costello-biog-cover

My thirty years of hurt and joy with Elvis

I STILL REMEMBER the day – it was 15 March 1986, an unusually warm, early spring Saturday – when I walked into an Our Price record shop and saw that cover for the first time: a scruffily bearded man wearing a country and western shirt and a replica of the Imperial State Crown. The sleeve simply said “King of America” but Our Price had helpfully put a sticker on the front: “The New LP from Elvis Costello: PLAY LOUD”. I did – more times than anyone around me will care to remember. But we all grew to love that record. Even my Dad liked it.

I already had a few Costello LPs – including his previous, slightly dodgy outing Goodbye Cruel World (1984) – but this was the moment I became a diehard fan. At some point I acquired a cassette of King of America (no idea why – I never bought tapes) and sometime in the 90s I bought a CD version too. I still have all three copies.

Mere months later, in September I think, another astonishing Costello LP appeared. Blood and Chocolate was recorded, unlike King of America, with his old band, the Attractions. Although they were very different records, I’ve always seen them as a pair. Not a day goes by without me singing at least one of these 26 songs in the shower or humming them as I walk down the street. Even today, songs I’ve heard a thousand times can make my eyes sting. They are the songs I turn to in both my brightest and darkest moments. They are the soundtrack to my life.

I had no idea that music was this powerful. That you could almost live inside the world created by a record. And here were two of them in the same year from the same man. To me they’ve become much more than mere recordings. King of America is a road movie, shifting between cheap Nashville motels, Las Vegas cabarets and the stifling streets of New Orleans. Its cast of characters includes nightclub singers and impresarios, prostitutes, drunken writers, army vets and unhappy GI brides. Blood and Chocolate is an altogether more claustrophobic affair: a howl of rage from the shut-up bedsits and shattered family homes of England. It contains one of Costello’s classic songs, I Want You, a desperate and dark ballad about sexual obsession and the suppressed anger of loneliness. Costello himself says singing the song night after night was a kind of punishment for all “the cruel and irrational things” he’d done – until he just got used to it. The American music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called it “nasty”. It is, but it’s beautiful too. And so truthful, it hurts.

I immediately bought a guitar and tried to write songs. I didn’t get far with that, but I still play, the same guitar, almost as badly as I did in 1986. More importantly, it was these two Costello LPs that made we want to write. I got my calling. I knew I wanted to use words to spark feelings, to paint pictures, to tell stories. Within months, I’d given up my job as an accounts clerk and gone to university, with the intention of becoming a writer. I’ve ended up doing a lot of different things (they call it a “portfolio career” now; I think the old term was “no career”) but I’ve always kept writing.

As a lyricist, Costello has that Joycean knack of making a word or phrase seem to express two or three different things at the same time. His songs can swoop from menace and vitriol to the utmost tenderness in the same verse, with melodies that can both soothe and hurt. It’s odd that anger – such a powerful, ubiquitous emotion – was mostly absent from popular music until the mid-70s, and no one does anger in music better than Costello: cutting and witty, often self-deprecating, but also brimming with the guilt and remorse that anger brings on. And anger can be tender too. If you don’t think so, listen to Alison, or Bullets for the New-Born King.

Take this couplet from the song I’ll Wear it Proudly on King of America:

Well, you seem to be shivering, dear, and the room is awfully warm/
In the white and scarlet billows that subside beyond the storm…

I have no idea what that means to Elvis, but there’s so much packed in there, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s tenderness but also a hint of menace. There’s that beautiful (implied) association between the clouds outside and the pillows on the bed, and the reference to the passing storm which metaphorically suggests this is the aftermath of a row. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’ve carried the image of that stifling hotel room – and the loneliness inside it – around in my head for more than half my life.

So, to Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, which is probably quite different from any other musician’s memoir you’ve read. First off, it’s actually written by the musician himself. In prose, Costello has a chatty, digressive style which is a million miles away from the gin-spiked vitriol of his early recordings. His 36 chapters follow a meandering course through his life (and those of his parents and grandparents – sometimes you wonder if he’s been lined up for the next series of Who do you think you are?), often veering off in the manner of Montaigne’s essays to talk about whatever takes his fancy before (sometimes) coming back to the point. It’s a bit like being holed up in a pub with Costello for a couple of days or sharing a long train journey with him. But unlike a long pub chat, it all begins to make sense towards the end.

whether he’s writing about marital break up, war, unemployment or the loss of a loved one, ELVIS sees straight through to the emotional core of the situation.

This is also a book about music, rather than rock star excess and battles with drink and drugs (though Costello owns up to a lot of drinking and a fair few “pills”): it’s a book set in recording studios and concert halls rather than mansions and luxury hotels. The extent of Costello’s musical knowledge and influence will knock your socks off; even I had no idea how many pies he’s had his fingers in. To some reviewers this cast of collaborators, friends and other artists seemed like namedropping, but almost all of them are people Costello has made music with. What was he supposed to do? Refer to Bob Dylan as “this bloke from Minnesota I met in New York”?

If this isn’t exactly The Confessions of Declan McManus, it wouldn’t be Elvis Costello if there wasn’t plenty of remorse on show. He is particularly contrite about the philandering that led to the break up of his first marriage, to Mary Burgoyne, and the hurt caused to many “reckless and sometimes damaged” women. He makes no excuses for all that, or for the racially offensive comments about Ray Charles he is alleged to have made during the Attractions first US tour in 1978. Given Costello’s otherwise-impeccable track record in opposing racism, you have to be very harsh or very ignorant to think that he ever harboured racist beliefs, and if his numerous apologies were good enough for Ray, they’re good enough for me.

