Why I hate Downton Abbey

I know it’s the last series of Downton Abbey. It sells big in America where people like former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin things we live in stately homes.  Lots of people here watch it. It’s won sacksful of awards for best drama. I’ve never seen more than a clip of an episode, yet Downton Avenue has me reaching for my Kalashnikov.

There’s nothing down town about Downton Abbey. It’s a showcase of beautifully dressed people with impeccable manners showcasing all that was great about Great Britain. Let’s start at the top. Take away the gold frame from around the jug ear of Prince Charles, our future king, and perhaps someone can explain what particular skill set he, or his forebearers brought to the Industrial revolution, or to the modern world? There’s no answer to inherited land and inherited wealth. The people that own the land, like those portrayed in Downton Abbey, also owned the people on the land. Attend the right sort of schools. The right sort of University. Pull on a graduation robe and take the prizes of  public office and the trappings of power and the promise of yet more wealth. Look no further than our Prime minister and his Chancellor of Exchequer.  As Thomas Piketty, among others, have shown in the modern world wealth begets wealth, in spite of, not because of who owns it. Briton is a good place to be rich.

It’s not a good place to be poor. The antithesis of programmes such as Downton Abbey show mainly on channels 4 or 5 with the tagline ‘benefit’ attached. Type it into a search engine and see how many hits you get. Then add the Jeremy Kyle effect. There’s a Victorian cruelty to these programmes, a type of bear baiting, in which the working class are prodded and poked and made to dance and squeal for our master’s entertainment.  Upstairs, Downstairs, and while they are in the ascendency we’re downstairs where we belong, read the subtext, because we’re thick and left to ourselves would be primitive savages, what right wing commentators Charles Murray call a ‘feral underclass’. A recent poll at the Edinburgh Festival found the majority thought  Waynes and Waynettes and foul mouthed Vicky Pollard are not seen are representatives of Little Britain, but embodiments of the working class. But it fits a larger narrative.

To paraphrase R.H.Tawney (1913) what rich people call a problem of poverty is what poor people call a problem of riches.  A general post-second world war consensus and belief in a subsistence minimal under which no individual living in the UK should fall. The level at which national assistance or supplementary benefits were set as a monetary equivalent of a poverty line. Even then, in the 1950s, one in twenty household were said to be below it. And when Peter Townsend’s seminal work Poverty in the UK was published in 1979 seemed to be a call to arms. With empirical data, our Labour government would right a great wrong.

Yet, as Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack show in Breadline Britain in 2012 three in twelve fell below the poverty line. And the problem of child poverty has been solved, by our Eton-educated betters, by re-categorising it as a problem of poor parenting that can be solved by parenting classes. A moral problem. A story many of us are familiar with.

I’ve got a mate that’s got cancer and I’ll expect will die this year. He’s been knocked off the sick, told he’s fit to work. He’s appealed that decision. But in the meantime has zero income. His housing benefit is no longer paid. Local authority housing employees send him threatening letters demanding increasingly larger sums of money. He’s been told by his medical consultant to eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids. He’s a causality, one among the many. Classifiable in that old throwback to Victorian society and notions of the deserving and undeserving poor. The underserving poor where those thought able to work and not willing to work. Those like my mate.  And the place for them was prison –for vagrancy – or the poor house, cast in with the old and sick where they’d be made to work. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, trailing and documenting these spikes prior to the Second World War, showed what little work there was for the men (and it was mostly men), wasn’t worth the cost of administration or effort, but it had to be seen to have a salutary effect as not being a soft option. Language we are familiar with today.  Weighty matters such as how much salt should be added to the gruel and whether sugar was a luxury inmates would come to depend upon where debated at parish level. Scotland was the most frugal of nations here.

The privilege of being rich and owning land and the servants on the land as they do in Downton Abbey extends to a policing role of the morals of the lower classes. Sarah Waters gives a fictional account of this in her novel The Little Stranger set in a decaying aristocratic pile, Hundred Hall, just after the end of World War Two. Doctor Faraday who visits the Hall, in a professional capacity, recounts to Lady Ayres how her mother had worked as a nurse maid in the same house in which they were sitting. She wore an identical uniform to the other nurse maids and had to stand with her hands out each morning while the housekeeper examined her fingernails. How the former Lady Ayres would often come unannounced into the maids’ bedrooms and go through their boxes one by one.  Dr Pamela Cox in the BBC programme, Servants – the true story of life below stairs, shows that such experiences were not unusual. It really was an us-and-them world. In 1911, one and a half million worked as indoor servants. Cox suggests that few in Britain would have an ancestor that was not a servant. When I watch clips of Downton Abbey I don’t see the leading actors, I look for subterranean tunnels, damp basements and attic rooms. I look in vain for a serving class on their feet and at the beck and call of their masters for sixteen hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week. I look for servants that cringe at the behest of the master and mistress and are urged to make themselves invisible – until needed. I rejoice that those days are gone, but mourn the lesson of two world wars have been forgotten and they have returned under the guise of neoliberal orthodoxy and extended choice.

