Monday, 31 December 2012

It Was 40 Years Ago Today...

As everyone seems to be having a go at the subject, humour me with your patience while I unload my two pennyworth about the European Union.

I was twenty-three and about to leave London for Newcastle-upon-Tyne when it happened. I have no clear memory of the day Britain's entree to the European Economic Community, as it was deceptively called, became official, though I suppose fireworks were let off as they were tonight to bang in the New Year.

But I do recall arguments on radio programmes such as Any Questions? Those were the days of Lady Violet Bonham Carter, Conservative MP Russell Braddon, Methodist Minister Donald Soper, Tony Benn - formerly Anthony Wedgewood-Benn. The battlelines were drawn, if I remember rightly, between the high ground of being good Europeans and proactive members of the European club, and the low ground of Britain retaining its own identity as a sovereign state with historic loyalties and trading links with South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Because nobody wanted to be accused of living in the past and being a stuffy little Englander, the pro-Europeans won the moral argument and, two years later, the referendum

It's taken 40 years for us to understand that being pro-European is one thing and pro-European Union quite another. The problem has been, as some identified long ago, that we were sold an economic idea whereas all along the true purpose was political, a federal, supra-national superstate. Edward Heath and his cronies mocked those who warned of this as scare-mongerers, probably Leftie scare-mongerers. For a long time I was one of those who went along with the notion that the Common Market was 'a good thing' - the A A  Milne phraseology is deliberate. And as I got older and found being in the cities of Europe more interesting, this association with things European and the political set-up in Brussels and Strasbourg kept me supposing that the European Community was a good thing. Oh bear of little brain. It was mental laziness really; thinking didn't enter into it.

Also, part of me was reluctant to believe that even a monstrous entity that is now the European Union could be entirely without redeeming aspects - though what they are, I can only guess. 

My life is passing through this historical episode, like an insect making its way through an enormous capital city; but I can't weigh up or estimate the effect on me of the past 40 years of the European project. I think part of my historical imagination stopped after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the end of Soviet Communism. Everything after that, even the bloodbath in former Yugoslavia, was consequence of the bigger cataclysm. And now the foundations of the project, with its vast superstructure of expensive schemes and initiatives, are slipping into the mud

In another 40 years, long after Alexander Beetle (me) has disappeared, another generation of Europeans may wonder what all the fuss was about. And it will then be up to historians and political anthropologists to remind them that Rome, which certanly wasn't built in a day or even a century, lasted a hell of a lot longer than the Treaty of Rome and its subsequent incarnations. 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Savile's Travails

'Great artist does bad things' is not news," writes Suzanne Moore in today's Guardian G2. Savile was not a great artist and known in the business as 'Jim'll Fuck it.'

All this was a very long time ago, as we keep being reminded. Those were the days, my friend, those guys thought they would never end. The terrible thing is, they haven't.

Many years ago, W T Stead, editor of the Northern Echo, shocked English society - still reeling from the Oscar Wilde trials - by exposing the trade in child prostitution in the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette.

Stead, who went down in the Titanic in April 1912, evidently was not one to pass by on the other side when his conscience was offended, unlike some of those belatedly declaring mea culpa over the dead body of Jimmy Savile. Esther Rantzen at least had the honesty to admit: "We all colluded in preserving the myth of Jimmy Savile" - or words to that effect.

The revelations about celebrity Sir Jimmy's sexual proclivities coincided with the disappearance of little Welsh girl April Jones. Anybody inclined to offer Savile's memory the benefit of the doubt, on the basis that you are innocent until proved guilty, is likely to think twice now. All the good he did with his charity fund-raising is going to be buried with his golden coffin. The words "paedophile and rapist" on the plaque commemorating his presence in Scarborough, where he had an apartment, are indicative of the public mood.

Suzanne Moore says Jimmy Savile "gave a lot of us the creeps for decades". I wasn't one of them. The vulgar bling, the absurd hair, the phallic cigar, I just took to be the costume accessories of the Rock 'n' Roll business - bigging yourself up for the cameras. I liked Jim'll Fix It. Never for a second did I imagine that the avuncular chuckling Jim was wondering how to get inside the knickers of the young girls who sat on his knee. His sudden headlong fall from public favour does not gratify me, though I can imagine the derisive laughter from those groomers of young girls in Rochdale and elsewhere, on the receiving end of society's righteous justice. The only difference was that white boy Sir Jimmy was allowed to get away with it.  

Having spent a couple of years in London's East End working on Adventure Playgrounds in the early Seventies and seen what Lord of the Flies little beasts children can be, I don't have any tender illusions about childhood innocence. Remember, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged ten in 1993, tortured and murdered two-and-a-half-year-old Jamie Bulger by the side of a railway track in Liverpool. I saw two young boys, they were friends, having a scrap when one of them, with a swift underarm swoop, jabbed the other in the midriff with the blade of a penknife, drawing blood.

