Daily Archives: 7 October 2008

Film poll results – and an idea (DVD swapping?)

Thanks to everyone who voted to advise me of what film I should watch. The results were as follows:

[poll id=”4″]

I already own copies of Apocalypse Now and Chinatown so I will ensure they both get viewed very soon. There is a seperate issue about whether I should watch the Redux version of the former (has come highly recommended but I’m still sore about the fact that it was released a month after I bought the original version on DVD).

Joe Otten suggested that I take out a LoveFilm subscription instead of buying DVDs. My problem with that is that I often go weeks without watching a film on DVD at all and I’m not convinced these subscription services suit me. But it did remind me of an idea I had a couple of months ago that I keep meaning to explore further: that of organising a DVD swap shop.

The rules would be simple.

1. Go to pub with shopping bag full of DVDs that I have no intention of ever watching again.
2. Meet other people with shopping bags full of DVDs that they have no intention of ever watching again.
3. Swap DVDs – no money may exchange hands (as it is no fun and possibly taxable, etc.) although bartering with drinks and pub snacks may be acceptable.
4. Get pissed with fellow swappers. Much merriment to be had by all.

Is this a goer? Would anyone reading this be up for a London event like this? Or would people just end up trying to swap all their rubbish films for good stuff and the whole thing would fall down pretty quickly. Would it be simpler all round just to skip to 4 and be done with it?

I don’t know. Any thoughts?

Why class still matters

There have been a series of articles in the Guardian over the past week that have made it clear that class is still a very real issue and demands a Liberal Democrat response.

First, John Harris wrote about the impact of right to buy on Tuesday. Then, Felicity Lawrence wrote about the politics behind Jamie Oliver’s new Ministry of Food. Finally, today Jon Henley wrote about smoking, and how people on low incomes remain resistant to attempts to persuade people to kick the habit. It strikes me all these issues are linked.

Taking John Harris first, I don’t share this romantic vision of sprawling 1960s era housing estates draining the coffers of local government (“when I were a lad, this were all sprawling council estate”), but I well recognise the problems of landlordism (*ahem*). What is interesting about Harris’ article is his description of how the positive side of right to buy that was very clear in the mid-90s – where, as he said, you could tell which houses where privately owned and which were council run simply by looking at which ones had the hanging baskets or had been painted relatively recently – has given way to a culture of buy to rent. The nice homes have been sold, their occupants have moved either abroad or to the country, and their homes are being filled with economic migrants. Local people aren’t getting a look in and with no new council houses being built they have extremely limited options. As we have seen in Dagenham, this is fertile ground on which the BNP can build their lies and half-truths.

In student areas, such as Headingley in Leeds where I used to work and Fallowfield in Manchester where I lived as a student, the result has not been ethnic ghettos (although there are plenty of those in Leeds and Manchester) but student ghettos. What these areas have in common is that the toxic mix of right-to-buy and buy-to-let has atomised – or more accurately stratified – local communities. Our cities have curdled like milk, with the rich clumping together in gated communities. Council housing won’t solve that problem by itself (indeed it pre-existed council housing, albeit not to this extreme), because the problem with that is rooted in our exaggerated land values which we allow people to speculate on not because of who owns the property.

Buying back properties owned solely for investment purposes and building on land with inflated values is a very expensive way of levelling the playing field, but with no senior politician prepared to look seriously at taxing land values (nice to see Polly Toynbee on board with that particular issue), it may be the only thing we can do. Meanwhile the cost of housing will continue to price our own workforce out of a job and favour economic migrants willing to spend a couple of years sleeping on floors in the UK in order to better their families’ lot. You can’t blame them, but there is little to be gained from expanding our own underclass.

Jamie Oliver’s programme dealt with fundamentally the same problem but from a different angle. Instead of housing, his concern is – not surprisingly – food. Oliver has an agenda to get Britain eating more healthily. In 2005 he set out to transform school dinners successfully (although it should be pointed out that Lib-Lab controlled Scotland was way ahead of him), although this in turn lead to a backlash. That backlash lead him to ringleader Julie Critchlow and the town she lives in – Rotherham.

In order to get Rotherham eating more healthily, Oliver’s plan is simple – teach eight “can’t cook, won’t cook” local residents the basics of cooking but on the strict understanding that they will undertake to pass the recipes they learn on to two of their friends, who are then to pass the recipes on to another two and so on, until the whole of Rotherham is cooking. If that sounds like a nice idea in theory that doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of succeeding, on the basis of the first programme you are correct. By the end of the first episode (I’m blogging instead of watching part two), even the most enthusiastic of his eight trainees are flagging.

Oliver’s mistake is hardly unique. It is the problem common to anyone who is convinced that policy makers need only concern themselves with equality of opportunity and “meritocracy” as opposed to outcomes. The theory goes that if you give people the right training and opportunities, they will run with it – unless they are lazy and feckless and not worth bothering with. At several points in the programme, you can see Oliver wrestle with that idea. To his credit, he is prepared to try to understand, but watching him listen to explain why, at the end of a long day at work, they lack the energy to leap in the kitchen and rustle up a meal, you can see it really grates against his whole outlook on life. Thatcher has a lot to answer for.

