It’s Housing – Stupid

Tuesday 21st May

Many many years ago, when I was standing as a councilor in Finchley, an old Labour stalwart told me that the most pressing problem for ordinary people was housing.  And he was right, and he still is right.   As we drive around the villages surrounding Walton we see hundreds of ex-council houses, decent semi’s with large gardens and big rooms.  I grew up in a council house in Stowmarket and it was really nice; 3 bedrooms, large kitchen and sitting room and we were quite happy there.  The rent was quite low too.  Councils long ago gave up building decent houses, the best that can be managed today are tawdry flats.

The policy of selling council houses certainly helped those lucky individuals who were living in one at the time, but it has been a disaster as a long term policy.  The private market is facing another possible bubble, and while it makes house owners a bit wealthier it simply spells misery to those who are forced to rent, as prices rise faster than their savings.  Over the last fifty years house prices have, with a few dips, far exceeded inflation, and now have reached the ridiculous height of a half a million pounds for the average London house.  Who can possibly afford these properties; overseas buyers, speculators, people who already own a house for four hundred thousand – well certainly not first-time buyers, still living with their parents or paying extortionate rents.

And this is on the back of the Governments new Mortgage Guarantee Scheme, and ridiculously low interest rates; a perfect storm for another crash a few years down the line.  The answer is not to increase debt, either by Government or banks to individuals, this will only push prices higher, but to build more houses.  It was true in the early Seventies and it is true today.   Build lots of decent cheap housing for rent or purchase and you will make people happy, rather than a few people getting rich on the backs of the next generations struggles.  It would also help the economy, stupid.

When Niceness Shines Through

Monday 20th May

As a job lot, footballers are a pretty charmless bunch.  When one of them, usually through a paucity of other candidates, wins ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ one wonders just how badly named a title can be.  But occasionally there is an exception, one that breaks the mould, where a sense of genuineness and just ordinary decency shines through.

David Beckham seems to have always been with us, and yet of course it is only twenty years.  But in that time ‘Brand Beckham’ has grown into probably the most successful Sports induced marketing machine we have yet seen.  In a way it was similar to the ‘Beatles’, in that suddenly from out of nowhere everyone was talking about David, he was going to be the Saviour of the English game, he was young, blonde and good looking, and besides everything else a wonderful crosser of the ball.  And yet there was always something else too, an almost tongue in the cheek awareness that all the adulation, the plaudits, the honours were somehow undeserved.

He married Victoria, ‘Posh Spice’, and rather than this being a disaster it seems to be a marriage that works.  He was exposed as (or accused of being) an adulterer, and yet even this barely tarnished the image.  He got sent off in one of the most important games for England, which we went on to lose, and even here he rode the criticism and soon all was forgiven.  He was perfectly happy to be the butt of jokes on Comic Relief, and one cannot really imagine any other couple laughing quite so happily as they had the piss taken out of them.

He has had, I think, three children and appears to be the perfect father.  What on earth he will do with the millions he had acquired is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some charity with his name in it appears soon.   Almost uniquely amongst the celebrity sports men and women crowding our screens, the niceness of David Beckham come shining through.

Out and About

As I Get Older – part 2

Sunday 19th May

I simply cannot understand how so many young people are only interested in trash, in artifice, in style over substance.  So many young women are almost unrecognizable, with false nails, false eyelashes, drawn on eyebrows, push-up bras and tons of slap on their faces.  And most of them look just like cheap trash, I wonder if after all that is actually the effect they are after.  Is that what is considered sexy these days?  And what about the boys, do they feel a sense of disappointment when the chicken fillets come out of the bras, when the eyelashes are peeled off, when the magic knickers are discarded and the real woman slips into the bed beside them.

