Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Tedium of 'Twilight: Eclipse' (2010)

I made a mistake a couple of weeks back of buying a friend the DVD of 'Twilight: Eclipse' (2010).  She had enjoyed the previous two movies and watched them more than once on DVD.  As the gift-giver, on the day of her birthday I was invited to come and watch the movie, which I had not seen, with her.  I like contemporary vampire movies and have seen 'Blade' (1998) and 'Underworld' (2003) on numerous occasions.  I had reasonably enjoyed the first two instalments of the 'Twilight' movie series: 'Twilight' (2008) and 'Twilight: New Moon' (2009).  I found the setting in the North-West of the USA a suitable one, and the tension between the werewolves and vampires seemed interesting.  Of course, the sexual/relationship tension of the late-teenaged heroine Bella choosing cerebral vampire Edward but still feeling affection for more muscular werewolf Jacob was sufficiently engaging.  Both of these earlier movies tempered the teenage romance angst with genuine action first against renegade vampires and then interacting with the Volturi, a powerful organisation of vampires based in Italy.  Interestingly, Martin Sheen who plays a werewolf fighting vampires in 'Underworld' and 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans' (2008) appears as an elder vampire in 'Twilight: New Moon' of the same year.

Having seen 'Twilight: Eclipse' billed as 'the best Twilight movie yet', I had high hopes that it would build on the strengths of the previous two movies and provide new step.  However, I give nothing away if I reveal that it adds nothing to what had been explored in the previous movies of the series.  I know that the novels by Stephenie Meyer (published 2005-8) stretch the story of the romance between Bella and Edward over four novels, but that is probably far too long for a movie.  In 'Twilight: Eclipse' all you have is continuing prevarication from Bella about turning into a vampire and ire from Jacob who believes she should be with him rather than with Edward.  The tension between Jacob and Edward and Bella wanting to remain with Edward and yet not wanting to harm Jacob's feelings simply rehashes what happened in 'Twilight: New Moon'.  The main opponent Victoria, who appeared in 'Twilight' assembles a powerful army of new vampires but this element is neglected in favour of repetitive sullen behaviour from the three main protagonists. 

References to other incidents such as the rise of a powerful vampire army at the time of the American Civil War are skirted over.  I know Bella is the heroine, but with these apparently large threats to humanity and the vampire community going on, you would think she could lift her gaze from her own angst over fancying two young men, for even just a short time, to look at something else.  Sympathy for Bella is beginning to wear thin.  Even the woman I bought the DVD for, who is not a teenager, but certainly is very much a Jane Austen fan so into stretched out romance punctuated with minor 'crises', was tiring of it all by the end of the movie which runs for 2 hours 4 minutes meaning you see far too much of drippy teenagers moping around a rainy landscape.  There was enough of this in the second movie; cutting this one to 93 minutes would have improved it immensely and restored much of the tension felt in the first movie.

I know Meyer is a devout Mormon who is married and has three children; her husband who she married when they were both 21, has given up work to look after the children since his wife's career took off.  Meyer wrote the novels at a time when George W. Bush was in power and not only advocating abstinence as the only form of contraception for unmarried couples, but also pouring federal funds into the teaching of this approach in schools.  Unsurprisingly teenage pregnancies are the highest in the USA of all industrial states.  I can only find figures for 1996 when the rate was 55.6 births per 1000 women under the age of 20 compared to 29.6 in the UK, 13 in Germany, 9.4 in France and 6.6 in Italy.  In the USA 80% of teenage pregnancies were unintended and of these 50% were from women not using contraceptives.  I have no problem with people having religious messages in their movies.  I have watched many of the movies of Christ's life and others with explicit or implicit religious themes from 'The Nun's Story' (1959) to 'Minority Report' (2002).  However, perhaps it was because I found 'Twilight: Eclipse' so dull that these elements jarred most strongly with me when watching it. 

I accept that Edward Cullen is supposed to be 104 years old and brought up during the Victorian period, or in fact an idealised version of the Victorian period.  As Ian Hislop's very engaging series 'The Age of the Do-Gooders' currently running on UK television has demonstrated, one reason why so many Victorians had to be active in combating vice was because so much of it was happening.  Cullen reflects a 20th century view of the Victorian era rather than the context in which Sherlock Holmes was operating, which though fictional, shows us a great deal of Victorian society.  Consequently, when Bella proposes to have sex with Edward he refuses insisting they would only do it after they were married.  He proposes to the 18-year old Bella, who rightly, even in the movie, feels she is rather being blackmailed into it.  Edward wants to turn her into a vampire before they are married and only have sex after they are.  I know the USA has movements like the Silver Ring Thing which gets young people to make a commitment to abstinence until married, but even their website claims only 465,000 people have attended their events and 161,400 have made the commitment.  This is compared to around 74 million people under the age of 18 living in the USA.  The other thing is, Bella agrees to marry and even back in Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1598) the priest marrying a couple acknowledges that they are likely to have already had sex.  This was at a time far more religious than our own. 

I would not be surprised if Bella would not be suspicious of Edward.  She has accepted that he is a vampire, but certainly in many stories, vampires are infertile and in some are unable to even have erections, being, in theory, 'dead'.  If the Bella and Edward are engaged, they need to discuss their future together and one thing they definitely do not talk about is sex and children.  Any couple needs to have such conversations before their relationship develops certainly to the stage of marriage.  However, in the movie reflecting the novels, this is indefinitely postponed.  In the fourth novel, Bella finally marries Edward and gets pregnant by him while still a human.  This, again, reflects Bushite views of sex; i.e. that a married woman's role is to produce children.  One minute before the marriage ceremony she must not have sex, one minute after she must be getting pregnant.  Viewers of the movie certainly can feel that Bella has been locked into a kind of production line, with no reference to her own pleasure, just simply to what is 'right'.  Free will, certainly from the woman's perspective seems to have gone out of the window.  This is ironic given Meyer's own history.  I accept that she was a young wife and mother, but now her husband is the main child-rearer and her wealth has allowed her choices in her own life she seems to deny her heroine.

The other thing that is missing is the fact that teenagers get incredibly aroused and a lot of sex just happens in the heat of the moment.  Letting your passions run away with you is frowned upon in the movie with reference both in 'Twilight: New Moon' and 'Twilight: Eclipse' to a werewolf who turned and injured his human partner, scarring her for life.  This is why Bella could never be with the werewolves as they are the analogy for unbridled human passion and the vampires, are, in fact there to represent humans in clinical control of their emotions and consequently lacking in passion and if not quite 'dead' then at least 'cold fish'.  I know this is a movie series which features fantastical creatures, werewolves and vampires, but its credibility breaks down, when Bella begins to undress for sex and simply because Edward says, not overly forcefully, that they must wait until marriage, she stops and accepts it.  This suggests she feels no passion for Edward at all and the sex would have simply have been going through the emotions.  This presents a very artificial view of sex to the audience and seems to suggest that love and passion are divorced from each other, and, in fact, implies that true love is only true when passion is absent from it.  It is ironic to compare such an attitude with movies of an era people like Meyer might look back to.  Compare this to 'Casablanca' (1942) which with no explicit reference to sex, shows how loyalty, love and passion are all vital ingredients for relationships which can endure the harshest environments.  Whilst Ilsa goes off with Victor, Rick and Ilsa still have the passion of Paris to warm their lives.

Overall, not only does 'Twilight: Eclipse' provide nothing new for the series, it presents a very cold portrayal of love and relationships, not really driven by feelings, rather following very stringent regulations that fixes the woman into a lifestyle that has very little to do with her own happiness and is shaped purely by the men in her life.  It shows an unrealistic portrayal of the passion in an intimate relationship and the challenges there in handling that.  Meyer said she wanted to keep sex out of her novels, but in fact, by showing it in this distorted way, which does not reflect how real teenagers even in the past behaved, let alone today, distorts the expectations and behaviour of her core audience.  Many teenager will find it immensely harder to behave like Edward and Bella and simply switch off arousal because they have been told to do so.  That will damage relationships not only in the teenage years but beyond and the USA does not need any more damage to relationships than it already has.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Will I Ever Work Again?