As is the nature of such “reality” television programmes, they have cherry-picked some pretty extreme examples of individuals who can’t cook, including an unemployed mother of two who feeds her kids kebabs on the floor every evening and has never so much as boiled an egg in her life despite having a fitted kitchen. What is clear though is that the problem is more than simply educational; as Oliver acknowledges but perhaps does not internalise, the problem is actually cultural and deeply ingrained. That won’t be solved by a few cooking lessons.

It isn’t to say his initiative is a wasted exercise (although if he really does want to get millions of people cooking he should probably consider producing a 99p version of his £25 book), just that it can only scratch the surface.

This is reinforced by Jon Henley’s article. Independently, I drew remarkably similar conclusions to Darrell G on Moments of Clarity. We appear to have come up with an anti-smoking policy that has proven to be remarkably effective at stopping you smoking – so long has you happen to be well educated, well housed and on a good income. If you are from a lower socio-economic background all it appears to be doing is eating up a bigger slice of your income and leaving you even more addicted. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

“One of the things that means, says Jarvis, “is that if you’re a poor smoker you’re going to want to maximise the ‘hit’ you get from each cigarette, because it represents a larger chunk of your income. The amount of nicotine you can get from each cigarette is very elastic; it depends how hard you puff, how deeply you inhale, how much of the cigarette you smoke.” Across all age groups, and even if they smoke the same number of cigarettes, poorer smokers take in markedly more nicotine that wealthier ones. “Smokers in lower socio-economic groups,” says Jarvis, “are addicted to a higher hit. Their nicotine addiction is stronger.

I have to admit, that gave me a “what the fuck are we doing?” moment. Sheesh – maybe John Reid was right. Unlike Jon Henley, I’m less than sanguine about the progress we’ve made in reducing smoking because it seems to have increased inequality. This is skirting dangerously close to Morlock / Eloi territory.

But it is also silly to say that we should never have made smoking a public health issue and settled for a less healthy but more “equal” society. And the theory advanced by some libertarians that any political party that became pro-smoking would instantly become massively popular is pie in the sky as well and not backed up by any evidence. It isn’t that poor people want to smoke; its that they live tough lives that make them prone to dependency. It is the same underlying problem that Jamie Oliver identifies. It’s about quality of life, but fundamentally it is about economics.

Most studies I’ve seen suggest that social mobility is now going in reverse after a half-century of progress. If that is the case, and our society is becoming rigidly stratified once again, then despite the “classless society” platitudes of the 1990s, it is time we started talking about class. In this respect, I pay credit to Nick Clegg for forcing the agenda on the pupil premium. We need more of that sort of approach.

Just call me Mr Rigsby

It’s been an eventful week for me. Last Sunday I was still officially a lucky escaper of the credit crunch. The lucky co-owner of an unwanted, brand spanking new flat (notice how I have reverted to “flat” – as opposed to apartment – as the credit crunch has set in), we were all set to sell the thing to some bloke. We weren’t likely to make any money (oh how naive I was back in April), but we weren’t likely to lose anything (well, very much) either and wanted to sell up as quickly as possible so we could afford a mortgage on a property more fitting with our needs. I was itching for the day I could use this title for a blog post: “and with one leap he was free.”

Except the bloke we were at the closing stages of selling to clearly got a better offer because he turned around to our estate agent on Monday and demanded we knock ten grand off the asking price. Since that would have rendered the whole exercise pointless (we only bought the thing because we had a fifteen grand deposit on it), we pulled out and went back to Plan B – specifically rent the thing out and sell up when the market (hopefully) recovers in a couple of years. One eager beaver letting agent later and our new tenant is to move in next Monday – hence the scrabbling around this weekend sorting out furniture, white goods and curtains so the place is at least liveable in.

I’ve become the thing (other than middle-class wanker obsessed with the value of his property portfolio) I least wanted to be in life – an absentee landlord (it’s deeply ironic that, having spent years in LDYS campaigning for a tenancy protection scheme, I end up discovering we now have one in law by having to use it as a landlord myself). Our new tenant earns more than me for fuck’s sake. What’s worse, I’m not even likely to be making any money out of it (although Uncle Vince may help there). Aside from the significant money we’ve just spent equipping the place, we will essentially be a grand down a year. In essence, we are gambling on the value going up faster than that by the time we sell and we are more or less stuck where we are currently living until that happens. Suddenly the credit crunch feels very real. It looks like its going to end up being SO bad we might actually meet our Kyoto targets. Sheesh.

But still, joking aside, as members of the middle class we can cope. We have parents and support networks. Galling though it all is, it hardly ranks higher than inconvenient. We aren’t going to end up starving. For a lot more people it is going to be much more brutal. That debate last month about tax cuts now seems appallingly anachronistic.