Probably not, after all they have been brought up on a diet of cheap easily accessible porn where that is what women look like.  At least in our day we had never seen a naked woman before, or only a clumsily air-brushed blurry image in Health and Efficiency.  I can still remember the thrill of your fingers slipping under the waist band of a girls skirt and panties and encountering those first few strands of pubic hair, only to have to wait weeks before daring to let your fingers drift deeper.   Now of course no woman under thirty five has pubic hair at all, it is as if it has all been air-brushed away somehow.  The ideal now is that of a pre-pubescent girl with big tits – talk about the sexualisation of young girls, this is the infantilizing of grown women.

And in this world that is all about image, where does personality, character, intelligence even, count.  Or is it the fact that straight after sex both parties get straight back onto their mobile phones rather than find out if there is actually a person behind the façade, a brain behind those false eyelashes, a heart beating under those silicone tits, a human being beneath all of this artifice?

The Case for Europe

Saturday 18th May

We are living through a period of intense ‘conservative-little-Englander-paranoia’.  We have UKIP stoking up the fires with their anti-Europe rhetoric, and now Tory MPs are queuing up to declare their Eurosceptic credentials, leapfrogging each other with their xenophobia.

I know that Europe is going through a bad patch at the moment; so is the UK, so too did America.  But there will be light at the end of this tunnel, things will get better and the economy everywhere will improve.  It may take a while but they are just as determined in Brussels to work their way out of it as we are here.

But in any case the argument for Europe has never been just an economic one.  It is about sharing; our culture, our ideas, our joint history and about a quality of life that is NOT determined solely by economics.  After the Second World War the major countries of Europe were determined never to fight again, and so joined each other to prevent that happening.  They may have created a monster, but that monster is capable of, and actually always is changing and every new set of politicians must address and reform it as needed.

But the current frenzy is threatening to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Do these Eurosceptics really believe that ‘at a stroke’ all our problems will fade if we get out, pull up the drawbridge on European workers, stop our farmers from selling British regional produce and forcibly re-patriate hundreds of thousands of people who have decided to go and live in another European country.

International co-operation will be the only way the human race really succeeds.  And without the solidarity that Europe offers do you really think we will stand a chance against China and the ‘Brics’ in this leaner and meaner Twenty-first Century.

All of us who love Europe must stand up now and fight these backswoodsmen who want to take us back to the days when Britain had an Empire.  Together we will succeed, divided we must surely fall.

Image of European Union

The Single Mum and the Screaming Child

Friday 17th May

Yet again my early morning peace is shattered by the sight (and sound) of the single mum and the screaming child.  Well, maybe she isn’t a single mum but she has no wedding ring so here I am jumping to conclusions.  And of course the screaming child is not reserved exclusively for mums trying desperately to bring up a kid on their own – there are plenty of well-heeled mums driving around in Chelsea tractors with a wailing banshee in the back.

Each generation I am sure bewails the indulgences of the next.  It is also true of course that we all want to give our ‘sprogs’ a better life than we had, so we all tend to evercompensate in some way.

This may be news to some of you but I was a single parent, not as some sort of lifestyle choice as is all too common these days, but through circumstances when my first wife eventually left me for a Sinn Fein activist when we lived in Holloway.  She decamped to Belfast in the early 70’s, no doubt seeking a more peaceful life and left me to bring up our son on my own.  And over-indulgent as I surely was compared to my own parents very strict ideas about child-rearing; I never had a screaming child with me.

I do find it hard to understand why so many parents (and it is mostly women I see) have no control whatsoever over their children.  There seems no communication except the child’s unrestrained desire for whatever and the parent’s inability to deal with it, constantly bringing out bottles and a variety of prepackaged foodstuffs and dummies and toys in a vain attempt to pacify the child. (All the while engaging more with their mobile phone than the child)

So, I have finally become an old person moaning about the young, and am officially a ‘Grumpy Old Man’.  None of which stops the brat from screaming until eventually at some point one assumes it will get what it wants and its mother can finish putting on her make-up and read her messages on her phone in peace.