Our notion of what childhood is changes with the times. Long ago, girls as young as the ones fingered and fucked by Jimmy Savile were married off by their families. Arranged marriages of young girls and boys is still prevalent in parts of the world, especially Pakistan. England's Industrial Revolution was partly built by the little hands of childen underground in mines, off the ground in chimneys and on the ground in textile mills, darting between swishing belts of spinning machinery to pick up toppled bobbins. Opposition to Richard Oastler's Ten Hours Bill - to cut the working hours of children in factories - and to get them out of collieries, often came from their families, who needed the money. In Pol Pot's Kampuchea, young Khmer Rouge recruits sent professional  men and women to their death. The same happened in Mao's Red China. Children were the little angels of death. What did they grow up to be, those of them who survived?

The notion of what childhood is now means that what was common in the past is unlawful, and this includes watching kiddie porn in the privacy of one's own home. Society says that voyeurism of this kind tacitly condones the brutality of the actual act. Society is also apt to have double standards about sex in all its hydra-headed aspects. The American writer Camille Paglia has a lot to say about this in her book Sexual Personae. The following is an excerpt from a blog she wrote in 2007. The subject is paedophilia:-

The media makes it easier, as the tabloids often paint the crime in such ludicrously over-the-top and pseudo-emotive terms (monster, beast, rot in hell Moira Hindley, etc), that it actually almost makes a mockery of the seriousness of the crime and makes it harder for people to take seriously.

I do think some of the anti-paedophilia measures people enforce are misplaced and easy to portray as 'over-the-top'. But the misplacement is put out of all proportion, men whine and yelp about how some man, somewhere, wasn't allowed to photograph somebody's child at a football match, or about how a father wasn't allowed to host toddler's gatherings in his house on account of his being a man, instead of highlighting all these times where things went the other way.. where men were given positions of responsibility over children and abused them, where they were allowed to work with children despite having been accused of rape before, where they used the guise of photography to take photographs for their own gratification.

In almost every way our society fails to protect children from paedophiles.. it doesn't over-coddle them and over-protect them. If anything, it underestimates the liklihood of abuse.

Friend, no matter how rich, celebrated or well-connected you are, you don't have a natural right to get off on whatever turns you on. That's not a law of nature, it's the law of the land.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Sound of Moozak

The Bradford branch of Waterstones has moved its poetry section to a narrow bookcase in a gloomy corner near the toilets. Probably the best place for a form of expression of less value to the general public than arse-wipes.

But while poetry has been shoved to the furthest, least accessible part of the store, the prevalence of all-pervasive muzak has intensified, not just in this book depository but in virtually every public place. Earlier this year the moozak at Bradford Interchange was changed from pop to light classical. The thinking behind this change of policy had nothing to do with upgrading the aesthetic experience of people waiting for the 626 to Baildon or the 680 to Smiddles Lane. Groups of yoof, it was decided, are less inclined to coalesce in public places to the strains of Peer Gynt or Swan Lake. The irony would be if Bradford's scallies started to develop an appreciation of Boccarini or Bizet.

The kind of bovine moozak piped in to assault the eardrums varies according to where you are. One cafe I used to go in invariably had some silly tart blaring out cliches about everlasting love with lots of reverb and echo. Cacophonous cack. Other establishments favour dire variations of rap with some silly bugger blathering on about the state of the nashun. Moozak for retards. Further evidence of the country's enthusiastic slide towards infantilism (the childish aren't responsible for their actions, know what I mean bro). This crap follows you everywhere you go. Either your hearing is eroded or your intelligance is insulted by repetitious statements of the obvious on railway stations and on trains...please take all your belongings with you, stand away from the edge of the platform

You go into what looks like an interesting bookshop and what happens? Bored staff, clearly irked by the prospect of having to talk to people who might want to buy a book, for their own entertainment bang over the PA what they consider to be avant-garde selections of moozak designed to make suicide feel like an attractive alternative. 

Airports, cinemas, bakers, railway stations, bus stations, the doctors, the dentists, supermarkets, old people's homes  (where the telly must always be on loud) - everywhere, low grade, eardrum bashing, de-sensitizing noos and moozak is directed at you. It's a conspiracy. Big Brother is terrified of you having quiet moments in which you might actually reflect on your experiences. So your airspace is violated with incessant prattle and moozak. And if it isn't coming at you from the radio or a hidden PA, it's coming at you from some twat's intrusive IP3 or mobile phone. Yar! Hi, I'm on the train...the bus...the plane...the piss. Jacquetta's coming round to mine, isn't she? She's coming round to yours? I thought she was coming round to mine. The sound of silence died with Simon and Garfunkel. And, day by day, our peace and quiet dies with them. 

No wonder Charles Bukowski used to say the further away he was from humanity the happier he was. Ditto. Take the moozak-racket of modern life as far away from me as possible.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Who Can You Really Bank On These Days?

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," old Polonious advises his son Laertes in Hamlet, "For loan oft loses both itself and friend/ And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry."

A modern version of the drama perhaps should have Laertes played as a young banker. A Diamond geezer. Bankers were once the scrupulous, punctilious J Alfred Prufrocks of London (T S Eliot used to work for Lloyds). What are they now?   

