Wednesday, 3 July 2013

UnFunFair by Simon Tyszko

There's a whole heap of madness going on in most people's minds, most of the time, isn't there? Unlike everyone else, however, artist Simon Tyszko has the good sense to set it free, run with it, and allow his wildest thoughts to become touchable. Like the full-sized Dakota airplane wing installed in his flat, on the fifth floor of a Fulham council estate. Or his work in cocaine, Absolute Hypocrisy, that made a criminal of the buyer - the 'deal' taking place in a Parisian hotel room. His practice is an ode to what-if, a punk-prayer to the possible. His latest show, in the arch space at the Beaconsfield Gallery, is a cornucopia of his most recent explorations in tangibility – some of the best bits that have made it from mind to matter. So go play at The UnFunFair today.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Beyond Best and Worst*

So that's what a People's Assembly looks like.

Of course, I agreed with a lot of what was said inside the hall yesterday afternoon; I sort of thought I might - I've been broadly agreeing with left rhetoric for the best part of a decade now.

For all the talk of left unity, however, there does still seem to be a divide between those inside and those that were - both physically and metaphorically - outside of Westminster's Central Methodist Hall yesterday. But it's ok, because inside the hall there was, more or less, unity – and for some, that's enough.

For the sane and non-sectarian elements of the left, for the best of the left, this marks a new chapter in left renewal as well as a desperately needed lift for the whole anti-cuts movement. For the sectarians and naysayers, for the worst of the left, it represents a slide into even greater irrelevance.”

What if the people on the lawn outside central hall yesterday are not 'the worst of the left', but - perhaps even in equal measue to those inside - caring, dedicated and intelligent? To dismiss them and their disagreement is not only intellectually lazy, but actively self-defeating if seeking to build a truly inclusive movement. It's an old elitist trick to say: “Ignore these people, they're just trouble makers. They don't have any ideas of their own and they're trying to spoil the party for everyone else. They're merely malcontents, or mad.” Sound familiar?

Who are these ghouls that are not serious about building a stronger, bigger left, anyway? Doesn't it seem unlikely that the people who bothered to write blogs, or who came to Central Hall yesterday to put their point across with megaphones, want to remain on the sidelines - don't want a big movement capable of change? Wouldn't they just stay at home and cry into their Bakunin if that were the case? Does anyone seriously believe they're saboteurs, that they want the world to be a worse place? Or have they just got a different perspective on how to build a better one?

People are fed up with the old sectarian, divisive and insular habits of so much of the left. Disagreement and debate are necessary and healthy. That is not the issue. The point is to establish common ground, build on it, and not get distracted by ancient grudges or trivial differences. You could feel the collective willing to make this a reality and marginalise those who make it more difficult.”

The prefix phrase 'disagreement and debate are healthy' gave me pause, and brought to mind the Met's 'Protest is an important part of democracy' – you know that there's a but coming. In the Met's case it's: we will stomp you into the ground if you try it; in the author's it's: you will be marginalised and ignored if you disagree - or branded un-sane. Isn't it dangerous to say, now, at this point, you have crossed a line (of my own imagining) and I don't have to listen to you anymore. You are dismissed. You are a non-person and your ideas are non-ideas.

Apart from the fact that marginalising people only ever makes them more angry, and almost never makes them just disappear like you want, saying 'we're not the sectarians: they are!' is sorta sectarian, isn't it? Isn't it a bit ironically divisive to talk of a best and a worst of the left, of marginalising people whose views are percieved to be 'difficult'. There was lots of agreement on the day, which was really heartening, but I heard a whole plethora of disagreement as well – ranging from concerns over a lack of consensus decision making to gripes about catering. To dimiss the whole gamut as 'naysaying' or irrelevant doesn't leave much room for nuance – it's all a bit black and white, a bit George Bush Junior.

