Thursday, 3 September 2015

Members of the House of Lords are politicians - however you get them there

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A chap from You Gov wants a 'politican free House of Lords':

So the answer is clear: to make the House of Lords a politician-free zone. By all means keep the bishops, the former generals, scientists like Lord (Robert) Winston. But anyone who has stood for election, or worked in politics, should be automatically disqualified. The Lords should be chosen from leaders across all other walks of society – what is referred to in Westminster as ‘real life’ – with the express mandate of keeping the political class in check.

There are two problems with this idea. Firstly, Freddie Sayers should check the definition of politics (and therefore of politicians). Politics describes those circumstances where we require - or believe we require - a collectively agreed policy but have people advocating mutually exclusive options for that policy. It is the means by which we make that decision. So anyone involved in deciding between mutually exclusive policy options is, ipso facto, a politician. So those great and good drafted in under Freddie's scheme cease being lawyers, doctors, generals and vicars becoming in short order good old politicians.

The second problem is that we assume that members of the great and good are not attached in any way to any party political or ideological position. This is plainly nonsense for all that the great and good protest about this, laying claim to a grandness raising them above such petty distractions as party political discourse. After all, for all his eccentricity, Lord Winston sits as a Labour peer - I presume this indicates his adherence to that Party's essential ideology.

Just because you have followed some other course in life and (since this is the House of Lords) not bothered with such risky and time-consuming things like actually getting elected, doesn't mean you aren't a politician. Once you become engaged in the process of determining, administering or scrutinising public policy you become a politician - no different to those strange creatures who inhabit the House of Commons.

Finally, a comment on this part of Freddie's nutty idea:

Impossible though it may be for our MPs’ political brains to compute, a politician-free appointed chamber could actually be the most democratic solution.

Excuse me but precisely which part of being appointed to a political position by virtue of some panel of grandees constitutes democracy?

If you want a creative and different House of Lords - how about a lottery?

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How government makes disasters worse...

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Telling and pertinent article from Scott Beyer on the tenth anniversary of Katrina's destruction of New Orleans.

Theroux writes of how one company, wishing to rescue its employees via helicopter, had to finally ask Congressman Bobby Jindal, after finding nobody from FEMA, the FAA or the military to grant permission. Because of rules, non-profits like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were prevented by the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security from bringing aid, although roads were clear. And perhaps most infamously, people who tried to leave New Orleans by foot were pushed back by law enforcement, since neighboring municipalities didn’t want a barrage of evacuees. So for those hapless souls with flooded houses, the only option was to stay warehoused with 20,000 others in the Superdome, void of basic needs. It took a full week before everyone was evacuated from the stadium.

Everywhere government is more concerned with rules, order and control than with the simplest of humanitarian tasks. There's an assumption - we see this is responses to today's migrant challenges - that non-governmental responses, while well-meant, are essentially problematic unless they are at least directed and ideally commissioned by government.

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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

"Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one" - why the cultural elite doesn't get Terry Pratchett



I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary. 
Such is the basis for Guardian writer Jonathan Jones dismissing the entirety of Terry Pratchett's writing. For me this sums up the sheer ignorance of the self-appointed literary elite. It would seem that the sin Terry Pratchett committed was the sin of being accessible. Or as I would put it, actually readable.

The literary elite are conning you into trying to read those books they hold up as paragons of genius. Books like the witty but incredibly (and indulgently) overwritten Ulysses or the dull as ditchwater eighteenth and nineteenth century novels written by women - mostly about a world entirely foreign to us in which they describe the gossip, gold-digging and backbiting of fellow women in what might as well be a fairy tale environment for all that is relevant to today's reader.

These books are hard work. I've flicked through a few of them in shops and the prose is impenetrable, elaborate and complicated. Almost designed - in a showy way - to exclude anyone who prefers crunch, pace and intelligence. Us mere mortals who think the purpose of a novel is to take us into a story, release from the bounds of the mundane and, above all, entertain us. None of the novels pushed - in that ghastly English teacher manner - by the likes of Jonathan Jones achieves that aim. Instead - and let's use Jon's world since they will be so much better than mine - the novels are designed to exclude:

Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort. By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.

The real problem with Terry Pratchett isn't that he's a bad writer for he was far from that, but that he committed a terrible sin - one beyond writing prose that the average 13 year old boy could access. Terry Pratchett wrote fantasy. Just as that other - now dead - target of Jonathan Jones' dismissal, Ray Bradbury, wrote science fiction. This is, of course, entirely unforgivable if you want the cultural elite to consider you a serious writer. You see, dear reader, science fiction is just (using Jon's word again) "ordinary potboilers" not proper writing.