Arthur Daley, the London spiv played by George Cole in Minder used to say "Stand on me" when he had to convince somebody that he was telling the truth. Del Boy Trotter, David Jason's wide boy in Only Fools And Horses protested his innocence in very demotic French. Alors du combat! Rod-nee!

Redtops loved Arthur and Del Boy. They were conservative working class heroes: chancers, opportunists flying by the seat of their pants, living by their wits, making the most of what little they had dubiously come by. Others, cultural interpreters perhaps, saw them as exemplars of Thatcher's Britain, the Loadsmoney yobboculture caricatured by Harry Enfield.

Little did we realise that these comic characters were prefigurations of what was to come. Those who thought the selfish Eighties was as bad as it could ever get were wrong. Boring old financial probity was defenestrated as building societies became banks and banks became casinos. In the City of London the holy skyline created by Wren and Hawksmoor was desecrated by the Nat-West Tower and other symbols of sky's-the-limit capitalism. But we didn't know the scale of the enormities of the Nineties until the summer of 2007.

Constraints were embedded in the financial market for very good reasons: to keep the bent from going crooked and offer the trusting public an assurance of honest dealing. In the exciting catch-me-if-you can ethos that Oliver Stone memorably caught on film in Wall Street, constraints were for wimps. Asset-stripping corporate raiders like Gordon Gekko now look tame compared with the real-life sub-prime species who Swiss Rolled debts and flogged them on.

This week the underhand price-fixing dealing of Barclays, RBS and their pals was exposed once again. Simultaneously, reports came out that some heath care trusts developed by Private Finance Initatives were in a state of terminal financial decline. This business with PFIs rang a bell. 

A few years ago I came across a book called Plundering the Private Sector by David Craig and Richard Brooks. I must have read it for I bashed out a paper to a friend who was trying to make a living in the regeneration game in Prague. The paper was called: BEWARE - CONSULTANTS AND PRIVATE FINANCE INITIATIVES. 

Craig and Brooks detailed the ways in which Tony Blair's Labour Government had, since 1997, conspired with private consultants to bring forth the brave new world of health care centres, hospitals, schools, roads and prisons, at an estimated cost to the public purse of £70 billion (2,800 billion Czech Crowns). Deloitte, Ernest & Young, KPMG and Pricewaterhouse Cooper did exceptionally well out of these deals. Consultants use private finance to plan, design and build on behalf of central government. Without the stewardship of a Thomas Cromwell these build now and pay later schemes accumulate colossal debt and inevitably lead to cuts in services and jobs to keep up the interest payments.

PFIs were thought up by Conservative MP David Willetts and were adopted by John Major's erstwhile Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont. Post 1997, PFIs were seen as a way of quickly bringing about huge capital-intensive building programmes. By 1995, Craig and Brooks estimated that 725 PFI schemes had been signed up, worth an estimated £46 billion.

PFI schemes, unless strictly regulated as they apparently are in the United States, invariably result in snowballing debt and revenue cuts. The authors listed five characteristics of unregulated PFI schemes: they are inordinately expensive; they are inflexible; the social costs are enormous; they offer no value for money. The fifth is possibly the most serious in its implications for a representative democracy: they are so convoluted as to be unaccountable.

I sought enlightenment from my friend Richard North, co-author of The Great Deception, a comprehensive history of the European Union in its various incarnations, and once upon a time researcher for the CP (Conservative Party). He explained what may seem obvious to you but was news to this bear of incalculably little brain:-

Public sector finance can be kept off the official accounts book; because it is classified as private finance it is not accounted for under public borrowing. Nor does it fall foul of the growth and stability pact rules of the EU. These rules state that a member state's annual budget deficit should not exceed three per cent and that total public debt should not begreater than 60 per cent of total Gross Domestic Product. For other bears of little brain GDP refers to the total amound of lucre spent on goods and services in the whole economy.

Transactions with consultants are 'off books',  fees are charged to the user and in Britain all-in-one packages complicate matters. These packages include service charges and other costs as part of an annual fee. These fees never appear in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement figures because transactions are funded out of annual revenues. Stay with this, it gets better.

Newly built hospitals and hospitals that are part of a larger trust are paying full commercial rent for a site and commercial rates for basic services. Because the charges are so high, payments have to be found from money paid by the government to run the service. This means hospitals, deeply in debt, struggling with top-heavy management tiers set on by consultants, are obliged to lay-off nurses and close wards. The same applies to new technology IT systems devised and installed by private consultants to run vast public sector schemes. The cost runs into many hundreds of millions and often the systems do not work. Hundreds of millions of public money have been written off in failed IT schemes in Britain since 1997.

Why not simply borrow the money from the markets directly and cut out the middle man? Presumably because it wouldn't look good on the books inspected by the EU.

Most PFI schemes involve bungling. All-in-one packages are very difficult to monitor: it is impossible to tell how much each component part of the package costs. It is impossible to measure value for money. There is loss of accountability and accountability is the basis of democracy: without it democracy means nothing.