No apology is necessary for the nastiness in some of Costello’s lyrics, especially his early stuff. If Elvis’s song-writing has been about anything, it’s confronting the emotions that people really feel, not just the ones that are laudable or even understandable. Some people are spiteful and young men do rage against women. We all feel bitter and angry from time to time. Holding Costello personally to everything expressed in his lyrics over 40 years is as stupid as attributing to Charles Dickens the violence and misogyny of Bill Sikes or accusing Martin Amis of psycopathy for putting the thoughts of John Self down on paper.

Costello’s father – the big band singer Ross McManus – looms large over the whole story. Without Ross, there would’ve been no Elvis Costello – and not just in the biological sense. Their relationship is the golden thread running through both the book and Elvis’s career itself. All his musical magpie-ism finally makes sense in the context of a shared musical heritage in the McManus family which goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. There are no boundaries in popular music: it certainly didn’t begin in 1976 with punk or in 1954 with rock and roll.

Costello’s current series of “Detour” gigs (apparently – I’m going to see the Paris show next month) feature a selection of Costello classics, music hall and big band songs going back to the 1920s and an miscellany of more recent country and rock and roll covers which change each night. In between, Elvis tells stories and shows video clips from his life and career. Much like those shows, this book is not just Costello’s own biography, but a sort of biography of popular music itself.

Passages about Ross’s slow decline and death from Alzheimer’s drift in and out of the story, especially towards the end. They are deeply moving for anyone who has lost a parent, and they also show why Costello is such a great songwriter: whether he’s writing about marital break up, war, unemployment or the loss of a loved one, he sees straight through to the emotional core of the situation.

If you’re already a Costello fan, you will lap this up and wish there were more than 674 pages (and an index!). If you’re not, this is an extended pub conversation with a real musician who knows everybody and has done everything. If you also buy the accompanying soundtrack LP, you might just see what I’m getting at.

Why it’s hurting but not working

broken-toolsOne of our favourite economists at English Economic (yes, one or two are all right) is Oxford University’s Simon Wren-Lewis. Simon has been one of the most trenchant critics of Britain’s Tory government within mainstream economics, and his clear and straightforward arguments generally go unanswered by government supporters. Simon is also one of the few academic economists to make a concerted effort to reach out to non-economists, both through his Mainly Macro blog (which caters for both economists and the rest of us) and his campaign against “media macro” – the distortion and misinformation in the mainstream media which does so much to promote right-wing economic ideas and always seems to favour the interests of the rich and powerful.

One of the most important questions Simon has been tackling recently is why all the extraordinary measures taken in the UK and the Eurozone in recent years have failed to get the economy moving. Put very simply, there are two ways for the authorities to stimulate the economy quickly (in what economists call the “short-run”), so we can see some economic growth and start getting pay rises again. The government can either spend money itself or it can encourage other people to spend money. Either way, someone somewhere has to start putting some money down.

Read the full article on English Economic.

Photo: European Council/Creative Commons 2.0

Let’s stick together

I THINK WE’D BE better off staying in the EU, but I can’t honestly say whether my family will be £5 or £5,000 worse off if we leave. I’ve no idea what sort of trade deal we will get with the EU if we leave, but I can’t see it being better than than the one we’ve got already. Brexit will give us more control over some types of migration, but that will come at a considerable price. I’m fairly certain it will do nothing to protect us against Islamist terrorists. Although I’ve been lobbing around the same statistics and arguments as everyone else, the real reason I will vote to stay on 23 June is much simpler: I’m pro-EU simply because I’m a European – and if you’re part of something, I think it’s better to be an active participant than a passive bystander.

As an Englishman, I speak a language which is basically a mixture of German and French, with some Danish and Celtic bits thrown in. The land we now call “England” has been ruled over by Celts, Romans (Italians), Anglo-Saxons (Germans), Danes, Frenchmen, Welsh, Scots, a Dutchman, then Germans again. We were a profoundly Catholic nation which became profoundly Protestant, then profoundly secular; these are all solidly European traditions. Our culture – cuisine, literature, music, art, sport, politics – is eclectically European, mixing French, Italian and German traditions with later influences from across the world. When it comes to the things we really want, we tend to choose European things – French wine, Greek beaches, German cars, Italian clothes, Scotch whisky and Spanish villas. And for all Paris’s charm and Berlin’s youthful dynamism, everyone knows the real capital of Europe is London. If we’re not European, what the hell are we?

Most Brexiters don’t deny our European heritage, but like to say the EU is not Europe. Sorry, but it more or less is. The only sizeable European nation outside the EU who don’t want to join are the Russians (not that Putin has asked them). More importantly, the EU is where the power is. Other countries know this – despite all the EU’s problems and failures no one else is anywhere near the exit door. Even Greece, which has been treated like shit by the rest of the EU, is desperate to remain. Greeks know that, like it or lump it, the EU is where the destiny of our continent is decided.

We’re in the club, whether we like it or not. So why would we want to be skulking in the corridor outside the committee room when the important decisions are taken? It may suit tiny but super-rich Norway and Switzerland – a money-laundering operation pretending to be a country – to stay outside the EU, but the price they pay is having less influence over European affairs than Slovenia or Estonia. That’s not good enough for a big internationalist country like Britain.

I’m not a pro-European because I like the way EU institutions are run or because I like everything the Commission comes up with. I’m not even pro-European because I like the overall direction of EU policy, which – contrary to what Europhobes pretend to think – is far too free-market and plutocratic for my taste. And, yes, I know the EU institutions aren’t very democratic.

But so what? Nato is even less democratic than the EU but you don’t hear many Brexiters demanding that we leave that Brussels-based institution (and you won’t hear it from me either). Many people, from left and right, don’t much like the way the UK parliament works either. An electoral system which hands so much power to a man as short-sighted and divisive as David Cameron, with the support of less than a quarter of the people, is ridiculously undemocratic. In common with most Brits, I don’t like government policies on austerity, schools, housing, transport or the NHS. I detest this government’s spineless kowtowing to Beijing over the future of our steel industry. But none of this makes me want to leave the UK or do away with parliamentary democracy altogether.

