Oxford: The Least Affordable City in the UK (Again).

So, the latest figures show that Oxford has again received the dubious accolade of being the most expensive city in the UK to buy a house.

Anna White’s daily Telegraph article here more or less sums it up.

It has occurred to me that one of the primary reason of this statistic is that wages in academia are in free fall, with so much work being done by junior academics and Post-Grads.

The article I wrote on the subject gives a pretty decent overview/explanation for those interested:

https://kerrysmallman.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/town-gown-and-down-and-out-no-easy-answers-to-oxfords-housing-crisis/

Pulp: Life, Death, Supermarkets and Cultural Appropriation

The view of Sheffield presented in the documentary film Pulp: Life, Death and Supermarkets is hopelessly out of date and serves as a reminder that maybe Jarvis and co. were always guilty of cultural appropriation.

The man with no teeth who sits in the newspaper kiosk is a Pulp fan, apparently. I’m sure he likes nothing nothing better than to go home after a hard day’s shouting “uuuueeeehwooom” (meaning ‘late Star’) and stick on Bar Italia before settling down to a double Corrie omnibus. The two old ladies who drag their shopping trollies around Castle Market are also Jarvis fans, we are told. Do they file their Pulp CDs next to Cabaret Voltaire or Scott Walker, I wonder? Is it Pulp’s pithy social commentary and wry witticisms they like, or is it their masterly portrayal of suburban ennui through references to the detritus of 70s modernity? Or is it because the band are famous and from Sheffield and sound a bit like Bryan Ferry?

Either way, I’m pretty sure Jarvis had a small sex wee when he discovered that Mavis was a fan. Because, although Pulp like to revel in faux-working class nostalgia, they are not a working class band, either in terms of fan-base or band members’ cultural heritage. So finding out that real Sheffielders like them must have been a dream come true.

Jarvis and his sister Saskia, yes – Saskia, grew up in the biggest house in Intake. It had a walled garden and an annex. In fact, their family owned most of the row of shops at Intake. Jarvis’ Mum was – and may still be, for all I know – a Tory councillor. Jarvis went to Central St Martins Art school. He now lives in Paris. Choosing to become an expat in France rather than Spain should have rung an alarm bell for anyone who was labouring under the gross misapprehension that proper Sheff lads go on to form Art-Pop-Electronic bands.

Of course, it was the northern accent that did it. As soon as someone speaks with anything other than RP, they are immediately able to carve out a career as denizens of working class culture, defenders of the Common People. The music press – especially in the 90s – were falling over themselves to lionize anyone who had ever had a Saturday job in a supermarket or drunk a pint of mild. Claiming to have holidayed in Butlins as a child was more or less a guaranteed Number 1 single. Blur pretended to like football and dog racing for a while, but were pretty quickly outed as mockneys and decided to open cheese shops in GlocestershirePulp were similarly pseudo, more northern manqué than northern monkey.

Even though prior to Common People, Jarvis had made a career out of lampooning and parodying the social mores of the working classes, nobody ever questioned his sincerity. Think of Joyriders: “we’re so thick we can’t think/can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink”, Mishapes: “What’s the point of being rich if you can’t think what to do with it? ‘Cause you’re so bleedin’ thick…” and I Spy “My favourite park’s a car park, grass is something you smoke, birds is something you shag / Take your year in Provence and shove it up your arse”. The lyrics of these songs are a confrontational assault on Chav mentality, or on “Townies”, as we used to scornfully call them in Sheffield in those days.

In Pulp: Life Death and Supermarkets, Sheffield is portrayed as if it is still 1984. As if the miners are still on strike and Castle Market is still the place for knicker elastic. As if the overpowering smell of salt, vinegar, diesel and urine still lingers in the air on Pond St. As if the Forum and Meadowhall have never been built. As if a gallon of Magnet and a packet of Woodbines are all we need to take away the pain of our meaningless lives of unending drudgery, rainy saturdays and dripping sandwiches.

Life, Death and Supermarkets is nostalgia for a world where Tony Blair hasn’t schmoozed with Oasis whilst systematically dismantling Socialism. Where football hasn’t become the preserve of Arab billionaires and £40 ticket holders. Where Sheffield doesn’t have pulled pork, flat whites and an Apple store just like everywhere else.

Life, Death and Supermarkets is a lie within a lie. It is recuperation, cultural appropriation. It is class pornography. It is Benefits Street. It is the fetishisation and theft of authentic working class identity. The viewers’ gaze, our gaze, feasts on a northern fantasy. A fantasy where poor people are able to escape shitty towns by writing songs about supermarkets. A world where working class people even like Indie music.

