Friday, February 13, 2009

Layer 120 I Wanna Live With The Common People

This should have been posted two days ago.


Jarvis Cocker was featured on a Sky Arts programme last night, about songwriters and their techniques. A whole hour of the wonderful Jarvis explaining how to compose, even if you only have a rudimentary ability to strum chords on the guitar. At one point he used the very same ancient model of Casio keyboard my children played with two decades ago, complete with little orange percussion pads. He was having a laugh, to be sure, but also demonstrating that he's no snob about having the coolest instruments, and showing that you don’t need expensive equipment in order to write and be creative.

There are three excellent and very different versions of Pulp performing ‘Common People’ on Utube. As Jarvis says, it’s only three chords: C, G and F.

Coincidentally I was thinking just last week how imperceptibly we make progress with playing an instrument. What sparked that thought was memorising and playing the chords for Lennon & McC’s ‘In My Life’ on the guitar.

Eight years ago I had to abandon the attempt to play the song, but suddenly, now, it seems quite doable - to move easily from A to F#m to D, then Dm and back to A, and so on. Whereas getting three fingers squashed into an A chord used to be an almost impossible task, it’s now even become possible to nail that B7 that sneaks into the final sequence.

We really need a campaign in this country to implement the Venezuelan scheme that enables all children to learn to play an instrument. I believe it ought to be a basic right of every child in this country, and if it can be done in Venezuela then it can surely be done here.


Saturday’s Guardian Review carried a curious two-page spread giving massive publicity to a new book by Iain Sinclair, “A bittersweet love letter to the London borough of Hackney”. Eh?

So what’s he have to say? He came to live among the common people some 40 years ago. He doesn’t like the new flats next to the new Dalston station. He can’t bear to leave “the repository of memory” (i.e. Hackney) where the children of this Welshman were born. He can see the end of Hackney as he knows it, and he feels like he’s ‘crumbling in synch with the old Hackney’. He’s “deeply disturbed and angry” at the Olympics site that’s taking shape just across the River Lea, calling it “a folly”, “apocalyptically catastrophic”, and “brutalising”. And . . . Er . . . That’s about it, according to the author of the piece, Rachel Cooke.

For a mere £20 you can buy the book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, out now in all good booksellers. Don’t all rush at once.

Apparently NuLabour’s tosspot of a Mayor, Jules Pipe, has banned Sinclair from doing readings in Hackney libraries, since Sinclair’s so anti-Olympics, and they can’t allow “controversial topics” to be discussed in libraries. No, that would never do, Jules - clearly he's the mayor that likes to say No.


Technically, and statistically, Hackney is a dump. However, it has huge pockets of poverty, but it also has more parks and open spaces than anywhere else in London; parts of it have more artists per square mile than anywhere on earth, and it also has some nasty and vicious gangs who fight one another for territory and control of the drugs trade.

Property prices are high, rents are high, many of the common people are extremely poor. It’s incredible that there isn’t far more crime and danger on the streets.

This morning my local cornershop owner was livid about the bonuses that the bankers are still determined to pay themselves, in spite of their spectacular greed and incompetence having totally fucked up the economy. He was absolutely fuming. He’s been a pillar of my local community for two decades, and operates an informal community centre, with a loyal customer base that values both the shop and the family that runs it.

And now he’s struggling with pressure from the bank, and lack of credit facilities. Plus customers whose spending power is seriously depressed. To know that the bankers are still stuffing their own pockets with cash when all else are suffering is just too much. The bastards wouldn’t even have a job if we, the people, hadn’t bailed them out, and they still expect to keep their snouts in the trough. Unbelievable.

Martin Rowson’s cartoon in the Guardian sums it up superbly:

As Johnny Prescott said on Newsnight last night, “They’ve bust our economy and they’ve a lot to answer for”. Yes Johnny, and whose government allowed them to get away with it, and who was Deputy Prime Minister for ten years and said not a word about the need to re-regulate casino capitalism and put and end to the bonus culture and the obscene salaries the fat cats awarded one another?

Today in Parliament four of the former top guys in the bust British banks faced questions from a committee of MPs. They appeared to apologise, but as someone said, since they didn’t own up to any personal incompetence and liability for fucking up our financial and economic system then their apology’s worth nothing. Off with their heads!


Nick Cohen, in his Observer column, makes the point that the government’s greatest desire is to restore the status quo ante to the wonderful capitalist system we still have - just.

They still hope that the model of free trade and globalisation can be put together again. Property prices will shoot upwards. The tax receipts from financial services will flow. The City will resume its primacy and all will be right with the world.

In this intellectual climate, reforms that appear obvious to social democrats remain unthinkable to insiders. Closing tax havens, regulating hedge funds and stopping high street banks behaving like investment banks so that never again do we have the obscenity of taxpayers bailing out speculators are items the agenda-setters have no wish to put on the table.