Linda Tirado, who works –among other jobs –as a waitress, in the introduction to Hand To Mouth, feels the need to remind readers, ‘I’m a human after all’ and most poor people start their day in debt and end their days in debt and in between isn’t much fun either.  Her chapter titles show where the fault line in the propaganda war against the rich has been lost and the poor routed and tagged with epithet worthless, subhuman, scrounger.

‘It Take Money to Make Money.’ This is not Thomas Piketty telling the reader that money flows from the poor to the rich at an increasing rate, but a working- mother’s view from the bottom rung, two jobs, living on fresh air and foodstamps. No matter which way you cut it, isn’t going to make any difference. Her car gets towed and she can’t afford to pay to get it out of the compound. You need money for that. More than she makes in a day. Martin Ford shows a different pattern. Waltmart is busiest at midnight when food stamps are first issued. Stores are least busy in the week before food stamps are issued. The end of the month is the end of the line for tens of millions.

‘We Do Not Have Babies For Welfare Money.’ What Tirado does not say is that she has the wrong kind of babies. Babies that are born poor, are likely to grown up to be poor as Robert Putman, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, shows.  She admits this herself. ‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive.’ They don’t swear like that on Downton Abbey, but then again, perhaps they don’t need to. Tirado in her penultimate chapter sums up where the propaganda war has been won and lost, ‘Being Poor isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’. Let’s be as honest as Tirado, when you’re the servant of the rich you’re going to get screwed, whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Rich men hold all the trump cards and they have a big stick at their back. The propaganda war was lost a long time ago. Hunker down or rise up. Winners such as those in Downton Abbey write the history and talk about traditions. It leaves a sour taste, but I don’t have to watch it – not yet. But it’s hard to hold your tongue or listen to such claptrap getting cheered.

Andrew Michael Hurley (2014) The Loney

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When a young lady sends you a note saying you should really read this – well, your heart goes all a quiver. Then you find out it’s a Gothic novel. You know the kind. Lonely places. Empty spaces. Mad monks and things that go bore, and more bore, in the night. Books the size of tombstones that go on forever.  By the end of the first chapter you want to fling yourself off a high flat, but you live on a ground floor and just can’t because you can’t move from your chair and your head is in your arse. Haunted for all the wrong reasons. Thanks for that Vera Clark.

The Loney is none of those things. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. Well, it’s only the 18th January, but if the best book I read last year was the Nobel Prize winning Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch then that’s good going for a first-time author. I’m reminded of John Davenport’s advice: ‘If Miss Lee was sharpens her style and is a little more parsimonious with the sugar, her second book will be something worth waiting for’. It wasn’t. They had to wait until Harper Lee was dead until they published Go Set a Watchman. And no wonder. Take away the bit about monks and everything I said about Gothic novels applies to her posthumous publication. You don’t need to nail down the coffin lid on Andrew Michael Hurley this is a living and breathing classic.

But I didn’t think I’d get into it. First paragraphs that start with a weather report usually has me reaching for a phial of morphine. Then we’d Dr Baxter, left hanging. Not literally hanging, but on the page. But that’s good, questions are good. Coldbarrow. There’s a name for you.  Tells you everything about the place. ‘A cold spit of land.’ The first-person narrator tells the reader, ‘But I suppose I always knew what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden forever, no matter how much I wanted it to’.

The reader is given a snapshot of his brother Hammy, married with two boys on the cusp of University and successful careers of their own. Their father a much sought after minster who’d published a bestseller My Second Life with God’. There’s the hook.

What happened on the Loney – ‘the strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter’? And St Anne’s shrine, second only to Lourdes and in the mind of Mummer, the narrator and Hammy’s mother, not second, but the only chance of a cure for her boy.

Hammy communicates with his brother and guardian, four years younger than him, by what he carries in his pockets. ‘A rabbits tooth meant he was hungry. A jar of nails was one of his headaches. He apologised with a plastic dinosaur and put on a rubber mask when he was frightened.’ The reader knows he is cured, but not how.

The Loney is a place of pilgrimage, but not empty of people and the pilgrims bring the baggage of the past with them. In particular, what happened to Father Wilfred who led the early party of pilgrims and whose death left a whiff of something unwholesome, and it lingers in ongoing arguments within the group of the chosen. In particular, the affable Father Bernard, a farmer’s son from Antrim, whose job it was to replace that striker down of unwholesome practices and god-the-father like figure, Father Wilfred. It no surprise he can never measure up to his predecessor. And if he cannot lead, Mummer would drag the group –Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss, Miss Bunce and her fiancée David, and her two sons – through the waters of the Lonie to heal her son, come hell or high waters.