How The Media Reacted To Charlie Hebdo

Image: Surian Soosay (Flickr)

Image: Surian Soosay (Flickr)

The media reaction – both through official and unofficial channels – to the news in France has made fascinating reading and viewing over the last few days and has run the full gamut of political opinion.

Progressive media like Films For Action took the line that we should treat this tragedy like any other killing spree.  Here’s an excerpt from the Films For Action article:

“What happened today, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count. The answers to what happened today won’t be found in Charlie Hebdo’s pages. They can only be found in the murderers’ sick minds.”

It is an unfortunate internal contradiction of the West that freedom has to include the freedom to not believe in freedom.  But how much any society can tolerate intolerant people remains to be seen.  An unusually wide range of views was given oxygen, including those uncomfortable right wing views which tend to be suppressed on things like the Channel 4 News.

This all gives credence to the idea that freedom of the press is something worth preserving.

Mic.com’s Mark Cogan wore his metaphorical “Je suis Charlie” badge with pride, in this article, saying

“The events of Wednesday remind us of the striking fact that at least 66 journalists were killed in 2014, many for daring to express unpopular or dangerous ideas, to speak truth to power and to tell the stories that powerful institutions around the world, from terror groups to transnational corporates, would rather not have told. Now more than ever is the time to stand forcefully against those who seek to silence criticism or expression through violence and terror.”

Perhaps the most interesting perspective – and one which has been given very little coverage is the view from inside Islam.  Most notably, the tensions between the moderate and fundamentalist strains of the religion and how they view each other.  A really good explanation of this can be found on Juan Cole’s blog here.  The basic crux of his argument goes:

“…in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France. Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination. This tactic is similar to the one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century.”

Further insight into the Muslim mindset was voiced by Catherine Guilyardi on this Al Jazeera news piece.  Catherine says that everyone – Muslim and Non-Muslim – need to unite against Fascism.

“Fascism is the rejection of people who are not like me and do not believe like I believe… The Middle East is the first victim of this fascism with what is happening with Daesh (ISIS)”

Clearly, yesterday’s news threw into relief the fact that we in Europe and the Middle East are currently grappling with the question of how much intolerance we can tolerate.

The most important thing about all the media hype is to not get caught up in the frenzy.  Ten people will die in car accidents today in France, but the TV will not have special reports into car death.  Or heart disease.  Or cancer.  It’s also interesting to note that not a single newspaper or TV report I’ve seen asks the question of why these men have Kalashnikovs lying around.  If this had been a white-on-white killing, the news would have been dominated by gun regulation chatter.

The incident is being used by lots of people to further their own agenda, be it liberal, fascist or something in between.  For all its intelligent or interesting analysis, the media is a spectacle.  The best way to react to all of this might be to turn off your TV and be good to the people around you.

Oh, Look! Anarchists Have Vandalised The Tube

It appears that London’s commuters have been attacked by anarchists telling them they need to stop working.

#bullshitjobs is a hashtag (Image: Twitter)

#bullshitjobs is a hashtag (Image: Twitter)

For those struggling to live and pay rent in the world’s most expensive city, those posters probably won’t cut much mustard.

However, the posters are indeed correct.

Revolution will only happen the day the working class realize they don’t have to work. It is only work which makes someone working class.

Socialists (as opposed to anarchists) on the other hand, are convinced that jobs are a great thing.  They hold miners’ strikes and march for the ‘right to work’.  Which means that Marxism might not be the best hope for the poor after all.

I wrote a blog about this a while ago, which explains all this. It’s here, if you haven’t already read it.

Town, Gown and Down and Out: No Easy Answers To Oxford’s Housing Crisis

2473248707_3c40d4b647_b

© Colin Davis

As well as the breath-taking honey-coloured stone, the famous dreaming spires and the tweed-clad Dons, the one thing that many visitors first notice is the number of homeless people on Oxford’s streets. Indeed, the homeless in Oxford are as numerous as they are visible. On any one night in Oxford, there are dozens of rough sleepers, hundreds more in hostels and thousands more ‘sofa surfing’ or sharing three or more to a room (making Oxford the UK’s 4th biggest ‘homelessness hotspot’). Some two miles away on the outskirts of town, the Oxford ring road is choked with stationary traffic at rush hour. Commuting to Abingdon or Whitney is the stuff of misery for a huge proportion of those who work in the city. These two seemingly disparate facts (homelessness and traffic) are, of course, intimately connected: Oxford is in the midst of a housing crisis. And the trouble is, there are no easy solutions. In spite of what commentators on the left and the right might have us believe.