The EU isn’t democratic because democracy mostly operates at the nation state level – which is exactly what Brexiters say they want. But if nation states are to survive and prosper (and I rather like nation states), they have to work together. We live in a connected world and you can’t pretend, as Brexiters do, that it hasn’t happened. Complete sovereignty has probably never existed, but it certainly doesn’t exist now – not for us, not even for America. When it comes to money, trade, information, ideas, pollution, disease – or even people – the national borders Brexiters are so desperate to “control” have vanished. Almost everyone recognises this – that’s why we have the African Union, the Arab League, the Organisation of American States – and Nato. Leaving the EU won’t stop bad things happening to us. But it may stop some good things and it will certainly stop us from having a say in what the good things are.

Europe makes sense as a group of countries working together. We are a close-knit group of mostly related peoples packed together on and around a small peninsula. Our common heritage includes democracy, the rule of law, Christianity and secularism, booze, scientific method, the dignity and rights of the individual, distinct national and liguistic identitites, the Roman Empire and everything good and bad that flowed from it. That is Europe. During the last 60 years, one of our worst traditions – killing each other in wars – has become almost unthinkable within the EU. I can’t prove the EU is responsible – maybe it’s just coincidence. But history suggests countries which co-operate politically and economically don’t make a habit of fighting each other.

Brexiters never explain why we would we better off with less influence over European affairs. They never explain why we should go through this rigmarole in order have less access to European markets (I don’t care how well the post-Brexit negotiations go, we’re not going to end up with more, are we?). Or why Britons should have less freedom to move around than other Europeans.

The idea that America and the rest of the world will pay more attention to us than to the collective weight of 27 other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, seems to come from the peculiarly English delusion (it doesn’t affect the Welsh, Scots or Irish so much) that we’re somehow special or even superior to other European countries – or that we’re not really a European country at all. But this English exceptionalism doesn’t make us special, it just makes us weird and irrelevant. It isn’t patriotic, it’s demeaning.

Maybe we could afford to stand aloof from Europe when we ran a global empire. Standing aloof now just makes us look silly. We would be negotiating our way out in order to negotiate our way back in as a second rate nation. Why are even thinking about this? Why are we being so stupid?

Photo: © 2013 European Council/Creative Commons 2.0
Daisy, Dan and Dr

An East End success story

ONE EVENING IN APRIL 2010, Kamran Uzzaman, a 20-year-old patient on Roman Ward, a mental health facility run by East London Foundation Trust (ELFT), slipped into the room occupied by fellow patient Prodib Debnath and killed the 31-year-old expectant father by stamping on his head. At his trial in May 2011, one psychiatrist described Uzzaman as “one of the most mentally unwell patients I’ve ever seen”.

The killing of one mental health patient by another is fantastically rare
– on average it happens once every 17 years in England. But within a year Roman Ward had seen another patient commit suicide with a plastic bag and a third die unexpectedly from natural causes. These three tragic deaths sparked a remarkable improvement drive founded on boosting the engagement and wellbeing of the trust’s staff.

“We really questioned our own roles as leaders,” says the trust’s director
of corporate affairs, Mason Fitzgerald. “I was probably one of the most guilty people. I was sitting in my office thinking I was doing lots of very important things, but I wasn’t really. What’s really important is making sure we understand the issues staff are going through on a daily basis.”

East London in 2010 was no Mid- Staffs. It was meeting its national targets and was rated around the middle of the pack for London mental health trusts. But a closer look uncovered multiple problems on Roman Ward: key posts left vacant, high sickness absence rates and abnormally few incidents, suggesting problems were not being reported through the formal channels.

“There was perhaps a culture that the board were worried about finances and performance targets and not as concerned about quality and safety,” says Fitzgerald. “Of course, we thought we were worried about quality and safety.”

In the last five years, ELFT has become a leading exponent of using staff engagement to improve quality, job satisfaction and patient safety. In 2014, it came top among mental health trusts for staff engagement and was named by the HSJ as one of the ten best places to work in the NHS. Last year, it picked up the HSJ Award for staff engagement, sponsored by MiP and Unison.

“I can see that when staff are well supported and given the chance to develop it leads to better engagement between staff and service users,” says one patient who has worked on developing the trust’s Quality Improvement programme.

The roll-call of initiatives is familiar: a culture of ‘listening and learning’ from staff; reducing the gap between ward and board with executive ‘walkabouts’; continuous improvement through team- work; development schemes for people in all disciplines; coaching and mentoring from inside and outside the trust; and investing in communications technology to encourage open, honest feedback.

But a list of initiatives is one thing, delivering sustained and tangible improvement is another. The 2015 NHS staff survey found that almost half the people working for the NHS don’t feel valued by their organisation and wouldn’t recommend it as a place to work. Effective staff engagement is hard. If it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it.

“Leaders need to ensure trust, fairness and inclusiveness throughout the organisation,” explains Michael West, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University, who has worked with ELFT. For leaders personally, this boils down to “listening with fascination to staff, understanding their work challenges, being empathic and taking intelligent action to help them,” he says.

East London FT encourages staff to be “courageously curious”, says trust chair Marie Gabriel. “Our leaders actively empower our staff and patients to be brave and to constructively challenge our decision-making as a board – with no fear of negative consequences.”

That can be near impossible in a failing organisation. “Operationally,
you have to be pretty decent,” agrees Fitzgerald. “It’s really hard for leaders to get out and engage with staff if your finances are out of order, if you’re missing your national targets, if you’ve got commissioners and regulators breathing down your neck.” He advises struggling organisations to “pick two or three really important things and focus on them. I always despair when I see an action plan that’s 20 or 30 pages long, looking at every indicator.”

