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Economic Armageddon: An Ageist Solution July 25, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Politics, Schmolitics.

I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve been feeling my age recently. It may’ve been because many of my thirty-something friends have been eagerly preparing themselves for summer festivals that I won’t be going to – mainly because I don’t want to be one of those sad old buggers in tie-dyed t-shirts and  sparkly baseball boots who would embarrass me if I was their age, but also because I don’t have the stamina, or boundless appetite for drugs, that would’ve once seen me through a sleepless weekend of loud music and casual sex. Actually, some of those festivals weren’t quite of the 24 hour loud music variety, Secret Garden and Port Elliot being two of them, so bah humbug-ism probably had more to do with it.

Anyway, this feeling of creeping mortality was really fuelled by a realisation that the world is so fucked-up that any attempts to put it right, especially by an old fart with a laptop and a bottomless repository of bile, are frankly ridiculous. And from where specifically did this feeling emerge? Well the News International phone hacking scandal and its attendant implications of corrupt police and politicians who, realising that they might just not have to dance attendance to the Murdoch empire for much longer, quickly engaged in sanctimonious denunciations of both that empire and the sleazy supplication it encouraged. And as I pointed out in my last posting, the media’s lip-smacking relish to stamp on the Murdochs blinkered them to so much else that was wrong with the world, and was certainly of more social and economic import.

Greece’s bankrupt economy and its threat to the euro (which personally I’d like to see flounder, but that’s another matter), the famine in the Horn of Africa, the ongoing decline of our own economy and China’s steadily increasing influence throughout the world, especially where natural resources essential to its industrial superiority are ensured by its support of weak and corrupt governments whose records in human rights are even worse than their own. It even emerged that they are the favoured contractors to build America’s first high-speed (and incidentally, trans-continental) railway: eat your heart out Sarah Palin – although give her her due, she probably thinks China is what you eat your corn-fed steak off.

In my own backyard, our town’s major employer, a long established aluminum foundry supplying castings to the car industry, went out of business a few months ago and along with our sole remaining newsagent, the town’s only real restaurant (and a cheerful social hub) owned by old and dear friends of mine is now up for sale, joining the list of local business which have disappeared in recent years. These are small punctuation marks in a litany of  economic and social decline that my inner Daily Mail reader now assures me is inevitable in an overcrowded, over-leveraged world of diminishing resources governed by greed and subterfuge, however well disguised they still might be.

Fortunately however, I am not entirely alone, and even more happily, some clever folk actually have solutions to the moral and economic crises that bedevil us. One of these is my sometime trailriding pal, Rob D, who recently e-mailed me a solution to at least the perils of aging, and the economic pressure and consequent mental stress it’s putting on me as well as my country’s economy, which I shall now pass on:

Rob suggested that instead of giving billions of pounds to banks that will squander the money on lavish parties and unearned bonuses, the government should legislate for what he calls the Patriotic Retirement Plan. In essence, this would pay each of the approx. 10 million people over 50 in the UK work force £1 million severance pay for early retirement but with the following stipulations:

1) They MUST retire. (Consequence: 10 million job openings – unemployment sorted).

2) They MUST buy a new British car. (10 million cars ordered – motor industry sorted).

3) They MUST either buy a house or pay off their mortgage. (Housing crisis sorted).

4) They MUST send their kids to school/college/university. (Crime rate sorted, although I’m not so sure of this one).

5) They MUST buy £100 WORTH of alcohol and tobacco a week… and there’s your money back in tax.

Brilliant, eh? And Rob even has an answer to the crime problem: put the pensioners in jail and the criminals in nursing homes.

This way the pensioners would have access to showers, hobbies and walks, they’d receive unlimited free prescriptions, dental and medical treatment, mobility aids and they’d receive money instead of paying it out.

They would have constant video monitoring, so they could be helped instantly if they fell, or needed assistance, and their clothing would be washed, ironed and returned to them once a week.

A guard would check on them every 20 minutes and bring their meals and snacks to their cell and they’d have family visits in a suite built for that purpose. They’d also have access to a library, gym, spiritual counseling and education. Simple clothing, shoes, slippers, PJ’s and legal aid would be free on request.

Private, secure rooms for all, with an outdoor exercise yard and gardens. Each senior could have a PC, a TV, radio and daily phone calls. There’d be a board of directors to hear complaints, and the guards would have a code of conduct that would be strictly enforced.

Meanwhile in their erstwhile nursing homes where they’d pay £600.00 per week to live in tiny rooms, the criminals would get cold food, be left all alone and unsupervised, and have no hope of ever getting out.

Which all makes perfect sense to me… well at least as much sense as anything that comes out of George Osborne’s or David Cameron’s puffy, privileged, two-faced little mouths.

