There, beneath the Blue Surburban Skies

Penny Lane ImageIsn’t it strange how sometimes the ordinary inspires the extraordinary?
I was struck by this on a recent trip to Liverpool where we took an open top bus tour of the city. It started amid the scale of the iconic riverfront, one of the greatest urban vistas in the UK, with the towering grandeur of the Cunard building, looking out across the huge dark tidal width of the Mersey.
But this was a Beatles tour and it soon wound its way out of the grandeur of the city to the unspectacular neighbourhoods that provided the formative experiences of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
There was John’s Aunt Mimi’s anonymous, but well preserved thanks to the National Trust, semi-detached complete with blue plaque. The Art College and Liverpool Institute where John and Paul underwent what passed for a formal education, the cemetery where Father McKenzie may have wiped the dirt from his hands and the graffitied iron gates to Strawberry Field.
When John sings ‘nothing to get hung about’ in Strawberry Fields Forever he’s repeating a dire warning from Aunt Mimi that anyone caught playing in the grounds of the children’s home would face severe consequences.
When Paul sings about dragging a comb across his hair and making the bus in seconds flat in A Day in the Life he’s remembering the morning rush to catch the number 86 to school from the stop outside his house.
In Penny Lane itself you can still see what would have been the barber shop and the bank along with the shelter in the middle of the roundabout where the pretty nurse sold poppies in a tray.
This slice of suburbia gave birth to songs known across the globe. But these weren’t places that you might expect would forge world-changing art. There is no obvious conflict or drama, this is the epitome of safe and unspectacular.
The suburbs that were home to The Beatles were largely comfortable, and unremarkable. It was a world of bus stops, parks and church fetes, of quiet post war working class aspiration and eventual disappointment.
The Beatles left Liverpool behind and became worldwide superstars, but the memory of these ordinary places under blue suburban skies helped them produce some of their greatest work.

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The psychodrama continues…reflections from #CPC18

party conference shotOpportunity. The word was everywhere at Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week.

The ‘O word’ was all over the main stage, flashed up on digital screens next to walkways and emblazoned on a huge banner attached to the front of Birmingham’s ICC.

It was a strange choice of slogan. By itself the word just looked a bit odd, deserving of a bit more context or explanation. Opportunity for what exactly?

On Tuesday conference turned into an Opportunity. A career Opportunity for a former Mayor of London to restate his leadership credentials.

It has been said before, but a strange kind of madness grips this party at the moment. Hundreds queued to see the Blonde Bounder while excited journalists hovered excitedly with cameras and microphones conducting endless vox pops.

And the queue they interviewed was pretty diverse. Legions of fresh-faced young men in blue suits and open necked shirts, bored looking Sloane rangers and a scattering of proudly politically incorrect retired colonels – some wheelchair bound – could all be found waiting to get into Hall One.

Poor David Gauke, talking about Law and Order to a rapidly emptying main hall nearby. Crime and punishment should be natural Tory domestic policy territory but Brexit and Boris sucks up all the energy and most of the policy thought.

As one delegate told me: ‘Labour’s ideas are bonkers, but at least they’ve got some.”

Around 1pm I heard Boris arrive. Or to be more precise I heard the sound of the stampeding pack of lobby hacks shouting the former Foreign Secretary’s name as he bundled his way into Hall One.

The annual conference of the natural party of government turned to farce by one man and a fringe appearance. Boris had seized his opportunity.  The psychodrama continues.

Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted to Love…Island

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Like most addictions, it started harmlessly enough. A spot of toothache leaving me in need of escapism I found myself sitting in front of ITV 2’s structured reality hit Love Island last week.

A promise to myself only to watch only the one night and switch to BBC 4 disappeared like a playboy Adam’s midnight promise and I found myself addicted to my 9pm to 10pm appointment to view.

If you haven’t seen it, Love Island is the intellectual equivalent of a warm bath. Strangely beautiful people, some of whom without a great deal upstairs, not doing much at all apart from ‘cracking on’ with each other. It is utterly, utterly futile but entertaining all the same.