The authors of Plundering the Private Sector say in the mid-1980s the kind of unregulated nightmare current in the UK used to be the norm in the United States. The tide turned in 1996 with the Republican Clinger-Cohen Act. "The Act changed the way IT systems were bought and implemented in the US public scetor, forcing departments to take responsibility for and report to Congress on the results achieved...Since passing the Act the performance of IT systems consultancies in the US has been judged to have radically improved and government expenditure on IT has begun to fall....Under New Labour, the whole process of democratic accountability has broken down and been replaced by cronyism, profiteering, spin and outright lies."

Craig and Brooks recommended the abolition of PFI schemes and the disbanding of tiers of extra management and advuisors. Consultancy fees should be slashed by 30 per cent immediately. Excessive profiteering should be investigated by the Serious Fraud Squad.

That was then, in the days of innocence before the Credit Crunch, the Parlimentary expenses scandal, phone hacking and the latest banking scams. Nevertheless, I hope the above is of interest to those who, in spite of everything, maintain the hope in their hearts that change is going to come.

Friday, 1 June 2012

If You Build it People Will Come (perhaps)...

Bottles of bubbly were reportedly on ice. An expectant group of Bradford councillors, including the leader, Conservative councillor Margaret Eaton, and top officers, were gathered in an office in City Hall, confident of having some really good news to celebrate.

It was October 30, 2002, and the UK cities bidding to be the 2008 European Capital of Culture were about to learn their fate. A sustained marketing and PR campaign had been going on in Bradford for months. Bradford's cultural icons had been wheeled out likesupermarket trolleys for a good polish. The wonders of Bradford's industrial heritage and its modern multicultural diversity were 'the icing on the cake'.

Bradford was still coming to terms with the consequences of the 2001 Muslim riot. The authorities rightly thought that unless something drastic was done, the mud sticking to the city's reputation would put paid to any hope of future revival. It was an understandable approach, though its expression in the form of the Capital of Culture bid was, I thought, seriously misconceived.

The wider world was aware from the 1989 Satanic Verses book-burning episode, the long-running Honeyford Affair as well as the 1995 and 2001 riots, that Bradford had problems. Trying to hide them behind UNESCO's World Heritage status award to Saltaire (a Victorian model village three miles to the north of Bradford in the constituency of Shipley) was at least unwise. I was told that two of the Capital of Culture judges visiting Salts Mill were overheard to say: 'Nice place, pity about the location'. Meaning Bradford.

Though not a Bradfordian, over 37 years I have grown deeply attached to the old place. Real empathy comes out of a mixture of love and hate; feeling is empirical, not theoretical. I have lived, worked and suffered here. I have spent my money here, invested here. Any other talk is just the prattle of marketing - "brilliant", "vibrant", "visionary", "wonderful", and more "brilliant". Call me Mr Stupid, but I believe honest promotion of a place should include the flavour of lived experience, and that means the good, the bad and the ugly.

Why not promote Bradford as a place with an edge? I said. We can't hide the fact that this is the hometown of the Yorkshire Ripper and the Black Panther, not to mention the 1985 Bradford City Fire Disaster. Admit the bad and the ugly and then say in spite of that we have the good. There is beauty too. Dangerous it may be, sardonic and infuriatingly complacent it can be, but by God you won't nod off in Bradford. The damn place gets under your skin. And on a clear sunny evening, the skylines are breath-taking. I have sometimes walked home from work in tears, the sun beaming out of a cinemascopic South Dakota sky, reflecting off portals of pale yellow sandstone. The song of the place still sings to me after all these years, even after two riots, a football stadium inferno I was lucky to walk away from, and the odd threat from the odd political fanatic.

Pal: forget it. People like me, whose feelings were complex but at least authentic, were shunted out of the way for the prattlers. "Brilliant", "vibrant", "diverse". No hard feelings; but nevertheless short-sighted, I thought. The scene was set. Expectations had been worked on and pumped up. Then, on October 30, the news arrived. Bradford wasn't even short-listed.

"Are you disappointed?" Margaret Eaton (now Baroness Eaton of Cottingley) said to someone in a suit, as the news was reported on local television. The bubbly remained on ice. The disconsolate group of VIPs went across the road to the pub to inflate their spirits temporarily with a little alcoholic depressant. They needed it. This wasn't the first time Bradford's corporate expectations had come a cropper due to highly-paid people who should have known better, jumping the gun, counting their chickens.

In the 1950s, chunks of historic Yorkshire sandstone Bradford were bulldozed to make way for the brave new world of high rise office blocks faced in Portland Stone and multi-lane motorways bisecting the city centre. You can see this going on in the film Billy Liar, which was shot on location in and around Bradford. Somewhere under Prince's Way, opposite the former Odeon cinema (now wrapped in plastic sheeting, as though visited by Christo), lies the Students' Club. This was a cellar bar where the likes of George Melly and Humphrey Lyttleton used to play in the 1950s. It was visited by artists studying at Bradford College of Art, including David Hockney, Norman Stevens and others. Murals on the wall were said to be by DH himself  - 'Boris' as one of his brothers is said to have called him.