It is my considered view that Pratchett and Bradbury are far better writers than Jane Austen. Or, to put it another way, they wrote prose that works for today's reader, set in contexts that reflect today's society and which tell a story that works as a story but where there's a message if we want to take it. Austen's books are no doubt pertinent if you want to study the social mores of Georgian England's elite but that society is so far removed from ours that it might as well be fantasy. And a boring fantasy too.

The word 'genius' is overused - I'm sure that like many professional writers Terry Pratchett considered himself a craftsman storyteller rather than an artist but there's no doubt that, in the position he adopted, Pratchett was close to the greatest. Writing comedy is hard - you have to be light (which is why Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake fail despite their undoubted humour) while maintaining the integrity of the story. It's no surprise that very few of the authors feted by the likes of Jonathan Jones wrote comedy - such gentleness of spirit is beyond the ken of someone planning on literary genius rather than good storytelling.

I still consider that the story is lost in so much of our literary fiction. Too much sweat is expended on getting the wonderful prose - all those well-turned phrases spilled onto the page - meaning there's little left for the dull old job of creating the wonder, excitement and escape of a great story. It's as if Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams had lost sight of their plot in the urge to tell a few more jokes. I'm just like Jonathan Jones - there's an awful lot of books I haven't read and a good lot (mostly written in the genre often called 'literary fiction') that I have no intention of ever reading. I may continue to flick through some of them in shops though. Just so I can write about them with knowledge and understanding!

Reading is, for most people, a way to leave the everyday world behind for a while. For some people this is about exploring history or philosophy, for others the pleasure comes from the joy of fine prose or livid poetry, but for most - the 'middlebrow' as Jon dismissively describes them - the joy is in a well-crafted story, a dash of adventure, a splash of humour and an escape into another brighter and sharper place. To dismiss literature that does this last job so wonderfully - and Terry Pratchett definitely does this - as something other than genius is to display selectivity. The sort of arrogant ignorance only our self-appointed cultural elite can muster.

And, since Jonathan Jones doesn't like Ray Bradbury (it's not clear whether he flicked through Bradbury's books or has actually read one) let's finish with a quotation from what I think is his greatest book, The October Country:

“And what, you ask, does writing teach us?

First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.

So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.”

I'm sure Jonathan Jones will have flicked to that page?

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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

On moving home...


We moved house on Friday. And while is was, in some respects, pretty stressful and just a tad chaotic there are some things that it didn't involve. We didn't need need permission from any sort of public authority to make the move. It was our decision, we negotiated the sales and purchases and made appropriate arrangements to box up all our stuff and shift it to the new house. Arriving at our new place, we were greeted pleasantly (except for one person and in her defence I had parked in her spot), given helpful advice and generally made welcome in our new little community.

We moved because we thought that the home we had was too big, too expensive to run and that we rather wanted to have money to spend on nice stuff rather than gas or electricity bills (not to mention the ever escalating council tax). Others have more pressing reasons to move - civil war, rape, pillage, murder, destruction, destitution, the collapse of an economy. Quite a few just lift their head up from the despair of the life they're living and tell themselves that there's something, somewhere, better.

Right now we're screaming about 'migration'. It is a confused debate flipping from rampant xenophobia to demands that tens of thousands of refugees (or migrants or asylum seekers or whatever we're calling them this week) are allowed into the UK. And that's just the Labour leadership candidates. In the wider world we witness calls for "an Australian-style points system" - the latest panacea to the problem with those people who have very good reasons to move to somewhere else than the war zone or economic catastrophe where they live right now. Or else just endless repetition of the 'we're full' mantra that is too often just a convenient fig leaf for 'we don't want those coloured folk coming over here, we've too many all ready'.

This racism is what drives the ghastly reactions to reports of how London's population is a lot less white than it was in grandma's day (and I can say this because, unlike most white Londoners, my grandma really did live in London back in those days). Why exactly does this matter? How does being a darker skin tone somehow make someone less of a Londoner - or for that matter less of a Mancunian, Scouse or Geordie? Isn't it the case that being English isn't defined by skin colour but by living and contributing to the things that make England great?

