The creativity of bar tenders

I have just experienced one of those disruptive moments when different aspects of life come into headlong collision with each other. And, now, in reflecting on this, I am adding yet another interruption to the ever-lengthening to-do list for August (which is, in principle, meant to be my quiet writing/editing month).

One of tasks I am in the middle of is writing an article on what i have referred to as an emerging new paradigm of work (OK, I know that sounds pretentious, but wait till you read it before passing judgement) which is itself a distraction from a book I am also supposed to be writing.

But in the middle of all this I was called upon in my capacity as secretary of a local residents’ association in Dalston to intervene in an ongoing debate about Hackney Council’s  consultation about its licensing policy. I thought I had done my bit by attending various meetings, responding formally to the consultation process, encouraging other local residents to fill in the online survey and speaking to various local journalists. But no. An obviously well-funded and well-organised aggressive campaign has been launched aimed at convincing young people that Hackney is trying to close down the local ‘creative’/’night-time’ economy and stop them having fun. After a series of phone calls and emails asking me to say something I posted this piece on the residents’ association website designed to correct some of the inaccuracies in their arguments.

I did a bit of background research to demonstrate that recent attempts to limit the numbers of new alcohol licenses granted have had absolutely no effect, and pointed out that recent government policies have actually made it easier than ever before for clubs and pubs and bars to get one-off all-night licenses. Then I turned my attention to the sleight of hand by which  the concepts ‘creative’ and ‘night-time’ are elided and, once this has happened, the employment figures relating to the estimated size of the ‘night-time economy’ are then used to claim that this is creating thousands of ‘creative’ jobs in the borough.

At this point I suppose I went into auto-pilot mode. I have been doing research on local economic development, on employment statistics, on the growth of the service economy, and on creative industries on and off since the 1970s and am familiar, to a yawn-provoking degree, with the statistics on pay and occupational change and the literature on ‘good jobs’/ ‘sustainable employment’/’decent work’. So without thinking much about it, I summarised what I and others have written umpteen times before – and presented the conclusion that most of the jobs generated by the night-time economy are not ‘good’ by most conventional standards.

(impatient readers can skip this bit, intended only to illustrate some of the complexity) To be a bit technical about it, the rough estimates of employment in the ‘night-time economy’ that economists can produce will be based either on counting the number of establishments in a given area that come into certain planning categories (Class A3, ‘food and drink shops’, Class A4 ‘drinking establishments’, Class D2 ‘premises for entertainment and leisure purposes’) and making certain assumptions about how many people each of them employs on average and multiplying the two together or taking the figures on employment by industrial sector (in this case ‘food and beverage service activities’ and  ‘creative, arts and entertainment activities’ )  which tend not to be broken down to much level of detail at the scale of single London borough, let alone a ward, or taking certain occupational categories (e.g. waiters, bar staff, doormen, entertainers etc. – I won’t bore you with the many four-digit codes involved) for which the most recent census figures would date back to 2001 and 2011 (you need two dates to see a trend). Each of these is riddled with problems, not least defining what constitutes a ‘job’ when many of the workers in question (such as cleaners) may work for a number of different organisations and others (such as dishwashers) may be employed on an extremely ad hoc casual basis, and taking account of the fact that people who live in the borough and those who work in it are not necessarily the same people.

Of course it is not appropriate to inflict a lot of technical stuff like this on a casual blog reader with an attention span of a few seconds but I did not want to let the assertion go unchallenged. If, I thought, these people are using the language of local economic development in making their claims about job creation then they must at least be familiar enough with the basic principle (local economic development 101) that when talking about new jobs one should speak about their quality as well as their quantity, so felt entitled to comment on this. And how is job quality usually judged? By the answers to such questions as: is it well paid? is it secure? is it permanent? are the hours compatible with family life? does it entail health hazards? how stressful is it? what are the promotion prospects? what kind of pension does it offer? is it likely to expose the worker to aggression, bullying or harassment on the grounds of gender, sexuality or ethnicity? And so on. And it seemed to me glaringly obvious that, on the basis of the available statistics and innumerable studies, most of the jobs in the ‘night-time economy’ score very poorly on most of these factors, so I did not bother to quote chapter and verse.

Well, how wrong can you be? The post provoked a storm of protest and viewing figures went up from the normal two digits a day to four . There was quite a flurry in the twittersphere and my inbox was deluged with abusive comments. Above all, the point that they all took exception to was the comment about job quality (I have since then amended the post in an attempt to make this point more clearly).

