Sunday, 28 February 2016

Pity the poor arseholes

There are lots of talking points around whether the UK should remain in the EU. I want to get to the seat of one burning issue.

On The Andrew Marr Show today, discussing the referendum, Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said he was worried about British plumbers and electricians being "undercut" by workers from elsewhere in the EU.

But plumbing and electricity services can only be delivered in person, meaning everyone competing to provide those services faces the same living costs (unlike for telecoms services) - with the exception of the cost of supporting dependents. It costs less to support children living in Bulgaria than children living in London.

There are at least two solutions to this problem: stop British people having to compete on costs, as IDS wants, or support them to compete with a benefits system, specifically child tax credits.

Why might the second option be better? Because it's more progressive.

If you want to renovate your bathroom along the theme of a Roman thermae, filling your bath from the teats of a golden Venus, then you probably want the very best quality workmanship - no chipped nipples or asymmetrical streams of hot and cold to tarnish the effect. And you can get that, by paying through the nose for the plumber best able to handle lovely Venus, helping that plumber to build an empire and thermae of their own.

But if all you want is your bog repaired, cost is your main concern.

Under a protectionist policy like IDS advocates, everyone who wants their bog repaired has to support the plumber's kids to the same extent, regardless of whether they wipe their arse with Morrison's own-brand paper or quadruple-quilted Andrex.

Whereas, under a system of tax-based support, those who buff their anuses to a high sheen with the under-feathers of fattened geese contribute more to little Jim and Jane's alphabetti spaghetti than those who have to wait for the burn to subside before they can sit down after taking a squat.

IDS would prefer to see the goose baskets of the wealthy brim-full with goslings, whereas I'd like everyone to be able to take the weight off immediately after a strainer.

Where do you sit?

Saturday, 13 February 2016

More is less

Photo by Maciek Lulko

More London. Every day there's more London. Not in terms of area - nobody's reclaiming land from the Thames, Zuiderzee-style - but there's more to a city's size than its dimensions.

It's people I'm thinking of. A city is nothing without its people, and so more people means more city - and we all know London's population is growing daily. More London.

But London is also shrinking. Not in physical size, and not in density, but in another way: culturally and civically.

Every time another cultural space gets converted into a block of luxury flats, London gets a little smaller.

There is less physical area in a way: less space that isn't roped off for a select wealthy few. But the range of behaviours and freedoms of expression open to us also shrinks, making London that little bit less interesting, that little bit less ours.

It's ironic then that More London should be the name of the "visionary business development" on the south bank of the Thames, just west of Tower Bridge.

You probably know More London as the site of City Hall, the shiny glass building shaped like a motorbike helmet - or, to former London mayor Ken Livingstone, like a testicle. But there are 13 buildings in total, on 13.5 acres of land.

Why is the name of this "professionally managed, high quality estate" ironic? Because on this site, More very much means less.

Less freedom. Less democracy. Less community.

Exploring how More means less was the purpose of a guerrilla event called Space Probe Alpha that took place at More London on 13 February, without permission.

The brainchild of Bradley Garrett and Anna Minton, Space Probe Alpha was an opportunity to protest the creeping privatisation of public space in London and the UK more broadly. More than 100 people congregated on More London's private property, which runs right up to the banks of the city's greatest asset - the Thames - on land that offers views of Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and the City, to hear from speakers such as Mark Thomas and Will Self about how this corporatisation is gradually diminishing the spaces in which public activity is constrained only by the law and allowing companies to impose their own rules.

It's not just antisocial behaviour that's being clamped down on. As I mentioned, More London is the site of City Hall, the seat of London's democracy. And what did members of the London Assembly find when they moved into their shiny new home in 2002? That they weren't allowed to be filmed for interviews outside it, former Deputy Mayor Jenny Jones told those gathered for Space Probe Alpha.

After much complaint, each political party was eventually given a single pass allowing them to be filmed on More London's land one at a time, but all other forms of commercial photography remain banned without prior permission. Skateboarding isn't allowed either, and you won't find many homeless people sheltering from the rain under More London's swooping arches.

As well as being educational, Space Probe Alpha was interventional: those in attendance were encouraged to take photos and sell them to each other for a penny a pop, in deliberate contravention of More London's rules. Throughout the event, More London's security guards watched on, occasionally joined by the odd policeman.

This event was allowed to proceed uninterrupted, but then it featured two peers and one of the UK's finest writers among its roster. Whether it would have been tolerated had such luminaries not been involved is anybody's guess.

What I do know is this: the more these kinds of spaces are allowed to proliferate, the less London belongs to the people who make it a place worth living in.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Writing processes: circling in, bursting forth and crapping out

I wrote a short post here about how I often don't know whether my posts are worthwhile until they're written (at which point I may as well publish them, unless they're dreadful), because I think them through by writing them. (You don't really need to click the link, that's pretty much the whole post.)

Today, via a friend (who blogs here; check her out), I read this article by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic, which considers different approaches to writing and why some writers are frightful procrastinators.

McArdle suggests that writers who leave their work to the last minute may have been people who found school easy, who therefore came to think of creativity / productivity as dependent on natural ability. After these people turn pro and have to compete at a higher level, she thinks, the fear that they might not have much ability then paralyses them until the near-certainty of a failure even worse than submitting a bad article - submitting no article - forces them to the keyboard:

"If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good."

She also spoke to a psychologist who agreed with her idea:

"For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is."

My earlier post fits with this: I must be a "growth" person, since I'm sure I have no natural writing ability but I'm hopeful of being good at some point, and as a growth person I have no qualms about writing something awful in the hope of revising it into something decent.

Anway, if you're reading this and are an incurable "fixed" person, I have a suggestion. Even if you can't make yourself stop believing that good writing springs from natural talent, consider some advice attributed to Hemingway:

"The first draft of anything is shit."

And do yourself a favour: try believing that writing ability is all in the revising, and make a start.