Archive for November, 2008

What do recessions bring?

On the most basic level, what’s happening now: the collapse of one or many sectors of the economy, a drop or collapse in house prices and, most importantly, a loss of jobs. The latter is the hardest – when you have to struggle all day every day for weeks, months, years just to get a job (‘finding a job is a full-time job’), and kiss ass to some dickhead boss just to keep the job you have – and it’s amazing how many cretins, how many exploitative, bullying little pricks come out of the woodwork when times get bad – a recession is more than just numbers or news of some hedge fund company going bust. It’s real, and it’s now.

But recessions are awful only incidentally because of economics. After all, in purely economic terms, folks around the world and in very recent history lived much worse than us and put up with much more. It’s the way people get. You can see it even now, before the pain has really set in – people withdraw, get fearful, they look inward. Emotionally, spiritually, culturally, it is the equivalent of the banks not wanting to lend to each other. In some cases, if things get bad enough, and go on long enough – people can even get evil.

It’s not the economics, it’s the fear, resentment, the inward-turning loss of spirit you have to watch out for. And in Britain, it’s an open question which way it will go . . .

Read Full Post »

Victoria Tube Station, 8:30 am.

I missed the train and caught the tube. At Brixton, the very end of the Victoria line, two tube trains were sitting in the station, packed full of passengers, with no sign of leaving. More and more people got on the trains until they were full right down the aisle while a couple of inspectors or coordinators or whatever they were strolled around trying to figure out which drivers to send to which train.

Finally one train left, another sat there as more people piled on – another train pulled in and me and a bunch of other ‘customers’ (as the euphemism has it) rushed over to get the seats before that train filled up as well – and by the time the train did pull out five minutes later, it was standing room only.

   By Victoria, four stops on, the car was so packed you could hardly squeeze through to get off the train. I followed two other passengers, a man and a woman, as they forget a path through the impossible press of bodies. You felt bad pushing through – having been on the receiving end more than once, with someone stepping on your foot – and really having nowhere to go since people are pressed in all around you. But you have to get out. Some nice London touches – the man pushing through fell over on top of a woman standing on the platform, and sort of half-embraced her to say sorry – so many times you encounter this sort of ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling in these impossible situations in London – but before I was even off the people on the platform were pressing in, pushing me backward, knocking me off balance so if I really slipped I’d be pushed under the crowd – until someone pushed me from behind and I yelled out and people gave way.

Upstairs, they’d blocked off the entrances so they could regulate the flow of people descending into the station. That is, pulled back the metal grates they use to shut off the station after closing. Outside, people were queued up around the stairwells, dozens and dozens deep, and once they opened the gates, people flooded  into the station to queue up in the hundreds in front of the ticket barriers (which, curiously, they leave open after hours at the train stations and sometimes the tube, but never at rush hour, when people have to queue dozens and dozens deep to pass through the gates).

I swore I’d never catch the tube at that time of day again. But people do it every day – stand in the aisles on packed trains with people on their mobiles yammering in their ears and the train waiting at an interminable time at the station because of some delay (‘We regret any inconvenience caused’) queuring for the ticket barriers at the train station, queueing for the ticket barrier at the tube – standing crushed together in the tube for the bruising ride to work.

Read Full Post »

Unreal City,   60
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,  
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,  
I had not thought death had undone so many.  
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,  
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

TS Eliot, The Wasteland.

Boy, does that describe London. As it was then, so it is now . ..

I don’t understand people here. I don’t understand their coldness, the way they can be crammed so unbearably close together, yet remain so comopletely isolated – like they hardly even see each other. When I think back to the long period when I was away from London in the 90’s, it was this isolation that most scared me about this city – the fear of being swallowed by the grey, by the extreme anonymity, until I felt I hardly existed. The grey creeping into my nerves, senses, soul . . . a weight where my heart should be, congealed into grey mornings and grey afternoons . . . that monotonal emotional pitch that comes so easily to the Anglo-Sexon spirit.

This fear is a little further away now, but I still feel it. Isolation hangs about this city like the damp. When I first got back to New York this spring, one of the most intense pleasures (and pains) was being able to feel again. it was like discovering a faculty that had gone missing, like the ability to see colour after seeing only in black and white . . . I don’t remember London always being this way, but perhaps my circumstances were different before. Maybe that’s part of why people drink so much here, so they can feel again – so they can feel like they EXIST . . .