It was interesting  that most of the tweets were not from individual twitter accounts but those of particular bars and clubs. So at first I thought it was their proprietors reacting defensively to what they saw as accusations of being bad employers. I also thought perhaps they had picked on this point because it was the only one that was not incontrovertibly substantiated and therefore the easiest to deny. But then I realised that something else was going on. A lot of these young people really did seem to feel personally outraged that their jobs had, as they saw it, been denigrated. They could not see the distinction between critiquing the working conditions and critiquing the worker forced to put with them. They obviously had a huge personal investment in their work: in disparaging their jobs they thought I was attacking them as human beings. How dare I (snooty, middle-class property-owning nimby as they obviously saw me) so belittle them? For them, working in a cool venue in Shoreditch or Dalston clearly represents something to aspire to – a job at the heart of the ‘creative economy’, in touch with the newest fashions, rubbing shoulders with the famous. What could be more glamorous? For job satisfaction, and for image, it certainly beats working in a call centre, or totting up figures on spreadsheets in an office, sitting behind a cash desk in Marks and Spencer or whatever else a Job Centre might have directed them towards had they been uncool enough to try to find work the conventional way.

Numerically, of course, such people are a tiny minority of the sum total of people in Hackney doing menial jobs connected with preparing and serving food and drink and cleaning up after customers. I doubt if it would occur to them for one moment to identify themselves with this larger group of cleaners and waiters and dishwashers (although there is often a great deal of day to day contact, which I witness from the rear window of the room where I am writing this now, between the staff of the cool night club that more or less backs onto my house and the Turkish kebab restaurants that neighbour it, who share a common alleyway  for disposing of the rubbish, wringing out mops and stealing quiet moments to smoke and text).

Yet, untypical though they may be of these larger occupational groupings, these articulate media-savvy young workers do represent something important in the changing landscape of labour, something which is perhaps not new but certainly growing in importance – a sensibility in which the labouring self is the locus of a deep contradiction. On the one hand it is highly individualised (in the sense that each person has a need to present him or her self as a unique, highly stylised personality in the way that Gina Neff describes so well in her wonderful book Venture Labor). On the other hand, this personal identity is merged into the larger identity of the ‘scene’ in which the employment is located (in this case Hackney’s cool nightlife) from which it derives its sense of importance. The individual can thus be seen as simultaneously both a separate entrepreneur and part of a collective enterprise  into which his or her labour is co-opted (and within which power relationships may or may not be explicitly visible). Whether this identification with the larger entrepreneurial project forms the basis of these workers’ insistence that they are part of the ‘creative economy’ is unclear to me, but is a question I would like to investigate further. It is also possible that, like many before them, some of them do not identify directly with their jobs but see them as temporary roles that provide an income until they emerge into their ‘real’ creative identities, as actors, film directors, singers, photographers or whatever. The impoverishment of ‘real’ creative workers in the current conditions of a global digital economy makes this only too likely. This too demands much more research and is something we are giving attention to in yet another activity that is claiming my time at present – this research network.

To which kaleidoscope of mutually refracting mirrors of changes in labour in I must now return.

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Wisteria

wisteriaI am never sure how much my love of wisteria is visual, how much to do with its exotic literary associations (The pillow book of Sei Shonagon, the first Japanese book I read in translation, positively drips with them) and how much simply because of the sound of it: the way the word compresses ‘wistful’ and ‘hysteria’ – two such different stereotypes of femininity – into a surprising in-out gust of energy that mimics the vigour of its growth.

I had always wanted to live in a house with a wisteria up the front, like the lady in the pillow book, and planted this one in  2010 or 2011 (I can’t remember which) when the house was still at the mercy of builders, and it has flourished ever since, and now brings joy to me (and I hope the neighbours) every April.

There is obviously something in the Dalston terroir particularly conducive to wisteria growth. Nurtured by the droppings of rats with a protein-rich and chemically-enhanced diet of fried chicken and chips, the cocaine-infused urine of hipsters, the delicate hints of amyl nitrate wafting in the night air, and the beer – Oh the beer! – how can it not thrive?

Rung sweet rung

Dalston development 5 c

One of the most striking features of last week’s televised leaders’ debate was the extent to which it displayed a common vocabulary among the party leaders, regardless of political persuasion. In this new policyspeak,  citizens have been transformed into ‘hardworking families’ (when they are not ‘customers’ or ‘taxpayers’) and homes are invariably ‘the first rung of the housing ladder’.

