Thursday, 11 August 2011

419 Scams Connected With Renting A Room

Previously I have commented on my experiences of living away from home Monday to Friday in order to work:  This has put me into circumstances that I have characterised as fitting in with those portrayed in Arnold Bennett novels.  Earlier this year, I also commented on issues around living as a lodger:  These experiences are again relevant, as having finally found work in London, a city where I could neither afford to rent a flat, I have gone back to being a Monday to Friday lodger.  With the recession still raging and impacting on different parts of the country differently, weekly commuting is becoming a common practice in professional jobs.  This may be why parts of the M25 have been experiencing even worse jams than usual, especially on Fridays.

I commute over 300Km each week but during the working week able to walk to my job.  I am fortunate that I have ended up lodging with a nice couple in a quiet, clean and pleasant house with an excellent wireless internet connection; in an area where few people seem to use such facilities.  Two other men, 10-20 years younger than me, are also lodgers in the house, but our daily schedules seem to complement each other, so there are not queues for the bathroom.  The only real challenge is that the landlord wants his monthly rent in cash meaning repeated visits to the cashpoint machine once I receive my salary and making sure it is kept safely until I can hand it over to him in one large lump.

What this posting is about, are the stages before I was successful.  I had learnt a lot from looking for a room in order to work at my previous job.  Originally there I had spent time looking online and in newspapers, day after day, and telephoning for rooms at lunch or in the evening only to find the room had gone or to be summoned to an hour-long interview not to be rejected, simply not to be called back.  In London I know it has been even worse with the pressure for rooms meaning that for perverse reasons people letting rooms not only conduct interviews as stringent as applying for a job, but even have evening events to which the ‘candidates’ are invited in order to carry out activities worthy of ‘The Apprentice’ in order to ‘win’ the room.

The main reasons I had been rejected for renting a room were because I was a man and because I was 42.  I accept that there are many women home owners who do not want a strange man lodging in their house, though they often cannot say that explicitly in their advertisements.  Often the gender or single/couple status of those letting is not revealed either.  Men letting rooms usually have no problem with a male lodger, but unless there are gay (and only 10% of men are) many would prefer to have a female lodger too.

As for age, people seem to prefer someone ‘exciting’ even if, ironically, they just come home from work and slump in front of the television themselves.  In the exercises to select a lodger this is the factor that is often focused on in particular.  Given that middle aged is officially 36-59, by the time you are 42 you cannot even pretend to be ‘exciting’.  Ironically, of course, they do not really want a 24-hour party person as a lodger, they want someone who is not seen or heard, leaves nothing in the fridge and manages never to be in the bathroom when they want to use it.  However, that is not what they think they want, certainly at the processing stage.

Having learnt these lessons, I adopted an approach which I repeated this time on coming to London.  Instead of chasing after advertisements only to get rejection after rejection, I put out a ‘wanted’ advertisement (using Gumtree London), detailing my age, gender, the profession I work in (something else people get exercised about, by definition civil servants certainly are seen as insufficiently ‘exciting’), what child and/or animal combinations I could tolerate and how far from work I was willing to be (even so, I always get offers 20-40Km from where I will be working, pretty much defeating the purpose).  Anyway, this has saved me a lot of wasted phonecalls. 

This time, however, I encountered a problem for the first time, the one which forms the focus of this posting.  All of us are aware that 90% of the emails we receive are not only junk but are, in fact, trying either to trick us into revealing details in order to hack into accounts or to trick money directly from us.  Such scams are often categorised as ‘419 scams’ a reference to the number of the Nigerian law which covers such criminal activity.  Once Nigeria was a major centre for such scams, but now it has spread to many other countries and many originate from within the UK itself.  Such scams constantly evolving; Wikipedia even has a whole page devoted to them.  We have seen the move away from those based on traditional confidence tricks such as trying to persuade you to part with a certain sum of money in return for a share of a larger sum.  Many now purport to be from banks or other online services you may or may not use, in order to tackle some supposed fault.  The ever changing variety of scams has now reached looking for rooms to rent.

I posted my advertisement twice in the space of a fortnight and among the eight responses I received, three were scams.  This might not seem a great deal, but when the supply of rooms is so scarce, this is three wasted opportunities.  The scams I received fell into two categories.  The first type may have even been computer generated.  The two messages came from a German Yahoo email account.  The first one suggested a room quite far from where I was working and I realised the sender had taken the area I stated I was interested in as the name of a street elsewhere in London and sent me a room available in that street.  The house holding the room was number 32.  I rejected that room straight off, saying it was too far away.

I only realised that this message was a scam when I altered my advertisement for inclusion the second week.  I got another email from a German Yahoo account, but using a different name and with an address close to where I work; it was only later that I noticed it was in house numbered 32.  What struck me, however, was that the photographs of the room were identical to those I had been sent before and then I saw the number was the same.  Looking back, I should have been suspicious immediately as the facilities on offer are far better than the standard for rooms right across London and the monthly rent was slightly below the norm.  In addition, in the emails they asked very quickly for details about me, whereas, as I have explained above, I had included a lot of personal detail in my original advertisement.  Given that both emails followed the same pattern, generating a response with a real address based on the area requested in my advertisement (though mixing up the area and street name in the first case), suggests to me that there is mechanical scamming going on.

The second scam was certainly with a human who I ended up in correspondence with.  Again, the facilities were slightly better and the rent slightly less than the norm for the area.  In addition, he would not give the name of the street the room was in though he sent photos of the interior.  Another noticeable characteristic was that after the initial email the level of English grammar and spelling fell away quickly.  Though, having dealt with officials from Newham Council over many years, I do know that this is not a great sign, because most communications I received from the council were more poorly written than the average scam email, as I often told them.  The Newham council worker Deanna Banks, has an unfortunate name for avoiding being suspected as a scammer, but the fact that she seems unable to use capital letters does not help either.

What aroused my slow to arouse suspicions was the story this scammer began spinning.  He said how he had people coming to the room and loving it so that he took it off the market only to find ultimately they could not pay the rent.  I offered to show him my current bank statement but he said he had been tricked in that way before.  I even offered to pay him a deposit of £200 in cash on the day I saw the room, if I liked it.  When he refused this and went on in detail about how I had to send money to my girlfriend using Western Union and then show him the receipt, I knew it was a scam.  Internet pages say that any transaction which involves Western Union should be avoided; they seem to only function on business done for scams.  Other money transfer companies are available and seem similarly exploited by scammers.

It was only some weeks after I had sent abuse to these scammers that I read in ‘The Guardian’ that scams around renting rooms have become so common and I recognised one of the ones listed as being the second one tried on me.  By definition someone seeking to rent just a room as a lodger is not rich, but these scammers are going to try to steal from you all the same.  The difficulties that people actually renting rooms put in place just drives you all the quicker into the arms of the scammers.  I was angered by how much time was wasted and how my hopes were raised and dashed.  I do also wonder about the poor people whose addresses get used by the scammers.  I guess at least some of them have had distraught people turning up at their door assuming that they are somehow connected with the scam, when in fact they have been just as exploited as the potential lodgers themselves.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Rioting 1911/2011: Similarities And Differences

As regular readers know I have done a lot of research into the Great Unrest of 1911:  I have been in contact with people involved in commemorating this period of strikes and rioting, notably in Liverpool which experienced effectively a general strike.  It is ironic that precisely 100 years on we are seeing much the same kind of riotous activity.  As I have noted that, in contrast to the early 2000s when people on history discussion boards discussed any reference to the Great Unrest as a fantasy or a counter-factual, elements of it are even appearing in prime time television, such as reference to the shootings during a riot in Llanelli in 1911 on 'The One Show' on BBC1.

