The Null Device
There's a piece in the Telegraph (yes, the Torygraph) about the London housing crisis; the prognosis is not good. Basically, it's going to get much worse. Private tenants are, of course, screwed as they've always been, and there'll be no relief as the Invisible Hand Of The Free Market tightens the screws on them (and this will increasingly apply further from London, encompassing the entire South-East of England; basically, anyone living anywhere where a commute to London is not utterly soul-crushingly miserable will be paying through the nose for the privilege). The lucky few who have managed to grab a tenuous grip on the bottom rungs of the housing ladder as it started to pull away are also not out of the woods; as interest rates start to rise, many will find it difficult to keep up and some will fall off. As for their houses, and the thousands of flats being built around London, they're unlikely to help: virtually all of them (other than the super-premium ones bought as investments and “bubble-wrapped” by foreign investors) will be snapped up by buy-to-let landlords, flush with cash from their healthily growing rents and looking to build up their portfolios further, aided by preferential mortgage terms. The end result looks pretty bleak for everyone. Well, everyone with the exception of landlords, for whom life is good and can only get better:
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation extrapolates and suggests that by 2040 private rents will rise by more than twice as much as incomes, resulting in a majority of future private renters in England living in poverty. Social renting, currently the tenure of one in seven people, will house only 10 per cent of the population by 2040.And don't expect relief from any of the major political parties; none of them have submitted any proposals for fixing things, save for ones which would further push housing prices up, and keep the cash flowing into the pockets of landlords. Perhaps the fact that a third of MPs are buy-to-let landlords has something to do with their collective reluctance to in any way interrupt the party?
The elephant in the room is the assumption that the normal state of affairs is owning one's own home; this is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ideal, perhaps imported from the broad suburbias of the United States, where the average working stiff could buy and pay off a detached bungalow (at least in theory). Whereas in a lot of other countries, renting is seen as the normal state of affairs, in the UK, people live with the belief—or delusion—that it's a temporary state of affairs, a stepping stone on the way to being a fully-fledged adult member of the property-owning democracy. John Steinbeck famously said that socialism never took off in the United States because poor Americans, in their eternal optimism, saw themselves not as exploited proletarians but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires; perhaps in Britain, the idea of rent control, regulation (even such supposedly uncontroversial regulations as preventing landlords from evicting tenants in revenge for raising a fuss about problems), or even not rigging the system to funnel billions of pounds of taxpayers' cash to landlords, stems from a similar sentiment: that the hard-pressed renter, paying 60% of their income for a mouldy bedsit, will somehow eventually become a property owner, and, ultimately, graduate to the hallowed echelon of landlords, funding their golden years from the property portfolio that they will, in the fullness of time, inevitably own?
We Can Marry You Off Wholesale, a hypothetical piece set in an alternate universe where Facebook is evil and uses its power to monitor and manipulate human relationships to keep its users optimally unhappy for profits:
Facebook knew you were in love a long time before you did. It noticed you scrolling back through her timeline. Every millisecond lingering over the photos of her at the beach was faithfully logged.
On the surface, you two were perfectly suited to each other. But Facebook had detected a problem. At your age, it's hard for Facebook to make money from your love. Sure, a promotion for flowers earns a few bucks. Adverts for romantic dinners can bring in some cash. But here's not much money in that.
So Facebook acted. It "lost" the occasional message you sent her. It made sure that photos of her with other guys were always at the top of your newsfeed. She mostly saw your posts about drinking - and all the girls who had liked your status updates.
With perfect algorithmic efficiency, Facebook found you a beautiful wife who was practically guaranteed to produce a sickly child. Nothing too bad, mind you, but just ill enough to make you spend a little bit more than you would otherwise. A child is a joyous event. Lots of photos posted to Facebook. Lots of likes. Lots of inspiring updates about bravely struggling.This is, as the author points out, a work of fiction, though once the deep-learning algorithms are given access to all incoming data and control of the entire system, and optimised only to solve one problem (maximise profits, whilst avoiding a list of forbidden tactics that someone has thought of), there may be millions of subtly malevolent scams like this, all of them too complex for any human in a position of oversight to understand. Billions of equations, predicated on complicated models of circumstances and human behaviours, combining into scenarios which result in one or more users becoming slightly better-performing profit centres.