Victim Justice

Thursday 16th May

Last night (Tuesday) we were witness to the rather unedifying spectacle of the (estranged) father of Tia Sharp declaring that her murderer should not only serve the 38 years he was handed down but then be taken out and hung.  The next day the papers were full of the quote knowing it hits the spot with many of their readers, for whom, like the papers they read, everything is indeed black and white.  While having no sympathy for Tia’s murderer and also acknowledging that there is indeed nothing that can ever bring back a murdered child, one has to question the wisdom of the media in giving so much prominence to a victim’s relative.

The Law is the Law and Justice, while imperfect, must be administered by those with calm heads who can carefully consider all the evidence and decide on the punishment they consider appropriate.  What the victim’s relatives or me or you or anyone else thinks might be a more suitable punishment should have no bearing on the case.  In fact it could be argued that for very good reasons the victims (and families of victims) views must have been distorted and prejudiced by the effect the crime had had on them and are therefore the very worst people to decide the punishment.  This is not to say that the victims do not deserve some sort of closure, some feeling that the guilty have been apprehended and tried.  Justice must always be transparent to be believed.

It has been a worrying trend that the media, in particular the tabloids, always interview the victim’s families, often in a state of rage or grief, as if they are in some way experts on Justice.  Inevitably the victims and their families (especially of more heinous crimes) think that the punishment is too light.  But why not go the whole populist hog and let them decide the punishment and pull the trapdoor too, and let us televise it so that us armchair judges can feel good about those awful people out there at last getting their just desserts.  Worryingly we are moving inexorably in that direction, but victim’s justice will be no justice at all – witness the vigilante mobs when a known paedophile is identified by the tabloids.

L is also for Lindisfarne

Wednesday 15th May

Lindisfarne emerged in the early seventies – the very best time for music.  They came out of the North-East and named themselves after a small off-shore island near Newcastle, and they have never forgotten their roots.  Coming from a folky background they married perfectly traditional instruments, fiddle and harmonica with guitars and drums to ride the wave that was breaking in the creative years after the Beatles. What set Lindisfarne apart was their incredible songwriting, courtesy mostly of Alan Hull, constantly coming up with great tunes and songs you could sing along to like ‘Fog on the Tyne’ and ‘We Can Swing Together’ along with gorgeous ballads such as ‘Lady Eleanor’ and ‘Clear White Light’.  So they hit two spots simultaneously, reaching out to young listeners like me who wanted that plaintive singer songwriter sound together with rousing renditions of old favourite tunes you just couldn’t help jigging around the room to. They were also a part of that very English sound, singing in English, not some transatlantic soulful warble that included Strawbs and Fairport Convention and even the Sutherland Brothers and Gallagher and Lyle.

They were great favourites of the late John Peel, and I bought all their early albums and saw them live a few times, always a great gig.  Inevitably the band broke up but after a few years they reconvened and have carried on with mixed success ever since.  They don’t seem to have ever cared particularly about success, seeming to just enjoy playing music for music sake.

I return time and again to those first few albums and they sound as fresh as ever, and quite unlike anything else on the CD rack.  They are one of the few bands that you can recognize straightaway.   So glad I was around when they were.

A Slight Disagreement Over Europe

Tuesday 14th May

The Tory party is amazing.  It has been out of office for thirteen years, largely because it’s internal wrangling over Europe so dominated the Major years that the public had finally had enough of them.  And David Cameron has tried to lead them away from Europe, time and again warning them against banging on about it.  But then he made the desperately stupid mistake of promising an in-out referendum on a renegotiated Europe (whatever that means) but like Blair before him he kicked this into the long grass, hoping everyone would forget it for a while.  And for a while his strategy seemed to work, the opinion polls narrowed, and it seemed he may have pricked UKIP’s bubble.

And now, after renewed success for UKIP the party is erupting with Euro-fever again.  And now it has spread to the Cabinet itself.  On Sunday we had Michael Gove declaring that if a referendum were held today he would vote to leave the EU.  Firstly, that is a completely hypothetical question; there is no referendum today or in the near future, so the only reason not to have sidestepped it but to have answered so positively was for purely political reasons.  And this exercise in political positioning was repeated by Phillip Hammond a few hours later.