What then are the similarities and the differences between what we are seeing now and what was witnessed in 1911?  The basis is very different.  The unrest in 1910/11 had its roots in strikes by coal miners, railway workers and merchant sailors.  In 2011 there are no such strikes going on.  The coal industry has been all but destroyed in the UK and our coal, where needed still, is imported.  A lot of freight that arrives in the UK is carried by foreign vessels, whereas in 1911, the UK was the dominant country for sea freight.  The railways were as fragmented as they were in 1911 since the privatisation of the 1990s.  However, at present railway workers seem not to have any reason to strike.  Consequently, unlike in 1911, there is not an established pattern of unrest on which the riots can be based.  A lot of this stems from the hammering of the trade unions during the 1980s under Thatcher and the loss of any collective identity among workers.  Thatcher's greatest success in weakening the unions was not the legislation restricting their behaviour, much of which Labour tried to introduce in the past anyway, it was her success in getting us simply to think of 'me first'.

Another factor that is different to 1911 is the lack of radical rhetoric.  In 1911 Labour MPs notably Keir Hardie went around not only supporting the riots as an expression of legitimate working class unrest which they generally were not, but publicly calling on soldiers to mutiny if their commanders ordered them to fire on rioting working class people.  In contrast this time we have supposedly left-wing Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney one of the most deprived areas of London calling for a London-wide curfew, something that was not even imposed (outside Liverpool) even in 1911 and would appear as if we were under foreign occupation.  No-one in the Labour Party will even try to squeeze out some reference to this unrest being a representation of the anger of the public over a mixture of issues, notably continued police mistreatment of ordinary people, especially from ethnic minorities and youth unemployment at a level higher even than the worst days of the 1980s.  Without channelling there is a danger that the unrest will turn to racial violence as it did in South Wales in 1911 and could easily do in many parts of London.  This may not be black/white violence but as happened in Cardiff a century ago, targeted at people seen as taking jobs, so aimed at Poles and other EU citizens who have settled in London and who we know the CBI favours as employees over UK young people.  This seems to be an unforeseen danger that needs to be addressed now.

Another difference to 1911 is the fact that the weather is not as hot.  The summer of 1911 was exceptionally hot and this always provides a context for rioting.  However, neither is it raining heavily, so the weather may not provoke rioting but it is not discouraging it either at the moment. 

Rioting in 1911 was generally carried out by people unconnected to the strikes going on at the time and it focused on much the same things as this time: attacking the police (especially those brought in from outside the area) and looting.  Looting is especially popular at times of economic hardship and conspicuous consumption that we are experiencing at the moment.  The largest similarity between 1911 and 2011 is the economic context. It is noted that in 1911 a lot of anger stemmed from the fact that real wages were falling but consumption by the wealthy especially of very visible luxuries was increasing.  We are in a very similar position now.  Real pay has been declining for forty years now and even those people in graduate professions cannot afford a fraction of what their parents in such jobs could have done. 

Everyone is suffering from the inexorable rise in petrol costs, utility prices and housing both in terms of buying houses and, in particular, rent, which seems to have had a new burst of climb since the recession started.  The disruption to household incomes by redundancy and unemployment further impinges on disposable income as well as income used to pay for the essentials.  I have been unlucky, but my circumstances are probably not atypical, with over half my monthly income paying for somewhere to live, to light and heat it, to fuel my car and to eat.  I do not go on holiday, my car is 15 years old, I do not eat in restaurants and do not go to the cinema.  You can put up with a dull life and battling for every penny, but after a while it impacts on you.  I am lucky, there are millions of people in the UK far worse off than me, but if I am disgruntled can imagine how many of them/you feel?  Whilst most ordinary people struggle we still keep seeing the obscene salaries and consumption of the privileged.  Bankers pay continues to be high and yet we are still suffering the consequences of their failed greedy gambles and will be for decades to come especially in terms of lost social care and local facilities such as libraries being closed down.  As in 1911 the obvious greed of the wealthy is painful and pricks us, made easier by the constant flow of information to us through every medium available.  Whilst the trains may be slower and less frequent than they were in 1911, information travels far faster these days to people in all walks of life and all ages.

There are a number of other similarities to 1911 not just the conspicuous consumption in a time of hardship.  The drafting in of police to cities is just like in 1911.  There are promised to be 16,000 police on the streets of London tonight; 10,000 of these brought from outside the capital; nine constabularies are sending officers to London.  In some ways this is a reverse of 1911 when the Metropolitan Police provided officers to other parts of the country, but that was only because London remained quiet and the unrest was located in other cities.  However, it seems likely that cities will draw on constabularies in neighbouring more rural counties.  The UK has far fewer constabularies than in 1911, but we still have a very decentralised system.  I wonder if cities in the North East will bid to buy in police from the Cleveland Constabulary given that their former Chief Constable and Deputy Chief Constable, arrested this week for corruption, seem happy to sell their officers to the highest bidder. 

The call from the local authorities for troops to be on the streets of Croydon is just like the hysteria of 1911.  Fortunately local magistrates are no longer in a position simply to summon a local unit as they were 100 years ago.  Given how many people whine about Winston Churchill as Home Secretary centralising the despatch of troops in 1911 to tackle unrest, that is more the system we have now. The issue, ironically, is unlike in 1911, Britain is currently fighting in two wars.  Whilst we no longer have imperial possessions to defend and the commitment in Ireland is far from what it was in 1911, the British Army would be pretty stretched if it was mobilised to police the streets.  In 1911 the Territorial Army was not trusted to oppose rioters, but in 2011 given class fragmentation and the dependence the UK has on its part-time soldiers, they may, in fact be called up to combat unrest.  However, I would imagine even now they would be sent to areas outside those in which they were recruited to avoid any questions about opening fire on family members for individual soldiers.  Of course, these days the odd tank or armoured car can achieve what a squadron of hussars would have been needed to do in 1911, so they could be spread thinner.  They are also no longer dependent on the railway system to reach the scenes of unrest.  However, experiences with civil unrest in Northern Ireland in the 1970s show the hazards of such action. 

I am more familiar with the King's Regulations of 1908 than I am with the current Queen's Regulations, and I would be interested to hear what the procedure is for the military called on to deal with unrest.  I cannot believe it is to simply fire into the front row of rioters but with the power of modern rifles and sidearms, even firing over their heads would cause a hazard.  Of course, the British police, since the 1980s have possessed anti-riot equipment pretty much undreamt of in 1911.  There would be no need for police to fall back on furled raincoats, instead they have baton rounds, tear gas, shields of different types and in some locales, water cannon.  Cameron ought to be alert to coming down too hard on the rioters if he wants to secure his political legacy.  Misremembered accusations that Churchill had striking miners shot were to haunt him politically even forty years after the event.

Whilst it is clear that 2011 is not a re-run of 1911, there are similarities which furthermore makes me ask why no-one in power was ready for the unrest which broke out this month.  As I have noted before, I believe that they probably did foresee and are happy for it to run its course.  Cameron is clearly enjoying sounding off as the authoritarian leader in the media and no doubt taking steps to further reduce liberty in the UK.  Perhaps, I am simply giving him credit for foresight that is undeserved and he is simply even more incompetent than I believed.

Going Back To Camden

Back in February 2008 I wrote about the fire that had damaged Camden Market in North London:  Recently I was fortunate enough to go back to the area and have a look around at how the repairs, especially to the Stables area of the market had gone.  I must say I was incredibly impressed.  Many areas were untouched by the fire and the shops on both sides of the road up from the tube station to the bridge over the canal are pretty much as they were, though some with dramatic new frontages.  The market hall you come to in the first building having crossed the canal is very similar to how it was before.  Throughout there are new faces but also familiar ones still there.  Interestingly there is a lot of demand for assistants to work on the stalls, I saw three signs along one strip of stalls.  I guess given how much it costs to live around Camden working on a market stall is not going to pay enough for you to live in near vicinity, nor, I guess to commute from too far away.