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Spinning Out of Control July 11, 2011

Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

Such is the pace of revelation that unfolds on almost an hourly basis,  I can’t even claim that it’s tempting to comment on the News of the World hacking scandal. Why would I add my tuppenyworth when just about all the big guns of media and political commentary have and will continue to articulate indignation that for once really is righteous, far more trenchantly and knowledgeably than I ever could? Henry Porter in yesterday’s Observer was a stirring exemplar of such tirades.

But during the past week’s events I am reminded of the phrase cynically used by the then Transport Minister’s spin doctor, Jo Moore, at the time of the 9/11 terrorist outrage, namely that it had been “a good time to bury bad news.” The bad news in question? Well there have been two items that especially got my goat, firstly the announcement that Bombardier, Britain’s last major (though foreign-owned) manufacturer of railway rolling stock had lost a contract to produce trains for Thameslink to the German company, Siemens with the direct loss of 1400 jobs at their Derby plant and many more thousands at its supply companies. There was some brief sense of outrage in the media: how could we not protect manufacturing jobs and irreplaceable skills in the same way that France, Spain or, well obviously Germany does; how could the Transport Secretary, Phillip Hammond, get away with his callow excuse that his hands were tied in awarding the contract to Siemens because of legislation passed by the last Labour government which demanded ‘tax payer value’ ?

Had the phone hacking and police bribery scandal not mushroomed beyond the cynical control of the Murdoch empire, some diligent journalists, never mind the odd senior Labour politician, might’ve taken Hammond to task over this. A little light Googling on my part revealed that the difference in ‘tax payer value’ between the two Thameslink bids was primarily due to the debt burden of financing it, and due to its complexity I haven’t been able to work out if the cost of benefit payments to the thousands directly and indirectly put out of work and the subsequent devaluation of our skills workbase exceeds that amount, but I bet it will. And when we can earmark £8billion in foreign aid, much of it siphoned off by corrupt governments and maladministration, I also bet that David Cameron’s facile ‘Big Society’ polemic will cut even less ice in Derbyshire and what’s left of our manufacturing heartland than it already did.

We must not forget that successive Tory governments, which this coalition is by any other name, have been happy to run down manufacturing in the fairly safe knowledge that financial services, media and retail will take up the slack employment-wise. But the events of the past few years clearly demonstrate that this unsound thinking, so if ever a cabinet member with some responsibility for generating taxable income could be accused for short-termism, let alone weasel words, then it is Mr Hammond.

The other unpalatable public announcement uttered with relief if not glee under cover of the NoW scandal last week was by British Gas who told us that households who bought both gas and electricity from them would henceforth, on average, be paying an extra £192, making a total of £1,288 a year. This followed a similar edict from Scottish Energy two weeks ago, the average 17% price hikes apparently justified by “unavoidable rises in the cost of (mainly imported) wholesale energy”. A few days after British Gas issued what, after the few remaining providers will now inevitably also raise their tariffs, is virtually a fait accompli, I learnt from the charity, National Energy Action, that £6.1million British families will thus shortly be living in fuel poverty, a rise of 12%.

I’m lucky because although on a low income I personally have neither dependents nor a mortgage to maintain – just an increasingly challenging rent bill – so I can only imagine the anxiety this must be causing families both young and old. Faced with the relentlessly escalating cost of food, transport, education and communications (every child just has to have a mobile phone, games console and soon, a tablet), they must now be seriously wondering if they can afford to heat their homes this coming winter, especially if it’s another harsh one… and never mind saving for that increasingly elusive pension.

There’s some simple arithmetic to be applied here which, yet again, I find little media and certainly no political appetite for. Higher living costs = less available discretionary spending = more reliance on cheap imported goods = decline of the retail sector, more unemployment, ghostly high streets and diminished balance of payments = lower tax revenues = less money available for welfare, healthcare and pensions. We are seeing undeniable evidence of this spiraling economic decline but nothing done to address its fundamentals. And if any of our public servant/masters needed reminding of how vulnerable their elected majorities are to this they should’ve read a harrowing feature in yesterday’s Sindie, ‘Middle Classes Are Britain’s New Homeless’ which chronicled the 1,000%  – yes, that’s 1,000% – increase in the number of rough sleepers in London alone (my italics) during the past five years, 59% of the current 3,975 poor souls aged between 25 and 45 years-old, 49% of them lone parents and 20% couples with dependent children.

As my hero Hunter S. Thompson so eloquently put it, ooh-ee-ooh…

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The Belgian Masters and the Emperor’s New Suits July 1, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, That's Entertainment.

On the hottest day of the year I spent rather too much time broiled to a sweaty jelly on the wrong tram from the architecturally impressive centre of Ghent to its railway station just a couple of kilometers away, and then waiting 45 minutes on an equally sweltering packed platform for a train delayed by some unexplained force, possibly the wrong kind of heatwave, back to Brussels. Arriving back in London the next day in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm I mused on the treachery of nature, climatically changed or not, and also on the uncertainties which we must apparently take for normality in these strange times we inhabit.