Fitzgerald says East London learned a lot from working with the Oxleas mental health trust across the Thames in Dartford. “They’re the benchmark. What’s quite remarkable is their consistency [in staff engagement scores] across different parts of the organisation and different demographics – we still have quite a lot of variation.”

One area of “variation” is discrimination. “ELFT have made great progress, but a stronger focus on workplace trust, fairness and justice – dealing particularly with high levels of reported discrimination against BME staff – is needed,” says West.

“It’s something we’re still trying to understand,” adds Fitzgerald. Tackling violence and aggression towards staff has reduced discrimination from patients. “But with discrimination from managers and colleagues, we’ve not made so much progress,” he admits. He refers to a young black nurse who recently reported being racially abused by a patient. “He didn’t feel that his team and management supported him as we should’ve done. So he felt discriminated against by the organisation as well,” Fitzgerald explains.

Unison’s Margaret Brown, ELFT staff side chair, agrees the trust’s good intentions aren’t always matched by practice on the ground. “I’ve experienced managers and service directors who are empathic, supportive and engage staff in service review and development. But there are others with a didactic, autocratic, top-down approach.”

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald sees the strong tradition of partnership working with unions at the trust as a big asset. “We have our arguments but it’s fantastic the work that’s done in that working environment,” he says.

When 100 staff were threatened by redundancy last year, managers worked with unions to redeploy almost all of them. “To have done all that and still have these [staff engagement] scores is a testament to staff side and how they support their members, and how they tell us when we’re going wrong,” says Fitzgerald.

Problems with a recent review of psychology services were down to the board ignoring union concerns, for what “seemed like good reasons at the time,” he says. “But it made the overall outcomes worse for everyone. The vast majority of the time, if they come to talk to us, we listen.”

There are few tougher briefs than running mental health services in East London, with its complex patchwork of ethnic communities, widespread deprivation, mobile population and fierce competition for resources. But ELFT
is one of the NHS’s everyday success stories, a vital but unglamorous service which has been turned around by the efforts of its staff and management – not just because it got a kicking from the CQC.

There are also lessons for how the NHS can learn from its failures. After the tragedies in 2010 and 2011, there was no clear-out of the board and no witch-hunt looking for people to blame – just hard, painstaking work to make the trust a better place to work and to care for patients.

“It came from our feeling that we had failed those staff and those families,” says Fitzgerald. “In the end you have to do it because you think you need to.”

Photo: © 2016 East London Foundation Trust
IDS-spain-2014

IDS and the cluster bomb budget

IF THE LABOUR PARTY wasn’t in such a state, lefties like me would have enjoyed the last few days. The IDS resignation affair is omnishambles, squeaky bum time and headless chicken syndrome all rolled into one. Just ten months after his triumphant re-election, David Cameron now leads a sort of rump cabinet, despised by many of its own backbenchers, and reviled as heartless by – of all people – Iain Duncan Smith.

IDS says he never agreed with the proposed cuts to disability benefits and only reluctantly went along with them because he accepted deficit reduction was the government’s overwhelming priority. I’m inclined to believe him. But when Osborne unveiled his budget, it turned out deficit reduction wasn’t that important after all. The priority was tax handouts to the better off. That is count one.

Count two is that Cameron and Osborne, faced with a barrage of criticism they – bizarrely – weren’t expecting, pressured IDS into defending the cuts. Accepting collective responsibility, IDS dutifully did so in that “Dear Colleague” letter on Thursday. But within hours, Cameron and Osborne had abandoned the policy, hoping that they had left IDS holding the stinking package. Osborne – never one to underestimate his own genuis – probably thought this was very clever. Ha ha! That letter would make it impossible for IDS to resign over the issue. Like so many of Osborne’s improvised political devices, it blew up in his face.

I’ve no idea what IDS’s real reasons for resigning are, but the ones he gave seem perfectly reasonable to me. People have resigned over far less. It may well help the Brexit campaign, but so what? Cameron and Osborne pissed IDS off, then gave him the ammunition, primed the gun and put it in his hand. Did they really expect he wouldn’t fire it? Yes, he may well have some personal scores to settle with Osborne, but when you serve in a cabinet, the personal is always mixed with the political. I can’t think of any resignation over policy that hasn’t been spiked with some personal animosity.

As for Downing Street’s briefing over the weekend that IDS is half-mad and “a fraud”, that only begs the question why Cameron appointed him in the first place and kept him in charge of such an important department for six years (and apparently begged him to stay last week). Judgment, especially over appointments, has never been Cameron’s strong point (his retention of Osborne now being another example). Cameron is always at his most peevish when responding to criticism he knows to be valid; Downing Street’s petulant and highly personal attacks on IDS will only strengthen the feeling, especially on the Tory backbenches, that he’s got a point.

By giving a huge boost to the Brexit campaign, Osborne’s ridiculous budget may end up doing far more damage to the economic interests of working people than any of the silly measures he announced on Tuesday. Some of Osborne’s budgets have a short fuse and blow up almost immediately. Others have a long fuse and blow up further down the line. This might be the first to have both. Thank God it’s probably his last.

Photo:© 2014 UK in Spain/Creative Commons 2.0.
Photo: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/Creative Commons 2.0

Budget 2016: austerity has done itself in

GEORGE OSBORNE HAS turned his budgets into a kind of game show, where he flings statistics and targets around and we have to work out which ones are true, which are guesswork and which are just downright porkies. Every few months, he comes back with another set of teasers. It’s a sort of political Would I Lie to You?, except Osborne’s jokes aren’t as funny as Rob Brydon’s.

For all his showmanship and political craft, Osborne can’t escape the reality that six years of austerity have delivered neither prosperity nor any reduction in government debt. Osborne still claims it will happen – some time way off in the future – but he says that every year.