In the area of the main market, previously I had noted how large companies had been buying modern commercial units dropped like alien pods into the midst of the food and retro clothing stalls.  Whilst some of the reconstruction has put in new shops, I was incredibly heartened to see that far more numerous and small market spaces that now house numerous clothing and accessory stalls.  This space for small traders has helped retain the character of Camden Market, and in fact, I feel give it renewed vigour.  One concern for me is how few now stock Gothic clothing.  Fairy Goth Mother has moved out to Spitalfields in East London and anyway seems to have followed the common trend away from gothic clothing to burlesque.  The only stall I could find selling corsets was by a company called Berlesk.  There only seemed to be Darkside and Black Rose back out on the main road.  I do fear that Gothdom is ailing.  

There were shops selling heavy metal teeshirts, leather belts, silver jewellery and such like, 1950s style dresses shading into Rockabilly style seem pretty popular but the dominant style in Camden now appears to be what I would term 'Brideshead-wear', i.e. light, floaty stuff in pale colours with lots of white, in 1930s styling.  That style was on so many stalls.  I guess I may have to accept that that is the fashion. What concerns me is that it is hardly 'alternative' which is what Camden was supposed to be about.  It used to be Goth or punk clothes, genuine retro clothes, leather and latex clothing, things that you would not find in an average high street.  This remains in the shops on the main road, but it is a pity that it has gone from the smaller stalls, which since the rebuild are actually more numerous.  Why bother to go all the way to Camden to buy something you could get in a branch of Laura Ashley in Guildford?  I suppose that alternative clothes have gone online and this is a pity because people will miss out on the buzz of finding that piece of clothing or jewellery and putting it on and feeling transformed.  I suppose it is a question of supply and demand and in the old days, young language students dressing in the mainstream were always more numerous at Camden Market than Goths on a daytrip.

The rebuild seems to have grouped together stalls of the same kind.  There are now very clear areas for Oriental food, for clothing and for antiques.  This seems sensible and to work.  Some have clearly taken advantage of the rebuild to aggrandise.  I remember Cyberdog being in a kind of multi-roomed pod that as best it could replicated a rave.  Now its doors are flanked by two-storey high statues resembling the robot from 'Metropolis' and certainly you could not miss it.  One delight of Camden is being able to go into stalls/shops with a very different feel.  However, the one characteristic I love that they have kept is that often you feel you are in a souk or a market from either 'Star Wars' or 'Blade Runner'.  Middle Eastern cafes which have appeared wonderfully add to that sense.  The element which most surprised me though, were the statues, huge horses' heads in the Stables area alongside life-sized realistic statues of a farrier shoeing a horse.  There is a metal pergola with pillars in the form of life-sized statues of a range of women, some in Victorian outfits.  This element brings something distinctive to the areas where there are no stalls and people just sit, chat and photograph each other.  There is now a ramp down to a lower level with more stalls as well as the ramps up from before and not knowing where the fire was strongest, I can only guess this was the area which saw the most damage.

I guess I am probably slow among admirers of Camden to have gone back there since the fire.  I guess I was awaiting some announcement that it was back in business.  Being unemployed and living 150 Km away probably did not help either.  I am glad that the rebuild has been so successful and has stimulated small business rather than left the market to be flooded by corporations.  Camden is not to blame for the decline in popularity of Goth culture, and maybe it has not declined greatly, just relocated.  Maybe I am expecting too much, after all, you can buy some great leather coats and a whole range of New Rock boots around Camden still.  However, the Brideshead style seems to be dominant now.  I am heartened by the fact, however, that Camden remains unique and you can have an experience there that you could not find anywhere else in London let alone the rest of the world.  I cannot think of any other occasion when a district has been rebuilt with such success and sensitivity to what was important about it, I am just glad, that they got it right for one of the most culturally important locations in the UK.  If you have not been for a while, I urge you to go back to Camden.

Thirty Years On: Rioting In London - Is Anyone Surprised?

I am sure most readers of this blog will have seen the news of the rioting and looting across London from Tottenham to Peckham from Ealing to Hackney and other places including Birmingham and Croydon.  It has now raged for three days and has involved attacks on the police and the looting and burning of shops.  I have written before how the government is ushering in an era which looks unpleasantly like the 1980s with high unemployment and in particular the reduction in opportunities for young people, who increasingly feel they have nothing to lose in rebelling against the government and capitalist society?

Something else which does not seem to have changed is the relationship between the police and ordinary people.  After the murder of  Ian Tomlinson by police in April 2009 and the continued tension with ethnic minorities because of the hyping up of the terrorist threat and the blame being put on to South Asians, activity among far-right political groups, it all seems horribly like 1981 once more.  If you were around in 1981 or have read about the period then you will know it had a summer which witnessed riots pretty much like what we were seeing now.  The Brixton Riot of 1981 occurred in April of that year and raged for three days.  Very much like the rioting we are seeing now, it stemmed from the handling of ethnic minority males by the Metropolitan Police and the bad relations being heightened by rumour around the arrest of Michael Bailey.  Whilst the initial riot was about protest regarding heavy handed tactics by the police, by the third day it was basically a looting spree.  Riots attract different people and get out of hand quickly.  Whilst starting as a political event, they soon bring in people just looking to steal what they can.  I think the looting of phone shops in Woolwich is symptomatic of that phase.

The spark for these riots was the shooting of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham on Saturday.  Tensions around stops and searches have also contributed to the unrest.  In many ways both the context of Britain in fear of what is being inflicted on it by the government and what worse is to come, combined by heavy handed behaviour by the police have once again led to rioting.  All of this was covered in the Scarman Report of 1981.  I am sure somewhere in the government's or Metropolitan Police's strategy units there was a scenario playing out for summer 2011 just like this one.  Despite the various shootings by police over the past thirty years they seem to behave pretty much as they did in the 1980s.  No-one seems to learn from one year to the next: the police behaviour towards Duggan's family is as if none of these shootings had ever happened and certainly no lessons learnt from them. 

Whilst the hammering of the country by the government, the crass behaviour of the police and the willingness of people unconnected with the initial incident to take advantage of the rioting has not changed in 30 years, the techology has.  The ability to tweet messages and keep in contact via mobile phones and to relay images quickly to different groups explains why we are not simply talking about the Tottenham riot.  We know that there were various groups, following the student riots of last winter, ready for a new round of action.  Summer is always the best time for rioting, you just have to look back to 1911 as I have done.  Yet, all the ministers and the mayor of London, all set off on holiday with no expectation of rioting.  Clearly the police's intelligence is poor and they are not retrospectively hunting down people who use Twitter to organise violence.  If they had not spotted it coming, even in the immediate aftermath of Duggan's death, I think they will continue to be stumped.

The government is wrong to think that rioting will simply go away.  As in the early 1980s it is likely to continue appearing not just in London but in many cities.  The government cannot expect to keep on imposing cuts on services and cutting jobs and most of all opportunities in such a blatant, arrogant way, treating us like idiots when they do not blame their friends the bankers, and expect the British public (and the Northern Irish public either) to remain passive.  The continued police bungling keeps on providing the spark for the whole pile of tinder the government keeps on adding to.