Much to their discomfort, however, our leaders are realising that although the Washington consensus lives on in London, it is dying in Obama's Washington. Now when they talk about Paulson there is a faint whiff of nostalgia. Say what you like about old Hank, but at least he wanted to consult us. We wish we could say the same about his successors.

Every day brings news from Washington our rulers find profoundly unsettling. Conceivably, Labour may have to imitate Obama's pay cap on executives of firms that have taken public money. The power of the American example, combined with the public's disgust at the remarkably dumb yet brazenly rapacious executives of Lloyds, Barclays and RBS, could be too much for any government to resist.

But, trust me, they will hate intervening if they forced into it. They still yearn for the roaring days when the moneymen were getting richer and Labour was winning elections. Salary caps and bonus bans are alien inventions from a strange, new world they neither like nor understand.

[Alistair Darling] argues for international co-operation to stop the banks bringing the roof down again, but there is no echo of the talk in Washington about closing tax havens or regulating hedge funds.

In my view, tax havens are centres of organised crime and, like everyone else, I find the sight of bankers enriching themselves at public expense revolting.

I also know, however, that Whitehall regards such social democratic views as naive and extremist.

But I sense as I watch startled ministers react to the changing line from Washington that they are beginning to suspect that perhaps normal is dead and gone; that maybe, just maybe, there is no normal to get back to.


The Observer’s editorial, meanwhile, says,

The bonus culture encouraged short-term risk and irresponsible behaviour, leading eventually to the banking sector's near collapse and rescue by the state. With the taxpayer now in charge, the bonuses must stop.

What is baffling, then, is why the government has seemed unable to exert any power on this matter despite having majority opinion and moral authority on its side. Authorities in France, Germany and the US have all used the leverage of state bail-out to demand pay restraint in the financial sector. The British government, by contrast, has appeared impotent, relying on vague exhortation and thinly veiled pleading. Now at last it seems a government review is to be launched.


The Torture Papers

Andrew Rawnsley’s column focuses on the complicity of the Blair government in torture and kidnapping in the ‘war on terror’.

Torture was sanctioned by George W Bush early in 2002 when he signed the now notorious memorandum declaring that the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war did not apply to members of al-Qaida and the Taliban.

From those strokes of the presidential pen flowed the outrages in the cells of Abu Ghraib and the cages of Guantánamo, at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and CIA "black sites" in Europe and around the world. From that sprang "extraordinary rendition", the Orwellian euphemism for state-licensed kidnap, and "enhanced interrogation", the spin-torturer's way of describing his trade in pain.

Charles Guthrie is no one's idea of a bleeding heart liberal. He served with the SAS and was commandant of the intelligence corps before he became chief of the defence staff. As he puts it, torture is not only illegal, unethical, ineffective, cruel and counter-productive, it is also plain dumb. "Western use of torture to counter terror has been a propaganda coup for al-Qaida and a recruiting sergeant for its global jihad. Our hypocrisy has radicalised our enemies and corroded the power we base on our proclaimed values."

David Miliband has just suppressed the publication of grave allegations about the activities of US and British officials in the case of Binyam Mohamed. In the view of two high court judges, what happened to him "gives rise to an arguable case of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment". There was a "very considerable public interest" in publication, they argued, "particularly given the constitutional importance of the prohibition against torture".

The David Miliband that I know is a humane and liberal man who utterly abhors torture. Yet he finds himself suppressing a dossier about the crime, doing so in the name of national security, the very invocation used to justify torture in the first place.

On the same day that the foreign secretary was facing accusations of a cover-up, Tony Blair was in Washington wearing his faith on his sleeve. At a "prayer breakfast" with Barack Obama, the former prime minister made more than 30 mentions of God and declared: "We pray that in acting we do God's work and follow God's will."

Only God knows how Tony Blair reconciles his conscience with his role in this disgraceful period. It was not as if the Bush administration made much pretence about it. "Bad things happen to bad people," baldly declared Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Did Tony Blair never ask what was going on? If he did not ask, was it because he knew he would not like the answer? His own law officers were highly uncomfortable with the legal black hole created at Guantánamo. Charlie Falconer, not only his lord chancellor but also one of his closest allies, tried to persuade his friend to raise his voice in opposition. He failed. "An anomaly" was all Mr Blair would ever say about Camp Delta when he was prime minister.

The true extent to which British officials colluded in torture is yet to be established. In terms of ethical complicity, I think we can already begin to return a verdict. As the God-fearing Tony Blair knows, there are sins of commission and there are sins of omission. "We have condoned with our silence torture committed by others," says Charles Guthrie, his favourite general.

That was arguably the biggest moral failure of Tony Blair's premiership.

The biggest? Hmmm - maybe. We might give equal status to his failure to regulate the fat cats; his failure to prevent the gap between the poor and the rich increasing; his failure to prevent the rich becoming obscenely rich; and . . . oh yes - the little bit of a failure to keep this country out of Iraq and thereby have no part in the unlawful and unnecessary killing of thousands of innocent men, women and children, the common people indeed.

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