Upon seeing the title “The City That Privatised Itself To Death” in this morning's Guardian, I began wondering what gruesomely absurd edge-case of neoliberalism the piece would be about; some bankrupt municipality in the US, perhaps, reduced to selling its fire brigade to Uber-like privateers (who, subsequently, would elude prosecution after having been found actually setting fires) and flogging off tolling rights to its roads; or possibly some once-vibrant city in central America, cracked open like a ripe nut by corporate raiders armed with free-trade treaties and the IMF's full backing, bled dry and reduced to a fortified enclave and a sprawl of miserable shanty towns, their inhabitants busily dying of preventable diseases? But no, it turned out to be the latest Humorous Rant About London Privatisation/Gentrification (so bleak, you have to laugh), this time by a chap named Ian Martin (who, if I recall correctly, has stepped in for Charlie Brooker when he had a column):
Perhaps eminent historians will study London in the early 21st century, see how its poorer inhabitants were driven out, observe how its built environment was slowly boiled to death by privatisation. And they will wonder why people tolerated this transfer of collective wealth from taxpayers to shareholders. And they will perhaps turn their attention to Eduardo Paolozzi’s fabled mosaics at Tottenham Court Road underground station.
Paolozzi's mosaics' significance is, firstly, that they date back to the instance before the privatisation explosion and, more importantly, whatever their artistic merit, they take up space that could be otherwise monetised for advertising, as the owners of the city would will it to be.
You can’t paste an ad on to a wallful of public art. You can’t fix one of those irritating micromovies over it, telling a vacuous five-second story about investments or vitamins or hair. The Paolozzi mosaics went up as decorative art, just as privatisation was about to explode like a dirty bomb all over the public realm. What survives at Tottenham Court Road station is a brave, forlorn little seawall set against a stormtide of corporate advertising.
I say “we”, although the greatest trick Thatcherism ever pulled was this redefinition of “us and them”. Suddenly, people in your own family were voting Tory. Mrs Thatcher’s chief information officer, Rupert Murdoch, was telling us that the firemen and the dustmen were our enemies. That the women of the NUT and Nalgo were the mad, selfish defenders of a doomed elite. The Tory government went after the local authorities, telling us that government itself was our enemy. You were just going: “Hold on a minute, if you’re the government …” and then they shouted: “Oh, God, look! The Falklands!”, hired more expensive PR guys and carried on privatising.
Further on, Martin contrasts the Blatcherite moment of privatisation with the old world, the shards and pseudo-public spaces in the middle of ridiculous-looking postmodern vanity skyscrapers, with the heady, wholesome, if at times drab and unexciting-looking, not-quite-socialism of the post-war decades:
Let me tell you, little ones, about how popular music and the bright optimism of collective space came together long ago in London’s heady, soot-laden, pre-privatised air of 1967. Song of the summer was Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks, with its odd blend of keening melancholy and positivism. Nostalgia for a doomed postwar world, exhilaration for the coming of a new post-industrial one. Terry and Julie, facing the future unafraid. Wherever you went, it floated into earshot on a tide of treble from someone’s transistor radio.
(I have, as undoubtedly many who have heard Waterloo Sunset do, a particular image of Terry and Julie standing on the bridge; an image formed long before I heard that the song referred to Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Terry, in my vision, wears a beige cashmere jumper, and his chestnut hair cascades voluminously over his ears, as the hair of men did in 1967; he has a gold ring on the middle finger of his right hand, which rests on Julie's shoulder. Julie, his dollybird, hangs on his arm; she is tall (though half a head shorter than him) and beanpole-thin, with long, straight bottle-blond hair and teeth slightly too large, giving her a somewhat horsey appearance. Both of their respective sets of parents toiled in menial jobs, but the increased social mobility has allowed them to raise their expectations of what life has to offer. They have a little apartment near the Thames, which they've done up fashionably, a Dansette which they've bought on hire-purchase, and half a dozen records which get played when they invite friends over for parties. Life is good, and can only get better.)
And if you were Terry and Julie gazing at a Waterloo sunset in the summer of 67, you’d have seen the Hayward Gallery under construction. The beautiful, brilliant, brutalist Hayward, part of a people’s South Bank that had started with the Festival Hall in 1951 and would end triumphantly with the National Theatre in the 1970s. And we did gaze at it, thinking: “This is us.” This is us, building something amazing, for us. Several eminent architects worked on the scheme, but oversight belonged to the GLC architects department. Imagine that. A time when most architects worked in the public sector, designing a world of public space and collective aspiration, a world of affordable housing with statutory space standards.
