How self-centred are you?

I came out of a shop with a meat and potato pie, a large chips and mushy peas.

A poor homeless man said, “I’ve not eaten for two days.”

I told him, “I wish I had your will power.”

Ray E.

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Grenfell Tower, sprinkler systems and decision-making

71 people died here, June 2017

71 people could have been saved with a sprinkler system






Tower block living is problematical whether it’s social or private. The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy was a massive wake-up call for everyone associated with tower blocks either as residents or managers. The proposal to retro-fit sprinkler systems of fire control in all tower blocks over ten stories high isn’t the easy decision that it’s made out to be.

Seen from a tenant’s point of view there is little doubt that such measures are both required and essential. Sprinklers keep residents safe from the entirely avoidable fate of the 71 people burnt to death in at Greenfell. However it’s not as straight-forward as it appears.

First, in the case of my tower block ownership is contestable. (This is a bit technical but is essential to the discussion.) Is the block Local Authority owned, Association owned, or delegated as a reported TMO (Tenant Management Association), which is more properly titled an ALMO (Arms Length Management Organisation)? Grenfell was an ALMO run by Kensington and Chelsea. Each landlord takes a different view as to the need for expensive retro-fitting of safety features. Decisions depend on the politics of the Local Authority. Usually right-wing property-owners are reluctant to take a ‘hit’ by paying for safety measures. If a property is owned by a Council motivated by a desire to ‘control’ expenditure safety measures are often not done. A major safety issue could be relegated to being a budget matter.

Even doing a retro-fit of a sprinkler system is challenging. Retro-fitting sprinklers can easily breach existing fire wall protection and disturb asbestos. In brief they may cause health and safety issues, whilst undertaking the installation of the fire sprinkler pipe work. Councils need to ensure that contractors comply with up-to-date building regulations. There are other considerations given that sprinklers create a ‘dead leg’ water filled pipe at the head of the sprinkler and Legionella bacteria might develop.

Properties have been sold off to leaseholders, which causes further ownership complications. Councils have to issue section twenty notifications so that they can recoup retro-fitting expenses. Social tenants have their retro-fitting paid by the Housing Revenue Account as it is a landlord function. Few authorities can subsidise leaseholders who are too poor to pay for the safety measures. These people are charged and must pay by instalments. Many pensioners were effectively bribed by the Thatcher Government to buy their home little imagining that they could have a bill for thousands of pounds years later to have a safe residence.

It is evident that the Conservative Government’s attitude towards Local Authorities means requests for financial support aren’t going to be met. Several Authorities have applied and been refused help. The safety of social tenants housing isn’t a high priority for additional funding for Theresa May’s government. Grenfell Tower wasn’t a unique tragedy, it was just uniquely horrible. There is a reluctance to accept that the original tower blocks were badly designed and that retro-fitting safety measures is essential even if very expensive. Seven years of ‘Austerity’ has left Councils unable to meet their responsibilities. Therefore the government must step up and pay the bill.


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Book review: Timur Vermes ~ Look Who’s Back (Translated by Jamie Bulloch)

A satire about Adolf Hitler, by a German, breaks new ground. Vermes brings Hitler back to 21st century Germany, as though the previous 70 years had never happened. Hitler retains his oratorical abilities. His rhetoric makes him an attractive showbiz personality. From which he develops a ‘new’ political career making use of all the old tropes with adjustments for new circumstances like having a large Turkish population in Berlin.

Vermes’s Hitler exploits the vacuity of TV and YouTube. Hitler stars on both with his ‘Hitler act’, which is so retro that it wows a jaded audience. The modern German public  uncritically accepts whatever is put before them. They relish his catchy phrases and certainties. The same ones that propelled his career in the 1920s and 30s. Hitler’s rhetoric is seen as ‘performance’. His political programme is sucked in as if by osmosis because it’s fun. Insidiously Hitler’s coherence attracts modern Germans who embrace his simplicities in exactly the same way their great grand-parents did 90 years ago. Germany finds itself in the throes of a reborn Nazi political programme because modern media has made them uncritical consumers.

The shallowness of the German public is mirrored in German politics. Hitler’s popularity doesn’t go unnoticed by the principal party’s and he’s courted by mainstream politicians. Vermes’s satire is unrelenting and successful.