In the 1990s, planners demolished old Rawson Market in the belief that a proposed £40m leisure development in central Bradford would provide the wherewithal for a replacement. The developer walked away and for about five years, Bradford had a hole in the ground where Rawson market used to be. The lovely Java Cafe, the best cafe-bar in town opposite the Alhambra theatre, was refused a short-term lease in 1998. The building was demolished to make way for a proposed peace museum. For several years there was a hole in the ground. Eventually it was levelled and fenced off. Half the central police station was knocked down before planners realised the cells underneath the building were still in use by the adjacent magistrates court. The exposed end wall, opposite the derelict Odeon, was eventually cladded tastefully with plastic-looking glass.

Given all this (there is more), the ludicrous impasse over the Westfield site (see the blog below) comes as no surprise. Not long after a smiling Councillor Eaton formally handed over the bulldozed site in November 2005, Westfield put in a subterranean car park and foundations for the pillars that would support the super-duper shopping mall. That done, they left. Everybody waited for them to return with bricks and mortar. To date they haven't. And so Bradford has yet another hole to add to its municipal collection.

There are those who maintain that a concrete and glass retail complex is the way to revive Bradford's fortunes. I am not one of them. Nor is my friend Richard North. "More people are shopping online. Instead of a shopping mall, create an experience from which commercial opportunities arise," he says, which is the exact reverse of putting up a £200m-£300m monstrosity in the hope that it will prove to be a shopping experience. "Build on Bradford's heritage," Richard says. "Make the place a visitors' centre by creating cafes, places of entertainment and commerce." Part of the site, converted into a temporary park in 2010, is where the Occupy Westfield people have pitched one of their tents. The ten-acre site is a natural hub, between two railway stations, Bradford Cathedral and City Hall. It would be an ideal place to relocate the J B Priestley Archive, currently buried two floors down under the University of Bradford, and the Mechanic Institutes Library. And why not create an archive to commemorate the Independent Labour Party, founded in Bradford in 1894, as well as museum commemorating other luminaries and reformers who made a difference - Humbert Wolfe, Margaret McMillan, Delius, David Hockney, Jim Laker (born in Frizinghall), Richard Dunn, who tried to beat Mohammed Ali, Len Shackleton, World Snooker champion genial Joe Johnson?

Regeneration through culture has been done before in Bradford, spectacularly so by the late Jonathan Silver at Salts Mill. Between 1987 and 1997, the year of his premature death, he created the world's biggest single collection of David Hockney images alongside high-tec industries, a Diner, art galleries, offices, a bookshop and a performance space. He converted a run-down textile mill at the bottom of a hill in a village three miles outside Bradford into a place now visited by thousands annually. I watched him do this and wrote the book Salt & Silver: A Story of Hope, a double biography of Titus Salt, the industrialist who built the mill in 1853, and Silver, the former men's wear shop owner, who restored and revived the building's magnificence.

Silver, who loathed bureaucracy, never had a blueprint or masterplan. He started off with 53 David Hockney pictures which he put round the walls of a former spinning shed of 10,000 square feet. Admission to see them was, and remains, free. Like the farmer in the movie Field of Dreams, who builds a baseball pitch in the middle of one of his cornfields, Silver had a dream. His consisted of combining culture and commerce and making the result exciting and profitable. True regeneration, he showed, only takes place when an entrepreneur or a group of people seize the initiative and become empowered. In contrast, development occurs irrespective of human factors: developers put up speculative buildings whether or not they have tenants for them. Silver got the culture which in turn attracted high-tec entrepreneurs from Pace and Filtronic Components plc.

Interestingly, Jonathan Silver was never invited to City Hall to explain to planners and politicians how he did it. Not once. Those who advised them to take serious note of what was happening in Saltaire were ignored. After all, hadn't the corporation wanted to demolish Salts Mill before Silver bought it - to make way for a motorway?

In light of all this no one should be surprised that the council  subjected an historic part of Bradford - Forster Square - to the wrecker's ball in the earnest hope of attracting a big developer as a dance partner.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


In 1955, Vladimir Nabakov's novel Lolita was published in France. Graham Greene said it was one of the three best novels he'd read that year. Others thought the book was filthy pornography.

What aroused repugnance, perhaps, wasn't so much Humbert Humbert's sexual obsession with his 12-year-old step daughter Dolores Haze but her willingness to have sex with him. The idea of a young girl sexually seducing a middle-aged man proved too much for some. Unsurprisingly, the row that followed only aroused the public's curiosity. There is a reference to this in the Hancock's Half-Hour radio comedy called The Missing Page.