Austerity has done itself in. Like the abstract “free market” Osborne has so much faith in, austerity is an idea that devours itself. It has delivered so little growth it has failed to meet its sole objective: reducing government debt by eliminating the deficit. Even Osborne doesn’t believe in it any more, which is why he effectively abandoned austerity yesterday and rushed to borrow another £38.4bn over the next three years – before savagely cutting back again in 2019. The problem is that he doesn’t have a clue what else to do.

The Chancellor has only himself to blame. He set the fanciful targets, he made the silly rules. Osborne has now broken two of his three “golden rules” within three months of setting them. Far from reducing the government’s pile of debt every year as promised, Osborne admitted yesterday it will actually rise this year. The slowing economy and stagnating wages had already done for his cap on welfare spending. And not even Osborne can really believe in the ferrago of coincidence and convenience which would be necessary for him meet his third rule, eliminating the deficit by 2020. The independent Institute of Fiscal Studies puts his chances of success at no better than fifty-fifty. Many other commentators put them a lot lower lower than that.

I wouldn’t mind, but these are the iron rules which Osborne, in his rush to embarrass Labour, said the government must live by – at least in “normal” times. Yet he has thrown them over at the first time of asking. He can’t have it both ways. Either the British economy is doing well, as he claims, and he must live by his rules. Or it isn’t, in which case he only has to look in the mirror to see the one who should be embarrassed.

The OBR twisted the knife in Osborne’s back, sharply downgrading its forecasts for economic growth into the forseeable future. Worse, the OBR has now discovered that the £27bn in extra tax receipts it “found” down the back of the Treasury sofa last November – which Osborne used to fund his U-turn on working tax credits – has turned into a £56bn black hole. “The sofa has swallowed roughly two pounds this time for every one that it yielded last time,” said OBR director Robert Chote – presumably trying very hard not to giggle.

Osborne tried to blame the sharp deterioration in his financial position on a “dangerous cocktail” of global economic threats. That won’t wash. Osborne’s own Budget Red Book shows that the expected global slowdown accounts for well under half the reduction in expected UK growth – most of which comes from a big downgrading of forecasts for the UK’s productivity performance – overdue recognition from the OBR of one our most persistent and serious economic problems.

Osborne’s eye-catching announcements – the sugar tax, forcing all schools to become “academies” under Whitehall control and incoherent plans for further devolution to local councils – were diversionary tactics. In reality, this was a desperately thin budget. There were some modest tax cuts, mostly benefiting the well-off and corporations, more cuts to support for the disabled, some sensible measures to encourage savings, plus some further unspecified cuts to Whitehall spending, left hanging in the air like a bad smell until just before the next election. In short, a pretty typical Tory budget for “normal” times. This was a budget for the economy George Osborne would like to be running, rather than the one he’s spent six years ruining.

On our big economic problems – dismal productivity, low wages, the housing crisis – he offered almost nothing. In six years Osborne has failed to come up with a single meaningful initiative to improve productivity, which almost everyone recognises as the root cause of many of Britian’s economic woes. One housing group even welcomed Osborne’s inaction on housing – on the grounds that everything he’s tried before has made matters worse.

Osborne can’t do anything about these problems because they require active government, and doing things like strengthening trade unions and building more social housing, which are ideological anathema to the Tory MPs and activists he needs to appease to get his feet into David Cameron’s shoes. So, with austerity now a busted flush and constrained by the need not ruffle feathers before June’s EU referendum, Osborne was left with nothing much. That’s why he had to mount a smash and grab raid on other departments’ to-do lists to find something to put in his red box.

Economically, this was a budget from a Chancellor at the end of the road, a Chancellor who has missed every significant target he has set himself, a Chancellor who really wants to be doing something else. In ten months, Osborne has gone from hero to almost zero in the Tory party (how he must now regret turning down David Cameron’s offer of a different job after the 2015 election). But it’s Osborne’s constant complusion to put politics ahead of economics which has put him there.

Photo: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/Creative Commons 2.0 (cropped).
Photo: Jacques Paillette/Creative Commons 3.0

The Mitterrand palimpsest

FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND WAS around for so long (he first held office in 1944-5) and got up to so many things, almost every year is some sort of Mitterrand anniversary. My regular reader will know that I’m something of an obsessive about the former French president and don’t need much excuse to write about him. This year I will have plenty – 2016 marks not only 20 years since Mitterrand’s death, but also the centenary of his birth, in the market town of Jarnac, deep in the Cognac country of south-west France, on 26 October 1916.

I already have a stack of Mitterrand-related reading on my desk, including a new book on the president’s last days by the editor of L’Express, Christophe Barbier, and Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s dauntingly huge 1996 biography, François Mitterrand: une vie, which I’ve promised myself to finally get round to reading this year. But I was drawn first to Georges-Marc Benamou’s Le Dernier Mitterrand, the book on which Robert Guédiguian’s celebrated 2005 film on the president’s last days in office, The Last Mitterrand, was based. I’ve watched this film so many times that Michel Bouquet’s superb portrayal of the president has largely displaced my memories of the real Mitterrand.

Benamou was the Globe journalist given “unprecedented access” to Mitterrand during his last year as president, and the rather sad eight-month coda to his life after he left office (actually, quite a few people claim to have had such access – Barbier among them – I guess Mitterrand didn’t like being alone much). There’s a scene in Benamou’s book which doesn’t feature in the film – surprisingly, because it seems to capture the essence of the Mitterrand mystique. It’s certainly made a big impression on me. I can’t get it out of my head. I can picture the scene from the film even though I know it isn’t there.

Mitterrand starts speaking enigmatically – even madly – about an “unknown war” with America, a “a permanent war, a war without death, apparently” but which is also “a war to the death”. Mitterrand seems to imply that although the war is “permanent”, it is a war that France – and Europe – have already lost. It doesn’t make much sense but, as the president continues talking, Benamou senses that he is no longer talking just as himself, but as all his predecessors.