As regular readers know, since the start of June, I have been unemployed.  My unemployment benefit based on my national insurance contributions has now run out.  I could apply for benefit based on my income as it is now so low, but hit a stumbling block.  Owing to the fact that the woman who lives in my house runs a business, even though it made a loss last month, and works on it more than 24 hours per week, this is too much for the Job Centre and they say that the household income will be too high for me to claim benefit.  This seems to stem from their belief that everyone working earns at least the minimum wage each hour.  Of course, with the self-employed, some months (and currently many months) you actually lose money.  However, because she works too hard to scrape together her income, I cannot claim benefit any longer.

As of yesterday I had applied for 65 jobs in that time and have attended 18 interviews; I have another one next week. The average application form requires around 5,000 words, the most complex one needed 10,000 words, which took me 8 hours to write.  I estimate that since June I have written over 320,000 words in applications, equivalent to more than three doctoral theses or five novels of the length Agatha Christie wrote.  My 'hit rate' had improved moving from 1 interview for every 5 applications to almost 1 for every 3 by the start of December.  However, I still have no job.  In some cases the feedback from the interview (forthcoming from about half of the interviews I attend) has made it clear that I stood no chance because a local candidate, 'someone who could draw on specific examples from this company', was in line to get the post.

To some degree I think I am now also facing gender discrimination.  Almost all the jobs I have applied for are in offices with at least 10 female workers for each male one.  One even admitted that they had a 'token man'.  I am not saying that the discrimination is apparent to the interviewers, but we all know that there is a tendency for people to recruit people like themselves and to recruit the 'face that fits' in the office environment.  With 90% of the staff, female, it is clear that in so many offices, I am not like the interviewers or the bulk of their staff.  Consequently, with so many candidates to choose from, this is going to be another factor which makes it close to impossible for me to be appointed.  It is ironic as being a child of the 1970s I am far more of a feminist than many of the women coming out of universities today.

I have noted 'The X Factor' approach used by one company which meant I was sent home even before reaching the interview stage.  Fascinatingly, a lot of interviewers end their feedback saying they are sure that I will find a post soon.  I have been hearing that since early June.  I believe they are simply assuaging their own discomfort.  Many of the people who have interviewed me have been very poor at the job and being British, in most cases, are not good a giving people bad news.  Conversely, some have been more than happy not simply to reject me, but to send me three page reports outlining everything that I did wrong and even accusing me of having lied on my application form.  They have done this on their own iniative as usually it is down to the Human Resources department to tell you that you have not got the job.  Given such harsh feedback, I have gone on two training courses run by the Department of Work & Pensions, helping people with interview technique, I even attended an 'executive level' session.  However, this does not seem to have helped.  At the last interview at which the panel asked what seemed to be straight forward questions, they kept correcting my interpretation of the question, saying I had misunderstood.  After a while I almost felt like leaving before the interview had finished, as it appeared that how they used language and how I use it, were so far apart that I would be battling to say anything that they felt was relevant. 

I have now taken additional guidance from a retired personnel manager who said that however complex the interviewer's question might be, I should not respond in kind.  He said that I must do a kind of 'verbal Powerpoint' presentation and stick to four statements at most.  He advised me that a huge error on my part was to give any context; I should not say, 'at my last company they had a hierarchical management system which meant that...', I should just respond, 'I can do...'.  It does not make me any better or worse a manager, but it is clear that I am still not dancing to the interviewers' tunes in the way they insist (though, of course, never tell you).

Feedback has been contradictory.  I have been told that I am 'insufficiently blue sky' and then that I was 'insufficiently hands-on'.  I have been told that I am applying for a job 'below' my 'level' (even though one of these posts was exactly the same as the one I was made redundant from in 2009) or aspiring too high for other posts.  It seems that unless my last job was exactly the same level as the one I am applying for then I am ruled out almost immediately.  I cannot say, 'just give me the job, I will work at any level you want', because you have to continue the pretence that somehow employment is much the same as it was last year.  If, after the interview, you outline how challenging the situation is, you hear that all-too-common phrase these days 'I don't want to hear that'.  I do not want to hear it or face up to it, but I have to, because it is the truth, that is what is happening to people, no matter how much you may wish to keep believing it is different. 

The sense that unemployment is somehow 'contagious' seems to have reappeared and the 9-year old boy who lives in our house, is now finding friends are not allowed to come round, as if there was a red cross on our door saying 'unemployment victim; stay away'.  Do these parents think I will rob their child or press him to work in our house?  I know it is irrational and the people themselves could probably not explain why they behave that way, but it certainly feels like them kicking you when you are down.  The only thing that makes life tolerable in such a situation is good interaction with people and anyway, the boy is not to blame for my joblessness, so why should he be punished?  You can see why sociologists investigating the 1980s talk of how it blighted a generation; not those out of work, but the children in jobless households.

I am a friendly, one could say, avuncular, manager.  A lot of that stems from my personality, but also because I know that if people feel trusted and that their knowledge and skills are respected, then they tend to work for the best.  I really believe that keeping people informed about what is happening in the company is the way to get them engaging with it and working well.  However, I dare not outline my approach to management any longer as it is clearly out of fashion.  At the last interview, disparingly, one of the panel told me that my approach was clear.  I am now certain that I will have to begin lying and begin to portray myself much more as a manager to harangues his workforce and keeps the flow of information to them very restricted.  The 1980s style of management is back in fashion, very clearly.  This is ironic as staff are aware how treacherous the current economic situation is and that their jobs are often at risk, they do not have to be keep being told it.  Nervous staff do not take the initiative and conceal errors rather than revealing them in time to have the situation rectified.  At the last interview, even haranguing, was not felt to be enough and there was an eagerness somehow to use regulations as a way of managing staff rather than setting the parameters.  Even if the economy suddenly improved tomorrow, the negative consequences of these troubled times are going to impinge on the work place for years to come.

People say I should be trying to get other jobs.  Everyone assumes that you can always simply apply for a job in a shop or some manual labouring post.  As it is, I am applying for jobs with a salary less than 45% of the level that I earned before.  I have applied to shops and have found constantly that I lack the NVQ or the ABTA or other professional qualification that is taken as the basic level for entry into so many posts.  I was lined up for a 3-month temporary post, via a temporary employment agency, at a company 45 Km away.  However, before I could simply take it up, five other people came forward and they implemented a formal interview process. 

This situation will not improve in the new year.  At the local job centre, both of the two staff I have been handled by in the past six months have told me they will not be employed there after the end of December and it seems that quite a few of their colleagues are on fixed-term contracts which will not be renewed for 2011.  The first influx of public sector redundancies will begin flowing into the jobless pool.  I imagine a lot of them are already applying for other jobs anyway.  I have not seen any increase in private sector jobs; even the usual increase of seasonal work seems muted.  The job centre staff believe that locally, due to the number of retail jobs in the area we will experience higher than average lay-offs in the new year when the 20% VAT comes into force, though other people have commented that it might not be that bad. 