These rungs are only too evident in Dalston.  Despite valiant attempts by local groups, such as Open Dalston, to save some of the area’s cultural and architectural heritage, the ‘town centre’, as the planners call it, has become a giant building site. Cashing in on Dalston’s hip reputation, the hoardings show images of the young and cool and feature slogans like ‘see it, be it, love it’ placed strategically where they can catch the eye of people leaving the nearby Arcola Theatre and Cafe Oto and late night clubbers staggering their giggling way towards the Overground Station.

Dalston development 3Dalston development 4

Yet it is hard to imagine a larger cultural gap than that between the edgy, self-ironising hipster aesthetic that made Dalston cool in the first place and the bland mass-produced blocks produced in their thousands by Barratt and Taylor Wimpey who are currently the two main developers in the area. They also happen to be two of the largest construction companies in the country. Even the staunchly Tory Telegraph regards Taylor Wimpey as a predatory company that is bringing undue pressure on public bodies to allow it to develop where it likes (see this article for an indignant expose of construction companies’ attempts to pressurise politicians to let them develop the Green Belt) while Lawrence Barratt (founder of Barratt Homes) is a well-known donor to the Conservative Party).

The evidence is that the overwhelming majority of buyers of these flats are not the young ‘creatives’ referenced in the images on the hoardings. Many are investors from countries like Russia, China and Pakistan (and more recently from crisis-hit economies in Southern Europe) wanting to park some of their money in the London property market. Such has been the increase in value in recent years that many do not even bother to rent them out – the flats are earning so much money (and, no doubt, helping their owners avoid so much tax and/or financial scrutiny back home) that there is no need for the hassle. In other cases they are bought by buy-to-let landlords. Their tenants are often people who work in the City of London, which is just a few bus stops down the road. Few, if any, are people from the local authority’s list of people with a real and desperate need for shelter. It could also be (but I have no firm evidence of this) that we are beginning to see a phenomenon that is already statistically visible in New York, whereby single people or couples who cannot afford the rent take a 2- or 3-bedroom flat that is too big for their requirements on the basis that they can boost their income by renting out the spare bedroom (or even in extremis the whole flat) through Airbnb – a process that drives up the market rents in an area, while depriving the local housing market of affordable rental properties for families

What is clear is that these flats are not intended for long-term occupation by people who want to put down roots in the area. A couple of years ago I actually went and viewed a show flat in the Barratts Dalston Square development on behalf of a friend of mind who is disabled and was looking for somewhere she could buy that had a disabled parking space and full wheelchair access.

dalston development 2 The disdainful young woman who showed me around was completely unprepared for such a request. All the glossy documentation she showed me featured graphs  demonstrating the return on capital over various different time periods according to a range of different economic scenarios, carefully differentiated to show both capital appreciation and potential rental income. When I asked her which flats were actually wheelchair accessible she told me that only two floors (four flats) in one 13-storey block (out of several blocks for which they were selling apartments ‘off plan’) came into that category. I noticed that the show flat had a lip over the threshold of the front door that was difficult to get a wheelchair over and asked her if the ‘accessible’ flats were available without this. She didn’t know. I also asked whether it would be possible to get kitchen units with the lower height worktop that wheelchair users need and she said ‘You’d have to talk to the architects about that’. It would definitely ‘cost extra’. How much? Again, she didn’t know (and clearly didn’t give a damn). When I said that I thought the point of buying off plan was to be able to customise such things she said that it wasn’t part of the normal package, had to be dealt with by a different department and – when pushed hard – admitted that ‘it wouldn’t be less than £20,000 extra’. The disabled parking space would also add £20,000 to the cost of the flat. She couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. The last thing they wanted, it was clear, was to have owner-residents actually living there who might make real demands on them as freeholders.

Dalston residents have fought long and hard to try to get the planning applications for these developments amended, but with rather little success. After strong lobbying, the number of ‘affordable homes’ in one development (a vast tower block that will go up beside Dalston Kingsland Station and cast its shadow down Ridley Road Market when the sun shines from the west and all the way across the borough boundary into Islington when it is in the east) was increased to 14 (11%) out of the total of 125 flats. When questioned about this policy of allowing these huge private developments, Hackney Councillors on the Planning Committee explain that there is a requirement for a certain number of homes to be built in the borough imposed by government policy and that they have designated this area (which has also been designated as a retail area and a centre for the night-time economy – uses which might seem to clash with each other) as one of the places this quota will be met.