Both are sheltering on the Loney. Although he nearly drowns, the narrator has a sixth sense for such things. Laura and Leonard and the adolescent Else arrive in a fancy Daimler. The girl is pregnant, in a wheelchair and due to give birth in that forgotten place. But more worrying are the strangers Hale, Parry, Parkinson and Collier, whose dog chews a ewe’s new-born lamb to bloody stumps and who seem to have some strange hold over Clement, the caretaker of the house, the pilgrims stay in. Hammy has been allowed to touch and cradle the belly of the girl giving birth and want to return to Else who has bestowed a kiss on him. Collier, for his own reasons also wants the boy he terms ‘retard’ back in the cottage they are staying in. When he comes out of the cottage he is neither innocent nor retard. The miracle is in the prose. Classic.

Why book selling doesn’t work!

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Warning, I’m going to try and sell you something. It’s billed as ‘the best new writing from ABCtales’. Who decides what’s best? That’s a question that is often difficult to answer. Certainly, Stephen Thom, who wrote story of the year is here. And Alex Graves who wins poems of the year, every year, is included. My work is also in, but I’d guess that’s because I’ll have a book out later this year in which ABCtales act as my agent and get a fee. I’m glad about that. Although it costs nothing to join ABCtales, or to publish your work online, the expense of running the site is met by Tony Cook, chief cook and bottle washer. Every year I pay around £40 to ABCtales because I know it’s not free and I can afford it. Mr Cook will probably pop up here and say no you don’t – in the eight years you’ve been here you’ve paid six shillings and two pence. But listen, I’ve got an active imagination and no real interest in Facebook, I do like stringing a few sentences together and passing them off as original prose. And I get a buzz when someone reads it and comments. Without a reader the circuit of writing is not complete. ABCtales gives me that opportunity. It gives you that opportunity. But I’m not stupid. I know whatever I’ve written will be forgotten quicker that a photo of last night’s dinner. That doesn’t bother me. There’s no glory in what you’ve written, but what you’ve still to write. Even then, I’ve no illusions, ABCtales is gang hut in hyperspace few folk know about and fewer still cares?

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Well, I care, because it’s my gang hut and my turf. And John Wilks who edited this slim volume also cares. He offered up his time and expertise to get this published. Publishing is the easy part. We all know that now. There’s an extract from Joe Lawrence’s East End Butcher Boy here and it’s better than anything published by Unbound, and I include my own work in that. The difficult part is selling something. I know that and Laurie knows that and Ewan knows that and Tony knows that. And I’d add that Scratch (Peter) who has also written a novel on ABCtales, although he’s not included in this volume, also knows that. It’s only when you actually go and try and sell something that you realise how difficult it actually is. It’s not like that Kevin Coster film Field of Dreams, when you build that baseball diamond, ‘they will come’. No they fucking willnae.  Ask Richard Penny,  who has a story here ‘The Tipping Point’, but who also published a sister volume,  My Baby Shot Me Down which included the works of some my favourite writers on ABCtales, including Rachael Smart, Claudine Lazar and ‘Katherine Black’ (Harpie). And really if you’re going to publish the best of ABCtales you’ve to have something from Maggy van Eijk. Why stop there? What about Philip Sidney who is also not included in this volume and to my mind merits inclusion (I love this for example,  http://www.abctales.com/story/philip-sidney/triptych-1-mass). But I don’t really think it matters that those other names aren’t there. That’s editor’s choice. I’ve been there with A Celtic Anthology, which I co-edited with Kevin McCallum (Old Pesky on ABCtales). I could rattle off another few anthologies I’ve been involved in. It’s that gang-hut mentality that makes you part of a group, and your mum and your sister and their brother might buy a copy. And then you become invisible. Christopher Isherwood’s narrator in The Berlin Novels jokes about selling eight copies of his poetry before fleeing England for Berlin. Funnily enough that’s the number of copies John Wilks claimed to have sold so far. I can name a few buyers. Joe Lawrence, Claudine Lazar, Ewan Lawrie and myself. That’s 50% of the buyers. And it’s pathetic. Thirty of those published in the volume haven’t bothered buying a copy. Whatever the opposite of resounding success this is the opposite.  Build the field and they will come? Just because you get ABCtales for nothing, doesn’t mean it costs nothing. Put something back (if you can afford it). There’s some good stuff here. I can’t claim any credit for that. At least think about it.



What planet are you on mate?

I’m biased, partisan, and a bit of a bampot. In a simple quiz, for example, in which the policies of David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn’s were mixed and matched and I was asked whether I agreed or disagreed, I’d agree with about 99% of Corbyn’s policies. I imagine the 1% I’d disagree with Corbyn would probably have to do with prison regulation and the use of force. I would want to torture David Cameron and people like him. People that tilt the money game, by hooks and crooks, so they and their ilk always win. But I’d also like to frack under my house for gas deposits and fit as many illegal ‘spoilers’ to cars and vans so they would pass their emission tests as I could – as long as the money was good enough. I’m a champagne socialist without the booze and without any unnecessary baggage of ideology that might inconvenience me. A lottery win of £33 million sounds good to me, but given the chance of being paid £100 million paid in wages and bonuses over a two year period to run and manage Apple, I’d take the latter, the former, and anything else I could get. But I’m not stupid. Whoever wields the biggest stick gets pretty much what they want. I don’t like admitting this, but my stick is infinitely small, it doesn’t even register as a dot on the stick scale. But I learned to read at an early age. I liked fairy tales and this is the best I’ve read in a while.