At the meeting about cuts to disability welfare, for example, I heard one activist complain that the discussion had been sidelined to the marquee – that it was not only insensitive but also unkind to leave comrades with disabilities “twitching in the cold” all afternoon. She thought it was important that once the group got inside the hall, they made this particular concern heard. Is she a naysayer? Certainly. Does she, therefore, deserve to be marginalised or branded irrelevant? Certainly not.

But when we did finally get back inside the hall, there was no opportunity to raise that concern – only to swoon at Tony Benn again and clap along to the speeches that seemed well-rehersed rather than a reaction to the day's events. One person approached the stage to pass a note to the table, but he was awkwardly ignored until Francesca Martinez ackowledged at least his presence, if not his note. Sorry fella, like those outside with megaphones, you are not part of the script – you were not in the programme.

And the jubilation wasn't even universal inside the hall: chair Vicki Barrs had to ask people to stop heckling on a couple of occasions. It's not fair to heckle, she said, it doesn't give people the chance to say what they want to say; if people are heckling, might it be that they haven't been given the chance to say what they wanted to say? If there are hecklers, isn't it because they don't agree with what's being said? And if they don't agree, you haven't got consensus – you just haven't, and no amount of applause or congratulatory sentiment can hide that.

Is there an absolute truth towards which we are all working? Is there a point at which those outside the Central Methodist Hall have crossed the line, have put their own needs and wants above those of their comrades? Maybe, but you can bet your life that those outside think exactly the same of those inside. In fact, you don't need to place such a high stakes bet: you could just go and ask them, talk with them, meet them halfway. But it's pretty difficult to meet anyone halfway when you're sitting on a stage.

Consensus is not about dismissing all of the arguments you disagree with until you're left with applause; it's about hearing the whole range of opinion and then finding a way forward that's acceptable to all. Of course, you may think that your ideas are just better, more correct, than other people's – you're perfectly entitled to that opinion. But don't then accuse others of sectarianism.

And not only because it's a self-defeating waste of energy: it just sounds so silly. Before this week I'd only heard the word sectarian used in connection with religious conflicts, or where atrocities have been committed. It is at best absurd and at worst intellectually authoritarian to describe these disagreements as sectarian – I can see neither John Rees nor Ian Bone calling for their opponents to be knee-capped, can you?

Actually, I'd like a movement that included both Ian Bone and John Rees – but I'd like to be sat at the same level as them, discussing ideas and coming to, if not agreement, then consensus. I don't want to be patronised by handsomely paid trade unionists plying well-worn phrases about workers' solidarity (seriously, if you're that solid, take a pay cut?). I'd like something that looked a bit more like an Occupy style general assembly - I'd rather be waving my jazz-hands in agreement with something I contributed to than applauding the same people I've been applauding for the past ten years. I'd like a movement that convinces rather than condemns. 

Let's not forget that 'the left' (big or small L, as you please) should be merely a transitory classification on the way towards a world without any...

*If you disagree with anything in this blog post, fear not: I'm probably just a nutter. Feel free to go ahead and marginalise me - but don't then be surprised if that makes me angry, and more likely, not less, to disagree with you in future.

Friday, 26 April 2013

The best people for the job

"It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor." - Seneca

"I want my leaders to be the best people for the job", said a friend to me recently, over a Jamaican lager on one of the first sunny evenings of Spring, in another friend's back yard. On the kind of evening that can't help but fill you with optimism, a cloud suddenly formed in my mind.

Not because of the deep-seated, unquestioned, desire for a leader; not even for the denial of our own worth, the insidious idea that some people are just better; but because he believed that only by paying them lots of money would we attract these 'best people',  these ubermensch, and that our politicians weren't actually paid enough.

Perhaps it's based on a fair premise - that, in a fair world, those who worked the hardest would be best rewarded (and another, distinctly dodgy, premise: that wealth is the best reward). Perhaps, as a teacher himself, that's just an idea he desperately needs to cling to, to stay optimistic as those poor underpaid politicians keep piling up work at outside his classroom door - his own mental light at the end of the tunnel. One day, Lord, one day. But it's denial; in George Monbiot's phrase, "if wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire."