But this policy seems to have absolutely nothing to do with meeting the actual social needs of Hackney residents. These flats have no gardens and no childrens’ play areas. They typically contain a mix of one, two and three bedroom flats (with the 3-bed ones only conceded very reluctantly after pressure from local objectors). They are not designed even for small nuclear families, let alone extended families. To the extent that they meet people’s housing needs at all (as opposed to the needs of global property investors) these are the needs of those emblematic ‘hard-working people’ who want to get their feet ‘on the first rung of the property ladder’. These people, if we are to believe the propaganda, are childless singles and couples who work in central London (and like a bit of partying). We can presume that they are expected, very soon, to move up to the second rung, which, if the likes of Barratt and Taylor Wimpey have their way, might be a 3-bedroom ‘town house’ in a suburb (in another Barratt or Taylor Wimpey development). In the next stage, they can move up to the third rung, one of those new-build 5-bedroom houses one spots from trains in the home counties or the edges of provincial towns, with an anonymous Disneyesque architecture that strips them of any association with the local soil (although no doubt the interiors feature those all-important en suite bathrooms attached to the master bedrooms and open-plan kitchen-diners that feature in the daytime TV property programmes): houses that really could be anywhere. Probably by this time these third-rung people will have children who, if they have artistic pretensions, will run screaming as soon as they are old enough to the nearest inner city location with enough poor people left living in it to offer some illusion of cultural authenticity, and the whole wheel will start turning again. In due course their parents will downsize and move onto further rungs, before making their final investment in a managed retirement community (releasing the capital for their offspring to start on rung one, having tired of bohemian squalor). But wherever they move, the benefits will accrue to the property developers and the new rentier class.

In the meanwhile, something priceless has been destroyed: the idea of a home as a home: somewhere to live, and for your children to live, as part of a stable community, knitted together through the generations. Whether it is owned or rented, what should matter is where it is, who the neighbours are, who is involved in the local school, the local political parties and the other organisations that make up the fabric of social life. Of course we should not idealise the past. Most London boroughs, for example, have a long history of appalling slum landlords, overcrowding, homelessness and vagrancy, coexisting with privilege and polarisation between the servant-employing classes and their servants. Nevertheless, much of the history of the twentieth century was a history of struggles to ameliorate this: to create decent public housing, education, health services and provision for the sick and destitute and to place these things in the hands of elected and accountable public bodies. To the extent that this succeeded, it created bodies of citizens, rooted in particular geographical areas (often through secure long-term jobs, as well as secure tenancies), who were able to exercise some leverage in their local communities,  in the knowledge that they belonged there and the faith that commitments they made to their neighbours and local institutions would be reciprocated. Thus are communities built.

This is not the place to rehearse those stories, endlessly repeated since the 1980s, of how the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ brought about the destruction of the communitarian and solidaristic values that had been created through such processes. But, with a crucial election looming, it is worth remembering that what we are seeing now, a culmination of this, is a dual process: not only does it place huge and growing proportions of our housing stock, as well as other commons, into the hands of enormous corporations; it also atomises and fractures communities, scattering people willy nilly to wherever the idiosyncracies of the market leave spaces for them.

In this process, Hackney, to stick with this local example, ceases to be a cluster of communities and becomes an unstable and temporary staging post in a myriad atomised trajectories made up of competing individuals fighting for a foothold, one rung at a time. Once designated as an area for the first rung and not for families, it starts to implode socially. People who have been brought up here have to move out. And incomers make little more commitment to the area than they would to the surrounding location of a motel they have booked into for a night or two. Who are the losers? Well interestingly enough, they are quite a diverse set of bedfellows: several communities that have made their homes here in successive waves of immigration; the British people who settled here because they liked this multi-ethnic environment and wanted to use its interesting shops and restaurants and bring up their children here; the later waves of students and artists and assorted hipsters and their gentrifying hangers-on; but also the institutions of local democracy. Hackney is a safe Labour parliamentary seat and Labour also has a majority on the local council. But in allowing the property developers to ride roughshod across the borough, the party is running the risk of kicking away the basis of its own support: the rungs of its own ladder; its electorate.

Environmental challenges in the inner city

You need nerves of steel to be an environmentally responsible consumer in this part of London. Take the question of recycling carrier bags. At the local Tesco Express the checkout operators already have the plastic bag ready and open to pack for you before you have even had a chance to plonk your basket down beside the till. They are manifestly in a zone of their own, their hands engaged in an automated rhythm that enables them (while abstractedly greeting the customer) to  swipe the goods and pack them without disturbing whatever inner chain of thought or inwardly hummed music gets them through the nearly intolerable stress of the job. If they can stay in the zone, they don’t have to engage consciously with whatever kind of psychopathic personality the customer might have or be reminded of the haraam nature of the food they have to handle which, however hermetically sealed in plastic, must be gross to think about if you are a strict Muslim.