In 1971, Mike Hodges' movie thriller Get Carter got a mixed reception, in spite of Roy Budd's eerie soundtrack. The film is now acknowledged as a masterpiece; but at the time the idea of Michael Caine as a heartless Newcastle-born gangster, Jack Carter, didn't gell. What may have turned people's stomachs was the sub-plot. Carter returns home to find out why his brother Frank died, allegedly in a car crash. In the course of his investigations, Carter stumbles upon graphic evidence that Frank's daughter Doreen has been groomed to take part in group sex films with adults.

Men and women corrupting the vulnerable young for criminal or immoral purposes is not new. Ever since the publication in 1838 of the first part of Oliver Twist the public has associated the murkier regions of East London with the spectres of Fagin, Bill Sikes and Nancy. Nancy's Steps, on the South Bank of Southwark Bridge, I think it is, is a landmark.

But as we know from today's Times (9/5/12) the predatory grooming of young females has been rife in towns and cities from the Midlands to Glasgow.

If Charles Dickens was alive and writing today, his take on the criminal grooming of displaced youngsters might be called Olivia Twist. His teenage hero would be a teenage heroine; Fagin would be a Pakistani Muslim. The action would take place in Rochdale, Manchester, Blackburn, Leeds or Bradford. There would be no happy ending, no benevolent intervention by Mr Brownlow or Mrs Bedwin.

Two girls from children's homes in Manchester and Rochdale, according to the newspaper, died in separate incidents as a result of sexual abuse by "men of Pakistani heritage". Reportedly, over the past five years a further 629 incidents of girls being sold for sex have been recorded.

Official inquiries into this matter were crippled by "racial sensitivities". For example, in 1991, nine girls from three residential homes in Bradford were similarly used and abused by pimps. Bradford Council's subsequent inquiry, said The Times, did not reveal that the culprits were all of Pakistani origin.

Does racial origin matter? If there is something in the culture of these men, and the nine Muslim men convicted at Liverpool Crown Court, and the two Muslim men convicted at Bradford Crown Court, yesterday, that convinces them that young girls are trash, then it does matter.

We have become accustomed to two distinct forms of sexual abuse of youngsters, as The Times' report says:- White men, acting alone, are responsible for most chil sex-offences in this country yet in Heywood, as in so many of the towns and cities of northern England, a different model of exploitation has taken root over the past 20 years. Born of a collision between two cultures, it has led to the normalisation of a grotesque, collective game in which vulnerable girls are systematically targeted, groomed and then sold for sex to men who view them with contempt...

...The men offering such largesse belonged to a sub-section of British Pakistani society that does not frown upon males in their 30s and 40s pouring half a litre of vodka down the throat of a girl of 13 before lining up to have sex with them...

...The jury listened in horrified fascination as the girl explained that Pakistani men "pass you around like a ball"..."Most of them don't even know you but you meet them anyway. If I gave a taxi driver my number, give it two weeks and I'll have about ten Pakis in my phone. By the next week I'll have a phone book of Pakis."

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Rochdale-based Ramadhan Foundation, is only too aware of the problems of racial sensitivities. In the same edition of the newspaper he writes:- Since January 2011, when I last wrote about street-grooming for this newspaper, there has been an increase in the number of young people speaking out against such men. Across the country I meet young British Pakistanis who abhor what has been happening and are sickened by the behaviour of these criminals, even more so because they come from our community.

They accept that British Pakistanis are over-represented in such offending and that their actions bring shame on themselves, their families and their community. Five years ago it was very different. I was threatened with violence because people thought that by speaking out I was doing the work of the Far Right. How things have changed.

The bad news is that we have a generational split. Sadly, our community leaders say that this has nothing to do with them and that they have no responsibility to tackle the issue. They think it is all a big conspiracy. I have tried to make them wake up to the threat that these criminals pose to the integrity of our community, only to be met with total silence. The difference in attitude between our younger and older generations presents a continuing challenge.

The challenge is made more difficult by political correctness. Not admitting the obvious, however unpalatable to racial sensitivities, only leads to self-deception and more trouble. Playing down criminal activity for fear of the accusation of racism or giving heart to the Far Right is the usual excuse offered for saying or doing nothing.

In 2003 I reviewed a crime novel called On Dangerous Ground written by Keighley author Lesley Horton. The genesis of her story was a Barnardo's Report in the mid-1990s which stated that there were more child prostitutes in Bradford and Keighley than anywhere else in the country. Mrs Horton, who was the head of a unit for pregnant schoolgirls, told me that Bradford's Vice Squad had told her that Bradford did not have child prostitution, otherwise they'd know about it.

Bradford in a state of denial? It wouldn't be the first time, nor the last. The 2001 Muslim Riot - 244 men were identified and convicted for arson, looting and violence, all of them Muslim men - is now known as the "disturbance", doubtless for fear of offending racial sensitivities. Revisiting history is one thing; but does re-writing it because circumstances appear to have changed do any good? Perhaps we should we no longer refer to Nazis as Germans or Northern Europeans.

Wickedness is not the preserve of the naturally wicked: it is integral to the human condition, irrespective of racial origin. However, nurture or culture may play a part in warping human nature.