One night I found myself helpless with laughter as the couples completed a challenge which involved building a tent blindfolded, swapping clothes under a sleeping bag and then eating giant hotdogs. At times it looked like a Nietzschean version of It’s A Knockout.

The funniest thing was that there was no obvious point to this, no prize, no reward by ways of progression in the game. It was just a way of generating enough content to fill the gaps between commercial breaks.

And if you want an example of ‘cross-platform’ marketing look no further. Literally everything the islanders wear or use is advertised, everything from the bikinis they wear to the waterbottles they drink from is available for sale via a smartphone app. This is the Truman Show by the sea.

Although it’s a programme very much about sex – suggested and hinted at but never seen – it also has a strangely innocent, playground quality. The boys and girls gather like children to talk each other in corners of the villa. Couple often go on ‘dates’ which appear to involve little more than a glass of warm Prosecco in the villa’s car park. A kiss is seen as a major commitment, as Jack astutely uttered through his impossibly white teeth the other day – a kiss on the island is ‘like a shag’ in the outside world.

The voice over adds to this post-modern, everything is rubbish really, fun. For example, relishing the irony of contestants accusing each other of playing games on a reality TV contest which offers a prize of £50,000 or joking that instead of gossiping about each other contestants are in fact discussing the merits of a directly elected second chamber.

You see, for a programme like Love Island to work we need to think we’re superior to the parade of gender tropes – bad boy, slutty girl, nice but dim etc – lounging on the decking.

That’s probably why the programme’s rare venture into political debate went viral. In a pop culture/politics cross over event of seismic proportions, contestants started discussing Brexit and Hayley from Liverpool asked if it was about trees. Cue much laughing from the guiltily watching inteligensia who tell themselves this isn’t a gameshow but a self-aware examination of gender politics.

In fact, the discussion that led up to Hayley’s Tree comment revealed knowledge about the basics of trade and travel. Certainly about the same as you’d find in any other situation outside the policy bubble.

But if you want detailed political insight watch Newsnight. I’d write more, but I have to go, it’s re-coupling night tonight.

Why Everything You Think You Know About The World is Probably Wrong

 

Let’s start with a question. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has..

a. Almost doubled

b. Remained more or less the same

c. Almost halved?

Interested in changing the world? Before you start, please read Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund. It is a brilliant, perspective-changing piece of work.

The book underlines how most of the stuff we think we know about the world is wrong. We get it wrong because of various instincts that are often fed by media, our schooling, our peers or unconscious prejudice.

The good news, is it’s not just you – everyone else, including most experts, tends to be way off the mark as well.

During his brilliant life Hans Rosling got the chance to talk to some of the world’s leading scientists, doctors, economic development experts and politicians and asked them simple questions about the world like the one above. They also got them wrong. Really wrong. So wrong that Hans worked out that statistically in many cases Chimpanzees could have returned more accurate answers.

Here’s three standout facts that should change the way you look at the world

There is no such thing ‘developing and developed’

Hans calls this the ‘mega-misconception’ about a divided world. Incomes are growing, families are shrinking and access to education is mushrooming. Only 13 countries, or six per cent, of the world’s population can today be classed as ‘developing’ and most people live in middle income countries with access to basic healthcare, transport and education. Remember, just 200 years ago 85 per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty.

The World’s population will not just keep increasing

What Rosling calls the ‘straight line’ instinct might lead you to panic about the possibility of over-population. Today there are around 7.6bn people in the world and numbers have increased rapidly with 5bn people added over the last century. However, the growth has started to slow down, largely due to improved child health – meaning people having fewer and fewer children. The UN expects the world’s population to level out at around 11bn by the end of this century.

Terrorism is on the rise, but not where you think

Terrorism is one of the few things that is getting worse, but let’s put this into perspective – it counted for 0.05pc of all world deaths in 2016 and deaths due to terror are actually falling in the richest countries in the world. The rise is accounted for by continuing terrible civil wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Back in our world, terrorism pales into insignificance compared to other causes of death that don’t get the same level of attention, Rosling calls this ‘The Fear Instinct’. On US soil over the last 20 years 3,172 people died from terrorism – the vast majority on 9/11 – over the same period alcohol contributed to the death of a staggering 1.4m Americans.