Quote from an interview (Carole Cadwallder, Changing what we call homehttp://www.theguardian.com/global/2016/jan/11/wework-transforming-office-life-and-home-life-carole-cadwalladr) and this is up there with Donny Osmond and Puppy Love as a marriage manual for people that overdose on syrup.

‘Driving here, I looked into the windows of office buildings in London. People looking miserable. See here? They’re working but they’re smiling. What we’re disrupting is work, because it used to be: “I need to work because that’s my job, then I use that money to live.” I don’t believe that’s true. I think that your life should be about creating your life’s work. I believe that when you do what you love you find higher levels of satisfaction that can compensate for lower income. I actually think most people do what they love because it’s really important to them.’

Shucks. Mom and apple pie and let’s wave the flag. But if you think that’s bad, wait until you read about his light bulb moment when he seen the light, of course it’s not a train. Running a company that sold clothes for babies, or very small people with baldy heads, his then girlfriend now wife opened his eyes by asking one of life’s great questions. ‘Look, you’re all confused,’ she said. ‘You’re trying to make money – that’s not how to build a great business. What’s your intention? What’s your meaning behind what you do? How is it going to be meaningful to other people?’

Adam Neumann lives the dream and has the vision. Live the dream too. Pay £725 if you want to rent office space in London from him. He and his partner Maguel McKelvey the co-founders of WeWork sell themselves as a tech company and their valuation has shot up to $10 billion. 260 000 members in 376 locations. WeWork works for the founder and it could work for you too. They only ask for a measly $10 000 per person per annum, with a 40% profit margin, make a few cutbacks in your life and stop working. In fact don’t bother paying their rent. They’ll understand. Live the dream and smile.

Martin Ford (2015) Rise of the Robots

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Robots are pattern-recognition machines who have grown arms, legs and visual awareness. Each time we take a step, for example, we are continually falling. Robots face the same problem, but they have not had tens of millions of years of evolution to solve it. Moore’s Law comes into effect here. Computing power which provides the software for computer hardware; robot’s arms and legs and eyes (these are anthropomorphic attributes) doubles every eighteen to twenty-four months. Software engineers are coming up fast against the physical limitation of the materials used to encode machines. With the development of quantum computing that problem seems –temporarily- to have been solved, but few people can explain the mechanics. Martin Ford’s analogy of driving speeds highlights where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Imagine you’re in a car he says, driving at five-miles-per hour (mph). Drive for a minute. 10mph. fifth minute, 80mph. Imagine you’re on the twenty-seventh minute. We’re approaching the speed of sound. Then the speed of light. That’s Moore’s law. That’s where we are.

Another way of looking at it is to think of the brain power at Los Alamos around 1944 when plans were being developed to develop the first atomic bomb. Most of the great Western minds of maths and physics were working on the probability of different scenarios and outcomes. Unless you were a future Nobel winner, you were probably working in the canteen. Now that kind of mathematical grunt work could be done by a ten-year old boy or girl with an iPad. What direction are we going in? Think in terms of a continuum.

Where we are now, I’d guess is similar to the place where the Crow Indians were in Jonathan Lear (2006) Radical Hope: Ethics in The Face of Cultural Devastation; a place and time before the white man came, before around sixty million migrating buffalo were indiscriminately killed,  and with the mass cull went their food source and way of life. Lear writes of the Crows, but he might as well be writing of the Greek, the Roman, the Holy Roman, our own sense of the possible and the impossible: ‘The inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture’.  Martin Ford suggests we are at endgame and the chess analogy is appropriate.

Graphic evidence comes from games. It was no great surprise when IBM’s software Deep Blue beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov over a six-game match. While the possibilities in chess are quantitatively enormous, we tend to think of it being on rails. Daniel Kahnerman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow uses the example of a chess master looking at a chess board, and intuition will suggest the best move for him or her to make. That’s thinking fast, but it takes years of training. Software such as Deep Blue travels all the lines of the board at speeds faster than human thought. Speeds that we think of as simultaneous.  And if it makes a mistake it learns from it. Software does not forget. Given such enormous computing power it seemed inevitable that the machine would beat the man.

IBM’s success on Jeopardy! was a different level of success. Deep Blue had been taken off the rails. The brute force of computing power was competing in a general knowledge quiz with idiosyncratic questions and an idiosyncratic format. Computers don’t do spontaneity or intuitive thought over a wide range of subjects. Yet Watson, IBM’s software, triumphed in two televised matches over Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in February 2011.