So when you rock up with your sturdy cloth bag from Daunt Books saying ‘I have my own, thank you’ you are disturbing the swing of the labour process and jolting them unpleasantly into the reality of their situation (the long impatient queue of people grumbling into their mobile phones; the eye-to-eye stand-off in the doorway between the security guards and the drunks they are supposed to prevent from being served alcohol; the prickle of just-avoided contact between people whose class and gender and ethnic diversities are such that they would rather not touch each other; the smell – Oh that olfactory entropy, made up of layer after innumerable layer of chemicals, intermingled with the manifold varieties of animal and vegetable decomposition they are supposed to conceal or enhance. Don’t get me started).

You are usually met with a glare that says ‘Do you really think I want to TOUCH your manky bag?’ and left to pack it yourself. This is a challenge because what little spare space there is on the surface of the workstation is on the other side. If you aren’t buying very much, you can squeeze the bag, not properly open, into the half of the wire basket that doesn’t have shopping in it. More usually you have to prop it precariously onto the small triangle between the basket and the credit card reader, taking the items one by one from the exasperated checkout operator and trying to fit them in whilst also holding your purse. The only alternative is to hang it over your arm while filling it. Not recommended. Unless you have exceptional dexterity, you end up with a display of fumbling which irritates the people in the queue behind you as well.

Today I discovered yet another hazard. When I got home I found in amongst my shopping a small cardboard container packed with luridly coloured little sachets which, on inspection, turned out to contain ‘2015 Premier League Socker Stickers’*. They must have been on display by the checkout to entrap exhausted parents into spending even more (‘Every little helps’). Priced at 80p each. I must have inadvertently shoved around £100 worth of them in with my shopping.

I returned them, of course. Expecting at least, perhaps, a smile or an ice-breaking moment. ‘Silly me’. Or ‘Fancy those security guards not spotting I was shoplifting’. But no. The young woman who had served me was not at her workstation but I recognised her from behind by her hijab, attracted her attention and handed them back. She took them politely but without a flicker of interest or amusement. Like the other checkout operators and the people in the queue she seemed to think I was quite mad. No words were spoken (other than by me) but what the expressions said, loud and clear, was ‘Why on earth did you bother to bring them back?’.

Why indeed?

* an illustration of capitalism’s seemingly infinite ability to generate new commodities. it would be interesting to know how that 80p is distributed among which economic actors along what must be a bizarre value chain (paper manufacturers? football clubs? printers? the factory- or home-based labour of packers? writers? designers? photographers? transport workers?) all for a coloured sticker whose raw materials must be almost worthless and which will bring, at best, only moments of pleasure to the child who, presumably, gets to stick it in a sticker book, swap it with a friend or discard it as a duplicate.

A workhouse without walls

Another winter is upon us, with a bitter wind blasting the doorways which provide the only beds for increasing numbers of Londoners. The side entrance to the Rio Cinema, opposite my house, previously only used as as urinal, now has a regular occupant, as has just about every doorway in this stretch of Kingsland High Street. Yesterday morning, getting off a bus near Liverpool Street Station, my eye was drawn by a festive bunch of balloons outside a door bearing the inscription ‘Dirty Martini: spirited sophistication”.

dirty martini‘The office party season’s started’, was my first thought. Then I realised there was someone asleep there, huddled up against the cold, with a stream of early morning commuters stepping past. There is a peculiar angry stamp that people who work in the City adopt. Probably something to do with the uncomfortable shoes they feel they have to wear for work. The women, especially, in their hard high heels, hammer their way along the pavement as though they have a personal grudge against every slab. It sounds as if a stonemason’s at work. You’d have to be utterly exhausted to sleep right through it.

 rough sleeper with ballonssunrise in the city 2

The sun was rising red in the east and the wind was howling round the nearby skyscrapers – the Heron Tower, the Gherkin and other newcomers whose names I don’t know.  It’s a threatening environment in which to try to find shelter, with a reminder around every corner of wealth and privilege and how tightly it is guarded. The newer of these gleaming glass towers are designed with zero emissions in mind, meaning that there are not even hot air vents to allow a little warmth to reach the destitutes on the streets.