I am 43 and am competing with people who are younger, can understand what an interviewer is asking and have a range qualifications that are demanded.  My house is up for sale though with the prices falling I may come away from this house with no money left over even to rent a flat, separate, of course, from the woman from my house due to her job.  I will be dependent on my family, and it really seems a retrograde step, moving back in with your parents aged 43, but the only other option seems to fall on the mercy of the council and beg a place in a bed-and-breakfast.  Of course, there will have to be a furniture and book sale at my house to get rid of all that we have gathered in this house.  It seems ironic that 1-2 years ago, I was looking for my career to take the next step and was ironically optimistic that it would.  Now, I would be happy if I could get a job in a shop over Christmas.  It is at least 21 years until I can retire, probably longer by the time I am in my 60s.  Given how hard it is proving to find work, even now before the worst of the economic depression has kicked in, is there any chance of me working again?  I keep applying, I keep pretending at interviews that everything is going fine, but after so much effort and so little success, I do wonder whether I will still be unemployed this time next year or even longer term?  My career seems to have been snuffed out so very quickly.  Despite that, happiness is compulsory, and you are not allowed to appear disheartened let along disgruntled or depressed even at the job centre.  David Cameron's objective of measuring our level of happiness seems, in that light, to be very sinister and I am reminded of rank upon rank of smiling faces marching past Chairman Mao.

The future for me seems now to be not the steady career of rising through office management over the next two decades, but rather scrabbling around with the other middle-aged, washed up managers trying to beg a job.  I know that I am going to have to work very hard not only to understand the ever-changing tricks of the interviews but to remember when a complex question is thrown at me, to respond with bare-bones answers.  I also must pretend to be a much harsher, aggressive manager.  However, there is no certainty that even if I master these things, that years of unemployment do not lie ahead of me.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The Anger Grows

Over the past decade people have often commented in the media around the question of how educated, intelligent people from an Islamic background, but previously without fundamentalist tendencies have become 'radicalised' and have ended up doing violent acts such as stabbing an MP at his constituency session or driving a 4x4 into Glasgow airport with the intention of causing an explosion. As I watched the fourth day of rioting in central London in four weeks, I began to understand how thinking people can go down the path to turning their back on civil society and see the only way forward as being to engage in violence. Intelligent, well educated people, especially in the medical professions, are often filled with self-confidence which can in many cases turn into at least intellectual snobbery and very commonly, arrogance. If there were not people who felt that society was wrong and that they knew a better way for us to live, then there would not only be no politicians, but also no-one working for charities and, in fact, no clergy. We accept being told how to behave by certain sets of people, whose challenges to us have somehow been 'normalised', but feel free to ignore or even resist others.

I am trying to cling to my faith in democracy but as the weeks go by and I witness act after act of a government which seems bent on harming as many ordinary Britons as possible, it proves to be increasingly hard. David Cameron can argue that he won some kind of mandate for the actions he is carrying out, though, of course, the bulk of them never appeared in the Conservative election manifesto, and the Liberal Democrat manifesto, in fact, outlined some policies completely opposed to what is being done now. Ed Miliband, Labour leader, clearly has learnt Cameron's trick and said yesterday that it was 'better to under-promise and over-deliver', in other words, do what the Conservatives have done, and spring policies on the population once you have the power.

I am increasingly drawn to issues highlighted by the historian E.P. Thompson (1924-93) certainly in 'Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act' (1977) and to an extent in 'The Making of the English Working Class' (1968). Thompson highlighted how populations behave when they feel that the ruling group has lost its moral mandate. He highlights examples such as bread riots in which the rioters seized the bread but rather than simply distribute it, sold it at what they felt was a fair price. This is a very British characteristic, we yearn for what we see as the establishment of what is 'right' and 'proper' rather than anything more radical. This can play into the hands of the left, as witnessed in the poll tax riot of 1990, but it can also play into the hands of the right as seen in the pro-fox hunting demonstrations and attacks against refugees. Moral indignation can bisect with politics and when it does, it can bring out responses from those who feel apolitical. In the UK many people take pride in 'I'm not political', but when it moves into a moral area of their world view, then they do feel they should become involved. The government's policies are cutting so hard into the everyday life of ordinary people that it is even beginning to radicalise those who in the past would have given no thought to being 'political'. Remember those elderly people who put themselves up for imprisonment rather than pay the poll tax? We are going to be back to that soon.

I certainly feel that the current government is carrying out acts which neither have 'right' in a moral sense, nor are proper for British society. The speed and severity of their actions makes Margaret Thatcher's policies, which in themselves were unacceptable, seem mild and considered. If you feel that the government you are dealing with is morally bankrupt then you look around for methods to challenge it. When the government retains the loyalty of the forces of control, primarily the police, but also the armed forces, who use violence to counteract any form of protest as we have seen with baton charges, horse charges and kettling, then it is not surprising that, in time, even intelligent people see a violent approach as the only way to even simply unsettle the bankrupt government. This seems to be the path I am currently going down. I suppose it is because I have lost my faith that anything can stop the crumbling of our society. The current government policies are rapidly creating a highly divided, very hierarchical country where ordinary people have no opportunities to advance themselves and struggle to find work opening up opportunities for the wealthy to exploit them to a scale not seen for many decades.

To some degree the rioting by students and young people (many of the rioters and protestors are too young to attend university yet) who are actually going to suffer more than current university students, especially with the cutting of the EMA, has had an impact. The coalition government's majority should be 84 but in last night's vote on university tuition fees they only won by 21 votes. This is the kind of narrowness of margin John Major experienced as his government began its limp to its death. Five Conservative MPs and 21 Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government they are part of; 8 Liberal Democrat MPs abstained. Two Liberal Democrat government aides, Mike Crockart and Jenny Willow resigned as did on Conservative aide, Lee Scott. I wonder if there would have been such opposition if week after week we had not seen thousands of protestors in London. The Liberal Democrats are in trouble anyway, with their popularity at only 11% of the vote. They seem to be reliving the 1920s when they went from being part of a coalition with the Conservatives to fragmentation into three parts and almost disappeared as a party in parliament by the 1950s. If, as seems likely, they do not get proportional representation after the vote next May, then they could be back to a handful following the 2014 general election. In many ways, the Liberal Democrats' blunders are helping to make politics more extreme. Meanwhile David Cameron is shifting constituency borders and reducing the number of MPs by about 8% in order to engineer an automatic majority for the Conservatives and, with fixed term parliaments of 5 years, we will find it far harder to have unpleasant/incompetent governments removed.

Rioting did not overturn the decision in the House of Commons but it reduced the majority to a quarter of what could have once been expected. It should be noted that this was on an issue, which despite the fact that 42% of 18-year olds now go to university, in fact, does not affect the bulk of the UK population. Even with the rise of university attendance 58% of 18-year olds do not go to university; Scottish students do not pay fees; Welsh and Northern Irish fees will not rise. Families without children and people who have finished their education will not be affected. Yet, already the government is struggling to get a majority and trying to work out how to deal with riot after riot. Now, what will happen when the legislation removing the EMA comes up? What happens when the reduction in housing benefit really starts biting, especially in London where it is to have the most impact? What happens when hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are out of work, especially in places like South Wales and North-East England where in some towns the public sector makes up 40-55% of the workforce? What happens when the 2011 equivalent of the Jarrow Crusade reaches London? As I have noted before, the extremity of the government's policies has triggered off such a reaction far faster than any government of the 20th century. It may believe that the worst of the unrest is over, but I think that this is only the beginning. If we have had such a severe response to policies which only hits a slice of the population, can you imagine what will happen when the policies that affect so many more of us begin to come into force?

This government seems to have no interest in compromise, so the only solution left for it will be repression. The police were out in force across central London last night, but ironically, as I have noted before, just at a time when they will be called on more, they too are being cut. Incompetence seems to already be playing a part. The failure to defend the Conservative Party Headquarters four weeks ago, and the inability, last night, to defend the Treasury and Supreme Court buildings, let alone Prince Charles and Duchess Camila in their car, shows that a lot of work needs to be done. Again, I emphasise, that in contrast to what will come, this was a pretty small incident. I quite expect that a 'Bannmeile', i.e., a German term meaning a zone around government buildings in which no protest is permitted, will be introduced to Westminster and Whitehall, with the kind of gates we see at the entrance to Downing Street, or, at least, a 'ring of steel' as is around the City of London financial district being introduced. I am sure public order penalties will rise. I noticed when in London last week that MI5 is actively recruiting staff. I did wonder if they were using the right media by advertising in the free 'Metro' newspaper, but I suppose if they are looking to recruit homeless people and students to infiltrate the rioting groups, this is probably the correct channel as thousands of copies of 'Metro' are daily littered across London's public transport and streets.