Benamou claims to sense De Gaulle’s tone, and then those of other French leaders stretching back into the middle ages. The image he cites is a striking one: a photo-montage by the artist Krystof Pruszkowski, a sort of visual palimpsest in which portraits of all the Fifth Republic presidents up to that point — De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard and Mitterrand — are superimposed on one another. This was the ghostly figure, Benamou says, who was speaking to him in that darkened room at the Elysée in October 1994.

I managed to dig up a copy of the picture (I don’t have the rights to post it here) and spent some time staring at it. Benamou is right: you can recognise features from all four men, but the only people you really see are De Gaulle and Mitterrand.

Benamou felt that all France’s past leaders were incarnated in this frail body, this “national corpse” (Mitterrand was dying from prostate cancer, which it was later revealed he’d been suffering from since at least 1981). And that Mitterrand is the last in the line, the last real leader of France, perhaps the last real political leader in Europe. Mitterrand says something similar elsewhere in the book (and in the film): “I’m the last of the line, the last of the great presidents. After me there will just be managers, technocrats, bankers.” This extinguishing of politics is perhaps what Mitterrand means by the war Europe has lost.

Mitterrand’s point was overblown – you can’t say that Chirac was just a manager or that Sarkozy was a techno-anything, although Hollande – ironically, a Mitterrand protégé – fits the mould perfectly. But Mitterrand does now look like the last of the big, ambitious political leaders in Europe. By 1995, he was the last significant politician of the wartime generation still in office. If the past is recoverable at all, it’s through the people who lived in it. When they are gone, the way back becomes fogged. We are working with ghosts – and ghosts are unreliable and personal to each and every one of us.

The past is the ultimate mystery, the ultimate fantasy world. (How can it be here, in so many forms all around us, and yet not be? How weird is that?) The easiest way to access this fantasy world is through the people we knew and loved. Our memories of them become entwined with the ghosts of public figures and our knowledge of the times in which they lived. I tend to conflate memories of my Dad with stories of people like Mitterrand and Denis Healey, because they lived through the same period and went through many of the same experiences. They are all characters in my own fantasy story of the 20th century – a time which is gone, but which refuses to settle down and feels like it will never be still.

For years, I have carried around a story in my head: my Dad, shortly after going into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with the Royal Artillery in 1945, encounters a bossy French official called François, who has arrived in haste from Paris. The story takes different forms (in one they argue about access to a toilet, in another they get drunk on Courvoisier), but I’ve always believed it was spun around a core of truth: that Dad and Mitterrand were at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, possibly on the same day (Mitterrand was the French official responsible for repatriating French prisoners from the concentration camps).

I can’t remember now whether the story comes from something my Dad told me (it isn’t there in the extensive notes I took shortly before he died in 2009), a dream, something I read about Mitterrand, or whether I just made the whole thing up. That’s how the past works on us – endless versions, real and imagined, and most a mixture of the two, superimposed on one another: a rich soup of memories, facts and fantasies, spiked with that sense of unbearable loss.

But reading Benamou’s book, I’ve now know that Mitterrand never went to Bergen-Belsen at all, although he was present at the liberation of Dachau by the Americans in the same month. Even though I’ve seen the film countless times, I’d missed the fact that the camp Mitterrand describes was Dachau, not Belsen. I’d believed it because I wanted to; it fitted with my storybook version of the past.

In the same way, my version of French history, and of Mitterrand’s presidency, will be different to yours – much of mine comes from that film and what I’ve projected onto it. Just as I was disappointed to find out that the history of Imperial Rome didn’t unfold the way I saw it as a child in I Claudius (no, Augustus wasn’t at all like Brian Blessed), no doubt all this Mitterrand reading will dispel more of my illusions. But it will only replace them with others: a fresh set of fantasies to weave into my personal version of what we call “the truth”.

In my head, two men still emerge hand-in-hand from the mist on that April morning on the North German Plain. I know one of them well enough. I may never get to know the other. So I can make of him whatever I will.

Photo: Jacques Paillette/Creative Commons 3.0
HMS Vigilant.

This Trident Submarine is a Nuclear powered vessel contributing to NATO's nuclear deterrent. It is an advanced, high speed, long endurance underwater sub. These displace over 16 thousand tonnes and offer spacious accommodation on three decks. These carry up to 16 missiles each carrying 12 warheads.

Cold warheads and hot tempers: the return of Labour’s nuclear wars

HERE ARE A FEW first thoughts on Labour’s upcoming defence review – or rather the Trident bit of it. I don’t expect anyone to take much notice – most of the people involved seem to have held entrenched views for at least thirty-five years. You might want to put on some 80s music while reading this. If you’re old enough, it might make you feel young again.

Trident (and I mean here Trident with nuclear warheads, not the “I can’t believe it’s not Trident” version without them) is not essentially useless. It could be used, perhaps in some circumstances it would be used. So, it has uses. But Trident as a defence mechanism is, literally, useless. It’s value as a defence lies purely in it not being used.

There are no conceivable circumstances in which we could use Trident and remain “defended”. I find it impossible to imagine a British prime minister firing a Trident missile at a non-nuclear target. I tried hard to conjure up the image of some deranged figure in Downing Street, presumably drunk and egged on by a latter-day Dr Strangelove, moving his or her quivering finger towards the “button” (yes, I know there isn’t really a button) to fire a 4.8 megaton nuclear bomb at some god-forsaken desert town. But I just can’t see it. Can you?

If Trident is ever going to be used it would be either in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Britain which has already taken place or as a pre-emptive first strike against someone who might attack us with nuclear weapons. In both cases, we would have lost. In the first case, there should be no need to explain why. In the second, we have assume that anyone with nuclear weapons who is nasty enough to be worth nuking would retaliate with a nuclear strike against us. We end up with the same result. In either scenario, Trident would have failed to defend us.

