would be plunged back into an ice age, a vision revived in the 2004 movie, 'The Day After Tomorrow'. I put these points in to show that there is an additional element and not to assume that we are simply marching towards an overheated planet caused by pollution. We need to do things, pay attention to the climate, and in the meantime cut down polluting anyway, because it is going to kill a lot of things before the greenhouse effect or the next ice age comes fully into effect.

The G8 - the Imperial Powers continue to meet

When I began this blog I had so much in me that I was furious or disappointed about and that I wanted to get out of my system. A month on I seem to expelled so much of it from me. I can understand why the average life of a blog is 3 months because that gives you time to send off all the things that have been bugging you. Maybe, also, it is a consequence of the time of the year, what journalists used to call the 'silly season'. Also we are in limbo, Blair has left but he is still here and so without current pricks from the advance of dictatorship in the UK or other behaviour to make me indignant, my fuel source wanes. I did find out this week that there is no point trying to us a mobile phone on the train between Sheffield and Leeds as you can get no signal at all. Just in case you happen to be travelling that way. This was even the case on a Virgin Trains train which claimed to have better connectivity. Anyway, that is hardly an issue to form the basis of overthrowing the government!

It is a time for conferences and the most noticeable one is the G8 summit. It is interesting that more attention is paid to this than anything that ever goes on at the United Nations. The G8 are the USA, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Japan and Canada. It used to be the G7 until Russia abandoned Communism. Aside from Canada, the members of the organisation are the same as if you had assembled the leading imperial powers in 1907. I think this reinforces my point made in an earlier post, that views of the world being divided between the empires put forward before the First World War retain relevance today. Personally I have always argued that the Second World War and the Cold War was like putting a 'freeze frame' on developments in the world and with the end of the Cold War this came off and we are back to the issues of the Edwardian period (strictly 1901-10, but usually seen as stretching to 1914). Some argue that the ideologies of the Cold War simply concealed a much longer term tension between the two continental powers Russia and the USA, going back to the 1860s, particularly over control of the third - China.

It is more than likely that China will become the ninth power to join the G8, not least because it is so economically tied to the USA. The USA is in billions of dollars of debt to China for things it has imported. In turn China is seeking to invest in the USA as it already has in Canada and Australia as well as in Africa and South-East Asia seeking raw materials. As at the end of the 19th century, the USA portrays itself as being democratic in the face of Russia's non-democratic perspective. In turn Russia feels weak and seeks to reinforce its position by blustering militarily.

In some ways the G8 wield the powers over other parts of the world that their predecessors did. For example, the fate of millions in Africa is still determined by them. Who gets AIDS drugs, what levels of debt will countries face, who will be sold arms? All of these things have parallel to the imperial period. Climate change is often presented as something new, but those of the 19th century with their factory filled cities knew about it. Rules about fires in cities like London date back centuries. People since the Stone Age have been witnessing deforestation and particularly since the 18th century saw industrial revolutions. The imperial powers, despite concepts such as the 'white man's burden' in that they should contribute something to the developing countries, have mainly focused on pushing their economies forward and that remains the issue today. This is the key reason why Bush remains hesitant on doing anything regarding emissions.

Given the approach Al Gore has adopted on climate change and his movie 'An Inconvenient Truth' (2006), it is an interesting to speculate on the 'what if?' of if he had scraped sufficient votes in 2000 to have become president. My guess is that he would have been tied down heavily by US industry not to pursue as strong restrictions as he now advocates. The twist of this 'what if?' may not be played out yet. Sitting here in 2047 we may say 'well wasn't it a good thing Gore lost the presidency because he was able to make far greater an impact on climate change than if he had done'.

We have 8 leaders now assembled, they seem powerful and probably are more so than another selection of 8 leaders one might pick (there are some candidates such as Brazil, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, India and certainly China who would probably outrank countries like Italy and Canada in terms of 'power') and yet, do they truly hold power? I would argue no. Some have more power than they have the intelligence to use, notably Bush. However, the others are shackled by big business, its wealth, its connections. Even when they have the foresight, understanding and will to bring about change such as reducing global poverty, developing world debt or to provide reasonably priced drugs, they often cannot. Their abilities to act are hampered by business leaders who run companies that have held such power now for over 100 years and have gone through wars often with minimal harm. Imperialism is still around, but note as V.I. Lenin suggested, imperialism is the highest stage of capitalisms, hence it is the capitalists, not the politicians, who are the highest imperialists.

Coming all rather old school there at the end, which was unexpected. Maybe anti-globalisation is much older than current campaigners and myself think and so may the responses are older too? I will give this some thought.