Anyone who had stopped and thought would have been able to put a decent bet on there being rioting this summer.  I cannot believe that the government and the police had not worked through scenarios that showed this happening.  If I can do it, simply watching the television or writing my blog, then they, with all their advisors and their sophisticated computers should have had no difficulty.  I guess that they welcome as a distraction from the continued revelations about how guilty not only News International but also a growing number of its rivals were in hacking the phones of the bereaved as well as celebrities; the corruption connected with that and the government connections to people involved, plus straight forward corruption at the highest level in the Cleveland Constabulary.  I worry that knowing how much 2011 resembles 1981 and even 1911, they had foreseen all of this and yet took no steps to head it off.  It is clear that despite any efforts senior police officers may be making cannot stop their footsoldiers shooting people dead and that will constantly trigger local incidents.  However, I think the broader rioting was expected and has been allowed to run its course to allow the government to introduce the punitive and authoritarian legislation they are itching to impose.  Democracy and liberty are dying quickly in the UK.  I recognise the frustration the rioters are unleashing on this government which is pounding them and keeps telling them to forget have any opportunities in life, but inadvertently they are playing into the hands of a regime which is keen to impose an authoritarian regime and implement a social counter-revolution.

P.P. It is interesting to note that the rioting has spread to areas such as Toxteth in Liverpool, Handsworth in Birmingham and Bristol which experienced rioting in the 1980s.  It is unsurprising the areas affected are those where people still feel as let down by the government as they did 30 years ago.  There seems surprise in the media that so many young people have turned to rioting, without the recognition that if you cut off any hope for such people, they have nothing to turn to except violence.  The hypocrisy of the government as in 1989 over the Tianamen Square unrest, when they laud the overthrow through violent unrest of governments across the Middle East and yet somehow expect their own population to remain passive, I suppose is unsurprising.  I believe that David Cameron really does believe he is doing the best for the UK, even in his reassertion of social class divisions and denying access to higher education for all but the wealthy.  He is  so out of touch with the people that he simply sees all this as criminality.  Of course, every riot has elements of that in, but by focusing on this, he helps the media and the wider population ignore that a huge motive is despair created precisely by the conditions caused directly by government policies.

Cameron knows that the Poll Tax Riot of 1990 helped end Mrs. Thatcher's career and I guess he wants to marginalise this before people start questioning his position, especially as, in a coalition he is in a far weaker position than she was.  I think Cameron will use the riots to bind the Liberal Democrats closer to him, suggesting they sympathise with the rioters if they leave him now.  I also maintain that he will use this as the basis for more authoritarian policies and despite his sour attitude at present is actually enjoying these events.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Continued Relevance Of 'Walls Come Tumbling Down'

A couple of years back it became apparent that, while adults are big consumers of music which in past decades would have remained the preserve of teenagers and even MPs felt obliged to list their favourite pop artists, there was a demand for pop music to be played that people in their late 30s, 40s and even 50s remembered from when they were that bit younger.  This was seen on television with the popularity of 'Top of the Pops 2' and on numerous radio stations with programmes, often on a Sunday, presumably to appeal to listeners in that age bracket at home with their families, featuring music from the punk era and the 1980s.  The persistent nostalgia for the 1980s and the parallels between the economic and political situations of that time (especially in the UK) and now have only contributed further to this trend. Of course, there are songs that have never really gone away, but with the extent of this programming on radio with numerous 'golden hour' or 'time tunnel' programmes too, many forgotten gems are being thrust back into our memories.

One song that I heard probably for the first time in 20 years was 'Walls Come Tumbling Down' (1985) by The Style Council.  The Style Council lasted 1983-9, having 16 Top 40 hits but no No.1s. Interestingly they combined a somewhat at times overly polished, self-consciously snappy image with songs that were either almost like easy-listening, notably, 'Long Hot Summer' (1983), almost 'power' pop songs like 'Shout To The Top' (1984) to those like 'Walls Come Tumbling Down' which were very political.  The most prominent member of the group was Paul Weller (1958-) who also wrote 'Walls Come Tumbling Down'.  By the time he did, he was already very successful from his career with The Jam (1972-82; recording from 1977; 18 Top 40 hits including No. 1s in the UK) who had had a Mod style with a support for Britishness but also often challenging lyrics to social and political issues.  The strength of many of their songs was carried on into some of The Style Council's work with almost classic styling that seemed to refer back to music of the 1960s referenced by The Jam's style.  Saying this, the 'Sound Affects' (1980) album had almost psychaedelic elements, almost as if, like The Beatles, The Jam had evolved into this phase.  The politics of The Style Council was far more apparent than even in songs like 'Eton Rifles' (1979) and 'Town Called Malice' (1982).  I have been tempted however, to write how relevant I feel those songs remain recalling 1980s problems now we face so many of them again in the 2010s.

Anyway, in The Style Council, Paul Weller's left-wing political stance, presumably shared with band members Mick Talbot (keyboard, co-founder), Dee C. Lee (vocals; Weller's wife 1988-94) and Steve White (drums), became more apparent.  Weller was involved with both The Council Collective in December 1984 a band which raised funds for the striking coal miners and then in Red Wedge (1985-90) an umbrella organisation led by Weller, Billy Bragg and Jimmy Sommerville which aimed to raise awareness and funds through concerts to help prevent the Conservatives winning their third consecutive election victory at the 1987 election, a task at which they failed.  Weller is rather resentful of this period feeling he concentrated too much on the politics rather than the music, possibly contributing to the decline in popularity of The Style Council, tensions with record companies and its break-up.  However, in my eyes and I am sure of many others who lived through the 1980s we were grateful that they put in the effort to produce something that challenged the enduring Thatcher regime and provided music which was more than simply consumerist, peddling and reinforcing the anti-social trends of the Thatcherite greed era.

Weller has continued to have a very successful musical career and though he may be uneasy with some of the activities he was involved with in the past, he retains immense credibility both musically and for his political record.  I would be very happy if someone re-released or covered this now.  Given the kind of semi-folk revival led by people like Mumford and Sons, perhaps there are groups/individuals out there who could release something like this.  I do not know enough about their politics to know if it would appeal and perhaps these days record companies are far too much part of the exploitative sector of society to even countenance allowing a song like this back to see the light of day.

Unlike some of the political tracks of the 1980s, this one is more timeless.  If you do not know 'Number 10' refers to 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the prime minister.  These days were are used to songs having expletives that have to be bleeped or tuned out, but for the opening line to feature the word 'crap' which was coming into usage in the UK (from the USA) at the time, it was a forceful startling opening.  I guess if you recorded it these days the references to 'colour TV' and 'video machine' and certainly to 'H.P.', i.e. hire purchase, a way of buying items on credit which was pretty dated even by the 1980s, would have to be revised, but I am sure you could get DVD, smart phone and credit card in there somewhere.  The sentiments about consumerism remain as valid, how it has become the 'opiate of the people' in the UK in particular.  The point about dangling jobs 'like a donkey's carrot' is certainly applicable in 2011 as is 'they take the profits/you take the blame': it could have been written specifically to refer to the banking crisis.  Similarly the attempts by government and employers to provoke division among ordinary people by designating some as 'undeserving' or 'scroungers' continues to be a policy.

The whole song certainly could be a rallying cry for those students who protested and those who rioted earlier this year.  I fear even more than in the 1980s when there were still memories of student protests of the 1960s and trade union ones of the 1970s, now people assume that protest is simply criminal, a perception almost the entire media and certainly all political parties put effort in portraying it as.  To adopt such a passive attitude is to let them abuse you without even a fight.  Anyway, for anyone who has never heard the lyrics of 'Walls Come Tumbling Down' or for those who like me, they had become a distant memory, here they are for perusal and discussion.  However, I do suggest that you listen to the original if not least to hear Paul Weller really belt it out ably assisted by Dee C. Lee.

'Walls Come Tumbling Down' - The Style Council
You don’t have to take this crap
You don’t have to sit back and relax
You can actually try changing it.
I know we’ve always been taught to rely
Upon those in authority -
But you never know, until you try,
How things just might be,
If we came together so strongly.