If you peel back the skin of Britain's greatness, look under the bonnet of our nation, you'll quickly find that the contribution of people who left somewhere else to make a new life here - whether through flight or that maligned (and I think pretty wonderful) idea, "economic migration". I don't need to make a list, you know the names and the peoples - from Huguenots through Irish, Jews, Spaniards and Italians through to Indians, Jamaicans, Chinese and Ukranians. No-one can say honestly that these peoples haven't contributed to the wonderful nation that is Britain, the great country that is England and the brilliant cities of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Bradford.

Latterly those new Britons have come from new places - Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Romania and Latvia. Is there any reason - any reason at all - why these newcomers won't make the same positive contribution as the newcomers who've arrived here from across the world in the last thousand years? Yet our debate - right across the political spectrum - seems set on trying to paint today's immigrants as a problem, as unfitted to our society, as exploiters of our goodwill and as corrupters of our fine society.

I do feel we must mind about the impact of new arrivals on a place but this is just the same as the folk in Cullingworth worried that the big new housing development means in 'won't be a village any more'. It will still be a village, a little bigger but still recognisably the place it was. For that national picture we need to do the same - the arrivals add to our nation, to some degree change our nation meaning it isn't quite what it was, but their contribution still adds and make the sustaining of our civilisation possible. It matters that we teach them the history and culture of the place - those who oppose the teaching of English history and English literature merely demonstrate the social and cultural iconoclasm that is multiculturalism.

I moved home. It was a pain but I'm now delightfully settled in the new house. Why do we want to put so many barriers in the way of others who just want to do what I've just done - move home? I hear you saying it's not that same, that somehow moving from Asmara to Penge isn't the same as moving from Basingstoke to Bromley (or as we've just done from one side of Cullingworth to the other). But how exactly is it different except in those divisions we've erected, the borders, barriers and boundaries. And in our distrust of those strangers from across the world with their funny ways, strange food and odd clothes.

I moved home and am treated as a new friend. Too many others are moving - often for the most painful and cruel reasons - and are treated as a threat, a problem, even a curse. This is wrong and diminishes us as a civilised, decent society. We should stop it.

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Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Driverless vehicles make railways (and our fast cars) obsolete



Every time such things as the "Northern Powerhouse" are mentioned the punditry, politicians and media immediately start agitating for billions to be invested in railways. This is despite the fact that railways account for only 3% of journeys in the UK while over 80% of journeys take place on roads. I've always suspected this is something of a 'boys' toys' response - we were brought up with train sets, Thomas the Tank Engine and Ivor. We like railways.

Consider this then:

"By combining ride sharing with car sharing—particularly in a city such as New York—MIT research has shown that it would be possible to take every passenger to his or her destination at the time they need to be there, with 80 percent fewer cars."

Or:

"An OECD study modelling the use of self-driving cars in Lisbon found that shared “taxibots” could reduce the number of cars needed by 80-90%. Similarly, research by Dan Fagnant of the University of Utah, drawing on traffic data for Austin, Texas, found that an autonomous taxi with dynamic ride-sharing could replace ten private vehicles. This is consistent with the finding that one extra car in a car-sharing service typically takes 9-13 cars off the road. Self-driving vehicles could, in short, reduce urban vehicle numbers by as much as 90%."

No new trains, no trams, no trolley buses, no bus lanes - just the realisation that automated cars ('driverless' as we call them) represent the real future of mass transportation. Not only will this, combined with emissionless or very low emission engines, reduce the negative environmental impact of road transport but we'll also see a dramatic drop in road casualties.

The reality is that investment on rail transport is not going to achieve payback ahead of the driverless car revolution - those billions now promised in new rolling stock, new stations and new lines are not needed. Cities need to be investing in the infrastructure required for driverless cars and to start planning for a city that doesn't need large parts of its land set aside to parking cars. This could mean more urban green space, the release of urban centre land for new housing and increased capacity on existing highways.

A world where we don't drive other than in controlled environments like race tracks seems strange in a culture seemingly dominated by the car but this is the likeliest result of driverless vehicles. For most of us the car (however much we drool over Ferrari and Aston Martin) is a practical and prosaic thing used to get us about the place. A very expensive practical and prosaic thing too. A world with vastly fewer road accidents, where we have no need to own a large lump of metal and plastic that sits doing nothing most of the time, and where the air is cleaner and the city greener - this is the world we should prepare for now.

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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Sorry but smoking doesn't harm Gedling Council's reputation



Gedling Borough Council (it's in Nottinghamshire and Labour-controlled, since you ask) is proposing the further demonisation and stigmatising of its employees - the ones that smoke that is:

"Whilst at work, and so far as is reasonably practicable, employees who smoke in accordance with this policy should do so with their Gedling Borough Council uniform covered as not doing so may create a negative impression of the council when viewed by the public."