The lack of housing cuts through all sections of society and is not reserved for some imagined underclass. Wages and job security in publishing and academia are enjoying a race to the bottom while property prices are continuing to out-perform the rest of the UK. The average property price is an eye-watering £380,000, while wages hover at around 1/12th of this figure. Simply put, Oxford is the country’s most expensive place to live, in proportion to wages.

The situation for Oxford’s less-well-off is, of course, even worse. The maximum housing benefit is £800 a month for a parent and child. A quick look at Rightmove reveals that the cheapest 2-bed property in town costs £865. You can, as they say, do the math. The Government’s so-called bedroom tax does not get a look-in here.

As we move further down the social scale, beyond town and gown towards down-and-out, the picture is even gloomier. The number of new arrivals at homeless shelters is growing by the day, yet the council has cut the hostel budget by 1/3rd. Many of what me might glibly call ‘normal’ people are now destitute, due to something as simple as falling out with a partner or losing their job. Most of the new arrivals were not into drugs or drink – until they slept rough for a couple of nights, that is.

Housing crisis affects all walks of society: The homeless panhandler, the debt-laden student, the impecunious young professional, the struggling single mum, the miserable commuter. But how can we really, honestly, help them? How about we think about supply and demand? Or, as Oxford Labour party say, let’s build more houses. If you look at a map, much of Oxford’s geographical centre is green. The colleges own plenty of marsh land, pastures and playing fields which could be used to house Oxford’s poor, or so the narrative goes. The City Council has outlined the development (NIMBYS-notwithstanding) of around 10,000 homes in the next fifteen years, including a new garden city at Bicester. Unfortunately, this still leaves a shortfall of 20,000 when compared to its own estimates of population growth.

The council is in constant wranglings with itself over various building projects. It recently tried to build housing association homes for over 3,000 people in a new complex near the Kassam stadium, but it was wisely blocked by the Green party. I say wisely, not because I especially care about the no doubt very beautiful sparrows, earwigs and dormice in the proposed location, but because – I’m sorry to say – it is a fallacy that building houses reduces housing demand. Just as building motorways increases traffic, building more housing attracts more people.

Expanding a city attracts more people. There are already twenty thousand or so miserable commuters who’d love to move back to the city, let alone all the service industry staff – by which, of course, I mean immigrants – who would flock to a growing Oxford if it were to expand. Oxford’s reputation as a city of scientific research and a publishing mecca outwith the academy mean it will always have top people setting up great start-ups. The Universities themselves are, of course, growing exponentially, stuffing in more international students, as well as the home grown elite who are willing to shell out the fees for the word “Oxford” on their degree. Building new developments would merely serve to line the pockets of construction companies and landlords, which I can’t help but think is the real motivation behind the purported ‘public good’ of building more homes.

As is so often the case with macroscopic, top-down thinking, seemingly attractive technological solutions ultimately mask a deeper structural problem. Houses have become properties – commodities to be bought and sold. Student towns, pretty towns and towns near London are even more susceptible to house price inflation than most. Oxford is all three of these. The likelihood of Oxford University’s reputation waning any time soon is pretty slim. It made it through the last 1,000 years in good shape. As long as The West remains the ideological gatekeeper of knowledge, an investment in Oxford property looks like a no-brainer.

In saner countries than Britain, these problems have been solved by introducing rent caps or clamping down on buy-to-let. But there are no guarantees. Rent caps in Berlin held back astronomical rent rises, but the city is becoming less affordable to locals by the day. There really are no simple solutions to Oxford’s housing crisis, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can. We may not be able to make the Government put the needs of its citizens before that of the banks, but each of us can be conscious of the housing needs of those around us and ensure that we act with compassion towards the homeless this Christmas.

The End Of History Revisited

fukuyama

2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, an event I remember watching with both excitement and confusion at the time. Being only nine years old, I’d never actually heard of the Berlin wall before, but it looked like something very important was happening. Unbeknown to me, something very important was happening. I was witnessing the triumph of freedom and democracy over communism. Or at least the bankrupting of the Soviet Union and its replacement with capitalist hegemony.