These steps will only address the symptoms rather than the causes of unrest in the UK. I am a left-winger who would be opposed to a Conservative government, but it has taken the leadership of David Cameron to lead me to begin doubting democracy, to sit watching television cheering on the rioters as they smashed the windows of the Treasury and wishing that Charles and Camila had been dragged from their cars and beaten up. This was something even Thatcher took 10 years to achieve. With no hope for my future or that of the 9-year old living in my house, you can see why people are radicalised. Lecturers at the University of London have praised the protests (though not the rioting) and more buildings are occupied by students at the moment than any time in the past forty years. Opponents of government always have levels in their structure. You can see this if you study any revolutionary group or terrorist groups such as ETA, IRA and RAF. There is a small group at the centre who carry out the action, but vital for their survival are the next two layers, far less visible. There is the layer of people who provide funds and active support and then the layer who provide passive support, might hide an operative on the run for the night, etc. Whilst the focus is on the rioters, the government seems oblivious to the fact that the anger they are provoking is rippling quickly through society and rapidly building up these layers of active and passive supporters. I imagine these are people who MI5 will also go against. So, if this blog goes offline, you will know what has happened!

Of course, David Cameron and his cronies have absolute faith in what they are doing. It is clear that they want to reshape society under the cover of addressing the deficit, which ironically was incurred to help out their banker friends. I believe they, but probably not everyone in the state machine, is blind to how they are radicalising the population. As they take away any hope we might have, they remove more and more of what we might lose if we protest or riot. People with nothing to lose are the most dangerous. People with a lot less to lose than they once did are the necessary structure for the active radicals to thrive. The government must stop its harsh policies or the coalition will crumble within a year or two, and this period will go down in history as the one which saw more unrest and public violence than the UK had witnessed in a century.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Are Authors Vampires of Others' Lives?

A couple of months back in 'The Guardian' newspaper and elsewhere there was commentary on how authors take revenge on people.  The latest in a long list (and foolishly I have lost the articles which have named historic examples), is Jonathan Franzen who in 'Freedom' passes a harsh comment on fellow author Ian McEwan's novel 'Atonement'.  I have found an article from 'The Independent' listing some others:  These include Alexander Pope in the eighteenth century ridiculing a love-rival and more recently novelist Jilly Cooper featuring a goat named after a critic of hers from twenty years earlier in her recent novel 'Jump' (2010).  Melvyn Bragg included a caricature of interviewer Lynn Barber in his 1992 novel 'Crystal Rooms' following an awkward interview between them two years earlier; Sebastian Faulks apparently caricatured reviewer D.J Taylor in his novel 'A Week in December' (2009) and Taylor did the same in return in his 'At the Chime of the City Clock' published this year.  There has been commentary that now rather than be subtle in doing it, especially to reviewers, authors simply send a harsh tweet such as Alison Flood and Alain de Botton last year.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am often frustrated that people are able to do bad things to me, especially to impugn me with impunity.  Though it is a painless form of revenge, I have got some recompense from treating versions of these people in bad ways in my writing, though I have kept those stories off this blog.  It can be unhealthy to focus your stories in this way if you let the revenge taking dominate, but it other ways it is useful.  The behaviour of these people is never unique to them and you can be sure that many of your readers will have met people who behave in the same foolish or nasty ways.  It also allows you to have a believable element to your 'villains' and for personal experience I know it can be very satisfying to feel that at least in one context, you have some revenge. 

I think the concept of Karma and of 'vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord' come about because most of us get no chance to get any come-back against those who treat us badly so our only compensation is that sometime in the future, probably when we are not around to witness those who do us bad will have to pay.  In fact, they probably never will, but that is hard for us to accept.  This world, especially UK society today is unfair.  We live in the time that the rich and privileged benefit at the expense of the rest of us.  The bad are winning out with little chance for the good people to regain anything; just look how badly nurses and the elderly who have given their all, suffer. These days so many people are self-centred, and even worse, self-righteous with it, meaning that not only can they not see the perspective of anyone else they also feel that you are wrong not to totally accept their personal viewpoint of how the world should be.  In particular they love you to 'recant' outlining in detail and length how wrong you have been.  In such circumstances, to retain any self-respect, we either need faith in divine or natural justice or to find a safe way to take revenge.

Taking revenge in the fiction you write is an explicit way of drawing real people into your writing, often the one that people look out for.  However, it is not that uncommon a process, it happens constantly in all fiction.  Whilst we may conjure up exotic and alien characters, the bulk of how we portray them is based on the accumulation of what the author has seen of real people or read about them in others' books whether fiction or non-fiction or seen in other media, notably these days, movies.  All of these sources give us a sense of how people behave.  A friend of mine, himself a non-fiction writer, accused me of stealing people's lives to use in my writing.  His accusation was that he was more honest in his use of the lives of others often for legal reasons, compelled to gain his subjects' approval before writing about them.  He felt I was exploitative and devious in using people, often many more than he did, without seeking their approval first.

Given that I am not a prolific author, nor a successful one, I seem to get more than my fair share of people telling me how I should write and criticising me for now doing it the way they feel is not only advisable but necessary.  Back in 2008 I commented on the other friend who complained if I wrote about anything I had not directly experienced and certainly from the perspective of any character who was of a different age, gender or ethnicity than myself.  See:  I know there were critiques in the 1970s of writing the history of a culture that was not your own leading to the development of what came to be known as 'subaltern history', i.e. the history of peoples ruled over by others written by descendants just of those people.  Personally I welcome histories from every perspective.  I would also be careful in drawing such lines and saying that particular perspectives are somehow 'better'.  I am a descendant of my grandfather, one among many, but who is to say that I understand his life or could write his history any better than say an anthropologist from India who had made a particular study of white, skilled working class men living in North London in the mid-20th century?  I see legitimacy not only in anyone's story but in anyone's telling of anyone else's story.  This may be controversial, but I fear that unless we have a broad view on what is 'permissible' in writing and other media, we will choke off so much good (and bad) art.  Should Ang Lee have been barred from directing 'Sense and Sensibility' (1995), David Cronenberg from directing 'Eastern Promises' (2007); should Sebastian Faulks have been blocked from writing many of his novels, because he is not French; should Nicole Jordan be barred from writing historical romance because she lives in the 21st century not the 18th; should Anne Rice be blocked from writing about vampires because she is not one?  We certainly would have no 'Watership Down' (1972) until a rabbit could operate a wordprocessor and 'Star Wars' could never had been legitimately produced in this galaxy under such regulations.

Authors draw on everything that interests them, everything they see, hear, touch, taste and smell.  They draw on other writers' stories, but above all they draw on human life.  Authors are human, they are flawed.  They fill their books with assumptions and prejudices as everyone else does.  Of course, we would spurn those fuelling hatred in what they write, but it is important to understand why they write it not simply say everything should be censored.  Humans are constant story tellers, diarists even lie to their diaries, but everything that is written, in particular for novels, draws on an author's take on the world and the people they meet in it.  There is exploitation, but fiction authors do not somehow drain away the souls of the people they feature in their stories.  As it is, most often, even when historical or contemporary characters appear under their own names, they are presented as the author sees them, not as they or their loved ones might see them.  However, saying that, how different do people appear in different biographies of them?  Even those trying to adhere to non-fiction, cannot but help putting elements of themselves and their perspectives into their books, if simply by choosing what to include.