Since when did smoking give a negative impression of the Council? Since officious HR managers and self-righteous councillors started treating smokers like pariahs. Ever since the smoking ban in 2007 (and long before that in many councils) smokers have clustered round the doors, on windswept pavements and corners. I'm guessing this looks untidy to those officious managers and is accompanied by moans from other employees about smoking breaks (like those other workers don't use up Council time talking about their holidays, making tea or playing solitaire on the phone).

What this policy is about is the isolation of smokers - it is but a short step away from a man with a bell parading in front of them crying "unclean, unclean". No health purpose is served and it isn't about the Council's image - it's simply nannying fussbucketry, rules for the sake of rules. A much better approach would be to provide a shelter for staff that smoke perhaps with somewhere to sit away from the doorways where smokers currently clump. But that would be thoughtful and considerate - why would the Council want to treat smokers that way, they're smelly scum aren't they?
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Sunday, 23 August 2015

Authenticity and the British curry house - the case for immigrant chefs


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I am, as you all know, not particularly bothered by migration. If I wish to be free to travel where ever, I guess I should allow that same freedom for others. So what follows isn't about the immigration but rather an attempt to get under the existential angst of the British curry house. It seems they might be dying out:

It's often been said that Tikka Masala is the British national dish.

But it might not be for much longer, as figures show two curry houses are closing in Britain each week due to a shortage of chefs.

This crisis is due in part to the retirement of the original wave of immigrants in the 1970s who set up curry houses.

The problem is that the children of South Asian immigrants - perhaps especially the children of those running the takeaways and curry restaurants - really have little interest in working very long hours serving cheap curries to often ungrateful (indeed regularly drunk) customers. They've watched as the older generation worked itself into an early grave, putting up with racism, ignorance and aggression so as to make a half decent living.

The same story went for the traditional (if that's the right word) Chinese takeaway - every town had one but the sons and daughters of the Hong Kong immigrants were just as uninterested in working a 60 hours week of late nights as the sons and daughters of Bangladeshi or Pakistani curry house proprietors. The way in which the business - along with a new generation of Chinese food sellers - has been sustained has been through immigration.

And this is precisely how the Bangladesh Caterers Association frame the problem - they can't recruit people to train here in the UK so need to go to Bangladesh to find the chefs needed to keep the restaurants and takeaways going. All this is happening in a fast food and restaurant market that is changing rapidly - not just with the success of new franchise chains like Nandos but with a new bunch of immigrants from the middle east, from Poland, from Africa and from Southern Europe. Where curry and Chinese had the world to themselves they now compete with Kurds running cafes, polish takeaways and Moroccan/Spanish fusion. Add in Vietnamese, Korean and Greek and there's a real pressure on those existing takeaways and curry houses.

Regardless of the immigration question (and I'd let the chefs in), it strikes me that relying on a stream of new chefs from the other side of the world isn't the most sustainable business model - the Bangladesh Caterers Association might be right about the difficulties in recruiting and training curry chefs here in the UK but this could say more about the job and the conditions than it does about the supply of potential chefs. Indeed, while I'm sure that the mainstream catering business has a good number of immigrant chefs, it's still the case that plenty of British-born people enter into the cheffing business. A business model based on selling cheap takeaway food will struggle where there's upward pressure on wages.

The truth is that, given the proliferation of other takeaways and cheap restaurants (not to mention the street food explosion), there perhaps needs to be a shakeout in the curry house business. The best probably have little to worry about but if a third of the UK's 12,000 or so curry houses closed would it really be a cultural disaster? I can't speak for anywhere other than Bradford but my observation is that, while the 'curry after a night on the lash' market is still there it's far less important than a more regular market including an important market for family dining. And this changes the sort of restaurants - we're less keen on tatty flock wallpaper and cheap photos of the Taj Mahal preferring places that meet the clean, sharp and smart image of other restaurants. But one thing we still demand is authenticity.

Staffing has always been a dilemma for restaurants offering culturally-specific cuisine. It's not that only a Bangladeshi can cook a biryani but that the customer is looking for authenticity - eating a curry cooked by a Polish woman and served by a Latvian waiter feels wrong even if the food is great. And this means that, if we want our rogan josh served by a slightly surly young Asian and our pasta carbonara from a tight-trousered Italian holding an outsized pepper pot, we have a allow people to come to Britain to meet this need (given we know that there aren't enough British-born Asians or Italians to satisfy our demand for authenticity).

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