Trident has no military use — it cannot be used in any military situation to further any military objective. Defence chiefs like the prestige Trident brings but I wonder how many would resist a credible promise to spend the entire cost (now estimated at £167bn) – or even half of it – on their conventional forces. Trident’s main value is diplomatic and “pre-military”: that it could defend us, not by being used, but by deterring someone from attacking us, whether or not they had nuclear weapons.

The deterrent argument has changed since I used to have these arguments in pubs in the 1980s (when I shifted from being a unilateralist to being a warmongering US lackey, apparently), when it was all about a complex game of bluff and counter bluff with the Soviet Union – a game which, like death itself, could drive you mad if you thought about it too much. Now, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: is there anyone out there who is likely to behave differently towards us because we have Trident from how they would behave if we didn’t?

Trident did not deter al-Qaeda from attacking us. It’s hard to believe that the reason Islamic State/Daesh have not yet attacked Britain is because we have Trident submarines lurking in the ocean somewhere (France is also a nuclear power after all). Kim Jong- un? Really? Does he even know where Britain is? The theory of deterrence rests on a degree of rational self-interest on the part of your opponent – it doesn’t apply to madmen.

There is also the argument that Trident is needed to protect us against future threats we don’t yet know about – Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”. The problem with this is that, if these threats are genuinely “unknown”, how do we know that Trident is the best or even a good way of protecting ourselves against them? We might just as well double the size of the army, build a fifty-foot wall around Britain or fill the channel tunnel with cement on the grounds that it might protect us against something.

Perhaps we think we can discern the faint outlines of these potential threats (the shadows of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”). What if China or Russia turn nasty? What if a relatively sophisticated state with a slightly unhinged leadership (Iran?) decides to have a pop at us, or tries to hold us to ransom? The problem here is that what evidence we have already points to Trident being useless in these situations. You might well think China and Russia are already quite nasty: Trident (or the French nuclear deterrent) didn’t stop Putin from annexing Crimea, destabilising our “ally” Ukraine or unleashing radioactive weapons on the streets of London in 2006. And the Iranian leadership has been slightly unhinged for most of my lifetime. Where is the evidence that Iran has ever posed a significant threat to Britain, or that the behaviour of the Iranian leadership has been changed one iota by the existence of Britain’s four Trident submarines? In these circumstances, Trident is, at best, a very over-priced insurance policy against a very remote risk – like paying thousands of pounds a year to insure yourself against a meteor strike. (Yes, it could happen, the results would be catastrophic, but, really, are you going to bother?)

The best argument for Trident is one its supporters are obviously reluctant to put forward. It’s that Trident is simply about showing off, in a world where showing off is, like it or lump it, important. Possession of a big fat nuclear weapons system is like a ticket to the VIP enclosure – it gets you noticed, it impresses people, it makes them think you must be a very important country indeed. It’s no coincidence that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are the world’s five oldest nuclear powers. No country that has acquired nuclear weapons has ever been willing to give them up. Viewed this way, Trident is a big fat fee we pay (much of it to the Americans) for a seat at the top table. It’s about diplomacy, not military defence.

I think it’s this loss of diplomatic face that Trident supporters really fear. And they may be right – diplomacy is an important component of defence, perhaps the most important part. But the question is whether this diplomatic golden ticket is really worth it, or whether we can do something better with a quarter of a trillion dollars.

My final thought is that if we do need a nuclear deterrent, why does it have to be Trident? Could we not develop our own fully independent system, as the French have managed to do? That would create even more jobs in the UK and give a welcome boost to our science and engineering sector. It might be on a smaller scale than Trident, but I reckon no one likes being nuked, by a Trident submarine or anything else.

All of this assumes, of course, that the defence review is looking for the right defence strategy for the country, not just the right one for the Labour Party – which may be a different question entirely.

Photo: PAUL O’SHAU/MOD

Bowie, as the Thin White Duke, with Cher during an appearance on Italian TV in 1976.

Music at the Speed of Life

THE NEWS OF David Bowie’s death from cancer at the age of 69 didn’t register with me when it first flashed up on the screen. The words said “Breaking News”, but it didn’t feel like news. It felt like an intrusion from another world or another time, as if I’d been catapulted years into the future. Then it felt like a mistake or a cruel hoax. My mind went blank and I paused for a moment, thinking, “Did I know that already?” Then I wondered why the sky hadn’t fallen in.

I didn’t grow up listening to Bowie. When I first started getting into music at the end of the 70s, we didn’t have much time for anything before punk. Bowie was going through his “Berlin period”, producing music that was critically acclaimed but hardly designed to catch the attention of a young teenager buying his first records in 1979 (I didn’t even hear “Heroes” until years later, which is odd because it’s actually a very “1977” sort of record). He wasn’t on Top of the Pops much. Of course, I’d heard some of the “early stuff” – Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and so on – but that belonged to the era of flared trousers and long hair. Bowie was a kind of elder statesman. Whatever you were into – punk, ska, heavy metal, reggae, soul, pub rock, early synthesiser music – Bowie was someone you were supposed to respect. Unlike most of the other big stars of the early 1970s, he had carried some credibility into the era of The Jam and The Human League.

This was shown in spades a year or two later by Ashes to Ashes, a song from an LP (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) which was so perfectly of its time that it was if the Daddy had come back to show New Romantics how it was really done. I bought Let’s Dance, of course. I liked it but I never loved it. Tonight seemed a fairly ropey LP by Bowie’s standards, but over the years I’ve come to love the title track. Sometime in the mid-80s, I bought the Berlin trilogy. Or I thought I had. I actually ended up with Station to Station instead of Lodger, which still seems like a more coherent triptych to me. I could hear this was something very special indeed, and I wondered at how it must have sounded even fresher and more startling ten years earlier.