Perhaps I have been more challenged about the intellectual basis of my fiction writing than the average amateur author is.  I imagine that the many tens of thousands of people writing fiction in their homes possibly at their very moment have to justify how they go about conjuring up the tens, the hundreds of fictional characters they create in the way that I have done.  Perhaps I have been apologetic for too long and should be more assertive that like every other author, I will take fragments, some large, some small from dozens of people I meet and will then blend them together into my characters.  Sometimes, yes, like the authors seeking revenge, I will bring almost an entire person into my writing, but I trust that my humanity means I only do it in retribution and my use of them will be minor compared to the distress they have inflicted on me.  In particular, I am no bestseller, no Booker prize winner, so my revenges (and there have been very few) will have a very limited audience.  However, even if the audience is simply me, it helps my state of mind to get a little bit back from being treated unjustly.  Perhaps authors are vampires, but like vampires, in most cases we only tend to take a little from each person and it is what sustains us in what we do.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Tell Us About Yourself

It is funny how fantasies about your future life become quickly entrenched until you believe them without question.  A lot of people when children make assumptions that they will be married, have children, have a particular kind of career, go to certain places and do not really question these assumptions until probably they are having their 'mid-life crisis'.  Spending a lot of time reflecting on my life, being a diarist, perhaps I have questioned these assumptions sooner.  As I have noted in previous postings, I had a very bleak view of my future and ironically with a long period of unemployment, that view of my life is coming true rather than any more positive expectations that I had.  We seem to be moving very quickly into the bleak, hopeless society in which the privileged only get wealthier and more privileged and the rest of us fight for the crumbs they drop, which I had expected Britain would become by the late 1980s.  Of course, I thought it was quite likely that we would be in a nuclear wasteland or something resembling society in 'Blade Runner' (1982).  It is probably due to this perception that I never expected to get married or have children, though, looking back, I do see that I did anticipate that I would find work as an adult even though I expected the economy to be struggling, perhaps more like the society in 'Brazil' (1985), all drab with us as office drones.  To some degree, I think it is because, when I went to university only 6% of 18-year olds did (I was 20 by then anyway) and so I did feel I was in a privileged sub-set even if at the bottom of that group in terms of future opportunities.  I never expected my life to be as opportunity-free as it has proven, though I did anticipate that problem (pretty accurately) more widely in society.

I realise that there were some small scale, unrealistic, assumptions that it has taken me a long time to shake off.  One was that some day I would have a book published and be able to be reviewed and do book signings and even appear on television talking about my book.  It took me until the mid-2000s to realise that with over 40,000 unpublished novels in circulation in the UK at any one time now, that the chances of me being published is probably as narrow as winning the lottery and with a lot more effort involved to get such long odds.  I went about it entirely the wrong way I see now.  Rather than become famous from writing novels, I should have realised (and the example of Jeffery Archer was already around in the 1980s) that I had to become famous for something else first so that I would then get my books published, no matter how poor the quality.  Just look at Melvyn Bragg, Alan Titchmarsh, Roy Hattersley let alone the supermodels' novels.

The other assumption I realise I made, was to some degree connected with becoming a successful novelist.  It was that some day I would be asked by a newspaper to complete one of those questionnaires that they give celebrities each week.  They ask the same questions of each and get short answers usually making up a single page of a magazine supplement.  This style of article, to my knowledge, has been around at least thirty years and I would find myself as a teenager thinking how I would respond to these questions, naturally not questioning that I would be important enough to be considered for such an article.  I remember now that I used to also think up what records I would suggest for 'Desert Island Discs' a radio show that asks celebrities to choose eight records and some other items they would have to have if stranded on a desert island.  I do not know if it still runs.  I heard only a couple of episodes of this programme in the 1980s but read a book about it, so often would draw up lists in my mind of what records I would choose and what I would say about them.  I guess it is little different to the 'mix tapes' teenaged boys in particular would make of their favourite tunes often to give to girlfriends.  We have gone through mix CDs to iPod playlists compiled on this basis now.  These days I listen to very little music and have never downloaded a track and have not bought a CD since the mid-2000s, so it is probably no surprise that my consideration of what would be on my list has faded from my mind.

I am still reminded of the 'questionnaire' interview because it is regularly used by 'The Guardian' newspaper on Saturdays when I buy it.  Looking through some recently I was reminded of my teenaged assumptions that I would one day be featured in such an article.  Reaching 43, being unemployed and losing my house, it seems more unlikely than ever that I will ever be featured in one.  Thus, I decided as with the other things I have posted here as the 'lead tablets' to cast them out of the clutter of my mind, it was probably a good idea to quesionnaire myself.  The one that follows is a mixture of the one currently used in the 'The Guardian' magazine combined with a few other interesting questions they and other newspapers have used in the past.  I do not care if no-one else is interested in this, this posting is very much for my own peace of mind.

Alexander Rooksmoor:
43 years old
unemployed office manager,
failed author;
semi-active blogger since May 2007.

When were you happiest?
Before the age of 2; on a handful of days out drinking with my best friend; a few days on holiday, most recently one lunchtime in Swanage.

What is your greatest fear?
Torture and being made homeless.

What is your earliest memory?
There are two memories which I can call to my mind's eye which I now know could not be genuine.  The first is seeing myself from a third person perspective as a baby being handed over to my mother in hospital.  Given that my brother was born at home, I can only think this is a memory of seeing one of my cousins being given to my aunt.  The other is me watching a football match in colour in the living room of the house where my parents still live and being told that it was 1972.  This would not have been my first memory as I was 5-6 in 1972 and I remember starting school which I did at the age of 4 in 1971.  However, I now know this is also a false memory as my parents did not own a colour television until many years later.  Perhaps the first genuine memory is crawling up to the French windows and hefting a metal-headed hammer to smash in the small wood-framed panes in it.  I have a dim memory of this event but it has been corroborated by my family, I was 2 at the time.  The greatest set of memories I have of the time that have not been revived by looking at photos, are of the play school I attended, when I must have been 3-4.

Which living person do you most admire and why?
Tony Benn for continuing the faith that the world can be a more equitable and fair place.

Which living person do you most despise and why?
Margaret Thatcher for making greed, selfishness and callousness 'normal'.  Rather than a state funeral, I encourage people to riot on her death.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Fear, followed by wrath, then self-righteousness.  If incessant bad luck is a trait then that would be high on the list too.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Racism, followed by self-righteousness which often fuels racism.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
There have been many.  The one that still cuts is the moment, aged 10 that, I shoved the chain letters that would have continued the friendly chain started by friends of my girlfriend, down the side of an armchair, because, after weeks of ridicule, I could not stand the humiliation of my friends seeing the confirmation of a connection between me and the girl in question.  In those days no boy had a friend who was a girl until you hit puberty, but, precociously, I felt I had found my soulmate.  I was torn between ridicule on one side and disappointing the girl in question on the other.  She was disappointed, but I held the shame longer.  When I apologised to her 10 years later, she dismissed it as nothing.  I was not to have a girlfriend for another 12 years.

Property aside, what is the most expensive item you have bought?
A second hand car for £3,350 in 2002.  I sold it in 2007 for £400 and I still see it occasionally parked in my street.

What things do you always carry with you?
Coins in a change purse, very taped up at the moment; a selection of house and bicycle lock keys on a lanyard; Dextrosol tablets usually lemon or orange flavour, never blackcurrant; two handkerchiefs much to some people's dismay; Polo mints; my 'memory book' a tiny notebook made by my lover; a pen; insulin injector; stamps; restaurant business cards even though I cannot afford to eat at them.  I used to always carry some matches even though I have never smoked, a small two-ended penknife inherited from a grandfather [until carrying even small knives was banned], a camera and a hardbacked notebook which I bought in Freiburg-in-Breisgau in 1989.

What is your most treasured possession?
My imagination.  I always fear I will lose it to Alzheimer's.

What single thing would improve your quality of life?
A permanent job.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
So many things battle for primacy in my dislike: front runners at present are my piggy freckled face, my flabby tummy marked with a scar, the large scar across my genitals, the sides of my head which look so long as to be alien, my hunched shoulders.