And even in that imaginary fair world, the more money for better people premise only works if you want to be led, rather than represented - if you want politicians to look up to, someone to adore, rather than representatives who know how you feel. Fuck sympathy, I want my politicians to have truly empathetic understanding of the dread fear caused by an unexpected bill landing on the doormat - and then work hard to eliminate that fear for everyone.

This is something that Mujica, the world's poorest president, understands.  Now that he's attained office, he's on a deliberate drive to make the presidency 'less venerated'. He refuses to live in the official presidential palace, instead using it as shelter for homeless people during the coldest months. While our own venerated leaders are driven around in limousines, Mujica gets about in an old VW Beetle. 
His presidential salary is about $108,000 per annum, but he donates 90% (mostly to programs for expanding housing for the poor), which leaves him with an amount comparable to that of an average Uruguayan. 

When asked if he has enough to live on, Mujica's response is straight-forward:

"I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine, because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less"

Life dominates thought and determines will; if your life is one of privilege, how often will your thoughts be with the poor? How likely will reducing inequality be your will?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Queen Pig

Be the inferior to no one, nor of any one be the superior’
William Saroyan

Lots of people say, ‘oh, leave off the royal family, they do a lot for charity, y’know?’. If I was an unemployed multi-millionaire, I’d do a lot for charity, too. Many fine people do work for charities; most manage to get there everyday without the aid of a chauffeur. That the royal family are themselves a charity should negate any charitable work they do; why not cut out the middle man and give the cash straight to those in need? This might avoid parties, palaces and peacocks being skimmed off the top.

Yes, but what about the tourism, man? Don’t forget the tourism!’ It is as patronising as it is insulting to the entire nation to suggest that people would not visit our green and pleasant land without the Windsors – that the entire sum of our cultural worth resides in the crown and its cronies. France doesn’t have a monarchy, but plenty of people go to Paris to see the Louvre. I hear the food’s half-decent, too.

We Brits love democracy. We’re mired in misadventure all around the globe, obliterating foreigners and putting our own sons and daughters in danger in its name. Yet, in our own country, we’re happy with the hypocrisy of having a picture of a lady on our stamps and sterling who believes she deserves to be there by divine right – because God said so. And simply because, for as long as we care to remember, it has always been so. Doesn’t democracy deserve better? Are we so unimaginative?

Sunday, 21 April 2013

"The Argument of the Broken Window Pane... the most valuable argument in politics today." - Emeline Pankhurst.

Letter to Dame Joan Ruddock, Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford:

RE: Early Day Motion to repeal s.144

Dear Joan,

It has to be said, at the outset, that I have very little faith left in the parliamentary process in general, and the paliamentary Labour party in particular. Is Liam Byrne a Tory in disguise, or what? Does wearing red have any meaning for him, or merely salve his conscience? Abstaining from the vote that will force people to work for free is an out and out betrayal of the working class in this country – all it takes for evil to prevail, and all that. I notice that you never rebel against your party – are they always right?

So I'm wondering if you can help to restore a little bit of faith – to prove that there are still good people left in parliament. I'm writing to ask you to support John McDonnel's Early Day Motion to repeal the odious section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentancing and Punishment of Offenders Act.

I was one of the 2000+ respondants to the Ministry of Justice's euphemistically titled consultation, Options for Dealing with Squatting, that were against criminalisation; along with people like the Law Society, The Metropolitan Police Force and homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter, a full 96% of respondants were against criminalisation. All were ignored, in favour of the seven landlords that took the time to respond. What is more important to you as a politician, protecting property or protecting people?

Of the 33 arrests made since section 144 came in, not a single person was found to be displacing a homeowner. Indeed, ministers and the media alike deliberately misled the public over this issue, and constantly conflate homeowners with empty property. Are you on the side of those desperately seeking shelter, or are you on the side of the super rich? As Alter, a lib dem think tank, explained in its response to the consultation:

This change is contrary to the interests of UK taxpayers. It would provide a valuable state funded benefit to wealthy tax avoiders. This influential lobby has the ear of Conservative Justice Minister Crispin Blunt. If he were concerned about ordinary property owners who actually pay tax in the UK, there are far cheaper ways of protecting them from squatters.”