At one end of the continuum humans become grey gloop. Nothing is wasted. Eric Drexler one of the leading proponents of this theory suggests the combined effect of nanotechnology and increasing computer power to develop their own heuristic, and innate ability to shape the world in their own image, human will be little more than feedstock. If this sounds a bit corny (pun intended) then the co-founder of SunMicrosystems, Bill Joy, article in 2000, ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’ runs through the existential dangers of cross fertilisation in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Nobel winner Stephen Hawkins has also signalled his belief that this is a real danger. And Nick Bostrom (2014) in his New York Times Bestseller, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, argues the future is already here. We’re nurturing artificial intelligence and like a cuckoo’s egg it will outgrow the nest, feed on the hominoid family, and colonise space in its search for perfection.  These Jeremiah voices seem more science fiction than science fact. But look around you. Self-driving cars, drones and rocket back packs. Not in the pages of comic books, but on our roads and buzzing in the air.

Ford identifies other trends that any moderately sophisticated pattern-recognition software would immediately identify. One of them is climate change. He talks about the declining price of solar panels, technological innovation and government innovation. Or what the British Prime Minister called ‘all that green crap’ while withdrawing funding in the areas we really need to invest in.

Money flows unevenly from the rich to the poor. The only place it sticks is with those with money or capital. That’s another trend or pattern. Ford suggests the evidence points to a longer-term trend in which  the five percent who claim ownership of the world’s wealth, and in particular the moneyed-class in the richer nation, those who have cannibalised the wealth of the other ninety-five percent, then the one percent will cannibalise the wealth of the other four percent. Winners take all. Losers take the fall.

“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”
― Karl Marx

Marx was wrong of course. Let us look at the data.  Losers are not sold the rope, only leased it and have to pay economic rent for their funeral. The triumph of capitalism is it is the only game in town. Communist China and Russia, for example, mirror the inequalities of the West. Martin Ford offers sobering statistics. An Oxford University report published in 2013 suggests 50% of US jobs will be automated. And a parliamentary report in the House of Lords in 2015 estimate 35% job losses in the UK. The flight to higher education with the promissory note of a well-paid job at the end of it is the same sort of myth building as, from a different era, Tony Benn’s ‘white hot heat of technology’ changing and modernising society. Thirty percent of employees are currently overqualified for the job they are in and while wages have declined in the last thirty years, the cost of education has more than doubled from £22 billion 2007/8 to £46 billion 2012/13 and that trend looks to continue.  This is one form of credit poorer members of society have access to and they are signing up in record numbers, both in the UK and the US. But not only is their grade deflation, but those printing presses we call universities, some of which  are more equal than others, can demand a premium for their gilt-edged qualification, in a race which our leading universities largely exclude the poor from entering. It would be interesting, for example, to look at what Oxford University defines as those in need of such a leg up. But this is hardly surprising when social housing is defined as costing up to £450 000. And our public-school educated Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, boasts of conducting ‘the most sustained squeeze on public spending for one-hundred years’. Back in 1918 the upper classes contact with the working class was likely to be a master and servant relationship, and as an employer. Those that owned the land owned the people on the land.  But in a contemporary global market as Ford notes, if cognitive ability follows the usual bell-shaped distribution curve, and India and China’s top five percent of intelligentsias adds up to around 130 million, almost double the population of the UK. Technology, based on deep neural learning models makes the universal translator inevitable. See, for example, Megaphoneyaku digital megaphone developed by Panasonic in 2014, which translates whatever language is bellowed into it according to the setting required.   If the offshoring of university graduates and teaching programmes move online, as they are likely to do, then the current crop of graduates will find it even more difficult to find paid work commensurate with their education. Software such as Geekie, launched in Brazil in 2011 because of a shortage of teachers, delivers the whole high-school syllabus, monitors pupils and designs courses based on individual responses and aggregate scores. A movement into higher education and universities with their expensive living costs seems inevitable.  It also seems to me likely that health care assistants will be the add on element of general health care practices with all the heavy lifting done by machines designed like Geekie to have the knowledge element built in and modified and upgraded with each interaction.

A trumpet it a wind instrument. It has the highest register in the brass family, which brings us nicely to Donald Trump and Trumpetism. We’ve had the bit player and actor whom Betty Davis called little Ronnie Reagan getting to play the role of US President. Then we had George Bush senior and then junior getting on the same horse. Anything is possible in the good old US of A. It’s dressed up in frontier ideology and the analogy of a rising tide of wealth lifting all boats. But as Chrystia Freeland says in Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, ‘the super-rich don’t like to talk about rising income inequality’. The rising tide lifting super yachts that leave the rest stranded in their wake. They like to talk about the Kuznet’s inverted U-curve, how as societies become more complex and productive, high inequality peaks at the top of the U and falls. Wealth generated by a nation’s better-educated workforce is able to get a bigger slice of the national pie in terms of wages is proven to be a short-lived myth. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, using historical data going back to the eighteen century from twenty countries showed that the thirty years following the Second World War was a golden age in which wealth re-distribution did take place, but it took two catastrophic world wars for that to happen. Piketty and Ford both suggest the fallout from the golden age is toxic for all but the gilded few, and aligned with climate change and the rise of the robots it’s a good time to be rich. For the rest of us…man the lifeboats.

Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge, Channel 4, 9pm.


