Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Bricks and Stones...

Protestors have set up a temporary camp of occupation on part of the biggest man-made hole in the ground in England, site of a proposed £300m-plus shopping mall by Westfield.

Bradford Council obligingly got 90 compulsory purchase orders to demolish a large swathe of historic Forster Square to accommodate a big shopping development. That was eight or nine years ago. Since then Westfield, commonly referred to as Wastefield up here, has blamed the recession for not starting work. Now they are blaming the protestors for deterring potential tenants. And so is Bradford Council and the local paper.

So the fault for nothing happening on this huge city-centre site lies with a handful of young people, some of them white collar workers - not the 'great unwashed' - who have taken annual leave to join the week-long protest. Doubtless protestors are to blame for the even longer comedy of errors concerning the former Odeon cinema, several hundred yards to the west of the hole in the ground. A hole in the east, an eyesore in the west, and a £24m-plus mirror-pool between them. Guess which one was publicly-funded?

Bradford's establishment only approves of protests that it can use to affirm its credential as a city of multi-cultural diversity. This was the case with the English Defence League demo of August 2010, when a couple of hundred nutters were allowed in to shout and scream, ringed round by 1,200 coppers with dogs and horses. Bradford told the world that this was the city's finest hour.

That EDL demo, by the way, was coralled in a temporary green-fenced park adjacent to the Wastefield site, which seems appropriate, though for the life of me I can't think why.

The protestors say they are there to highlight a public scandal that has been allowed to fester for far too long. Part of it has to do with the history of the site, which Westfield bought from another developer. Connected with that is the council signing away the leasehold of this valuable site without insisting on a compensation penalty clause if the developer failed to start work within a given time, say three years. Such a precaution, as I understand, is a commonplace of commercial dealing.

Not in Bradford, it seems. Deaf to anything else, the only question asked here is the supplicatory: 'But when will you start?' Anytime soon, Westfield reply. They've been saying that for three or four years. Telling is not doing, though; announcements don't necessarily mean bricks and stones. Heads seldom roll. The presiding geniuses in the council's planning and legal departments and their political panjandrums who master-minded this farrago have not been called to account.

However, gentle skimmer, don't for a second believe this state of affairs is a blip. For 20 years or more this city, once the wool textile capital of the world, has sought to reverse its decline with a series of multi-million pound private sector schemes - about seven in all - none of which materialised.

The most spectacularly stupid was a proposal by a man masquerading as an architect to design and build a £200m super stadium with a retractable roof in the south of the city, on the site of the home ground of Bradford Northern (now Bradford Bulls), the rugby league team. From 1992 until December, 1998, not a sod was turned, not a brick was laid, yet this scheme was the subject of a torrent of positive publicity - TV, radio, double-page spreads, front page splashes. The only question asked was: 'But when will you start?'

Those of us who warned that the scheme had no foundation in reality, eventually were told to shut up. Like today's protestors, we were accused of being Jeremiahs putting off potential financial investors. I even got a telephone call from the charlatan responsible for this great deception, which ended with him saying perhaps he should get some chaps to come along and see me. Sort me out, he meant.

History has repeated itself. The interesting question to ask is why? Unlock that door and all sorts of skeletons are likely to clatter out. There's the culture of professional incompetence that resulted in the Superdome farce. Personnel may have changed, but the pompous 'we know best' attitude that equates criticism with negativity, still permeates City Hall and others. How else explain the slackness of the contractual details of Westfield that has resulted in prolonged stalemate? There's political gerrymandering that goes back to the Nineties. And there seems to be something else as well, the consequence of, shall we say, dangerous liaisons.

In all that time, as though complementing the succession of failed schemes, Bradford has supported about nine different public cheer-up campaigns, from Bradford's Bouncing Back! to the current one, Positive Bradford. Nothing wrong in accentuating the positive from time to time - providing your enthusiasm doesn't make you deaf to other voices. And yes, Bradford does have the Brontes, J B Priestley, David Hockney, Edward Appleton, a thriving university and two UNESCO awards.

But this is also one of the places where John Poulson compromised willing Town Hall officials and politicians in the 1960s. Evidence of his handiwork is still visible. But as one wit wrote on the Democracy Wall on the fence surrounding the Westfield site: "Even Poulson built something!" The Wall was removed - either by ever-helpful Bradford Council or by men hired by Westfield.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Grooming...

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.