In 2004, in a small theatre above a pub in Camden, a small audience saw the premiere of David Hines' play Nymphs and Shepherds, a 90-minute monologue by a character called Oliver, an unrepentant white male paedophile. Oliver's graphic reflections are particularly shocking because they are candid, unapologetic and, like Lolita, touch upon a taboo subject.

But the purpose of Hines' play is to show that men who prey upon little girls are not demons. If they were they would be easy to identify. They are human beings in the grip of a drive, a predilection, which even they may not understand. It is the volatility of their compulsion that makes them dangerous.

The danger for sociey at large is when private compulsion becomes a corporate enterprise, as in Bradford, Rochdale, Manchester and elsewhere.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Crisis of Identity, Loss of Sovereignty...

Periodically, every country goes through a crisis of identity. Demography changes, borders change, internal boundaries change, international relations change - friends become foes and foes friends.

Throughout the chronicle of recorded time countries have expanded, contracted or have, like Poland and Persia, vanished temporarilly or permanently. Historically, mainland Europe has been accustomed to the rise and fall of nations within the contours of its geography. Prague was governed by Vienna, Rome by Paris, and in World War II all four were governed by Berlin. Today, they all are governed by Brussels. Wars and revolutions are volcanoes; in the aftermath the landscape changes, maps have to be changed: Czechoslovakia becomes the Czech Republic, the USSR breaks up into its constituent republics, the United Kingdom becomes a satellite of the European Union.

In my lifetime the EU has had almost as many incarnations as Shakespeare's seven ages of man. In my youth the European Economic Community (EEC) of six nations was scarcely a blip on the horizon of my consciousness. By my thirtieth year in 1979, it had got bigger and much closer. The 1972 European Communities Act had gone through Parliament, our currency had been changed to decimal, elections for the European Parliament were taking place. In my fourty-fourth year the 1993 Maastrict Treaty was ratified and the EEC became the European Community (EC) with fifteen member states and a flag of its own - blue with a gas ring of gold stars that reminded me of Custer's Seventh Cavalry. By then I had visited Brussels and Luxembourg. In my fifty-eighth year the EC became the European Union with twenty-seven member states, seventeen of which had given up their own currency in exchange for the euro. Monetary union was the precursor of the original idea behind the entire enterprise: political union.

Throughout these six decades, an idea has pervaded the political, social and literary culture of this country, the idea of angst. Superficially, this looks like post-war Existential anxiety of the Jean Paul Sartre kind. One of the features of my frenetic youth, before I learned from Christopher Hampton's play Total Eclipse that what was aestetically plausible wasn't necessarily true, was the specious linking of disparate political and social events to cultural phenomena. Thus, Beckett's Waiting for Godot and John Osborne's Look Back in Anger embodied the crisis of national identity that resulted from the loss of empire and Suez. Though which was cause and which was effect had me stumbling over definitions of deductive and inductive reasoning. The literature of pre-revolutionary Russia is ripe with characters worrying about whether they have become "superfluous" - a nineteenth century form of angst.

Who are we, what are we, what is any of it worth, did not originate from the independence of India in 1947 or the invasion of Egypt in 1956. These universal questions have been around at least since the three temptations of Christ - at least Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor thought so (see chapter five of The Brothers Karamazov). Nevertheless, they have been projected as the Questions of Our Time during my brief lifetime. Every so often they break out, red and raw. The recent Channel 4 programme Make Bradford British aroused the irritable rash of identity, once again making perfect strangers red in the face at the thought of all pervasive foreigners, political correctness and red tape. Ambivalent as I am about most things, I felt swayed first one way, then the other, as the debate, largely manufactured by newspapers, raged on.

And then, yesterday, my friend Richard North mailed me a Foreign and Commonwealth Office paper entitled Sovereignty and the European Communities. I was startled. The thrust of what I understood from this 15-page document was that while the nation was getting knotted up over identity a huge amount of national sovereignty has been sheered away from the white cliffs of Dover, deliberately not accidentally. The identity crisis had been a distraction. What had vanished was not the national character. In spite of the creation of a Parliament for Scotland and Assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland, the old regional rivalries were still apparent. Britain, the United Kingdom, call it what you will, was still a place of faith, hope and charity, in its support of good causes, its dislike of fatalism in response to catastrophe and something a dissident Russian poet once told me she most admired about Britain: "You are not a coward." Gullible, yes,credulous, certainly, piss-taking, abosolutely, lacking in self-confidence, of course, suspicious of seriousness, yes. In Russia, poets are expected to be prophets. In this country they are expected to be light entertainers.

Allow me to quote some extracts from this document.  Note the self-satisfied tenor of the language, which would not be out of place in a script for Yes, Prime Minister:-

We are all deeply conscious through tradition, upbringing and education of the distinctive fact of being British. Given our island position and long territorial and national integrity, the traditional relative freedom from comprehensive foreign, especially European alliances and entanglements, this national consciousness may well be stronger than that of most nations.

When 'sovereignty' is called into question in the debate about entry to the Community, people may feel that it is this 'Britishness' that is at stake. Here Mr Rippon's pointed question "are the French any less French?" for their membership (sic)...

