A spot of social history. I was doing a little light research on the folk singer Wizz Jones after seeing him live, and came across this news report from the BBC’s Tonight programme from 1960. It’s about the steps being taken by the Cornish resort town Newquay to exclude a small group of beatniks from the town – making sure they couldn’t get work in the town or buy refreshments. What’s striking about this clip is the clothes and the hair: the unwanted Beats wouldn’t look out of place in any European or north American city now, 50 years later, whereas the clothes of everyone else place them firmly in the 50s and 60s.
It made me wonder what people are wearing now that won’t have dated in half a century.
For students of British journalism there’s also the sight of the reporter Alan Whicker, mostly remembered now as a parody of himself, forensically getting the leader of the Council to admit that the ban that he had organised had no grounds other than prejudice.
So, by way of a thought experiment: what if London is about to peak? The reason would be the way housing provision and housing regulation had destroyed the economic balance of the city, and there are some serious warning signs. Recently, there’s also been a wave of commentary on this. But first, let’s just roll back to the ’70s.
I had the opportunity earlier this month to hear the American academic George Lakoff talk, at a TUC event on the future of welfare. Lakoff, who’s at the University of Berkeley in California, has studied how we shape and understand our political views, and he’s probably best known here for his short book Don’t Think of An Elephant. (The minute you start trying not to think about it, you’re thinking about it, which I’ll come back to later).
He’s not a typical academic: almost the first thing he told us was that neither of his parents went to high school (secondary school).
Anyway, the most important thing to know about his work is that it’s based on neuroscience and that once you have heard him explain it, this changes the way you think about political language and political discourse.
It’s well past cliche to commend Johannes Gutenberg for his invention of the printing press, but it was only when I read Just My Type, by Simon Garfield, that I realised how inventive he had been. As the management theorist Peter Drucker once said, innovation is about building a whole new system, not just having a single good idea. As Garfield observes, “Gutenberg’s vision concerned automation, consistency, and recycling.” He set the mould for printing technology for almost 500 years – a long time for a technology innovation to remain dominant, and he was the first person in Europe to use mass production. (more…)
Britain’s high speed train project, HS2, is something of an enigma wrapped in a mystery. The projected costs are spiralling, currently at £50bln and counting; the line antagonises voters in every constituency it is planned to run through, and could cost the government seats in the next election; and pretty much every credible transport expert says that if you’re going to spend that much money on rail infrastructure you’re better linking regions together rather than creating a faster funnel into London. And yet the project stays afloat, buoyed up, it seems, by the claims of its supporters. (more…)
With the row over detention of David Miranda at Heathrow still reverberating, together with typically unverifiable and frankly barely plausible national security claims, it’s probably a more interesting question to ask why the Home Office (Britain’s Ministry of the Interior) and its associated agencies have become, well, so feral over the last decade. The best explanation is that the separation 15 years ago of its former legal functions to what is now the Ministry of Justice allowed the Home Office to focus exclusively on enforcement. (more…)
One of the topics I’ve found myself writing on here more than I expected is that of public space – or, more precisely, its privatisation. I found it on my mind again on holiday in the Pyreneean village of Anso.
Anso was burnt to the ground during the Napoleonic wars and almost immediately rebuilt, this time in stone. It’s largely unchanged since then. One of the features of the village is that many of the houses have a seat built in to the outside wall, as in the photo at the top of this post.
The two public water fountains in the village also still work (try finding that in London). The villagers obviously like this way of arranging things, since in the central square, shown below, there is a row of more recent wooden seats, complementing the cafe tables.
Designing in ‘security’
Of course, when you look at recent city design, it has been going in exactly the opposite direction. One of the main features of urban design has been about designing out spaces in which unmanaged public and social interaction might occur, and designing in “security”. The rationale for this is that if you create areas where people can stop and talk they become magnets for the indigent and the homeless. (Of course, whisper it not, this is something of a ‘downpipe’ response to this particular problem).
Certainly the last time I was looking for somewhere to sit for a few minutes in the City of London (I had to make a call and wanted to be able to take notes) the areas I could find where I should have been able to sit had been spiked to prevent anyone sitting down.
The paraphernalia of control
The partial exceptions, of course, are in the public areas that have been handed over to private management, such as More London on the south bank of the Thames. The reason they tolerate it? Because with private management comes the paraphernalia of control, with rules, security guards and the like. The other reason they tolerate it? People like it, so it’s good for business.
I know it’s easy to say that different rules need to apply in the city, in the soft space where our identities are not necessarily known, unlike the village. But that’s almost exactly the point. The old German saying was stadtluft macht frei - that city air makes us free. The same freedom to talk and mingle that creates social exchange, energy and innovation also creates dissent (after all, just a form of social innovation). You can’t have one without the other. If you try to choke off the parts you don’t like, you choke the life out of the city.
The photographs in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.
Now that the PRISM cat has been let out of the bag, the spies and former spies are coming out of the cupboards to do damage management. (I wrote a post about some of this last week). What’s interesting is that they give us an insight into how these discussions go on behind closed doors. For one of the saddest aspect of security services work is that smart people are diverted into work that is essentially self-generating and recursive; in that respect it’s like investment banking. Think what might be achieved if those resources and intellect were turned instead to solving, say, problems of hunger or poverty. But I digress.
Anyway, when it comes to damage control, there is a couple of contrasting approaches. But both sidestep the main issue: that public secrecy is a form of political corruption. (more…)
I spotted this in a review by the critic Terry Eagleton:
Bertolt Brecht tells the tale of a king in the East who was pained by all the suffering in the world. So he called his wise men together and asked them to inquire into its cause. The wise men duly looked into the matter, and returned with the news that the cause of the world’s suffering was the king.
Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded. … You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.
It pulled me up short because it reminded me of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play set against the backdrop of the 1692 Salem witch trials. Of course, The Crucible was an allegory about America’s domestic Cold War politics, of McCarthy, HUAC and “Are you now or have you ever been…?”.
So, suddenly the whole thing laid itself out for me. Let me try to explain. (more…)