Here is an article I recently wrote on the subject, for the New Internationalist. It explains why I think the law has caused more harm than it might have prevented. Why I think that Alex Haigh, an apprentice brick layer searching for work in our capital (a striver, to use your own devisive parliamentary language), did not deserve a custodial sentence and accompanying criminal record for seeking shelter in a property that had been empty for over a year. And why I think L&Q property are the real criminals in this scenario.

One of my friends has recently been toying with the dangerous idea of joining the Labour party. After your most recent betrayal, I told him he'd be better off hurling a brick through his local Labour party's HQ wndows (a la Emeline) than walking through its doors and signing up. I do hope you can go some way to prove me wrong.

Best wishes,

Vyvian Raoul

ps. Everywhere I go I hear people talking of alternatives to the Labour party. If you want to stop people fighting against you, you only have to start fighting for them. The only apathy I'm aware of is from those in power towards the needs of those who are not...

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Mr. Hollywood

It was with intrigue that I read Mike Weatherley MP's recent comments about the squatters on the Grand Parade:

I was intrigued as to how Mike considers himself to be 'like the rest of us'? After all, how many of us - as Mike does when he goes to work for the Motion Picture Licensing Company – get paid £422 an hour?

Mike likes to portray himself as a rock music lovin', curry competition judgin' man of the people; the truth is, Mr Weatherley is more Hollywood's man than Hove's. In 2012, Mike did just 72 hours of work (six a month) for the MPLC and was reimbursed a total of £34,000. That's in addition to the £65, 738, he gets paid as an MP, and the £24,192.77 he claims in expenses for travel and accomodation. At a time when most are struggling, we have to ask – when was the last time Mike Weatherley felt the dread-fear of an unexpected bill landing on the doormat?

And one wonders just how hard Mike's working for Hollywood's money. His own website proclaims that he's just helped to push through changes to copyright legislation worth £500m to the industry; indeed, Mike is currently the secretary for the all party parliamentary committee on intellectual property.

How close does this come to the line where conflict of interest is concerned – and how squarely is his mind on the residents of Hove and Portslade?

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Something for nothing culture

On Sunday afternoon, we held a swap shop in Sanford's communal area. The idea was simple: trade in your old stuff for new old stuff. People brought along clothes, books, music, dvds and all manner of assorted ephemera. The only rule? No cash must change hands.

It was interesting that people accepted swaps that were definitely not in their favour - not only graciously, but gladly. Insistantly, even. Complete madness, total lack of self-interest. And yet they walked away with a smile on their face. Their stuff had taken on a new value: how much happiness is this old tracksuit top worth? Because with my tracky top, I also got a little kindness - and charity never taketh away so much as it giveth.

The exchange was a human one, between two humans - not one human versus a giant faceless mega corporation. The market didn't set any prices: we decided our own worth. And the banks didn't mitigate any transactions; no invisible electronic debt passed hands, nobody typed in their pin. The Queen didn't show her face all day.

Money connects strangers as strangers; a swap connects strangers as friends.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

First as farce, then as tragedy...

People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse. This new evidence demonstrates so clearly the need to repeal this misguided law.” - John McDonnell MP

In August 2011, the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation, optimistically entitled Options for Dealing with Squatting. Successive governments have attempted to 'deal with squatting', but from the outset it was obvious that this one would continue the crusade not by addressing supply and demand in the housing market, but by seeking to criminalise people they termed 'squatters'.

After ignoring the 96% of respondents that were against criminalisation – including the Law Society, homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter and even the Metropolitan Police Service – the government did indeed press ahead with its plan. Last September, seeking shelter in abandoned residential properties – squatting – was dealt with: under section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), anyone found putting a roof over their head in this way would be punished by up to 6 months in prison or a £5000 fine.