The advertisement as it appeared in local papers

Derren Brown is a genius, an illusionist, a magician that does no magic, a man that uses reason like other folk wield hand guns. In one of his earlier shows he got a man to shoot him. But he’s still alive and still at it. Making his own shows, his own productions and selling the product to Channel 4. If the premise of his show can’t be described in one sentence it’s usually a dud and not a Derren Brown classic. In this one he’s going to get someone to push someone else off the edge of a tall building to their death—so they believe.

We the audience know that is not the case.  In the Sting (1973) Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with o Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take revenge on the ruthless crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) responsible for their mutual pal’s death by stealing his money.  Here the victim of the sting is not a ruthless crime boss, but an innocent member of the public. I’d guess we’re looking here at Stanley Milgram’s authority study (1974) which tested a paid subject’s conflict between what he or she thought was right or wrong and the prompting of an authority figure, in this case a teacher, who urged the subject to inflict increasing levels of pain on another subject when ostensibly researching responses to stimuli and the affect on memory. This in essence mimicked German’s citizen’s response to Nazi authority and in particular the claim ‘I was only doing what I was told’. This abdication of responsibility conducted at Yale University using ordinary Americans was expected to be a failure. In other words, few or very few subjects would move through the gears and throw a switch in which another subject experienced increasing levels of electric shock which begun at 15 volts, and ended with XXX 450 volts, and presumably death, as the setting before it warned of Danger: Severe Shock. The actor or confederate who was playing the part of the person being shocked was asked to make his pain more realistic by shouting and screaming and begging for mercy. Sixty-five percent of the sample tested, despite this, when verbally urged to throw the switch by the teacher, or authority figure, did so.

milgram's shocks box with its display of controls and - it must be said - warnings

I didn’t catch all of Derren Brown’s programme, but caught the end of it, when the subject of the sting, Chris Kingston, 29, being duped and urged to push an old man off a building, refused to do so. But this is a trick that backfired for Derren Brown and his script team. Mr Kingston meets Derren Brown and his courage is lauded. He has done what 35% of subjects in Milgram’s study did, refuse to bow to authority and maintained their autonomy and judgement. So far so good. But then Derren shows the viewer the same experiment, but run with another three members of the subject cohort. Two middle-class woman and a man did push an old man off a building. We see them doing it. The difference between Milgram’s experiment and Derren Brown’s is the former was anonymous. The subject gets to walk away knowing what he or she has done and how they’ve been duped. Here the social media sting comes into effect. Those subjects that pushed the old man off the building are known. What they have done is in the public sphere and likely to have countless adverse effects on their long term career. No amount of de-briefing of counselling can take that away. This is a disappointment which belongs more to the Jeremy Kyle school of lets laugh not with them, but at them. This is poking people’s inadequacies with sticks and I don’t like it. But I don’t have to life with it. The people taking part do.

Amy, Channel 4, 9pm., directed by Asif Kapadia 2015

a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/worst-case-scenario/”>Worst Case Scenario</a>


A documentary with only a first name tells you a lot. In marketing terms it says you should know who this person is, someone with a unique selling point. Amy Winehouse died in 2011, her memory fading, but there’s lots of images in this dramatic retelling of her life and loves, and they are not of the Princess Diana variety of burning candles and flickering flames. No less that jazz great Tony Bennett, who we see working with Amy here, said ‘she had a considerable gift’ and compared her voice favourably with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday.

This is a cut and paste job of Amy’s early life before she found fame, mostly grainy footage from hand-held cameras. We learn her father left her mum for another woman when Amy was twelve or thirteen. Prior to that she was a boisterous child, difficult to control. Afterwards, Amy did what Amy did and nobody was going to stop her.  Later there is added footage and more polished and pixelated images of Amy crashing and burning in a time frame that spans thirteen years. Amy cracked the American market open like an egg. She was so well known that jokes about her disintegration were told by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. She was an easy target for Frankie Boyle this side of the Atlantic. And even national treasure and nice boy comedians such as Graham Norton describe daily filmed doses and images of  her ‘as like a mad woman’. Take away the like and you’ve captured Amy, but you couldn’t hold her. Nobody could hold her.

In one of the early clips of Amy on the Jonathan Ross Show he described her as one of us. Opinionated, working class, and that bit more gobby than most. She knew what she wanted and liked. Watch her face, and here her snort, as one interviewer tries to compare her with contemporary chart-singer Dido. There’s a certain irony in that. Dido with an extensive property portfolio is one of the richest ‘singer/songwriters’ in Britain. That could have been Amy you may think, but only if you came from planet Zarcon.

Dido is Barbie. Amy with her Ashkenazi phenotype looks like Edward Munch’s The Scream, but with long swept back hair that grows bigger and wilder as she grows smaller and her success sweeps her away.  Amy writes on her body with tattoos.  She boasts to the camera that she has carved her boyfriend, and later husband, Blake’s name onto her stomach with a slither of glass being used as a prop for a photo-shoot in some trendy warehouse in New York. It’s the initial break up with Blake that prompts her to write and record her second album Back to Black. Words and feelings and torn from her body and projected into something bigger, something in her voice that resonates and catches you unaware.