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By the way, the answer to the first question is c. Global poverty has almost halved over the last 20 years. Don’t feel too bad if you got it wrong, most people do. You can do the Gapminder test in full here.

Factfullness,Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling is published by Sceptre Books. I got my copy from the excellent Cogito Books.

It’s election time…again

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This Thursday it’s local elections, our almost annual festival of political apathy. Turn-out for locals has always been low, in 2012 turnout stood at 31 per cent.

That’s pretty shocking, given the fact that for all its limited powers – don’t get me started on the need to transfer more power away from Wesminster to local places – councils still have a direct effect on millions of lives.

After all,  despite austerity, they run many of the services that millions of citizens use every day. Some of these are among the most important life-saving functions of the British state, Adult and Children’s social Care for example.

If all politics is local, then turnout should be at Scottish referendum levels (80 plus per cent).

However, the public usually gives a collective shrug of the shoulders and emits a bored sigh when it comes to town hall elections. The reasons are complex, but I suspect they may have something to do with a system that centralises power in Westminster and Whitehall.

With a few honourable exceptions, there’s certainly a lot less media excitement over local polls than the General Election. Thers’s no televised leaders debate and there won’t be a battle bus in sight. They are the ugly stepchild of the UK political system.

And if the voters aren’t interested, then sadly the political media aren’t either.

The other day I listed to a five minute segment on local elections on BBC Radio Five Live featuring two national political print journalists who managed to miss the point entirely.

It soon became apparent from the discussion that the only place the franchise was available was London and not even the whole of London, just the three or so boroughs where the Conservatives might lose control.

This is because these are the places that Jeremy might win and the Vicar’s Daughter might lose, thus providing Westminster hacks with a national story they feel comfortable reporting because they can speak to the usual suspects who will parrot the usual lines.

I’m still waiting for an in-depth piece on the local elections from a Laura Kuennsberg or an Adam Bolton, both of whom rarely leave Westminster unless it involves going to Sunderland to interview Nissan workers about whether they regret voting to leave the EU.

(Note to Laura and Adam, they don’t. They never will. Can we talk about something else, now?)

I’m still waiting for a piece that analyses why several of our cities have become Conservative free zones, those strange one issue Independents or how the Liberal Democrats recently made progress- albeit limited – in the seas of red that are Sunderland and Manchester.

Did you know Liverpool was once a solidly Conservative city? I didn’t either, but I’m sure what happened might make an interesting story. (Someone did an academic study on the decline of the Tories on Merseyside and called it ‘How to Lose Votes and Alienate People’, which I thought was very witty).

I’m waiting for someone, anyone to step out of the Westminster village and recognise that political life takes place in other places, that it is rich and varied and that it matters. But on the evidence of local elections, I could be in for a long wait.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

Five steps towards Utopia

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I’ve just finished Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, a practical guide to creating a better world using some pretty radical policy ideas. As the phrase goes, it’s available from all good bookshops. I did my bit for the small trader and got mine from Cogito Books in Hexham, Northumberland. It’s a brilliant piece of  writing, full of ‘stand-out’ ideas and facts, here’s five of the best.

There’s never been a better time to be alive

We live in a time of plenty that earlier generations of humans could scarcely imagine, in fact people in Medieval times talked of a utopia called Cockaigne which sounds uncannily like life in the modern developed world. Extreme poverty has dropped from 84 per cent in 1820 to 44 per cent in 1981 to just under 10 per cent today. Levels of malnutrition, child mortality, disease and crime are plummeting. Put simply, human beings are better educated, more equal, happier, healthier and safer than ever before.