Martin outlines the Blatcherite big-bang which ended all that; the privatisation of architecture, the normalisation of privately-owned spaces, with actual public participation governed by conditions enforced by private security, the transformation of public ownership into a sin—socialism— and its abolition into a moral imperative, takes a few shots at the Shard, and then extrapolates the zeitgeist to a post-apocalyptic conclusion:
On the current track, maybe life does become unbearable in the future, when the last remaining cubic centimetre of public space – a trembling pocket of air perhaps, in a cellar at the Emirates British Library – is finally acquired by a friend of King Charles III. At some point, there’ll be no more space left to squeeze and monetise. The city’s overlords will own everything. Qatari, Saudi, Russian, Indian, Chinese, some UK hedge funds named after Shakespearian characters – all air will be their air.
Then – who knows? Maybe when London is pixellated into billions of stock-marketable units of sequestered air, boing! The world cracks and changes. Iceland acquires the north pole, discovers tons of diamonds and becomes the richest nation on earth. Ghana puts the first woman on Mars. Scientists announce they can convert rising sea levels into environmentally sustainable “brinergy”. The global petrochemical industry suffers a fatal prolapse. Its sheiks and warlords, the fawned-upon princes who once did as they wished – buying up most of Streatham in the morning, beheading someone for sorcery in the afternoon – well, they’re dust and shadow now. Maybe the global property market follows oil down the plughole. London’s last human inhabitants head north, their hovertransits stuffed with electronic belongings and omniplasma, to affordable housing, a temperate climate and a hopeful, collective future.Also on the topic of spaces in the shadowy hinterland between public and private, the Guardian has a piece on the Thames Path, a public walking route running along the river's banks, considerable lengths of which (particularly in “regenerated” parts of London) have been surrounded with fences and gates, with the aim of intimidating the public into abrogating the right they have to use them, allowing them to finally be fully, legally taken out of the public realm.
My impressions of the new Belle & Sebastian album:
- The disco/club/EDM direction. It's not all over the album, but in enough places (and lurking in the background elsewhere; i.e., the subtle pumping synth pad underpinning Nobody's Empire, a piece of layered indie-pop à la B&S played otherwise straight), and it works convincingly. This wasn't Belle & Sebastian's first foray into dance music, of course; not counting the synth noodlings of Electronic Renaissance, there was the DFA-pastiche of Your Cover's Blown. And it works convincingly; they seem to get the idioms and work with them competently. The Party Line is essentially Your Cover's Blown II; following it, The Power of Three is reminiscent of Saint Etienne in its combination of sixeventies popular song and dance/electronica, without sounding very much like them, and Enter Sylvia Plath goes into eurodisco territory; sounding a little like Geoffrey O'Connor hypothetically covering ABBA's Lay All Your Love On Me.
- There has always been something very male-gazey about Belle & Sebastian; Stuart Murdoch, in his musical practice, has always had an eye for the girls, photographing them for cover artwork and telling stories about them, their inner lives and their struggles with faith, sexuality, social issues and body image, in his lyrics. (One can imagine an alternate universe where, by some bizarre twist in the time continuum, Belle & Sebastian signed to Sarah Records, but ended up parting ways with the label after a heated argument over cover artwork.) This record is not an exception. Granted, Murdoch is a middle-aged man, and in some cases, the girls his gaze rests on have aged with him (“now I look at you, you're a mother of two, you're a quiet revolution”); in other cases, such as The Everlasting Muse, the subject of his medusa-like gaze is that classical cliché, inspiration as feminine object of desire, or perhaps any one of a number of a succession of ingenues. And then there's the question of whether The Power Of Three is itself a mildly pervy double entendre, in the Carry On-esque vein of Step Into My Office Baby.
- Belle & Sebastian never were, nor claimed to be, a band from the radical vanguard of indie music, preferring instead to find subtleties in the quotidian. Publicly Christian (though in a thoughtful, soul-searching sort of way, with neither fire nor brimstone) where others leaned towards Marxism, Situationism or the heady brew of continental philosophy, studiously apolitical, and emphatically heterosexual, in a way that manages to eschew any trace of swagger or machismo, in a scene where, between Blueboy and riot grrrl, heteronormativity was anything but a given. In any case, this has positioned Belle & Sebastian well to comment on the everyday, and Perfect Couples continues this, ever so gently skewering the discreet charm of the Waitrose-shopping bourgeoisie, and weaving a wry narrative of marital boredom and that cliché, the mid-life crisis break-up.
- The big surprise, musically, is not so much the disco elements, but the Balkan groove of The Everlasting Muse, whose chorus sounds like a thigh-slappingly good knees-up in a Greek taverna.
- The gentle, wistful melodies B&S are famous for are still there, i.e., The Cat With The Cream and Ever Had A Little Faith; now, of course, filled out with string arrangements which work nicely without being overwhelming. And the closing track, Today (This Army's For Peace), echoes the rustic languor of Yo La Tengo at their most mellow.