Read Full Post »



Westminster Cathedral Tower at dusk

Westminster Cathedral Tower at dusk



That Iconic Eye

That Iconic Eye

Read Full Post »

The Road

When all this economic tumult started I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. What a thoroughly depressing book.

The plot revolves around a man taking his son down from the cold and very arid North-Eastern US to the warmer though still very arid Soutwest US, through a landscape rendered lifeless by an unnamed catastrophe. On the way they encounter bands of cannibals who follow the roads leading katamites (sex slaves) in chains, or keep other human beings in basements chained up so they can feast on them limb by limb – hacking their limbs off while their victims are still alive, boiling  them in a pot or impaling them on stakes and so on. In one scene, man and boy stumble on a cooking pot in the woods after seeing a pregnant woman with two men trudging along the road. In the cooking pot is a newborn, evidently the woman’s.

People eat each other because every other form of life has been wiped off the face of the earth by this unnamed acopalypse, in which terrible fires swept the globe, reducing the forests to carbon, covering the planet’s surface with ash, choking even the seas. In the end, the man dies but all this grey is capped by a triumpth of love over death in the form of the man’s love for his son, a faint glimmer of hope for humanity, life, God in this love.

Yeah. Sure.

This is one of those books that, because of the author’s reputation and the apocalyptic theme, is automatically rendered ‘A Great Book’. But frankly, if you’re going to depress the hell out of me – and the thought of a future where no life exists except scattered bands of crazed human, where a woman would consign her own newborn to a cooking pot, is profoundly depressing, especially when the papers are forecasting a return to the Great Depression, as they were this fall – then it better be for good reason. And ‘The Road’ is no good reason. Basically, it is just some hokey fantasy, a ’28 Days driven by luminous prose.

Take the whole reason why people become cannibals, the unnamed Apocalypse. Only three things could render the earth so utterly desolate – nuclear war, the extreme end of global warming where methane fireballs roar off the oceans, eviscerating everything in their path, or a giant asteroid that creates a thousand year night like the asteroid that finished off the dinosaurs. In either of these three scenarios, ‘The Road’ is impossible. If we choose all-encompassing nuclear war, then the radiation would make it impossible for human beings to survive more than a few months, never mind form bands to eat each other. If it was eternal night or methane fireballs, ditto – except that I think (though I’m no biologist) that if humans could manage to live, breathe, talk – and eat each other –  in Earth’s poisoned atmosphere, then so could say grubs, cockroaches, rats, and some of kind lower form of life in the oceans. I mean we are on the very high end of the food chain after all. Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t be the greatest place to live, maybe the eatin’ could be better, but  – there would be things to eat. Roots? Termites? Slime? Maybe some humans would turn to cannibalism to supplement their diet, for kicks – some people do it now, for no reason at all – but I don’t think it would be the only choice.

The Road is a fake, like so much literature that comes out now. It has nothing to do with where are now, or where we might be in the future. One thing I hope this downturn changes is our taste for fakes –  like meaningless celebrity, they’ve reigned supreme for far too long.

Read Full Post »

In City AM this morning: Jobless nearing 2 million

That’s just to September. I’m sure it’s worse now. Somehow, these figures don’t really convey what’s happening. For this hombre, it’s been very difficult to find work in the UK since September and it feels like everything is just locked down. Possibly this is partly psychological – headlines blaring 1929 Redux for two weeks straight are bound to have an effect – but talks of a ‘looming’ recession are bogus. The recession, in the UK at least, is very much now.

I’ve never known this country in boomtimes. Just one month after I moved here in 1987, Black Monday hit and thus began the last prolonged downturn. I lasted here another couple of years – and I have to admit the first couple of years weren’t bad at all. For a young guy like myself, in London, work was pretty easy to find and if the pay wasn’t great there was always the dole. And squatting. Not having to pay rent made it easy to live in London.

But by 89, you could feel the gloom which had suffocated the rest of the country since the 70’s closing in and by 91, when I came back, London was just plain depressed. The only job I could get was Roadsweeping in SE London. I met guys there who had mortgages, car payments to make, who’d made a good living as satellite dish installers or other service jobs, who were working 92 hour weeks sweeping roads just to make the bills. The IRA was in full swing and every other day the tube or the trains shut down because of a bomb threat. A permanent gloom seemed to hang over the city. The experience was so depressing I didn’t come back for nearly three years.