Six months later, Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) has released a report into the effects of that law. As we predicted before the law was passed, our findings suggest that homeless and vulnerable people have been disproportionately affected. In the midst of a housing crisis, at a time when homelessness is rising, the law has further narrowed options for many, and is indeed sending otherwise innocent people to prison.

The right-wing press - papers made by property owners for property owners – laid the ground for this legislative attack by carpet-bombing public opinion with endless articles about unwashed, east-European cuckoos in the nest displacing honourable Hampstead homeowners. Members of Parliament made proud speeches about protecting those 'homeowners', deliberately conflating homes and empty houses (and never mentioning the donations they receive from property developers). "We want to send a clear message to would-be squatters that it is simply not acceptable to occupy someone else's home", proclaimed Justice Minister Crispin Blunt.
But it wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. At the time, property lawyers and housing experts pointed out that ministers and the media alike were deliberately misleading the public to push through their property protection law. And now SQUASH's research has further exposed that dishonesty: not a single, solitary squatter arrested under the new law was found to be displacing a homeowner.
During the rush to criminalisation, John McDonnell MP asked a pertinent question in a parliamentary debate: “will it cause more problems than it seeks to cure?”
Section 144 couldn't help but cause more harm than it prevented because, in reality, squatting caused almost no harm in the first place: the harm the new law would cause quickly became palpable. Within weeks, the first scumbag squatter was banged up: 21year old brick-layer Alex Haigh, who had no prior criminal convictions, was struggling to find work in the capital and had sought shelter in an empty Pimlico property. It had been abandoned for more than a year by its owners.
Ironically, those now behind bars may have escaped an even worse fate: recently a homeless person in Kent died outside of an empty bungalow, which media reports suggest he had previously been prevented from entering by the police. Section 144 was pushed through as farce: it is being manifested as tragedy.
But rather than rolling-back, recently promoted conservative MP Mike Weatherley has proposed an early day motion that calls for the law to be extended to commercial properties. Ominously, it already has 24 signatories.
At the very least, SQUASH calls on the government to carry out a full, independent impact assessment before further criminalisation is considered; if parliament wants to protect all of the people it represents - not just those that own empty property - it should repeal this law; it has already caused too much harm...

Friday, 8 March 2013

This is dedicated to all my folks

This is dedicated to all my folks
Diagnosed with a bad case of that proper upbringin
And never took the time to fall in line or follow
Or swallow the thoughts
Of the recognized committees who lurk throughout ya cities

Thursday, 7 March 2013

An empty house is not a home

Don't go to this

The trouble with vintage is: everyone knows the value of vintage. Demand is high and supply is...well, the scarcity of the stuff is the point. Digging in crates, trawling through charity shops and getting to the bottom of bargain basements is part of the appeal. The rarer is is, the more valuable; the more akin to junk, the more it is prized. Even Oxfam understands this, and has realised it can mark up a little to make more money (for famine relief, mainly, so that's ok). So, when you find out that an eccentric family, who have occupied several interesting houses in Paris, London and Yorkshire, will install their belongings in a small private front room in the heart of East London for five days and offer them for sale, that's the kinda thing you should totally keep to yourself. Definitely don't write a preview telling all and sundry about it; certainly don't include a map to the secret location. Damn – now, listen, keep this to yourselves, ok? 

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Grow Heathrow 3rd Birthday

From small acorns groweth mighty oaks: Grow Heathrow has been growing for three years now, and has indeed become a mighty, immovable Oak, laying down deep roots where otherwise might have been a third runway at Heathrow - and a whole heap of irreversable environmental damage. But the folks at Grow Heathrow aren't your average miserablist environmentalists – what's the point of saving the planet, if you can't have a big ass party to celebrate? That's why, on their third birthday, Grow Heathrow are putting on just such a (sustainable) shindig. They're inviting people onto their plot – a former waste ground and derelict nursery turned fertile and thriving market garden through their efforts – for a day of feasting, music, cake competitions, swap shops, arts and crafts, seed sewing, free yoga lessons and celebrations. Take along your friends and family – everyone's welcome – but don't be late: it starts at 1.27pm exactly...