Over the years, I kept delving back and back, into the hazardous terrain before 1976, and finding more gems – Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie didn’t give you songs to sing in the shower. He had a fair few hit singles, but he was really an albums man. With each new LP he seemed to be announcing a rebirth (one of the reasons his death feels so shocking is that it comes just two days after his latest “renaissance”, with Blackstar) as well as telling us something new about ourselves. With Bowie LPs, you felt you were buying into a piece of art, a slice of culture, a style and a story, even if it was, at the end of the day, just a bunch of songs with a bloke from south London posing on the cover in a ridiculous costume. And that’s a very British thing – that mixing of art, high camp and blokeishness. Bowie didn’t take himself too seriously while taking his work very seriously indeed. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

I never learned to like Space Oddity and I’m too much of a product of the early synth music and pub rock of my time to rate myself as a “proper” Bowie fan. But as a cultural icon of late 20th century Britain, he is second to none. We won’t see his like again.

Fly-tipping on Sixth Avenue, Manor Park, London, 2015.

Private affluence, public squalor

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I went to a school reunion. The next morning, with a couple of hours to kill and a hangover to walk off, I drove over to my old school and retraced the two-mile walk home I used to make every day. The grounds of the school, a former comprehensive now rebranded as an “academy”, adjoined two small lakes (ponds really – everything looks smaller once you’re grown up), a stream and some small open fields, all of which were maintained by the local council as a public space. Although technically “out of bounds”, this was where we spent most of our lunchtimes.

The school is now entirely fenced off, so I suppose today’s kids no longer enjoy the stream jumping, goose-baiting and illicit smoking we did. From what I could see, the school looked run-down and the grounds poorly maintained. But what really struck me was the state of the surrounding public space.

The “motorway field” (so called because it backed onto the M3), where we used to play football when the school’s pitches were all in use, is now completely overgrown, an ugly wilderness of gorse, stunted bushes and dumped rubbish (including two huge tractor tyres, miles from the nearest farm). The lakes and stream, once a lovely place for kids to play and local people to walk their dogs, is in a poor state. There was no sign of the swans, or the flocks of (non-migrating) geese who used to make eating a packet of crisps an occasionally hazardous activity, and only a handful of ducks. Much of the stream is silted up. There were always some litter and fag ends lying about (usually ours) but this was of a different order: bags of domestic and commercial waste and lots of broken furniture. The path down to the motorway footbridge looks like it has been abandoned by the council, full of potholes and with the banks all overgrown and strewn with rubbish. There was an unpleasant smell of fetid water. The bridge itself looked so uncared for I didn’t feel entirely safe crossing it.

In the space of about an hour walking about on a Sunday morning, the only living souls I saw were four boys, dressed in 70s retro sports gear, hurtling over the motorway bridge on Chopper-style bikes. They might have been our ghosts.

The whole area around the school felt unloved and neglected, left behind and somehow betrayed, like, I suppose, the hopes that kind of comprehensive school represented. As I walked on towards my Mum’s house, the contrast between the well-tended front gardens of the houses and the run-down public spaces was striking. One thing you could always say for our eternally-Tory Surrey Heath council was that they took great pride in their civic and public spaces. They couldn’t stop kids from graffiti-ing on the motorway bridge, but they kept the pavements even, the grass cut and the flower beds weeded. Now, after budget cuts of around 30% during the last parliament, even Surrey Heath are skint. And, if squalor is spreading to Michael Gove’s manor how much worse is it going to be everywhere else?

Builder's waste and other rubbish dumped on School Road, Newham, in December 2014.

Builder’s waste and other rubbish dumped outside a primary school in Newham, December 2014. © Craig Ryan 2014.

Suddenly, I started to see this public squalor everywhere. In Newham in east London, where I live now, the cash-strapped council can no longer cope with fly-tipping. We’ve got used to having stuff dumped on our street, but whereas it used to be extra rubbish bags people couldn’t fit in their bins and the odd bit of old furniture, now we get commercial and building waste, vanloads of bric-a-brac and endless old mattresses (sometimes with helpful notes from the fly-tippers warning about bugs). It often hangs around for days rather than hours.

You can see it on the verges of the A13 running east out of London, where piles of refuse often encroach down onto the carriageway and you have to keep swerving to avoid full bin bags, broken cinder blocks or pieces of four-by-two. Recently, I saw an entire bathroom suite complete with toilet cistern and bowl (seat left up) on the hard shoulder, just inches from the carriageway. A week later, it was still there (seat down).

In the small park next to my office you can see it in the spreading bare patches, the unkempt grass and the broken fencing. The clapped-out kids’ playground is finally to be replaced – but only because parents (in affluent Wanstead) managed to raise the money themselves.

This is not just about aesthetics; this is the visible surface, the skin, of our public life. Councils, particularly in wealthy areas like Wanstead and Surrey, tended to give priority to these things because voters noticed them. Now they just can’t afford to. The Conservative-controlled Local Government Association estimates that local council budgets have been cut by 40% since 2010, with further big cuts to come following George Osborne’s calamitous Autumn Statement in November.

There’s no honesty here from government ministers. Cuts are announced as mere numbers, not, as they should be, as a list of services that will no longer be provided. I can’t tell you what the effect will be, because for the most part ministers won’t tell us. They probably don’t even know themselves.

But it beggars belief that cuts on this scale can be made without making life worse. And if you look around, you will probably see the first evidence for yourself. Are ministers really saying that the public servants who are losing their jobs were doing nothing before? Really? I don’t believe them. Behind the grimy windows of those council offices, and outposts of the civil service like the CPS and Inland Revenue, people were doing the real work of democracy – making Britain a civilised place to live. The idea that the private sector will somehow step up to the plate and fill that void is delusional.

The cuts in the last parliament are only just beginning to bite. There are far more, far deeper cuts to come. What you see on the streets is only the tip of the rubbish heap.