Are you going try to make this work
Or spend your days down in the dirt?
You see things can change -
Yes and walls can come tumbling down!
Governments crack and systems fall
’cause unity is powerful -
Lights go out - walls come tumbling down!

The competition is a colour TV
We’re on still pause with the video machine
That keep you slave to the H.P.
Until the unity is threatend by
Those who have and who have not -
Those who are with and those who are without
And dangle jobs like a donkey’s carrot -
Until you don’t know where you are.
Are you going to realise
The class war’s real and not mythologized?
And like Jericho - you see, walls can come tumbling down!

Are you going to be threatened by
The public enemy at Number 10?
Those who play the power game:
They take the profits - you take the blame.
When they tell you there’s no rise in pay
Are you goning to try and make this work
Or spend your days down in the dirt?

You see things can change -
Yes and walls can come tumbling down!

I must say I am sometimes heartened by what I can find on the internet.  Surprisingly I have found the lyrics to 'Soul Deep' the only single released by The Council Collective, you can even find footage of their performance of it on 'Top of the Pops' which seems pretty incredible now given how the striking miners were being condemned as the 'enemy within' at the times and civil liberties were being flouted in an attempt to break the strike.  I include it here for interest's sake.  I do wonder if you would ever see anything similar performed on a television pop show (not that there are many left) these days; certainly I doubt it would ever appear on SkyTV given the Murdoch connection.  The reference to death I presume, refers to expenditure at the time on cruise and trident nuclear missiles.  The TUC is the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella body for British trade unions which was ambivalent towards the strike given that an official secret ballot for strike action had never been held.  It is as critical of the Labour Movement as it is of the Conservative government.  There is also reference to the North-South Divide in British society, more apparent than ever in the 1980s.  The reference to oppression by employers

'Soul Deep' - The Council Collective
Getcha mining soul deep - with a lesson in history
There's people fighting for their communities
Don't say this struggle - does not involve you.
If you're from the working class, this is your struggle too.
If they spent more on life as they do on death,
We might find the money to make industry progress.
There's mud in the waters - there's lies upon the page;
There's blood on the hillsides and they're not getting paid.
There's brother 'gainst brother - there's fathers against sons
But as for solidarity, I don't see none.
(Let's change that - let's fight back)

Going on 10 months now - will it take another 10?
Living on the breadline - with what some people send.
Just where is the backing from the TUC?
If we aren't united there can only be defeat.
Think of all those brave men - women and children alike,
Who built the unions so others might survive
In better conditions - than abject misery
Not supporting the miners - betrays that legacy
There's brother 'gainst brother - there's fathers against sons:
Let's change that - let's fight back!

Up North the temperature's rising;
Down South she's wine and dining.
We can't afford to let the government win:
It means death to the trade unions
And the cash it costs to close 'em
Is better spent trying to keep 'em open.
Try to feel the pain in those seeds planted
Now are the things that we take for granted
Like the power to strike if we don't agree
With the bosses that make those policies
That keep us down and keep us dumb
So don't settle for less than the Number One!

Friday, 5 August 2011

Student Inflow/Outflow

This is something I guess been aware of since when I first moved to southern England in 2005, but has come home more to me now that for much of my time I am living in West London.  For some reason around where I am living are lots of educational institutions from primary school right up to universities and so simply travelling to work I see a cross-section of our being-educated public of all ages.  Of course, for the moment all of them, even the university students are on their summer holidays (though universities seem to be all Americanised now with semesters rather than terms and they have always had vacations rather than holidays).  However, I noticed that this did not seem to make the university campuses any quieter, in their place are literally thousands of young people who seem to range from about 12-16 years old.  Saying that I have seen some Chinese students who look about 9-10 years old.  That might be the case, I imagine a British mother would be loath to send their child 8,000 Km for the summer, but I might be wrong.  Anyway, the bulk of them seem to be teenagers.  The nationalities I can make out have included French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and some East Europeans, I am unfamiliar with East European languages so could not tell you whether they were Poles, Czechs or Russians, perhaps from the Baltic States.  It is heartening that the immigration policies that threatened to kill the language school trade in the UK have been bent sufficiently not to choke off this important industry.

Anyway, each university seems to have been colonised by a one or more language schools run by energetic young staff in bright teeshirts for the summer.  I guess this works well for all concerned.  The school gets a purpose built teaching space and accommodation with a convenience store and cafes that all universities seem to have and the university presumably gets lots of fees at a time when the campus would normally be empty.  It also seems to employ lots of young graduates as organisers and language teachers at a time when any jobs that can be created especially for people under 24, are desperately needed.  Though I did not really notice it at the time, I now realise I have witnessed the same occurrence in Hampshire and Devon too.  Madly I had forgotten the two students who lodged in my house last year, I somehow put them in a different box, perhaps because I was only seeing one of them rather than large clusters and generally I am not in areas where students or tourists go.  I guess that it is simply the draw of London and the scale of the operations in the capital that make it more apparent, maybe simply my route to work.  One point to note is how uniformly dressed so many of these students are, fitting in very much with what Niall Ferguson was saying in his series earlier in the year, that a teenager from Beijing now is a replica of one from Madrid in the clothing and electronic equipment that they have.

I have no idea how much it costs for a 14-year old to be sent from Beijing or Madrid to London for a number of weeks, I guess they come for a fortnight, perhaps it is more.  From what I can ascertain and referencing the other examples I now recognise I have witnessed, they seem to get teaching in English all morning and then trips out to the standards of British tourism, everything from Bath and Stonehenge to Windsor Castle and the London Eye.  Shepherded around I guess they never really encounter the London beyond the campus bounds.  It is probably a good thing.  Students are never particularly popular even with 42% of British 18-year olds attending university and these groups are certainly noisy as any cluster of teenagers is.  What is apparent is their wealth.  Sending anyone from China to the UK costs money and these students all seem to have the latest smartphones and fashions.  I guess it is something that only the rich middle class parents of various European countries could afford and that is rather alarming, because it shows that even the UK's middle class is lagging behind its neighbours and the Chinese in what is affordable to do.  This is of course no surprise given that the real incomes of 90% of the UK population have slid in the last 40 years.  Perhaps it would have been affordable in 1975 but not now.

I would like to think that in western Paris or western Madrid there are hundreds of British teenagers there for a fortnight or a month and being drilled in French or Spanish (let alone western Beijing learning Mandarin) mixed in with some sports and some sight-seeing, but know it is not happening.  How do I know?  Well simply because I read 'The Guardian' newspaper.  It is not the font of all knowledge but if you want to get inside the heads of what the Europeanised (and this is what marks 'The Guardian' out from 'The Times' and 'The Daily Telegraph' which are pretty Little England in attitude) middle class aspires to be doing you read 'The Guardian'.  I can see no features on packing your 14-year old, let alone 10-year old off to Paris for the summer (unless it is to relatives) to learn a foreign language. 

Partly, as I have intimated above, it is the cost: the fact that the British middle class is falling in terms of disposable incomes because very few in Britain are willing to insist on a greater share of the prosperity that heads of companies are clearly benefiting from and did not even before the credit crunch was allowed to happen.  I know that these days the middle class holiday is camping in the UK, something once left to the unimaginative and those with no money to go abroad.  The other factor seems to be the 'parent fear' that has taken parents by the throat and sends them into hysterics the moment they lose eyeline with their child let alone mobile phone contact.  More examples of this were revealed to me this week with accounts of a colleague at a child's birthday party with mothers running around frantically the moment one of their children was lost in the crowd (given there were 50 children in attendance, that was no doubt easy).  The middle class has never relished packing their children off to holiday camp the way that their US equivalents have always done, they have never trusted anyone to look after their children and even their trust in teachers has slumped, hence the terminal state of even term-time school trips.  The upper class, of course, have been happy to bundle their children off into the care of others almost from the moment they are born and certainly once they turn 8.  Even if somehow, middle class real incomes rose, you would never see the equivalent of what I witness with French children (France is nearer to where I am living now than Yorkshire) happening with their British counterparts.  The woman in my house worries over the 5-minute walk it would take her 9-year old son to reach school and has already ruled out him going on any trips which involve him sleeping away from home, not that she or I could afford to pay for him to go.