Friday, 15 February 2013

Reclaim Love 10th Anniversary

Like all right-minded people, I'm anti-valentines. Obviously I am. But I'm also a little bit anti-anti-valentines: it just seems so cynical to declare all out war against amour. Money certainly cannot buy you love, but nobody likes a romance grinch. Well, if you're into eros but don't think it necessarily needs to be prettily packaged and delieved by a barber shop quartet, Reclaim Love is the perfect event for you. Every year on the nearest Saturday to Valentine's Day people all over the world gather to show their love in a non-commercial outpouring of emotion – music, face-paints, shared food, big smiles and free hugs take the place of cards and cut-flowers. This year is their tenth anniversary, so an extra special time to get down to the place it all began - the Eros statue in Picadilly Circus - join hands with a stranger and say: may all beings in all the worlds be happy and at peace. Aww... Vyvian Raoul

Friday, 18 January 2013

Waste of Space @ The 491

Richard Branson: scumbag

Joe Strummer, Damon Albarn, Annie Lennox, Vivienne Westwood, Robert Louis Stevenson and Richard Branson – all of them scumbag squatters at one time or another. And had the government's plans to criminalise squatting come in a little earlier, the world of music, fashion, poetry and, er, railways, may have been consequently bereft of their talent. Adrian Nettleship and Lisa Furness have seen this same dilemma played out with their local squatted art gallery, the 491 in Leytonstone. A community centre run by volunteers, with open access and regular classes for local people, that receives no government funding, its occupants are facing eviction. Waste of Space is an apt wedge behind the door, and one of the last opportunities for the public to experience arts at 491 - one last chance to visit this vibrant place...

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Choose life

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home... 

Dimbleby and Capper at our leaving party. Tim was invited, but he couldn't get a babysitter.

But I chose not to choose life: I chose to squat. And recently a website designed by Adrian Nettleship that documented some of that experience was featured in Wired online.

It is a very strange experience indeed to have people you've never met comment on your choices; me and my former housemates were described variously as thieves, scum, young, pretty and drug addicts (I can definitely say that we were neither young nor pretty). It's not the whole picture, so I'm going to elaborate on some of the choices that were made in this story - fill in some of the blanks

Not being able to afford to put a roof over your head is not a choice anyone makes lightly - most don't have the choice at all, of course. But I could have chosen to work in sales, or for a PR company, could have got myself a Good Job, I suppose. Then I could have chosen to give a third of my rent to a landlord, or one of those banks that are always in the news for all the Good Work they do (around this time, mine chose to secretly launder money for Mexican drug cartels).

Many people do make those choices, and presumably most see it as The Right Thing To Do; I chose to work a 40hr week for a charity and come home to wash my clothes in the bath.

This was my choice, and I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me - but don't feel too sorry for the owner, Sophie, either. Actually, we were on good terms: we paid all our bills and we took care of the property. She had lots and lots of other properties in her portfolio; this one she had left empty for four years. That was her choice. And it was a good one for her: when she eventually sold the property she made nearly £400, 000 on the deal.

Tim, the young accountant who eventually bought it (the asking price was over three quarters of a million pound), had another home to live in while he paid for this one to be developed. I don't know whether he was going to live in it or whether it was an investment - those were his choices to make. When he wanted us to leave, though, he gave us notice and we left. Before we did we cleaned the house from top to bottom, left him a house warming gift, and moved to another disused property - a former technical college that had been empty for 6 years.

Tim seemed pretty happy as well. He wrote us a reference, in fact, when we found ourselves up against less understanding owners - the technical college was owned by the same government that has been presiding over the current housing crisis. Their choices have seen homelessness rise every year since they took power.

It's a more nuanced story than you'll read in the Daily Mail - not so black and white. And I'm not ashamed of my choices, because they haven't caused any harm to anyone. Not everyone can say that...