The growing numbers of rough sleepers on the streets are only one of many indications that Britain is increasingly taking on the character of a vast workhouse, but, unlike its 19th century precedecessors, one in which there is not even a roof to keep out the weather. You cannot turn on the radio,  glance at a newspaper or log on to social media without being inundated with evidence: the exponential growth in numbers of people using foodbanks; the ‘sanctioning’ (arbitrary withdrawal of benefits) of claimants for such trivial offences as arriving a few minutes late for an appointment at a Job Centre; people being declared ‘fit for work’ when they are on their deathbeds; a cancer patient in Scotland told to give up his therapy if he wanted to retain his benefits; kids forced into unpaid ‘work placements’. I will not bore you with references. A cursory google will throw up enough horror stories to place you in that almost catatonic state, beyond shock, that so many of us now seem to inhabit.

Suffice it to say, the welfare state that my generation grew up taking for granted (far from perfect as we knew it to be) has morphed into a regime that has anything but welfare as its prime objective (unless we are talking here about the welfare of the occupants of the boardrooms of those gleaming glass towers in the City). Increasingly run under incompetently drafted service contracts (whose main feature is a requirement to meet targets) by multinational corporations with a firm eye on the bottom line, the main effect of this regime is to harrass and humiliate the most vulnerable people in society and transform them into a forced reserve army of labour, with no sense of entitlement, coerced to work below the cost of subsistence.

It is kept in place partly by a series of unexamined shibboleths perpetuated in a variety of ways – by the mass media, by the main political parties and by others – that are increasing taken for granted by the general public. These include the beliefs that:

  • The British welfare state is too generous. This is why so many immigrants are attracted here.
  • The welfare bill is too high. The only way the economy can claw its way out of recession and into growth is by more cuts to services and benefits
  • There are still too many benefit scroungers. They are stealing from hard-working people and need to be flushed out and punished.
  • The tax credit is a progressive innovation.
  • The Baby Boomer generation are an unaffordable burden on the young.They should be made to give up some of their privileges.
  • Raising the minimum wage would place an intolerable burden on small businesses and make life impossible for the entrepreneurs who create jobs.
  • Increasing income tax punishes hard-working people.
  • Increasing corporation tax drives out investment and destroys jobs.
  • The private sector can deliver services more efficiently than the state.
  • There is no alternative to continuing austerity.

I believe all these statements to be dangerous myths and I hope to demonstrate why in a series of blog posts of which this is the first.

My reason for doing so is to contribute to a debate which I think is opening up quite broadly, though not in a very joined-up way, about what sort of welfare state is desirable or achievable in these times. What alternative is there to the workhouse without walls?

It is often thought, on the left, that demands for new welfare models are necessarily ‘transitional’ (in Trotsky’s sense): demands that cannot be met without a revolutionary change to the whole system. It may well be that this is the case for some of the options I hope to be discussing. But I would like to emphasise now that this is not necessarily the case for all of them because many of the features of the current system are actually dysfunctional for capitalism itself. This can be illustrated by just a few examples.

Here’s one: in the hypercasualised labour markets of zero-hours contracts and crowdsourcing where people are employed for a few hours, or even minutes, at a time, a welfare model that assumes that someone is either ‘in employment’ or ‘unemployed’ simply does not fit the reality. A more flexible benefit system would actually make it easier for employers to tap into these forms of labour.

And here’s another: employers are finding it so difficult to recruit workers with children because of the lack of unaffordable childcare facilities that the Confederation of British Industry is now campaigning for an expansion of free childcare (see   http://www.channel4.com/news/free-childcare-workers-business-britain)

Capitalism has historically benefitted from the strong welfare states to be found in the Nordic countries and from the British NHS. It is much easier for companies to locate somewhere where they know the workforce is educated and has its health taken care of by the state than to have to negotiate expensive company health insurance schemes (as many large companies had to do in the United States in the latter part of the 20th Century).

Too much poverty leads to a drop in consumer demand which is bad for business (just look at how the big supermarket chains are suffering right now) and too much destitution will, sooner or later, lead to breakdowns in public health and public order.

It would be nice to think that this question – What sort of welfare state do we want?  – will be on the agenda for public debate in the lead-up to the next General Election. I’m not holding my breath.

But watch this space.

Everything must go

Looking out of my window first thing this morning I was greeted by a sight which, whilst all too familiar, I still find stomach-churningly revolting: pigeons breakfasting on human vomit on the pavement opposite my house. Summoning up all the optimism I can, I try to regard this as part of the ecology of Hackney: nature’s unbelievable ability to generate new life from the detritus of the old. But I am strongly resisting the urge to think of it as one lot of vermin feeding another. Fortunately, before too long the street cleaning team came along with their machine (thank you Hackney Council) and washed it away. They also got rid of most of the rubbish but missed a few items, including this empty champagne bottle whose contents quite possibly contributed to the vomit.