Belgium, for example, is not what I expected. I’d been there before of course, but only on day trips to do business with over-confident young publishers in slick suits and had little residual impression of anything other than an identikit commercial centre. Beyond that, my expectations were born of jokes about boring Belgians, frites with mayonnaise and the disgraceful financial waste that as members of the EU we British taxpayers bear with grumpy resignation. Somewhat validating the latter, as I Eurostarred beneath the waves I read an item in the Times railing at the European Council’s new £280million headquarters being built at our expense in the city I was about to visit. Fortunately, our doughty Prime Minister questioned the necessity and cost of this weird looking building – cheekily nicknamed ‘the EUteris’ – when “every member of the public” is suffering the budget cuts imposed by his banker pals who of course aren’t suffering at all. And as an aside, for a country that hasn’t effectively had a government for twelve months, Belgium seems to be doing very nicely, thank you.

Truly, awesomely architecturally beautiful was ‘de grote Markt’, or ‘Grand-Place’, which mine hosts took me to the night before leaving for home – a riot of 18th Century neo-gothic indulgence which illuminated against the darkened mauve sky genuinely took one’s breath away. There was much else to be impressed by, too, especially the pleasingly rackapulty flea market and surrounding area of Jeu de Balle and, as one who has long concluded that life itself is endlessly surreal, the Magritte Museum was a stunning and revealingly comprehensive testimony to the undisputed boss of its artistic expression: I hadn’t, for example, been aware of his brief dalliance with impressionism. And the numerous photos of him and his surrealist chums underlined what tremendous fun they all seemed to’ve had back in the day.

Less so the 15th century painter Hans Memling whose work, along with much of his Flemish renaissance contemporaries, is housed in several galleries in Bruges. The fear of god literally drove if not inspired this brilliant son of Bruges and his mastery of tone, perspective and subtle colour gradation elevated him way above all of his colleagues, including for my money, the Van Eyck brothers. And yes, I did go and see Hubert and Jan’s Adoration of the Lamb in Ghent’s St. Bavon Cathedral (a monsterpiece of mad gothic architecture in its own right, by the way) which, although certainly a bit of a gobsmacker, doesn’t better Memling on full throttle.

But all of this is, I admit, a bit subjective… a fact that’s been troubling me a lot recently. Take movies for example, two of which, Bridesmaids and Potiche, have both in their own way been lauded to the skies by the critics but both of which left me somewhere between cold and angry. Although co-writer and star Kirsten Wiig executes a few nice comic turns, Bridesmaids is essentially a series of smutty gags thinly linked together around a skimpy, ultimately mawkish plot redolent of Wedding Crashers. But because it’s seen entirely from a post-Valley Girl perspective (think Essex girls with yank accents), Bridesmaids is gulped down and regurgitated by a pliant if not gullible media as some kind of feminist damascene moment. Well excuse me but in my book fat girls shitting in washbasins doesn’t spell Female Eunuch for the 21st century.

As for Potiche, well although telegraphed as a French farce about a cowed industrialist’s wife who discovers her inner bitch, its conceits were just too few and too slow to develop any comedic momentum. Worse, because it starred a so-called icon of French cinema, we were evidently supposed to respectfully suspend our critical faculties but in truth Catherine Deneuve never was a great or even especially expressive actress, relying instead on gamine charm. But now she’s simply a dumpy broad with a bad facelift and who gives a perfunctory performance fairly equally matched by Gerard Depardiu sleepwalking through yet another bemused fat-man-on-a-redemptive-roll, role. And one he reprised – yet again – in the also recently released Mammuth… which at least co-starred a large, powerful motorcycle.

Could I be wrong about these films? Well my sister, who as some of you may know books films into most of Britain’s independent cinemas excoriated me for taking issue with the general critical toadying, and dismissed my suggestion that today’s critics dutifully buy whatever the film industry shoves into their well-oiled maw because they all have a mutual interest in keeping afloat two media which are being bankrupted into irrelevance by a digital world and its socially networked babble. But then although I love her dearly, and cinema only slightly less so, she would do that, wouldn’t she.

The same mutual desperation seems to be happening in the book industry, too. I’ve just finished A Visit From The Goon Squad the most effusive praise for which is plastered all over both covers and first three inside pages. Essentially a series of disparate short stories linked together by common characters, the narrative style – never mind the grammar, punctuation and descent into flow charts (honestly) – is irritatingly inconsistent. Which seems to justify the Independent’s conclusion that it’s ‘beautifully constructed’ and the NY Times’ claims for its ‘extreme virtuosity’. For which I would substitute ‘lazily opaque’ and ‘wilfully muddled’. So not for the first time, I’m wondering whether it’s me that’s out of step, or those that are paid to comment on such creative endeavours and despite their critical misgivings, feel the need to protect their incomes by routinely reaching for the purple ink?

I bet Magritte would had fun with such treachery.

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