What makes you unhappy?
Fearing the future for myself, my loved ones, Britain and the World as a whole.

What things keep you awake at night?
Hemorrhoids, fear of having my house repossessed, nightmares of torture or mutation (as opposed to mutilation which tends to be encompassed by the previous category).

If you could go back in time, where would you go?
When asked this question as a teenager there was no time that I preferred as I knew they were all unpleasant and barbaric.  I think I would go to 26th July 1945, the day the victory of the Labour Party under Clement Attlee was announced and a better world seemed possible.  More generally I would go to the 1890s Britain when it seemed that the possibility of a better world was possible if you fought for it.  I would certainly go to early 12th century Antioch out of curiosity, to Germany in the 1920s to get real background for my novels, to Renaissance Florence, to London to see the first run of one of Shakespeare's plays and to die in Spain during the Spanish Civil War so I could die for a cause I believed in.

If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would it be?
Compassion for other humans we meet.  Graciousness.

If you could edit your life, what part would you change?
I certainly would cut out the bullying, notably by my parents.  I had low self-esteem, but it was really crushed by humiliation both at the hands of fellow pupils when at primary and secondary school reinforced by parents' incessant portrayal of me, to my face, as 'wrong' in so many ways.  Some might say it instilled humility in me, but I think I had that enough and, instead, it left me struggling to cope with achieving anything once I entered my later teenage years and especially after I had left home.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Back in 1991/2 my best friend drew up a cast list for ourselves and people we knew for a movie of our lives.  Pretty arrogant by a fun pub activity.  I think Patrick Stewart would be best placed to play me now, on physical grounds, but it would be a challenging role because he tends to be far more positive about life in the roles he plays than I have ever been.  The late Ken Campbell would have been ideal.

What would be your fancy dress costume of choice?
I usually get cast as Uncle Fester for fancy dress events.  I would like to choose from one of Jeremy Brett's costumes as Sherlock Holmes in the television series.

What would your motto be?
This fluctuates, for a long time it was 'Semper Diligentia, Semper Felix' [Always hard working, always happy] from when I assumed I was going to be ennobled at some time despite my opposition to the House of Lords.  It became the more venacular 'Better busy than bored'.  I think these reflect my life, but a motto should be a message to the future and on that basis I would choose between 'A life lived in fear, is a life half-lived' or 'It is better to die on your feet than to live forever on your knees', neither of which are my invention.

What is your favourite word?

What words do you over-use?
'Of course', 'Today, I' and 'fuck'.

What is the worst thing anyone has said to you?
There is a long list.  The thing that probably lingered with me longest is 'You'll never be the answer to a maiden's prayer'.  Another one which lasted long is 'You must apologise for asking me out' [asking the woman speaking out on a date].  'You are strange' and 'I've only just met this man but I already hate him' [referring to me to others even though I was standing there] come close behind.

Have you ever said 'I love you' to anyone and not meant it?
I have never said it to my parents or my brother and they have never said it to me, which is good as I love none of them. I have said 'I love you' to only three people in the world. One of them I did love at the time but to her I was a convenience and while I no longer love her, I bear no grievance against her. The other two, a woman and her son, I do love still and tell them as often as I can.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Eating chocolate [being a diabetic], masturbating [as it is for most men] and watching action movies, occasionally all three simultaneously.

What is your favourite food?
Depending on the time of year and where I am, one of the following: a good fish curry, grilled trout, roast pheasant or boar, a ploughman's lunch.

What is your favourite smell?
My lover's skin and croissants cooking in a French bakery, both together if possible.

What is your favourite book?
'The Book of Heroic Failures' by Stephen Pile (1979), one of the only books I have read more than once.  Its gentle humour is lifting, and its illustration that others struggle with life, but are 'heroic' still, is inspirational.  I love the concept, the title and the content of this book.

What is the love of your life?
The only woman who stayed with me more than 16 months.  For a real 'what' rather than a 'who', it used to be that moment in a cinema just before the movie started.  Nowadays it would be winning a challenging victory at the last on a computer wargame.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Jesus Christ, his wife and any of their children, just to find out.  Mo Mowlem, La Pasionara and Rosa Luxembourg to be inspired.  Laurie Lee for his stories during the meal.  Thomas Paine for a refresher in what radical thinking entails.  Napoleon Bonaparte and Saladin for their reminiscences.  Leonardo Da Vinci for an after-dinner slide show of inventions we never saw.  Mary Shelley for an after-dinner ghost story.  Keir Hardie and Winston Churchill to talk about the Great Upheaval.  Tommy Cooper for entertainment.  My father's parents who were always gracious hosts.  Of the living: Terry Pratchett, Tony Benn, Mark Thomas and Moira Stewart.  I always thought of having a living comedian, but my choice has changed over the years.  Once it would have been, in sequence, Phil Cool, Lenny Henry, Lee Evans, Alan Davies and now, in the dinner party setting rather than on stage, Noel Fielding or Dara O'Briain, along with Milton Jones who would keep up constant banter.  Comedian Jimeoin would have to come after I had stopped eating otherwise I would risk choking on my food.

If you had a super power what would it be?
I have constantly thought about the ability to teleport myself in my life, so I think it would be the power that I would be best equipped to deal with.  Given what I answered to the question above about when in time I would like to visit, then a time travelling ability would be very useful to me.  It might also show me that bad decisions I believe I made were the only right decision at the time.

I would be quite happy to swap a super power for the power to learn a foreign language well, to be able to do a martial art and to play a musical instrument.

What is the worst job you have ever done?
Wrapping shrink wrap around 2-metre high cages of food before they were loaded on to lorries throughout a 10-hour night shift, and, being told on my first (and only) night on the job that I was not doing it fast enough.  Having been turning round and round the cages all night in the same direction, I could barely walk without falling over when the shift ended.  I refused to return to the job.  I have done jobs cleaning out rotten food, especially melted ice cream and mouldy cheese in warehouses, not half as bad as that job.

What has been your biggest disappointment?
My life.

What has been your greatest regret?
That I have always been too fearful of possible outcomes to have pursued what I have believed in, to the extent that I should have done.

If you could edit your past, what would you change?
First the occasions when I should have spoken, said anything, and did not.  Then the occasions when I spoke and I should have stayed quiet.  I was correct to speak on those occasions but using some other medium to get the message across would have helped me have an easier life.

When did you last cry and why?
Seeing my lover and her son curled up together asleep on a bed.  Mainly because it was a very touching scene and I was aware it might be the last time I would see them like that.

How do you relax?
These days, blogging.  I find I become very engaged in it, it vents my anger and I forget about all my problems as I focus on what I am writing.  Indulging in my guiltiest pleasures is another way.

What is the closest you have come to death?
Walking alone in the hills overlooking Oxford in 1994 when I suddenly got spasms in my feet and fell over.  The main reason why I survived is because I felt it was ridiculous to die in sight of Oxford and managed to drag myself, sometimes walking backwards barefooted to a pub.

Possibly even closer was driving, joining the M3 from the M27, during a rain storm one morning in 2006 when a cars from the left and the right of me both decided to overtake and then cross over a couple of metres in front of me.  How all three of us did not collide, I have no idea.  The junction is tricky as the inside lane of the two-lane slip road continues running beside the M27 to become the exit slip road for Eastleigh, effectively giving the M27 four lanes at that point.  I had been in the outside lane of the slip road which had then merged into the slow lane of the M27. The car on my left had overtaken me on the inside on the slip road and now moved across two lanes to the middle lane of the M27.  At the same moment, the car on my right moved from the M27's middle lane moved across two lanes to the lane for the Eastleigh exit.  Statistically all of us should have died.  It was only because I had slowed to 60 mph to comply with the matrices, plus luck, that we did not.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Too many people act on the basis of how something appears superficially rather than on the basis of the deeper truth.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Not being unemployed for longer than I was.