There are lots of users in this profile of Amy. Certainly you’ve got the press swarming around her like midges. Media frenzy doesn’t quite cover it. Phone tapping. The press systematically stalked her, seemed to know everything she did, and said, one of her friends complained. Near the end of her life Amy told a friend she’d give it all up, all the fame and fortune, just to be able to walk down the street again. Bit clichéd. But Amy was too honest for her own good. You could never, for example, imagine her investing her millions in property. She invested in heroin, crack cocaine, speed and a drug pharmacopeia. She didn’t believe in moderation. When Blake left her and went back to his first girlfriend she admitted to texting and phoning him non-stop. Loud music and drugs. You wouldn’t want to live anywhere near Amy if you wanted a quiet life.  Amy won Blake back.

We see them endlessly canoodling in America. In a restaurant Blake stares at the camera and laughs and says ‘I’ve no money. Who’s paying?’ He looks behind him towards Amy and the camera follows his gaze. ‘Amy’s paying,’ he says. Amy pays for everything. Later, he explains, without any sense of irony. ‘I’m a good looking guy, I go to the gym. Look at the state of her.’

Her dad makes a lucrative career out of his daughter. In one poignant scene he berates Amy for letting her fans down by refusing to be photographed with a young couple that had asked to be photographed with her, even though she’d already stood between them and allowed them their shot of pseudo-stardom. Amy turns to her dad and says ‘if it was money you want I’d have given you it’. She’s making the point, he’d brought a film crew and sound man with him while she was meant to be on holiday recovering from drugs.

She never did recover from drugs. Blake took the rap when police busted down her door and found their stash. He went to prison. She just went and bought more drugs. Or she substituted drugs in general for alcohol. I laughed when she was taken to hospital and was something like 27 times over the legal-driving limit. Most folk I know drink sensibly and stay between five and ten times over the legal-driving limit, unless driving a mobility scooter, where thirteen or fourteen times, or being sick in a lay by, is advisable. But I guess when Amy is picking up award after award and admits ‘this is so boring without drugs’ the prognosis for abstinence is not good. Her heart was massive, but blew up. I guess that’s the nature of the beast. I liked her.

Julian Barnes (2011) Pulse

I’ve got Flaubert’s Parrot kicking about the house somewhere, god knows where.  My mate Brendan asked me the other day in the pub what I was reading and I couldn’t remember. I looked over at the pool table and the board beside it to see if anything was scrawled up there. Sure enough Julian Barnes’ Pulse was chalked up below Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots. Writing things down is a sure way to forget to remember.  I have enough problems remembering my own name and should really wear a name tag. All people should. And no swapping allowed.  But I do know that Flaubert’s Parrot isn’t really about a parrot. I like short stories because I can always remember where I am.

Pulse is the last story in Book Two of Pulse and the best of both books, (apart from one which I’ll keep you in suspense about because I can’t remember the name of it). I like Pulse because I didn’t know if it was true or not. If between the sheets lurked a youngerish Julian Barnes.  I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the narrator’s mother gets motor neurone disease and dies at the end. Or that the narrator’s father is overly uxorious. A stolid kind of bloke that worked all his life as a family lawyer and owns a particular kind of shirt, which he has a number of faded copies. And he loses his sense of smell. He’s a just-get-on-with it type of chap and doesn’t want to bother the doctor, but he does miss the intimacy of knowing how his wife through smell. That’s a lovely detail. I laughed at “‘hormones’ is a catch-all word for when women don’t want to tell you something,” and later when he has the not having a conversation about Janice with his mother, and she admitting she loves him unconditionally as a son, but loves he future daughter-in-law on the condition that she makes him happy. Lawerly adivce, she does and doesn’t, but that’s the nature of the short.

There are four other stories in Book Two. Carcasonne takes a quote from Ford Maddox Ford as a jumping off point. ‘I just wanted to marry her in the way some people want to go to Carcassone.’ I’ve read The Good Soldier, can vaguely remember the opening being about the saddest man I’d ever known. The rest is a void, as Carcossone itself is. But I’m sure I hitchhiked through it, spent a night in an auberge. A medieval feel to the town? Not sure. Carcasonne has the feel of Flaubert’s Parrot. It jumps from Garibaldi as a romantic hero of European history. How he captured towns and captured heart. Coup de foudre. Garibaldi looks through the telescope on the schooner Itaparica and inspects the Brazilian coastal town of Laguina. What he sees is Anita Riberas, eighteen, dark hair, large breasts “ a virile carriage”.  She speaks no Italian (a difficulty since there is not yet such a place as Italy) and he speaks little more than pigeon Portuguese. When they meet he tells her, “You must be mine”. And she is, but Barnes shows it’s not that simple. It never is. “The expectation of an experience governs and distorts the experience itself…” Barnes tells the reader this after segueing away from Garibaldi to a bookseller conference in Glasgow, where two women discuss the effects of different food types in the taste of a man’s sperm. Obviously if book conference in Glasgow are that interesting I might start attending some myself.