By the mid-90’s the gloom wasn’t so thick but it wasn’t great here. Jobs weren’t easy to find and people were still by and large depressed. Service was non-existent. Ask a question in shop, pub, at work and the inevitable response was a blank look, followed by a sort of whining ‘don’t konw’. No one wanted to be bothered. Even by 97, on my next trip back, things didn’t seem much better.

But when I returned in 2000, London seemed an entirely different city. More outgoing for one – people did seem to look at each other on the street then, to have some contact in bars and pubs. The food had improved dramatically – in my week back, I didn’t have one bad meal and everyone I knew here had good jobs, was making enough – and yet London itself hadn’t changed a great deal, so you could still find the old neighborhoods, the old pubs, the litle cafs. London felt exciting again, an echo of the city I first expereinced back in 87.

I’m sorry now I didn’t move back here sooner. By the time I got here in 2006, the city had changed again. You could just feel the gloom starting to set in – the pay didn’t match the prices and there was a sense of a society spilling out of control with the insane binge-drinking, the rise in popularity of drugs like cocaine (cocaine! So very 80’s! So very boring!). Little things, like the independent bookshop closing down in the St. James Mall, that last independent sort of store in the area.

And more than that, a general unhappiness. People here seemed deeply unhappy.  This is a very unhappy society – you only have to look at the children, possibly the most miserable I’ve seen anywhere – to realize that. I wonder if the recession will bring out a different sort of spirit here, and where this city will be in two, three years time.

Read Full Post »


Read Full Post »

From the Telegraph: 

50 Things You Didn’t Konw About Barack Obama


 I’ll bet you really didn’t know the president-elect collects Spiderman and Incredible Hulk comics. Lord knows I didn’t.

Read Full Post »

A New Era

Whatever comes next, this a great moment for the United States of America, and for the world. 

I wish I was in New York City right now to share in it’s joy. To be part of the joy sweeping the Beautiful City even as I write this. 

God Bless President-elect Barack Obama and God Bless America.

Read Full Post »

Tuesday the 4th . . . even on this foggy English morning you could feel the electricity in the air, fed by the headlines across the newspapers (except for the freebie Metro which warned: “Britain to suffer from downturn more than rest of EU”) – right through to the crowds massing through the Victoria Station rush hour, on the street outside.

You feel like, with all that’s been going on, this is the beginning of a new era. It may be a frightening era – all that economic bad news has to add up to something and everyone knows the crash in jobs, savings, mortgages, is going to follow the crash in the stock market. Even if Obama, the big favorite here and throughout the world beyond the US, wins, there’s no telling what will happen – or if he’ll live up to even a fraction of the expectations around him. But the most powerful country on Earth will be on a different course . . . and whoever wins, Obama or McCain, and whatever they do once in office, new forces and expectation will be unleashed in the US and around the world.

After my shift at yet another shabby art college, i walked through Hackney to Bethnal Green tube. Mostly black area, everything closed off except the two or three kebab shops per block, yellow signs glowing in the foggy dark. If the black folks on the street felt anything about the possible election of the first black president of the USA, they didn’t show it. All the pubs, and even the street was empty . . . somehow I’d expected something else.

   At Bethnal Green tube, some english guy in a yellow vest and a light beard was screaming at an African guy who kept pushing him out of the way. They were arguing on the side of the road and the traffic behind them was honking furiously and soon it transpired that the African was trying to push the white guy away to get back to his car, which was parked in the middle of the road. When he finally got in, the white guy got in front of his car, smashing the hood with his fists, screaming something about a bike – refusing to get out of the way even when the African guy gunned the engine, edged forward, almost knocked him over, then drove forward with the guy hanging on his hood. Somehow, he got around the guy – who then jumped in front of the truck behind him, leaping onto the engine manifold and clinging on while the trucker drove forward. 

   And all this while a bunch of East End boys stood in front of the pub smoking: “run ‘im over!” 

   So that’s my election night. I’d planned to be in New York for this night, but it was not to be . . .

Read Full Post »