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It stands there as a testimony to the increasing social polarisation in the area. The moneyed kids who can afford to get legless on champagne are, by their very presence, innocent though this may be, driving the desperately poor out of the public spaces. In the last month two pound shops have closed in Kingsland High Street, no doubt to be replaced by up-market restaurants and clubs, or ‘vintage’ clothes shops (worth a whole article in themselves, these, an expensive parody of traditional second-hand clothes shops with nothing in them that a really poor person could possibly afford). The pound shops got rid of their stock as other shops do: ‘everything half price’ and ‘everything must go’. Half price, in a pound shop? I thoughtwondering what difference this could possibly make.  But then I saw the queues of desperate people descend on them, elbowing each other to grab the bargains. When the first shop was nearly emptied (the second one still hasn’t completed the ransacking process) it looked like the sort of scene you might see on the news in the aftermath of some disaster as these hastily taken and blurry pictures show.

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This speaks of a degree of hardship unimaginable to the hipsters revelling at night on the streets made funky and cool precisely by the presence of these poor people and their improvised solutions to the intractactable obstacles they face, whose environment seems so lively and colourful to people brought up in the bland and ordered suburbs.

Another insight into life on the poverty line in Hackney came through my letterbox recently in the form of  some condensed ‘Testimonies of God Visitation at Triumphant Chapel’ . Packed onto two sides of a folded A5 size sheet of pink paper are thirteen typographically challenging vignettes of local life, featuring the healing power of Pastor Kennedy. As well as performing spiritual and bodily miracles (‘Delivered from Satanic Strongholds’, ‘Healed from Acute Abdominal Pain’, ‘One Year Blood Flow Healed’) Pastor Kennedy also helps people negotiate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the immigration system and survive the daily buffeting of the search for work. I give you two examples here: ‘Immigration breakthrough’ and ‘Miracle Job’, both of which hint at the extreme stress which must be the daily experience of being a migrant in Hackney’s precarious labour market. (you may need to click on the images to increase their size so you can read the tiny print).

immigration breakthroughmiracle jobWhat kind of a society is this, where the chance to work a 12-hour shift for an agency (something which would have been thought intolerable punishment 40 years ago) is something to thank the Lord for?

And where, when the gentrification is complete, will be left for such people to live?

Found Art (or the delights of negative entropy)

cream on cream

Cream on cream. Multiple layers of slightly mismatched paint covering graffiti on this wall produce an effect that reminds me of the visual experimentation of early 20th century artists like Kazimir Malevich or Ben Nicholson*.

A sophisticated awareness of graffiti is now part of the essential intellectual armoury of any East London resident or visitor with pretentions to hipness or gentility. Tourists take guided tours of the street art of Shoreditch, Islington home-owners trying to sell their £1 million houses proudly point out the Banksy at the end of the road to their potential buyers and no art bookshop is complete without a table of expensive glossy books on street art (some, rubbing in the irony, with names like ‘The Art of Rebellion’). There is even an iphone app called ‘Street Art London’, celebrating the work of the likes of (pseudonymous yet would-be famous) Phlegm and ROA.

found Frank Stella

A found ‘Frank Stella’*

Conferring this formal status as ‘art’ onto something that used to be regarded (by society at large) as nuisance and vandalism and (by a minority of intellectuals) as a transgressive form of Art Brut creates troubling contradictions both at the aesthetic and the social level.

At the aesthetic level, the self-conscious artistry of a Banksy or Phlegm deprives us as viewers of our ability, in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp or Jean Dubuffet or  Kurt Schwitters, to become an artist ourselves by being the person who ‘sees’ the art in our environment. Their graffiti are defiantly presented to us as ‘already’ art and we are put immediately onto the back foot, with the choice of passively enjoying it, thus constituting ourselves as fans of the artist, thereby conferring status on him or her, or of being cast as killjoy philistines. Either way we lose that intellectual superiority that comes from asserting the dominance of our own vision that goes along with the identity of artist.

a found Mark Rothko

A found ‘Mark Rothko’*

At the social level, the public authorities or property owners who are keepers of the urban landscape are faced with the practical dilemma of defining what is, or is not, public art in their daily decisions about what to leave untouched and what to paint over. This gives them an unacknowledged role as arbiters of taste.