Why you should read this book: A German satire about Hitler and modern Germany is unprecedented and deserves to be read.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: You think it’s impossible it could happen here

Buy it here 2nd hand for 1p (+pp)


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Mechanical Winkle

The wiggley bit would normally fit
On the thread, by the cog, in the doings,
But, to get to the part, is a dexterous art,
And first you must really do, two things –
Take the silver pin ratchet, and twist it a crotchet,
Till the lid and the opening meet –
Then squeeze both the sockets,
Until the saving post pockets shows the gubbins,
You set out, to seek.
And before the blunt toggle slips down in the hollow,
Grab the spigot that leans to the right –
Push down on that lever like a mad butcher’s cleaver –
The toggle might seem a bit tight –
Once its free, then you’ll see –
The key to your struggles –
Laid on its back on an old wooden rack,
Don’t let the oil get cold, or soon you’ll be told –
“Give it up, it might spoil, for all of your toil –
Best give it up, and just – put it back”.


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Kevin Spacey isn’t as pure as driven snow: So what?

In November 2017 Kevin Spacey has been accused of low level sexual predation* in London and the USA. He doesn’t appear to be denying the offences and he’s suffered enormous reputational and financial damage. His masterly series House of Cards has been cancelled, one film has air-brushed him and a further film has been pulled. He’s the latest example flowing from the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other prominent people. Spacey exploited his position for sexual gratification. So far, so moral high ground, but it all feels a bit hysterical, a bit Salem Witches.

Spacey’s been a Hollywood star for a very long time and latterly was artistic director at London’s Old Vic theatre. He’s won two Oscars and is a ‘bankable’ actor. The Netflix TV series House of Cards, 2013-7, saw Spacey as a Machiavellian politician whose principal skill is the amoral use of power. As Francis Underwood Spacey became President through characteristic devious and ruthless ways. His chief of staff, Doug Stamper, (Michael Kelly) shared Underwood’s methods and was a consigliere in the manner of The Godfather’s Tom Hagan.

House of Cards includes scenes which are controversial. Underwood (Spacey) kissing his bodyguard Meecham (Nathan Darrow) in the presence of his wife Claire (Robin Wright) is astonishing given recent revelations. His cordial acquiescence of Claire’s affair with Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) further pushes the boundaries of Underwood’s sexuality. Underwood is a moral cesspit committing crimes himself- including murder- and manipulating others to commit crimes. He uses and abuses power. In one famous sex scene he says, “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Spacey brought authenticity to the role of Underwood making House of Cards a commercial and critical success.

Underwood is a fictional character and Spacey isn’t. It’s a category error to conflate Underwood and Spacey as though they live in the same moral space. The House of Cards is compelling because it’s plausible. Currently, November 2017, the British Houses of Parliament are convulsed with accusations of what is coyly called ‘inappropriate’ behaviour. Resignations from high office have occurred. And there may be more

Spacey isn’t as pure as driven snow but should he be? The accusations place him as a low level sexual predator. Men have been groped but there hasn’t been any police action. Incidents took place both on set and back stage so there must have been witnesses and gossip at the very least. Nor have there been resignations or pay-offs.

Netflix’s decision to cancel House of Cards, series 6, is entirely commercial. The film All the money in the world is to be re-edited without Spacey. That Spacey can be replaced at a moments notice after a film has been finished illustrates the fragile nature of film careers. The sleazy metaphor ‘casting couch’ is a metaphor precisely because it summarises alleged common practise in the film industry. In a competitive profession people who are driven by feelings of entitlement, fame, wealth and insecurity may be tempted into a Faustian Pact. Everyone understands power in the film industry and acts accordingly.

The contrast with Roman Polanski is marked. Polanski is a fugitive from US justice following his conviction for the rape of a child. He now can’t enter the USA but the Academy Awards committee have nominated him three times for Oscars and voted him a winner in 2002. Commercial and critical success have trumped moral considerations in Polanski’s case.

Using Polanski as a benchmark Spacey appears to be at the wrong end of over-blown moral outrage. He may well be sleazy and challenging to work with but the price of genius is that his workplace should adjust to him and neutralise his overt behaviour. Perhaps he should exile himself to Europe to rebuild and retrench.

*Further revelations may emerge but this is true at the time of writing.


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P G Wodehouse: Jill the Reckless

“She had never yet been frightened of any man, but there was something reptilian about this fat, yellow- headed individual which, disgusted her, much as cockroaches had done in her childhood.”