Does it really matter if there is an imbalance in the flow of teenaged language students?  Is it not better for the British economy that more are coming into the UK, spending money here, rather than it being balanced up by an outflow.  The cost in my view is human.  If we go back to Ian Duncan Smith's speech earlier in which he encouraged British employers to take on more British young people, the retort from the CBI was to ask why would any UK company want to do this when it could employ better qualified East Europeans with a real work ethic compared to ill-qualified British people with an attitude of looking out for what they can get from a company.  I have no desire for British young people to be compelled to forelock-tugging lackeys, but it does seem that there are skills that they are not getting to compete with people from other parts of Europe.  It is not only people from Eastern Europe, apparently around 300,000 French people live in London alone, more than the entire population of Southampton; 123,000 Poles over the age of 16 live in London with 398,000 in other parts of the UK. 

Now, I know many people from other parts of the EU returned to their home countries when the recession kicked in and we have not returned to the figures of 2007, but it does suggest there is something that enables such migrants to get work in the UK.  It may be that they are cheap labour, but even then 16 year olds have always tended to be cheaper to employ.  One clear thing is that the migrants have the confidence to get up and come into the UK and find work in a language which is not their own.  How many British 18-year olds or even 21-year olds with a degree in their backpack do that?  A key challenge is that they do not speak the language, another is that often they have not ever been in another country, these days, not even on holiday let alone to study.  It seems ironic that the Conservatives (and New Labour who are/were minimally different to them) with their occasional forays into attempts at discrimination, are in fact further reinforcing the conditions that hamstring British young people.  They have pandered to the tabloid media which have hyped up the fear that a child out of your sight is being abused by a paedophile.  They have allowed companies to distort the distribution of profits so whilst bosses' salaries have rocketed the real incomes of 90% of employees have continued to slump unabated.  Thus, they have engineered and are sustaining a situation in which a 14-year old from France or Spain or even China is getting the intellectual and personal skills to find work across the world and yet their British counterpart is closeted at home learning nothing beyond the distance between their home and the park.  Thus, when I see another coach disgorging a fifty or so teenagers ready for some weeks of language school, I do feel depressed knowing that if I was in one of the other capitals of Europe I would not be witnessing the equivalent with British students.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Reading Christopher Priest

As I have noted before on this blog, I have had tendency, which though it has declined, was strong in the 1980s-2000s of reading all the books that I could by a particular author.  I have written here of my engagement with the books of Michael Moorcock and Michael Dibdin.  Back in June, finishing the last (so far) published book by this author that I had not so far read, I was reminded that I could put Christopher Priest in this category.  In some ways he is similar to the previous two, that whilst he can write realistic fiction, often he writes along the borderlands between fantasy and magic realism.  I have been impressed by some of Priest's books and dismayed by others.  Yet, his writing is always engaging if only because it infuriates and I feel that despite his long career he is even more under-rated in mainstream culture even than Moorcock.

Priest was born in 1943 making him five years younger than Moorcock.  He began publishing short stories in 1966 including in 'Impulse' and in 'New Worlds' which Moorcock edited 1965-9 and 1971.  Unlike Moorcock and other British science fiction authors of the late 1960s/early 1970s, Priest's work does not engage with an overly fantastical approach and seems uninfluenced by the drugs culture of the era.  Perhaps that is not a correct statement, as many of his characters can have a distorted perception of reality or can be thrust into a delusional state.  However, whereas contemporaries at that time could see such states and perceptions as liberating for Priest's protagonists they are at least challenging if not down right dangerous. 

Priest's work, even when considering fantastical ideas, remains grounded in reality, sometimes cynically.  There is an air in Priest's work of the individual losing control whether to stronger individuals or to larger elements in society or the environment.  This is not to say that Priest's work is fatalistic, it is just that he is very adept at painting the kind of nasty people we can all encounter in real life.  Naturally this keeps Priest's writing 'grounded' even when touching the fantastical and his portrayal of characters can be more effectively painfully acute than those of strictly realist writers.

Priest published his first novel, 'The Doctrinaire' in 1970.  It is a short story collection and is of its time.  Whilst many of the stories could have been produced by many other writers of science fiction at the time, as reviewers note, Priest's ability with unpleasant characters and settings is apparent.  This should not be taken to suggest he is a horror writer and that makes his writing more penetrative, Priest knows that the greatest evil is not extravagant but mundane.

I have read 'Fugue for a Darkening Island' (1972).  I came to this book after having read many of his subsequent books.  I think if I had not read other Priest books by then I would have shunned him entirely.  There are a few reviews online which you can find for yourself which highlight how racist a book it is.  However, there seems to be no record on the trouble it caused.  As far as I can see it really only began to attract criticism during the 1980s in the context of race riots such as that in Brixton in 1981.  The book portrays a Britain in the near future which is under an authoritarian government.  Britain is overwhelmed by refugees from sub-Saharan Africa fleeing a nuclear exchange in the region.  By the time the novel is set, Britain is in the midst of a racial civil war between blacks and whites.  The story has little narrative direction, it is a 'slice of life' portrayal, but this can be said to characterise a number of his novels and in fact, many works of British contemporaries like Moorcock and J.G. Ballard.

The story has a clearly biased perspective, showing the blacks as more brutal and a greater threat to Britain and 'Britishness' than white authoritarianism.  Apparently it is not published often (though is available on Amazon still) and this may explain why it is not a 'set book' for the BNP and other racist political parties.  The entire principle of the books appears to pander to all the paranoia about Britain being 'over-run' by refugees from non-white ethnic groups, even during the 1990s when there was net emigration from the UK with so many middle class people moving to France, Spain and Florida. 

It is difficult to gauge Priest's political stance, though apparently he was angered by criticisms he received in the 1980s and this stance does not seem to appear in any subsequent books.  In addition, he features a lesbian couple in a positive way in a story 'The Dream Archipelago' (1999) in a brilliant piece of writing which misleads the reader very well in regard of the characters' gender.  Whilst tolerance of same-sex couples does not always go hand-in-hand with having a multi-cultural perspective, it does seem to jar.  I do wonder if after 'Fugue for a Darkening Island' Priest's views on racial matters shifted or he simply realised that if he continued to peddle racist propaganda in his novels he would not get published (the Race Relations Act became law in 1976).  This novel is certainly an indelible stain on Priest's career and unfortunately cannot but detract from the strength of his other writing.

The novels of Priest's that I first came to were those which can be seen as clearly magic realism.  I bought 'A Dream of Wessex' (1977), 'The Glamour' (1981) and 'The Quiet Woman' (1990) all in the same imprint from a remaindered bookshop in Oxford in 1993.  These books have a very British feel about them and in many ways are 'gentle' books, not shaking you with brash ideas in the way that some of Priest's other novels, for example, 'The Inverted World' (1974) do. 

These stories are set at the eastern edge of South-West England, areas like Dorset and Wiltshire.  'The Quiet Woman' is really about a woman unravelling how a local man has been party to manipulating the media to hound political activists.  It is set in the near future when the region is suffering from the fall-out from a nuclear accident at one of France's numerous power stations., if not for that future setting it could have been a realist novel.  'A Dream of Wessex' is more clearly science fiction, featuring a group of people seeking to learn potential future developments for the UK by going into a computer simulation of the country in the near future.  The exact nature shifts depends on who is overseeing the project and it is interesting when the source of power for Wessex (which has become separated from the rest of England) is shifted from wave power to oil rigs off the south England coast when a new project director with less ecological attitudes comes in.   In this context which is clearly reminiscent of stories such as 'The Matrix' movies, there is a search for individuals and an attempt to reassert the 'better than real' nature of Wessex. 