It seems to me that potential successors to Cameron are lining up and waiting for the starting gun, which could be Cameron losing the next election, or even if by some miracle he won it then losing the referendum itself.   A self-defeating strategy if ever there was one.

The great danger in all of this is that we may well have a referendum which could easily result in us leaving the EU.  Or even before that Cameron failing to get any major concessions out of the EU.  My hunch is that the EU will diverge into two distinct groups, those within the Eurozone who will move inevitably towards closer political union; and those who are members (maybe Associate Members) of the EU but not in the Eurozone, and who have a quite different relationship with the Eurozone countries.

Though not perfect I cannot see anyone really holding the line of maintaining the status quo with any great success.  Milliband must hold firm and not promise a referendum at all, but put all his efforts into his own preferred re-negotiated European position, and the hard part – selling that to the public, who are daily being drip-fed this hatred of Europe, of Immigrants, of others to blame for our malaise rather than ourselves.   Mind you the Tories aren’t helping themselves by tearing themselves apart so publicly over Europe.  Again.

Money Cannot Buy Success

Monday 13th May

Except, of course, that it can.  Chelsea have regularly spent more than almost every other team and for a few years they were winning nearly everything.  Manchester City, a fairly also-ran team until rich Arabs bought into it, bought a team and a manager and won the league last year.  And no-one can deny that Manchester United have spent well and pay good wages too, though they do earn more than any other team too.  So, what is the secret of success, in the fast changing, high turnover, big money game of Premier League Football?   Was Sir Alex Ferguson simply the greatest football manager ever, or did he have a bit of luck, a patient board of directors and a team with a growing fan base that provided the cash for him to keep renewing his teams.

There is no doubt that Man U have been far and away the best team during the last twenty years, winning consistently, but also getting the best out of players other teams couldn’t, and rebuilding, constantly re-building.  And buying cleverly.

And it is always gratifying to see the mighty fall, especially those that have bought their success.  In the week that Sir Alex steps down gracefully at the top of his game, their near neighbours City are going into meltdown, not only losing the FA cup to minnows Wigan but now losing their manager too.  Like Chelsea, whose management merry-go-round makes them a laughing stock, City thought they could simply buy success, the most expensive players, the most expensive manager, but somehow no heart.

The real successes of the premier league are the teams that fight and battle with little or no resources, and against all odds buy carefully and nurture talent like Stoke and Fulham and Wigan and Swansea and Norwich.  Oh, and Manchester United, who do the same only with a lot more money at their disposal.

Even the weekends seem a rush

Sunday 12th May

Why is it that even the weekends are such a mad rush ?  How come I am the only bloke in Britain who is too busy to sit down and fall asleep while watching the F.A. Cup Final ?  Why is it that my life has descended into one complication after another ?  Where have the lazy weekends gone?

Time was when I used to buy the Independent on both Saturday and Sunday, and managed to read them almost the whole way through, yes, even the Business and Sports sections.  Okay, I did miss out the Travel stuff, which was nothing but one long advert, and why tease yourself with places you will never visit anyway.  At least you can kid yourself that you might just see the film or play you are reading about, or if not at least you will have some idea when your friends say they have seen it.   Nowadays, I don’t even slow down when passing the Newsagents; I don’t even get itchy fingers; I don’t even crane my neck to read the headlines anymore.

I simply don’t have the time to even think of such indulgence.  Even though I am now down to just four days work a week, there always seems a hangover to complete on Friday (anything to stop me working on the book).  And every weekend we seem to have filled up with jobs to do, gardens to tidy, cars to clean, places to see, people to visit.  And then when that rarest of events occur and a free day (never a whole weekend) opens up, you get a phonecall from a friend, or even worse the doorbell rings and ‘friends’ descend on you.

And so invariably when Monday comes around and I crank up the work machine one more time, slog my way through the tube, grab a latte and almond croissant and when I actually get behind my desk I can at last begin to relax.