What song would you like played at your funeral?
Difficult question, probably 'Concierto de Aranjuez' by JoaquĆ­n Rodrigo (1939) at the start and 'Bring Me To Life' by Evanescence (2003) at the end, though like most people I have a whole set of tunes and songs I would like played.  I would love it if the people who attended, assuming there are some, left to the theme from 'The Water Margin' by Masaro Sato (1973) as I hope it will inspire them to get out there and challenge some of the injustices of the world.

How would you like to be remembered?
As better than I am in reality.  I hope people will remember a good friend, someone who spoke plainly, someone who stood up for what he believed in, someone who was an entertaining raconteur and someone who was considerate and understanding.  Quite a tall order it seems.

Tell us a joke.
Q: How many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Fish.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Collapse of the British Tax System

Recently I watched an episode of the long-running BBC television programme 'Panorama'.  The particular programme was entitled 'Are You Paying Too Much Tax'.  It featured a number of case studies of people sent erroneous and often conflicting information by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) the part of the civil service responsible for assessing and collecting tax.  One couple had been sent 13 different tax codes in the space of a few weeks.  The tax code determines how much PAYE (Pay As You Earn) tax you pay.  PAYE is the way that most people have tax taken from them, only the self-employed tend to avoid it.  Around 40 million people pay tax through PAYE.  The PAYE system is simple, most people do not study their tax code in detail and assume their employer is deducting the correct amount of tax. This year due to problems with new software being introduced 1.4 million people had underpaid by a total of £2 billion (€2.28 billion; US$3.44 billion), but 1.8 million had overpaid by a total of £4.3 billion.  In total 6 million may have been affected by some errors in the past two years and a total of 18 million people if cases from before 2008 are included. 

The key problem was the introduction of the NPS software which was supposed to make tax assessment and collection more accurate and efficient.  However, as anyone who has worked with databases at any scale knows, significant errors creep in when moving over to a new database. A classic case of this was when the 1901 census was put online.  First the database was populated by prisoners who put 'bastard' or some other derogatory phrase beside anyone listed as a police officer or prison warden.  Then it was shipped out to India where in ignorance of British surnames, it was assumed from the lists that 'Ditto' was by far the most common surname in the UK in 1901.  These were extreme examples, but always errors creep in because humans especially low-paid data entry clerks, are fallible.

There is also a long history of government departments suffering greatly from failing software.  Just this year the £12.7 billion NHS (National Health Service) computerised record system was deemed 'close to imploding'.  The project, called the National Programme, has already lasted seven years with failures in software and over-runs in implementation, unsurprisingly numerous companies have pulled out or slashed their bills for the work.  You can find articles going back into the early 2000s around failed IT projects in the NHS for a whole variety of activities, often over-running.  Partners like Fujitsu seem to come back to work for the NHS only to fail and withdraw again.

Air traffic control in the UK has also suffered a great deal from IT and software errors.  Twice in 2000 software 'glitches' shut down British air traffic control for hours.  The move of British air traffic control from West Drayton near London to Swanwick near the south coast was supposed to overcome such problems.  The move did not occur until 2002, six years later than originally planned and even then software problems continued and even in 2008 they were still suffering disruptions due to the software.  It was a similar story at Prestwick which handles Scottish airspace.  In 2009 there was another computer failure at Prestwick, preventing cross-Atlantic flights.   These are just two examples of how important parts of organisations linked to the government (air traffic control was part privatised with the formation of NATS - National Air Traffic Services in 2001), suffered and continue to suffer from computer and software problems.  You could have predicted something similar for the HMRC.

Tax is becoming more complex for individuals because many of us have more than one job at a time or pick up short periods of work which we do not pay PAYE tax on.  Since the early 2000s far more people have had to do their own tax returns in the way that everyone seems to in the USA, but at least if you do that then you have an idea of what figures are going in and you can tell quickly if what you are being asked to pay seems wrong.

Now, in January 2010, even before the October cutbacks were even dreamt of ('nightmared of' may be more accurate), the HMRC had announced the closure of 130-200 offices and redundancy for 25,000 staff .  The amount of unpaid tax that was going to be written off, i.e. tax the HMRC was no longer going to pursue had already risen from 23% in 2006 to 40% in 2009.  It is estimated there is £17 billion owed in unpaid tax and for a sizeable minority of those people, generally rich, self-employed people, they will now not ever be pursued.  The amount of current unpaid tax is equivalent to 2% of all government expenditure in 2009 (£631 billion) and more than double what is spent on international development; welfare (excluding pensions) took £97 billion in 2009; defence £42 billion, so though while it would not dent those figures greatly, it is a significant amount.  In October it was announced that the budget for HMRC would be cut by £990,000 but it was assumed that £7-8 billion would be recouped in going after unpaid tax, though presumably not the £1.5 billion of the bills that arose from the computers which it now seems to be being written off too, due to popular pressure.  If the HMRC recoups less revenue then its funding will effectively fall further.  It has seen a 24% reduction in staff since 2004 even under Labour and a further 14% (around 10-12,000 staff) in the next five years; staffing will be 58-60,000 compared to 105,000 back in the early 2000s.

It seems ironic that when we know that there are billions of pounds of unpaid tax and the computer system is worsening the situation, that the part of the civil service which brings in revenue is being cut even further.  It clearly has been unable to do the job for the last five years (even 23% tax avoidance seems high) and this will worsen in the future.  What is this going to mean to the average tax payer?  Well, as anyone who has tried telephoning a UK tax office knows, you are very unlikely to have your phonecall answered.  The woman in my house tried for 1 hour per day for 3 days without getting a reply.  It is clear that many more of us will get the wrong amount of tax taken off us.  Those people who work in a number of jobs or freelance and quite often get over-taxed as each employer charges you at the full rate, will probably never see their overpayments refunded. 

Of course, in contrast to ordinary people, the government and their allies will be laughing.  The Conservatives have always pushed to reduce tax levels, but it is clear now, that when that is not politically acceptable, they simply let their rich supporters not pay any tax at all or only the amount they wish to pay.  Lord Ashcroft  former treasurer of the Conservative Party, and David Rowland who was offered the post next but withdrew both went into tax exile or failed to pay taxes in the UK.  Ashcroft saved £127 million in taxes by not being resident in the UK. 

'The 'Guardian' quoting Robert Peston gives a wonderful illustration of how much Sir Philip Green, an advisor to the Coalition Government avoided paying on a single dividend  in 2005: ' ...a tax saving to Sir Philip that has been estimated at £300m. That one dividend payment ... was equivalent to what 54,000 people on average earnings would earn in a year, would build around 10 secondary schools capable of educating some 13,000 young people, or, if paid in an unlikely column of pound coins, would tower 2,350 miles about the Earth's surface.'

Lord Laidlaw a big funder of the Conservative Party and because he was made a lord, a member of the House of Lords, part of the British parliament, stopped funding the party due to questions over the amount of tax he was paying.  He is a resident of Monaco, not the UK.  Of course, these four are only a miniscule fraction of the 6 million British tax exiles.