In the spring of that year, Francis Fukuyama’s little-read piece in National Interest had predicted that free market capitalism was the only way forward and that communism was inevitably fizzling out. Pretty soon, he said, history would end, leaving humanity in a permanent state of liberal democratic bliss. It was only a matter of months before Fukuyama’s predictions appeared to be coming true: Solidarity won in Poland, GDR Refugees flowed through Hungary, the wall came down in Berlin, and – most surprisingly of all – David Hasselhoff sang atop the Brandenburg Gate. Ceausescu, Gorby et al were consigned to the scrap heap of history, like carbon paper, the ridings of Yorkshire and white dog poo.

A stroll through Berlin today might indeed reinforce the idea that the end of history is here. If ever there was a figurehead for the end of history, it’s the 21st Century cosmopolitain city-dweller. For the sake of argument, let’s call them a Hipster. Equally at home in Williamsburg and Kreuzberg, the 21st Century Hipster knows no international borders, loves all the latest technology and reinforces unequal economic structures in whichever hotspot it calls home. Hipsters are never racist or homophobic and really don’t see much point in governments or international borders. They value diversity and individualism above all else. Capitalism personified.

Of course, the Hipster aesthetic is no longer the preserve of the international backpack/jetset. Hipster went viral. Suddenly every high street in the Northern hemisphere has craft beer, pulled pork and bearded men with tattoos. The Hipster aesthetic is really now nothing more than the mainstream of youth culture: Be nice to gay people, have a cool phone, eat home-made stuff, make stuff and do something interesting with your life.

In spite of all this, if someone were to ask the question “Does it feel that, in 2014, we have reached the end of history? Do you feel like everything will more or less stay the same from now on?” The answer most of us would give is a resounding “no”. Not only are we becoming increasingly aware of a multi-pole world emerging where America, China, India, Brazil, Europe and Russia vie for economic and ideological hegemony, we are also witnessing a challenge to the liberal democratic dream in the west by so-called popularism. Figures as comically disparate as Nigel Farage, Vladimir Putin, Osama Bin Laden and Hugo Chavez remind us that history is far from over and that either the barbarians are at the gates of Rome, or that Rome needs to realize that Shanghai, Mumbai and Sao Paulo exist too.

A list of the top ten world population growth hotspots reads like a compendium of despots, beheadings, child soldiers, modern-day slavery and rule by military coup. I would wager that transexual rights are pretty far off the agenda in Liberia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Sierra Leone and Oman. Even Russia and China may never be as zealously enthusiastic about minority rights as the west. (As Hitler showed, it is possible to have a capitalist system which supports majority rights at the expense of minorities.)

Fukuyama and others imagine that, given time, the international markets will correct the whims of national politicians and that capitalism – albeit in a Chinese or Indian flavoured model – will prevail. So far, it appears that once people reach a certain level of material wealth, they have the time and energy to question authority and to push for democracy. As Fukuyama said in a recent article in the Wall St Journal, “Even as we raise questions about how soon everyone will get there, we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History.”

Fukuyama would point out that the market, by its very nature, cuts down national boundaries and that, through the internet, infrastructure and immigration, humanity will be forced to be liberal, like it or not. His entire prediction, then, is based on a single idea: Capitalism will prevail. If we are to predict whether his predictions are correct, we need to decide whether Capitalism has a future.

The fundamental basis of our economic system is the idea of growth. Without growth, there can be no stock market, no investments, no loans, no banks. There are three ways to get growth: Exploiting nature (eg – by manufacturing goods or by burning fuels), exploiting human capital (eg – by making working weeks longer, or introducing zero hour contracts), and exploiting money (eg – by insuring money or betting on futures). That’s it.

Aside from the cheery realisation that our entire economic system is based on environmental destruction and human misery, the other thing these facts should tell us is that growth capitalism doesn’t have long left to run. The UN says with 80% certainty that what I’m going to call ‘peak humans’ will occur before 2100. The earth cannot support more than 12 Billion people, whether they eat GMOs or not. Similarly, the oil, gas and mineral deposits of the planet are finite. Fracking and shale gas have delayed the inevitable, but I don’t think that even the most gung ho of petrol heads expects to be running on gas come 2080.

Two of our three pillars of economic growth (ie – the exploitation of human and natural resources) look pretty unlikely to survive the century. This means that capitalism is going to have to change drastically if it is to survive. The question of whether you can make money out of money without human and environmental resources like manufacturing, immigration, air travel and wage competition is oddly both pie in the sky and a pressing concern. My intuition is that somewhere along the line, debts need a human being doing a crappy job so they can buy crappy things. I’m no economist, but I can’t help but think that over-dependence on ephemeral assets is the stuff of crashes, bubbles, bank runs, dust bowls and wheelbarrows of banknotes.