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David Cameron, the Franchise and Human Rights

…the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the current ban on all serving prisoners from voting, as defined in the 1983 Act, contravenes Article 3 of Protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides that signatory states should “hold free elections… under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people”. 2005

“David Cameron has made clear that prisoners will not get the vote as long as he is Prime Minister. Nothing is going to change. He has made clear that the idea of them getting the vote makes him physically sick.*” 2015

David Cameron was British Prime Minister, 2010-2016, and his biases concerning the franchise matter rather a lot. He believed, rightly, that he could veto the judgement of the European Convention on Human Rights by stalling. The European Convention’s judgement that the loss of the franchise was an additional, gratuitous, punishment for the incarcerated, was an anathema to Cameron. He believed the franchise is conditional, which is rightly withdrawn when criminals are convicted. David Cameron’s response to this judgement stripped away his urbane veneer. He emerged as a reactionary.

Several million disenfranchised men fought in the first world war. They were either too young or too poor to vote**. The offensiveness of disenfranchised citizens dying for their country wasn’t lost on MPs. MPs serving in 1918 knew that in the Ancient World slaves who fought for ‘their’ country were rewarded with freedom***. The Representation of the People Act 1918 introduced universal franchise for men over 21 years old. Property and gender, two of the three barriers to the franchise, were deleted as eligibility criteria. Women were enfranchised but reactionary habits lived on. Enfranchised women had to be nine years older than men to exercise their right to vote****.

Cormac Behan’s article for The Howard League offers a brilliant analysis of the principal issues underpinning the vexed question of incarcerated citizens voting (see addendum). There are perfectly respectable arguments on both sides but Cameron used an emotional trigger to help ‘win the argument’. The case of John Hirst*****, who was serving life, encapsulated his visceral opposition. Bar-room commentators might well have said ‘The world’s gone mad’ or something like that when the European Court of Human Rights over-turned British courts and enfranchised Hirst. They weren’t in a position to stall parliament, unlike Cameron. Off-the-cuff, ill-informed biases by people who aren’t Prime Minister are perfectly reasonable. What isn’t reasonable is a Prime Minister making uninformed judgements and acting on them.

Cameron’s biases do matter as they reveal an emotional response to a sophisticated legal issue. They also guided his Cabinet appointments such as Theresa May as Home Secretary, 2010-6. She had control over immigration, the police, prisons and all security matters and displayed very similar biases to Cameron. In general, her record was abysmal. May was Cameron’s choice because she understood his political red lines, because she too is a reactionary.

May made an infamous speech about a failed deportation event which was aimed at the prejudices of The Conservative Party Conference, 2011. In that speech she theatrically claimed an illegal immigrant couldn’t be deported because, “…and I am not making this up- he had a pet cat.” But she was making it up*******. She was misleading (lying to?) the conference in order to undermine the Human Rights Act and bolster Cameron’s reactionary biases. This was her first foray promoting right-wing extremist opposition to immigrants and Human Rights legislation. There have been many examples of her ‘tightening’ Home Office control of refugees and asylum seekers, some of which pushed the edges of legality. She deliberately created a climate of hostility and fear, which has extended to legally established EU workers, workers who’ve exercised their right to Freedom of Movement. Her 2011 speech was a naked attack on the notion that state power should be subject to legal scrutiny.

Cameron spoke with raw emotion and May deliberately misled so as to corrode support for Human Rights. In the 2017 General Election, as Prime Minister, she said that she would ‘tear up’ the Human Rights Act. Neither Cameron nor May weigh evidence or consider anything beyond narrow political advantage. They’re both extremists attempting to promote the state above the citizen.

Pros and Cons of the disenfranchisement of criminals

For disenfranchisement

Civil death should be part of punishment
Prisoners have broken the social contract and voluntarily put themselves outside the social order
To preserve the purity of the ballot box
Prisoners will vote collectively to change laws in their favour
Majority of people against allowing prisoners vote
Government has an obligation to those who obey laws to punish those who break laws
To disallow those who have broken laws to engage in the political process shows how much respect society has for laws
Powerful moral symbol from society that the prisoner’s behaviour is unacceptable
Punishment can be used to form character
It will act as a deterrent
Expressive punishment and moral condemnation
Disenfranchisement is exclusionary

Against disenfranchisement

Civil death is out-dated
Social contract cannot be negotiated away
Undermines the democratic polity by denying the vote to a section of the population
Prisoners should not be debarred from the electoral process because of their voting preferences
Elected should not be allowed to decide the electorate
Allowing prisoners to vote will encourage respect for laws
Prisoners will be less inclined to obey laws that they have had no role in deciding upon
Symbolic statement to the prisoner that they are acceptable
Allowing prisoners to vote will be a lesson in civic education
It is rehabilitative
Retribution should have no place in modern penalty
Enfranchisement is inclusionary

Source Behan, 2014: 23

* Cameron was Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016.


*** p92




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