These men are just the tip of the iceberg.  I think as a sop to people like me, the government says it is going after 'offshore' accounts held by people who owe tax in the UK.  Apparently British people have £125 billion in Swiss banks and in an agreement with Swiss authorities £3 billion of unpaid tax on such money will be repatriated; close to £1 billion is supposed to come back from Liechtenstein and another £1 billion from other tax havens around the world, though not the Cayman Islands which apparently has the largest amount of British money held overseas to avoid tax.  Even with a larger, better funded HMRC these people have been getting away with massive tax avoidance.  How much easier is it going to be for such people now that the HMRC is being shrunk further and its funding reduced?  Of course, these people tend to be Conservative voters and particularly supportive of the hard-line New Right policies Cameron has adopted.
Thus, as with so much of the current government policies, the approach to the HMRC means that ordinary people will suffer more.  We will get confused statements without explanation, may be under or over charged without our knowledge and then be asked for the money back or have to wait for years for our refund, if it ever comes.  I believe I have paid £16,000 too much tax because of confusion over me selling my flat to buy a house (they assumed I owned more than one property at a time, which I never did, I have only owned one property and part of another in my life and never at the same time) but I have no hope that my query will ever be answered.  In the meantime, those who have already saved millions in tax will find it even easier to avoid paying any tax and presumably will be freer to reward their friends in the Conservative Party and to spend their money on boosting the income of Monaco or Belize or some other tax haven rather than contributing to the ailing UK economy.  Every week it seems there is just yet another area in which the ordinary people of the UK are rapidly and vigorously being shafted so that the privileged can benefit even more than before.  Clearly I should set up an IT or software company specifically selling defective systems to government departments, that would keep me in work for 6-7 years and pay me millions even if I produce nothing that works.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Rioting And Reaction

David Cameron should be proud of himself, it took Margaret Thatcher two years before her government faced rioting and yet his policies to throw us back into some Edwardian-style society and shut off opportunity for all of those people who are not already in the elite he moves in, meant he had his first riot just six months after coming to power.  In addition, it was a political riot, one directed at the policies of the government, rather than, as with many riots in 1981, focused on local friction with police behaviour.  The riot was not extensive, only 56,000 people (150% more than had been expected), primarily students protesting about the raising of fees for the young people reaching university age in the next few years.  It was primarily focused on the Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank in central London.  There were acts of vandalism and rioters got on to the roof of the building.  However, overall 14 people a mix of rioters and police were hospitalised and 35 people arrested, which is very small scale compared to riots in London of the 1980s and 1990s.  However, this may be just the beginning.

Interestingly, in contrast to the G20 protest last year, at which the police went in very forcefully and murdered a passerby, and even when compared to the original round of protests against student loans, famously in 1989 with mounted police riding down student protestors, some of whom later showed the hoof marks on their shins when they had been trampled by the horses and images of students being clubbed by batons, the police response was very low key.  This has angered Conservative Party members as there was no police protection of their headquarters as the focus had been on the nearby headquarters of their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.  I imagine this was due to the earlier protests outside the house of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.  Police have been criticised for under-estimating the scale of the disorder and not bringing in a large enough force.  They had, however, protected Whitehall ministerial buildings, which in the past have been a target.

I think there are a number of reasons for the nature of the response.  First, the weather was terrible on the days either side of the riot, Wednesday 10th November.  If it had been as bad that day I doubt we would have seen even 20,000 protestors and it is unlikely rioting would have started.  However, it was sunny and dry.  There is a clear correlation in the UK between good weather and rioting.  The second thing is, after the criticisms the police received after the murder of Ian Tomlinson (a passerby not even a protestor) by a police officer during the G20 protests in April 2009, they are probably a little more careful and the aggressive policy of hunting out the protestors and breaking them up or even 'kettling' them was avoided.  Perhaps the police saw students as being 'different' to the G20 protestors, though the bulk of them were ordinary people, not revolutionaries.  On Wednesday the police reacted rather than being proactive.  However, I think, at the next large scale protest they will being encouraged by Home Secretary Theresa May, who in effect, unlike with other constabularies in the UK, heads the Metropolitan Police, to take a more aggressive line and certainly to put a ring of officers around the Conservative Party headquarters.

There is another more mischievous explanation for the Metropolitan Police's reaction, particularly in leaving Conservative Party headquarters unprotected.  On 20th October the government announced cuts of 20% in the police budget.  I have not seen the figures for the reduction this is likely to mean for the size of the Metropolitan Police, but we can make some estimate from looking at other constabularies.  The Greater Manchester Police employ just over 13,000 staff (this includes all uniformed and plain clothes police and all civilian workers in the constabulary), the West Midlands Police, almost the same.  These two constabularies reckon they will have to shed 3,100 and 2,100 employees respectively, i.e. between 16%-24% of their workforce.  Not all the losses will be uniformed officers, but some will have to be.  If the same ratio of job losses is applied to the Metropolitan Police with a little over 52,000 employees then it means laying off something between 8,300 - 12,500 employees.  Given that it is argued that Britain continues to face potential terrorist attacks which most likely would target London and with the crime rate always rising as unemployment climbs as it is at present, you can see why the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, might feel that it is the worst time to be cutting the police service so severely.

Thus, perhaps next time there is the risk of a riot, the Metropolitan Police will say, 'well we would love to be able to protect Conservative Party headquarters' but unfortunately the cut-backs mean we cannot spare the officers to do so'.  This shows how the government's widespread cuts hitting at all parts of public service, are to a degree politicising sections of that service which normally would never come close to protesting.  The last time the UK had a police strike was in 1918, but it seems we may be on the path to another one.  Firefighters have struck more often, but usually on a localised basis, but already, only six months into Cameron regime we are seeing strikes of the nature that the Labour government of 1974-9 only experienced in its closing months.

Now, looking beyond the immediate issues of the likelihood of more rioting and the challenges for the police in dealing with it, are there bigger political moves behind all this?  Of course, we know from the early 1980s, groups such as the Socialist Workers' Party (and back then Militant Tendency) believe that a revolution will only come about when the bulk of the population, even those who typically cannot tear themselves away from watching 'The X Factor' to even answer the door, are so angry with the government that they strike and riot.  I have always felt this was a delusional policy, the British are far too passive a bunch ever to even protest on the scale we have seen in France over the past two months, let alone something more active.  British society is incredibly divided and people tend to blame others on their level or specific groups like students, the unemployed, single mothers, immigrants, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, gay people, people from the North/the South/Scotland/Ireland rather than the government.  We have already seen the rumblings of race rioting which was another aspect of the 1970s and 1980s (and the 1950s and the 1910s...). 

What I think is more likely is that there will be a counter-reaction by the state.  A riot on the scale of the Poll Tax Riot of 1990 would play right into David Cameron's hands; it would be what the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks were for George W. Bush, they gave him carte blanche to strip citizens of so many civil liberties.  Cameron in many ways takes the policies of Margaret Thatcher and drives them in harder and faster.  So, as Thatcher used the rhetoric of 'the enemy within' applied by dictators commonly to Jews, Socialists, Communists, also Catholics and Freemasons, and during the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 allowed police to pick up people driving around London simply on the suspicion that they were going to attend a coal mine rally, I can see this coming with Cameron, but even more harshly.  I have often commented how Tony Blair's govenment steadily eroded civil liberties in the UK.  Blair is the link in the chain between Thatcher and Cameron, advancing their agenda rather than reversing it; Major and Brown were barely hiccoughs in that process.  If Cameron cannot fund a larger police force, then he will use legislation, he will encourage the public to inform on their neighbours (something we have been encouraged to do for a number of years now) and given the restriction on prison spaces, other limits to personal freedom will be introduced.

A sub-headline on 'The Guardian' frontpage of Thursday said 'Both sides warn of 'more to come''.  Already 'sides' are being outlined.  Winter is not the time for rioting, but come April and beyond, especially if there is a hot summer, then I think we will see disturbances that will make 1981 look tranquil in comparison, partly because this government has unsettled not only those usually at odds with the state, but also very quickly, those like the police and firefighters, who generally we loyal to the state but now feel they are being stabbed in the back.  The government reaction, with the ground so well prepared by Blair, will be harsh, and with the cutbacks, will probably have to involve the military.  I do not think Cameron is an idiot, he may be evil, but no fool.  He must know that you cannot destroy the hopes of so many people and expect them to accept it passively.  Thus, I believe, as Thatcher prepared well in advance for the Miners' Strike, he is readying to oppose civil unrest and use the opportunity to suppress civil liberties that little bit further.  He believes he is right, because, as I increasingly believe with every passing day, he is bent on reshaping British society to something resembling the fixed hierarchical model of a hundred years or more in the past.