Priest's sympathies for those fighting against individuals repressing political activism and ecologically sound approaches to power supply seem to suggest Priest is a liberal and this makes it hard to reconcile with his authorship of 'Fugue for a Darkening Island'.  There was clearly a lot of turbulence in Priest's political attitudes which does not seem to be revealed to the average reader.

As 'A Dream of Wessex' can be seen as a precursor of 'The Matrix' and 'The Quiet Woman' of 'Edge of Darkness' (1985), 'The Glamour' contributes much to contemporary vampire stories like the 'Twilight' and 'True Blood' series.  The special characters in 'The Glamour' are not vampires, but do have an ability to make themselves unseen by ordinary people.  Following an accident the protagonist becomes involved in an almost love triangle including a male of these different people.  Again, Priest is excellent at crafting the antagonist in a way that you know that whilst he does not engage in overt violence, you know your life would be shattered simply due to his whim, if you encountered him for real.  In a low key novel like this, the reality of that character and the almost raw strength of his nasty personality stand out all the stronger.  As in many of his stories, like 'The Extremes' (1998) and 'The Separation' (2002), and in his novelisation of David Cronenberg's screenplay for 'eXistenZ' (1999)  Priest plays around with the sequence of events and time and people's perceptions of them.

In terms of the chronology of Priest's writing I have jumped ahead.  His third novel was 'Inverted World' which whilst more clearly science fiction encompasses familiar traits of Priest's work in an interesting way.  The story features a rolling wooden city moving across the landscape, which actually turns out to be Spain.  The residents of the city see time and space differently to the way we do.  What they see about their 'world' of the city and the humans they encounter is shown from their perspective so making 'us' appear very alien.  Like much of Priest's work this questions our views of what is true when discussion (mis)perceptions. It is well written and like the best of Priest's writing submerges you in the 'reality' of the context and the characters and it deservedly won the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) award.  

Priest's next novel, 'The Space Machine' (1976) which I finished reading this June, plays a little with time and space with the protagonists taking the time machine from H.G. Wells's 'The Time Machine' (1895) but using it travel to Mars on the eve of the Martian invasion of Earth as portrayed in Wells's 'The War of the Worlds' (1898).  It is a more conventional action science fiction story, written as a pastiche of Wells's work.  Only the focus on the development of the male protagonist's lust and then love for his female counterpart and reference to their growing relationship betrays the fact that the novel was written in the 1970s when it seems it was compulsory to include such elements.  It is well paced and portrays both late Victorian London and Mars as suggested by Wells vividly and far less whimsically than 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II' (2002-3) which also presents a different perspective of the invasion.  Priest's novel is a good read that sweeps you along.  In many ways it can be considered an overlooked steampunk novel at a time when Moorcock with his 'Nomad of Time' series was also stimulating the seeding of this genre.  Priest has been vice president of the H.G. Wells Society since 2006; other vice-presidents have included: Brian Aldiss, Stephen Baxter, Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Foot.  I very much enjoy this novel and hope that Priest returns to steampunk writing.

One setting that forms the background for a number of Priest's stories, is the dream archiepelago.  The collection 'The Dream Archipelago' encompasses all the stories from an earlier collection 'An Infinite Summer' (1979).  It features a fictional archipelago which even to the characters may be a delusion or a fantasy.  This context is the setting for 'The Affirmation' (1981) in which the protagonist battles to decide whether he is the author or his own character in a novel set in the archipelago; it reminds me of the similar merging of author or character seen in the movie '2046' (2004) which with its distortion of time flow and perception fits well within the Priest-style exploration of worlds.  The premise of 'The Affirmation' is well handled, despite the seeming complexity of the set-up. 

Stories among those set in the Dream Archipelago context do stand out.  Again, the mundane nastiness that Priest does so well is noticeable, especially the consequences of misunderstanding local social customs and unspoken communication when at a funeral.  This motivated me to write 'The Wedding Party': in a feeble attempt to mimic Priest's story.  In 'The Affirmation' and 'The Dream Archipelago' Priest demonstrates that science fiction can be light touch and from that approach allow the crafting of acutely observed and portrayed characters and interactions.

After a relatively quiet period in his career in the 1980s when Priest produced movie novelisations as diverse as 'Short Circuit' (1986) and 'Mona Lisa' (1986), he steadily rose in public recognition in the 1990s and his output increased too. 'The Prestige' (1995) was the one book which brought Priest a higher level of recognition than any other because it was made into a movie, 'The Prestige' (2006).  The novel won a World Fantasy Award.  As with much of Priest's work, there is a grounding in very credible reality, rivalry between two Victorian stage magicians, but with the added fantastical element of electrical power seemingly allowing teleportation.  The movie adopts a different approach, though equally steampunk, in that it replicates whilst transporting so creating multiple versions of the magician rather than a single semi-copy as in the novel.  The rival who simply uses his twin brother and the difficulties that causes for their family lives, is carried between the two and in other author's hands would have been the extent of the story. 

With this novel, Priest moved from the 'near future' into a different time context, but brought with him his usual themes and because of his successful portrayal of harsh individuals was well suited for portraying the bitter rivalry and hard people of the time and business.  The characters in the movie were felt to be underwritten, but that the actors, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale lifted their roles above this.  Priest himself enjoyed the movie and saw the variations from his novel as innovative and exciting.  All credit to him for not adopting the Alan Moore approach to movie adaptations of his work!

'The Extremes' (1998) also won a BSFA award.  Like 'eXistenZ' and 'A Dream of Wessex' it features a protagonist going into a virtual reality to uncover truths about the 'real' world.  It features an American woman in Britain exploring events around her husband's death during a shooting spree in the USA by allowing her to 'go into' the event.  A friend of mine and I cannot agree whether ultimately the protagonist is transported back to that time and place or whether the virtual reality simply becomes her dominant reality.  Again it explores themes of reality and perceptions of it, but in a way which seems very contemporary both in terms of technology, the traumatic incident and the impact on those associated with it.  The US setting is a new departure for Priest, but I imagine was to address a potential American audience brought to his work by 'The Prestige'.

'The Separation' (2002) has counter-factual elements but also features discussion of what is 'real' and features a messing around in the sequence of events as seen in 'The Glamour'.  It features twin British brothers at the time of the Second World War who at a juncture experience different outcomes, one the war we experienced in our world and the other a world in which Britain made peace with Nazi Germany following the arrival of Rudolf Hess in Britain.  As with 'The Prestige' Priest shows good attention to period detail.  As with a number of his stories, there is no strong narrative thrust, but rather interesting speculation on how events would unfold in the different contexts leaving the reader to come to firm conclusions if they desire. This novel also won a BSFA award, Priest's third, and an Arthur C. Clark award too; 'The Prestige' and 'The Extremes' had both been nominated for this latter award when published.

It is difficult to find out biographical details about Priest, but he faded from my sight and that of the general public, I imagine, through the 2000s. Priest is now 68 so he may have been in semi-retirement. However, we are promised 'The Islanders' (2011) and 'The Adjacent' (2012).  Christopher Priest comes over as an erratic writer but one who has produced novels and short stories of recognised high quality.  Even in his 'quieter' novels, he produces acutely observed characters some of which that are almost so uncomfortable to read that you feel you have to set the story aside.  Yet, you are locked in by the ideas that he raises and toys with, giving answers though not easy ones and leaving much up to you as a reader to decide upon.  Consequently, his writing stays with you long after you have finished reading. 