I’ve no idea why Barnes split Pulse into Books One and Two. If pushed I’d say it’s because Book One is shite, with the exception of the first story, East Wind, about a man delving too deep into woman’s territory which I liked very much. There are four stories Phil & Joanna’s something or other about middle-class people talking twaddle. And another few which aren’t quite as bad. Apologies. My memory isn’t what it was. Marriage Lines, which also appears in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written is outstanding. The best short story in Pulse, well that and Pulse, but worth buying for that story alone.

Barnes has the capacity to climb inside other’s heads and I liked this riposte – to among others Oscar Wilde – quoted in The Observer, from the viewpoint of a narrator inside the mind of Shostakovich: ‘Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake; it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defined them?’

Art for the people’s sake.  Meme and match. For the people’s sake we should have artists like Barnes. Science has its place. But Art needs its space, but I guess that’s an outdated idea. No use parroting on.

There’s a hole in my bucket

hole in bucket.jpg

You can’t blame the Conservative Government for the weather. But you can blame the Labour Government for the banking crisis of 2008. David Cameron made merry with the note left by Liam Byrne, chief secretary to the Treasury under Gordon Brown, to his successor ‘I’m afraid there is no money’ [left]. A throwaway line, much like Cameron talking about ‘all that green crap’. Because there is always money. How a government spends the money it has and the money it borrows determines what type of government it is. The Conservative Party takes money from poor people and gives it to rich people is a simple formula that holds true.

The simplest way the government does this is by printing money which they then buy back in the form of bonds. Arbitrage is a process by which a trader uses the price difference between the banks buy money at and the price they sell it at to make a guaranteed profit. Thank you Bank of England. Banks then increase the liquidity of the nation by loaning this money to an indebted nation, while wages have stagnated at or below 2008 levels, borrowing has increased to fill the gap. Productivity between 2008 and 2014 is almost zero.

The barometer of how well a nation is doing can be counted in terms of GDP, how much a nations’ goods and services increase. In a good year we experience less than 1% growth but beggars can’t be choosers.

Only they can if they call for increasing levels of self-regulation are met. Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, rescued with £45 billion of public money. Increasing arbitrage between buyer and seller by Libor fixing, selling dodgy debt wrapped up in mortgages, fixing the price of gold. But, of course data shows we’re back to the bonus culture. Average of quarter of a million pound bonuses paid to 900 lucky bankers in the US last year. They’re worth it. Arbitrage gaming a refund on the tax you’ve paid on losses, or bonuses for bosses you’ve made. Arbitrage moving global profits made in one country to another no-tax or low-tax country such as Ireland or the Seychelles. Alistair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer set out a deficit reduction plan. Later he followed the path of most high ranking politicians and joined the board of Deutsche Bank.  Imagine Sean Connery fighting against Al Capone and suddenly swapping sides and joining his bootlegging gang.  Only poor people pay tax.

Weather is a matter of liquidity. But climate change is not a matter of days or weeks, but longer term. That’s the Third Word War. And we’ve already lost. The cost is going to be tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of refugees on the move, famine and wars. Our economy is premised on a discredited notion of liquidity, but monetarism can’t fix the hole in our bucket. When the levee broke, as it did in New Orleans in 2006, what seemed dumb, directly spending public money on infrastructure was flipped. Not directly spending public money, because fiscal spending was a bad thing, was the stupidest thing since Reaganomics as clean-up costs soared. Public spending on infrastructure. That’s the cruellest joke. There’s a hole in my bucket and the water’s rising.


The Sapphires



I went to my local last night for a quick pint. All this New Year stuff doesn’t really bother me. But they wouldn’t serve me because I didn’t have a ticket for the New Year bash. That’s fair enough.

I had a can of beer and watched once of those daft movies on BBC 2. The Sapphires. I wasn’t expecting much, which makes it even better when it turns out to be a surprise hit. It was set in 1960’s Australia in one of those godforsaken missionary towns that sound like WongaWonga, and that was part of the joke about how an all-girl Aboriginal group came to be called The Sapphires. When the four girl audition for their big break, which admittedly isn’t much of a big break, a tour of Vietnam, entertaining US soldiers drafted to fight in a foreign country, then the WongaWongaWonga girls didn’t sound professional enough. The Sapphires cuts the mustard and sounds a bit like The Supremes. And boy can those girls kick ass with their singing. I was blown away in the same way I was with that other classic The Commitments.

Here we had the real deal. Not the black sound of soul from the black Irish. But Chris O’Dowd playing the bumbling Irishman who comes to manage a group of girls from a no-water town that are far too smart for him, far too good for him, but you know there’s that love thing. There’s racism. There’s sexism. There’s Vietnam and what used to be called Saigon. It was a nice way to welcome in the New Year.  Great music. Great harmony and solos. And like the Commitments it left me wondering where the stars of this show are now? Surely with so much talent they couldn’t fade back into obscurity. Then again, any sentence that begins with surely is surely suspect. And surely my local pub, where I drink all the time would have served me with a pint of beer, even at this time of year. Their loss. My gain.