However it is presented, entry to the Community will mean major change. It is natural and inevitable that this should be disliked and resisted by many. Even the 'loss of sovereignty' may be limited to fairly precise areas of Government and Parliamentary powers and be without significance for the lives of most of the country, still the phrase conjures up a spectre of major and uncontrollable change and of adjustments that will have to be made which are deeply disturbing...

...In entry to the Community we may seem to be opting for a system in which bureaucracy will be more remote (as well as largely foreign)...The British have long been accustomed to the belief that we play a major part in ordering the affairs of the world and that in ordering our own affairs we are beholden to none. Much of this is mere illusion. As a middle power we can proceed only by treaty, alliance and compromise. So we are dependent on others both for the effective defence of the United Kingdom and also for the commercial and international financial conditions which govern our own economy...

...Joining the a further large step away from what is thought to be unfettered national freedom and a public acknowledgement of our reduced national power; moreover, joining the Community institutionalises in a single, permanent coalition the necessary process of accommodation and alliance over large areas of policy, domestic as well as external...

...the transfer of major executive responsibilities to the bureaucratic Commission in Brussels will exacerbate popular feeling of alienation from government. To counter this feeling, strengthened local and regional democratic processes within the member states and effective Community regional economic and social policies will be essential...

...The Community, if we are to benefit to the full, will develop wider powers and coordinate and manage policy over wider areas of public business...To control and supervise this process it will be necessary to strengthen the democratic organisation of the Community with consequent decline of the primacy and prestige of the national parliaments.

The task will not be to arrest this process, since to do so would be to put considerations of formal sovereignty before effctive influence and power, but to adopt institutions and policies both in the UK and in Brussels to meet and reduce the real and substantial public anxieties over national identity and alienation from government, fear of change and loss of control over their fate which are aroused by talk of 'loss of sovereignty'. 

This long-sighted paper was written in April 1971, the year before the European and Communities Act. The following was written by Dostoveysky in his aforementioned novel and published in 1879:-

Mankind as a whole has always striven to organise a universal state. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the more highly they were developed the more unhappy they were, for they felt more acutely than other people the craving for world-wide union.

Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor describes how a select group of 100,000 will run the lives of thousands of millions by taking away the anxieties that come with freedom. Ruled by Miracle, Mystery and Authority, the masses will be allowed to work and play and sin, strictly under the controlling guidance of these religious Bolsheviks.

The dictatorship of the proletariat has moved westwards. For the time being at least, for all empires fall eventually, we take our orders from a governing class of federal technocrats. The existential crisis of who we are and what we believe is, like the poor, always with us. The carving away of sovereignty, however you define it in relation to power and authority, is a twentieth century decision. The deliberate and progressive erosion of sovereignty, like gum recession, has weakened the teeth of the British bulldog. No point in seeking assurance from Churchill.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

That Sinking Feeling

If a vast enterprise worth trillions of dollars, namely the European Union's eurozone, is capable of capsizing, why should anyone be surprised by the fate of the Costa Concordia?

This high-rise cruise ship costing a reported $300m, with all its electronic safety and fail-safe devices, was no match for a few rocks, some of which can be seen sticking through the keel.

The accident on Friday (the 13th incidentally), occurred on the day that the credit rating of la belle France and other EU members went tits up. The fate of the ship and the fate of the eurozone symbolise the propensity for hubris in overblown human enterprises. There is an obvious parallel with the unsinkable Titanic which went down on its maiden voyage.

Inadequate bulkheads and too few lifeboats made April 14, 1912, a night to forget for the P & O line. Design faults, faulty assumptions and presumptuousness made Titanic an accident waiting to happen. The mighty ship's unimaginable doom was a precursor of human error and faulty political alliances that resulted in the 9/11 implosion of the European house of cards in 1914, although I came to think of Titanic as symbolic of the fate of Ireland - broken in two in unfathomable depths (see Raising the Titanic in The Dog's Not Laughing).

However, a more apposite analogy for the fate of the Costa Concordia is the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Townsend Thorensen roll on roll off ferry which capsized just outside Zeebrugge on another Friday evening 35 years ago, killing 193 people.

Comparisons are only as odious as the glibness with which they are made, but in the spring of March 1987 what struck me most forcibly was the coincidence of the ship's name with the spirit of the times in England, when free enterprise was highly favoured by Margaret Thatcher, months away from winning her third consecutive general election.

The capsizing of the ship, due to human error rather than an act of God or nature, heralded the collapse of the spirit of free enterprise in Britain at the end of the 1980s, which was also the end of the Iron Lady. Confidence collapsed and we had to abandon the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Then, as now, recesssion rolled in like the ride at Dover beach. Then, as now, Brussels was busily building its monstrous ship of state which was to be launched at Maastricht. Now water is seeping in and the officers on the bridge are fighting among themselves. By all accounts the ship is rolling over like the Herald of Free Enterprise.
But unlike that disaster, there won't be any medals given out for selfless acts of bravery.