Another found ‘Rothko’*

The results of their paintings over have become a great source of visual pleasure to me. there is a cream-painted wall opposite my house that is frequently graffitied on and, just as frequently painted over by Council workmen. Each time they do so, another rectangle of slightly differently coloured cream paint is layered over what already exists creating a subtle patchwork of cream-on-cream that I love. It reminds me of early 20th century experiments in abstraction.

Also near my house is a derelict pub one of whose walls is overlaid with similarly overlapping layers of shades of red and pink. I think of it as a wall of  Rothko paintings, though the other side of the building is more reminiscent of Jasper Johns or Frank Stella.

found Jasper John

A found ‘Jasper Johns’

I am of course seeing them through modernist-trained 20th century eyes. But no eye is innocent. Sometimes I wonder about the vision of those Council workmen whose job it is to go round implementing the zero-tolerance-of-antisocial-behaviour-including-graffiti policy. For all I know, some of them could themselves  have spent teenage evenings with a spray can leaving their personal mark on the drab neighbourhoods they grew up in. Or some might be spare-time artists in a more socially recognised sense. Or might some even be doing the work as Community Service, enforced punishment for past crimes, perhaps even seeing what they have to do as a brutal desecration of forms of cultural expression that they identify with and cherish? Or could this repeated repainting be work done, not under the Council’s jurisdiction at all but by some artist-squatter?

another detail from the rothko wall

Another detail from the ‘Rothko wall’*

 

Most jobs, of course, involve some sort of pride in the craft being exercised (I have written about this here) and I am sure that any conscientious worker with a paint roller in hand must be exercising some sort of judgement about how the paint is applied, perhaps even with some sense of leaving an individual stamp on the finished work. I wish I knew more about the labour process of these workers. Is the defiant patch of grey on my local Rothko wall (pictured here) the result of a conscious aesthetic decision, perhaps? Or had they simply run out of reddish paint that day and abandoned the attempt at a colour match?

Rothko wall

An artefact created in a complex interaction between weather, plant life, neglect and human intervention both sanctioned and unsanctioned*

Whatever the intention, my pleasure as a viewer is tempered with a certain unease. Haunting each such wall is its complex history: the pristine wall, the graffitied wall, and the overpainted wall, with perhaps many intevening layers of deterioriation, repair, alteration and restoration. Each of these might provoke a different aesthetic response: admiration, regret, celebration, aversion. In taking a picture of such a wall, am I responding to it as intended art (like a tourist taking a photo of the Taj Mahal) or as unintended art (like someone ‘finding’ unexpected beauty in nature)? Or might I be ‘discovering’ some form of ‘naive art’, like a Cubist coming across an African mask, or a feminist historian a patchwork quilt? And if so, am I perhaps patronising the people who made it, imputing to them an ignorance of their own creativity or even appropriating and commodifying the results of their aesthetic labour? Am I entitled to see my representation of it as an original artistic work?

private

View from train window, mid 1990s*

I first became aware of the beauty of the overpainting of graffiti when I took this picture from a train window in Brighton, some time in the 1990s. When I took it, I was most conscious of the pattern of black verticals and horizontals against the different reds and oranges on the station platform. It was only when I looked at it afterwards that I realised that the lovely subtle colour patterns, whose irregularities had puzzled me, must be the result of such overpainting. Despite the streaks (caused by the hairy plate on an old scanner on which a cat used to sit) I still like it as an image, especially the serendipitous way it has captioned itself with the word ‘private’.

There is something both moving and optimistic in this continuous human effort of renovating and remaking our urban landscapes. It gives us a visual representation of the dialectical relationship between originality and inherited aesthetic values, between individual transgression and collective social control, between the private and the public and between the past and the present. Unfortunately, the conditions that sustain this delicate dynamic balance are now under threat. It could easily be lost: if public spending cuts continue; if the anger of unemployed youth spills out of control; if more of our common public space is privatised and placed behind locked gates; or if ‘development’ is allowed to bulldoze our communities. Cherish it while you can.

another rothko

Another luscious ‘Rothko’ to end on*

Postscript: All this was triggered by the fact that I was burgled last week and my handbag stolen, leaving me temporarily not only without any formal means of identification or of conducting any financial transactions but also without my bus pass. As a result, I was obliged to walk along a route I usually travel by bus, giving me a chance to take photographs of the ever-evolving ‘Rothko wall’ I so often enjoy through its windows.

* click on these images to see them in greater detail.