For me, however, my enjoyment of such much of his writing and my true admiration of his skills notably in drawing characters and settings and stimulating thought, will be forever over-shadowed if not contaminated by a single novel, 'A Fugue for a Darkening Island'.  Whilst his political views seem complex and many of them liberal, to me this is one of the most aggressively racist books still in the mainstream and available freely to buy.  Its nastiness is heightened by contemporary debates about refugees, race, violence and the UK and that means it is a running sore on Priest's body of work, ripped open once again to spoil everything else which he has produced.  Despite all his good attributes, I can never forgive him for producing that foul book.

Monday, 1 August 2011

A Dangerous But Engaging Tour

My ego has not yet over-ruled my relative poverty and brought me to buy 'Cyclebabble' a book which collects blog postings about cycling.  I do wonder if I am in it.  Anyway, not in the search of glory, but simply because I enjoy the sport and for many reasons no longer cycle at all myself, I do enjoy commenting on the Tour De France, it is the only sporting event that I will watch religiously.  I suppose fans of football or tennis at Wimbledon find it difficult to understand why everyone does not love their events as passionately as they do and will extoll (I have found that version and 'extol' are both acceptable) the excitement of the event, I feel the same about the Tour De France which has so many different facets in terms of the different competitions within it, let alone the scenic backdrop that it takes place against, that I cannot understand why coverage of it is not watched by many millions.

This year the British contribution has reak a new peak with the involvement of the clearly British team, Sky and the participation of Bradley Wiggins of Beijing Olympics fame and Mark Cavendish such a speedy cyclist in the right circumstances that his victories in the Tour De France even make the main bulletins (not simply the sports ones) on national radio.  That is excellent and even if British involvement never gets greater than this, then I will be satisfied.  However, I do rather feel a 'ceiling' has been broken through and whilst you may not see as many riders from the UK in the race as from France, Spain and Italy, you might see as many as come from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and already we exceed Norway (though their two, Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen, have both been impressive this year: four stage victories between them.)  In fact with the first Australian to win the race and the first Briton to win the green jersey, there could be a feeling that the countries providing the victors are changing; the French have been suffering a dearth of victories for years, though there are some young riders who may shift that in the next five years.  Briton Mark Cavendish is rapidly climbing through the record tables with incredible consistency.  He has the grace to acknolwedge the strength of the team he has around him at HTC and it would be a challenge if he lost them or especially those who lead him out went in different directions.

The Tour had a range of modifications this year, the most successful seems to have been the introduction of a single 'sprint' point along each stage, with a decent amount of points for the person winning that stage, towards the green jersey competition.  This has made for genuine racing at that part of each day's race and has left the green jersey competition much more open than it otherwise would have been.  In addition, the 20 points deduction for sprinters coming in after the cut-off time when permitted to continue because they were alongside more than 20% of the field, especially in the stages in the Alps, brought an additional complication.  The lay out of some of the finishes was also interesting, with more slight inclines to break the flow of the pure sprinters.  However, given the level of Cavendish's tally, this seems to have opened up opportunities for a wider range of cyclists to win a stage without being to the real detriment of the devoted sprinters, so that must be seen as another good idea.

The unpredictability of the race this year, especially for those of us who watched through the long and sometimes monotonous years of Indurain and Armstrong's dominance (though saying that the unexpected could often happen with Armstrong even when the overall result was in no doubt; far less so with Indurain) not being able to predict the outcome made the whole competition far more engaging for the spectators.  I think this element was given extra depth by Thor Hushovd and especially Thomas Voeckler.  All sports like heroes, but in the Tour De France both the heroes (and the villains) seem to be cast much greater than in other sports, partly due to the extremity of hauling yourself across thousands of kilometres of France (and other countries) and because for three weeks we see these men having to perform for hours every day in a way that other sports are not set up for that.

As I have noted before in reference to Cadel Evans, cycling fans seem to demand that their sportsmen have a decent personality.  They like aggressive riding, but they also expect graciousness and gentlemanly behaviour.  Evans had to really work at his personality especially in front of the cameras.  I dislike the man but far less than I used to.  He worked hard and though not winning a stage clearly demonstrated the consistency day-after-day that is what it takes to be a Tour victor.  A man who can climb as well as him and time trial as well will always stand a chance and this year he seemed able to shake off the variety of things such as injury and a weak team that have hampered him in the past.  I guess if he had been luckier with those two elements in the past it would be him and not Contador with three victories to his name.  He will have to work hard to gaint he level of support that even the Schlecks get, outside his own country.

Hushovd, also seems a changed man in this respect, perhaps as he has been successful.  However, we cheer him more when he breaks away and wins than when he was being sour about Mark Cavendish.  Sensibly, Hushovd has rejigged his approach, he can sprint but will never be as fast as Cavendish but the Norwegian has a wider range of skills as he showed in the stages he won this year, involving a lot of climbing but also finishing fast.  As for Voeckler, his boy-like glee and his self-effacing manner would have made him a star even if he had only held the yellow jersey for a fraction of the time he did.  Holding on to it by 15 seconds after clambering up the mountain was the kind of thing that would only have appeared in fiction (though the Tour De France seems to be full of such incidents, should I recall a victory by 8 seconds after 3 weeks, for example?).  Such men need to be there especially to counteract the dirty, drug-taking riders that still crop up and so haunted the race in the last couple of decades to the extent that it almost seemed that the race would come to an end.

Overall the race was excellent this year, because it was so open.  At many stages it seemed that either of the Schlecks, Contador, Evans even Basso and Sanchez, perhaps Voeckler too, could have won.  It is good that there are no outstanding men who would wipe the floor with the rest, especially for a race over three weeks.  This, however, brings us to the nastier aspects of this year's race, the numerous crashes.  The greatest lost it seems, not just for the UK, but for the race itself was of Bradley Wiggins breaking his collarbone on Stage 7.  It seems apparent that he could have been in with the elite group trying to shake each other off in the Alps and Pyrenees, bringing another dynamic into the mix.  Other well-know names such as Tom Boonen, Alexander Vinokourov (one of the villains of the past due to his drug taking) and Dave Zabriskie all suffered breaks from crashes amongs a very long list of those who suffered injuries, even last year's winner, Alberto Contador did not escape, so reducing his effectiveness greatly until the third week. Of course, every year there are crashes, but as 'The Daily Telegraph' noted this year they have been 'brutal'.

The case of Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha is different even though as equally unpleasant, it came from the sub-contracting of a driver who had not received the specific training needed to be involved in a cycle race. Hoogerland, like Voeckler, raised the standing of the race this year by showing the decency of the best professional cyclists. The Hoogerland-Flecha incident suggests that control of the numerous vehicles on the road is not as tight as it should be. No-one was killed, but there did seem to be unnecessary injury. I think a lot of it comes down to the roads that are picked. I do not subscribe to the Schleck view expressed in a juvenile way that people do not want to see stages ending in a downhill race. We want to see a wide variety of different stages, so that the widest range of different riders can be showcased. I know the Schlecks do well on long climbs but that kind of stage is not of interest to all spectators, others like bunch sprints or chances for breakaways to win. However, too many roads selected this year were far too small for even three riders to be abreast let alone them plus all the support cars, the camera motorbikes and spectators. I believe these days especially as this year's race was so fast, that a minimum criteria for the roads used must be introduced. This will not eliminate crashes but it should reduce them the level and severity of what we saw in the first 1.5 weeks of this year's tour.

Overall I feel the 2011 Tour De France has shown the best that the sport can offer in terms of excitement and importantly, sportsmanship. For me, however, it will be leavened by the number of bloody accidents along the way, many of which could have been avoided with some careful planning.