The next couple of years will be a vital turning point in deciding whether the world will switch towards a more sustainable economy. The economic recession has forced many people into creating their own sustainable businesses, far from the clutches of the stock markets. In fact, the amount of money made by profit-sharing cooperatives outstripped that of smartphones by a significant margin in 2012 (in spite of what the mainstream media failed to mention).

Young Western people are into things like knitting, baking, sewing, buying vintage clothes, collecting old things, growing stuff on their rooftops, riding bikes, eating less meat – all hallmarks of a post-Capitalist, sustainable economy. The big question might be whether or not the young people in China and India catch the same bug.

In the years since the fall of the wall, we have seen a homogenisation of cultures, where the global rich’s youth are a tolerant, democratically inclined, liberal-minded elite which grows by the thousands in number every day. We could be forgiven for mistaking this for the end of history. But counter to this, the years since 1989 have seen the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the rise of Popular parties, and a population spurt in some of the world’s least liberal countries. We know that something is going to happen with global warming: It might mean catastrophic destruction of major cities or perhaps a move to sustainable local energy cooperatives. In technology, we are going to see artificial intelligences overtake humans and the reflexive phase of human history will really kick in once genetic manipulation and nanotechnology is applied to our own bodies and brains. Either way, it’s pretty clear: Fukuyama don’t know shit:  History is only just beginning.

Grannies: An Elegy

dame-thora-hird

A Grandma. OK, it’s actually Dame Thora Hird, but you get the idea.

It’s funny how time just moves on and, imperceptibly, things disappear without fanfare or farewell. Of course, technology is the reason for most things to become outdated. Among the recent cultural cullings are: Watching VHS, listening to CDs, using encyclopedias, knowing people’s phone numbers, arranging to meet someone at a specific time, booking your holiday at a travel agents (or through Ceephax if you were awesome), wearing a watch, writing a letter.

While the digital age has heralded much of this change, some of it is unrelated to technology and more of a fashion thing. It’s no longer relevant who is at number one in the charts. Neither is it cool to visibly belong to a youth subculture. Except in, like, Retford or Cumbria, where defiant Emo kids still cling longingly to the idea that thickness of eyeliner equates to emotional depth. As a DJ, I am no longer expected to announce people’s birthdays or ask “anyone here celebrating A-level results day tonight?” in a nightclub, thankfully.

But one thing that has passed imperceptibly into the past is Grannies. By which I mean real Grannies of the kind still depicted on TV like this:

league

This used to be all our futures.

Proper Grannies were so ubiquitous that we never thought we’d see the back of them. We thought that, as you got older, we’d all automatically start wearing nylon dresses and calling the radio the “wireless”. It seemed a natural part of the ageing process: As soon as your hair turned grey, you suddenly felt an uncontrollable urge to eat tongue sandwiches and switch to electric blankets and eiderdowns.

mary berry gif

But something happened….

The proper Grannies went to the great whist drive in the sky and the baby boomers started reaching 50, then 60, then 70… Suddenly, your Granny has done more LSD than you have and makes better pesto to boot. Granny wants a Kindle Fire for Christmas. Granny has 2000 followers on Pinterest. Granny is glamping at Glastonbury (Emily Eavis follows her on Twitter).

So, before they are gone forever, let us remember:

Carriage clocks for 40 years’ loyal service

Listening to Perry Como/holidaying at Lake Como

Calling electricity ‘the electric’

Knowing/caring who Princess Grace of Monaco is

Motorbikes with sidecars

Luncheon meat

Tea urns in village halls

Tea cosies

Saying ‘five bob’

Saying someone has ‘elfin’ features

Knowing how to play the piano

Thinking milk is healthy

Those brass lady/bell ornaments

WHY?!

WHY?!

What with the rise of British Bake-off and Sewing Bee, the hipster-fuelled return of knitting and the Swing music revival, some might argue that Granny culture is making a comeback. Or, like vinyl records, Caramacs and milk floats, it never actually went away if you knew where to look. More elderflower wine and damson jam is being consumed at more WI meetings now than at any time in the past 20 years. So while there is always a hint of tedious 21st century irony in the latter-day fad for bunting, shabby chic and Keep Calm and Carry On, at least we have some reminders of the Reenies and Mabels and Ethels who made our childhoods so full of joy. And Murray mints.

Liked this?  Now read: How to pretend to be great at piano when you’re not

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