Everything you think you know about poverty is probably wrong

Think the poor are feckless or just a bit dumb? In fact there’s psychological research that poverty and the stress it brings reduces mental ‘bandwidth’. So how do you solve the stress of poverty? Why not take the money worries out of the equation and give the poor free money with no strings attached? This sounds like a recipe for disaster but evidence from around the world shows this is a surprisingly effective way to turn people’s lives around and, given the terrible cost to public services caused by poverty and deprivation, it may even be a wise investment. It also gets rid of a whole benefits ‘industry’ which tries to sort out the deserving from the undeserving at great expense. 

The strange tale of how free money for all almost happened – thanks to Tricky Dicky

Richard Nixon, one of the most loathed and controversial US presidents of modern times, almost bought in a Universal Basic Income. Yes, Tricky Dicky himself championed one of the great progressive policies of our time. In 1969 he wanted to implement a law that would guarantee every family in the States a sum equivalent to $10,000 a year and almost got it on the statute books. However, and I’m not making this up, he changed his mind after a briefing which wrongly interpreted findings from an experiment with Universal Basic Income in Berkshire in the late 18th century.

Open the Borders, help the poor.

The most radical idea in Utopia for Realists isn’t Universal Basic Income – which incidentally is now being trialled in Finland and Canada – it is to get rid of national borders. This sounds politically impossible, but it’s an interesting point that passports and hard borders in Europe only became widespread after World War One. The world is open to free flows of goods and services but not the people needed to buy and sell them. Bregman argues that if you allowed people to flow without visas, checks and passports it would make the whole world twice as rich and make a huge difference to people in developing nations.

Ideas can (still) change the world

Bregman says there is a shortage of ideas around at the moment, particularly on the left who do little but respond to the march of the free market right. As he argues in his final call to action, you can dismiss ideas as unachievable but things once decried as unrealistic from universal healthcare to recycling to the minimum wage have now become part of the political mainstream. Utopia is achievable, and we’ve made great strides particularly in the last 30 years. All we have to do is to organise ourselves and be unrealistic, unreasonable and impossible.

Why is Everyone so *&*$£ing Angry?

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Is it just me, or is everyone getting angrier?

They certainly seem to be particularly furious on Twitter where our own version of the US Culture Wars appears to be taking place.

Take the Oxfam/Save the Children scandal which, depending on your world view, is either evidence of a media conspiracy to cut foreign aid or proof of the moral bankruptcy of liberal values.

Let’s be clear, the alleged use of prostitutes by some people in the aid industry is abhorrent and deserves thorough investigation. It’s a shocking betrayal of what those people were sent out – sometimes at taxpayer’s expense – to do.

But in the land of Twitter the Oxfam scandal became a political and ideological football with facts and reasoning in pretty short supply. There was a lot of heat, but not much light.

The quality of debate isn’t helped by the conspiracy theorists either. After The Times published the original allegations, I began to see tweets claiming the entire story was timed to undermine the Government’s under-pressure commitment to the Foreign Aid Budget and was also an act of revenge for Oxfam’s strident stance on global inequality.

Some even claimed that Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg, an unlikely puppet master of world affairs, was responsible since he’d handed in a petition on foreign aid just days earlier.

Meanwhile, as these scandals are prone to do, it got much worse as charity subscriptions were cancelled, global ambassadors resigned and a phalanx of bosses appeared shame-facedly in front of MPs to proffer one million apologies.

And then the scandal spread to other charities, for example Save the Children, where it ultimately resulted in the resignation of Brendan Cox, widow of murdered MP Jo Cox, from the board of several charities connected to his late wife.

I had no idea that Mr Cox was such a divisive figure until I read the Tweets following his resignation. It turns out that to some on Twitter he is not a grieving widow, but an enemy of the state and a disgusting virtue signaler who deserves everything he gets.

News that he had admitted inappropriate behaviour was treated with undisguised glee by some.

The trouble with all this anger is that we ultimately forget about the most important thing, the people whose lives have been affected.

The culture wars use events, often those that involve abused women or dead children, as mere props for a wider battle. It’s symptomatic of our times, but won’t lead to a sensible or measured debate about the issues we face.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press.