Ellen Meiksins Wood – her importance to me

I was extraordinarily saddened to hear last night of the death of Ellen Meiksins Wood and it took me a while to work out why. After all, I hardly knew her. We met a couple of times and I can recall in some detail only one conversation with her (in a taxi in New York). And I haven’t read nearly enough of her writing – though enough to recognise her brilliance, acuity and principle.

It is so often in retrospect that one realises someone’s importance – too late to tell them about it. There is a Welsh song about a harpist in the Vale of Llangollen who dies a lonely death ‘without a morsel to eat or a drop of water’ but then, when the news of his death gets out, his mourners  bring enough food and drink to the funeral feast to have kept him alive. Ellen was not lacking in love and appreciation, I am happy to know, but I still wish I’d sent her a fan letter.

Why was she so important to me? First, and most obviously she was a shining, original political economist, combining an over-arching grasp of the theoretical landscape with the intellectual confidence to address the big questions directly, without feeling she had to tiptoe along in the footsteps of everybody else since Marx who had inquired into them, nodding politely or scowling, as appropriate, at each of them before venturing her own conclusions. (Which is not to say she was not well-read or scholarly).  Second, she was a woman. During a period when more and more women were entering academic life, it was still extraordinarily rare in the field of political economy for a woman to be recognised and respected as a towering intellect with a grasp of the whole – and NOT just someone who writes about gender. In fact it is hard to think of anyone since Rosa Luxembourg who achieved this status on the academic left. The third remarkable thing about her that was personally important for me was her milieu.

The two aspects of this that I had first-hand contact with were the School of Political Science at York University in Toronto, where she inspired several generations of students and Monthly Review, which she edited for a while. I am wondering now how much of a coincidence it was that these were the two places where I first gained some recognition as serious political economist.

During a period when most critical theory was drowned in the tsunami of post-modernism that swept through universities more or less in parallel with the tsunami of neoliberalism that swept through the world economy from the 1980s on, they kept alive a tradition of serious, thoughtful, grounded, historical materialist theory that was open and unsectarian, and carried out not for the sake of academic plaudits but as part of a serious political project: to understand the world with the aim of helping change it without trying to preach to working people, dictate their strategies, chide them for their inadequacies or substitute for their leadership. This was achieved by multiple means, including Leo Panitch’s inspirational editorship of Socialist Register, and a stream of clever PhD students, generating a critical mass of Marxist scholarship that was large enough to renew itself – too many names to list here.

I felt welcomed and understood in these mileux as never before. For decades I had thought maybe I’m wrong, maybe nobody’s interested, maybe what I’m saying is just too obvious to be worth noting. And suddenly I felt recognised. Wow! somebody actually got it! Maybe it really is worth persevering with some writing. Maybe I do have something to contribute.

But as I reflect on it now, I wonder to what extent this recognition was only possible because of Ellen. Nobody who knew her work could possibly have put her in the box marked ‘women’s issues’. So, perhaps even without being conscious of it, her colleagues must have just taken it for granted that women can be political economists too. And I was the beneficiary of that.

So thanks, Ellen. May your work be long remembered and celebrated. May others follow where you led. May your insights be understood. And may your politics be vindicated some day in a better world.

 

 

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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.

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.

Identity, nationality and the Olympics

When wondering what to call this post I realised that if you take the limp out of Olympics what you are left with is oiks. I’m sure there’s a joke about the coalition government in there somewhere but I haven’t quite worked out what it is yet. Anyway I decided to play safe and avoid the puns.

I discovered on Monday that the Olympic flame will be passing the end of my street on Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours after the passing of the One Hackney Festival Parade. The two processions will meet up in Clissold Park later in the afternoon, where the latter will ‘welcome’ the former to Hackney.

To a semiotician interested in identity, the coverage of the occasion in Hackney Today (the local Council newspaper) provides a rich source of tropes, adding an extra layer of complexity to contradictory discourses on unity and diversity, similarity and difference, local allegiance, national patriotism, internationalism and the embrace of the other and the competing logics of rival forms of identification. The dominant motif is a celebration of Hackney’s multiculturalism, in a tradition that goes back to the festivals organised by the Greater London Council in the early 1980s and, before that, to the Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970s.

In this tradition (in contrast with the secular tradition to be found, for instance, in Republican France) citizenship is lightly conveyed and difference celebrated. Schools commemorate Eid, Diwali, Hannukah AND Christmas. Advertisements for public services  illustrate a range of skin colours, costumes and body types, and any area in which people of different ethnicities jostle for survival is described as ‘vibrant’. The current issue of Hackney Today, for example, is careful to ensure that its depictions of Kingsland High Street (accompanying a story about the recent renewal of the pavement) show a Caribbean restaurant and the premises of the Cypriot Workers’ Association (rather than the clubs and pound shops that most people now associate with the area). This insistence on tolerance as the dominant virtue (whose opposite,  discrimination or prejudice, is thereby rendered the dominant taboo) has, it must be said, been extraordinarily successful. It has created a public culture that visitors from all over the world find welcoming and feel comfortable in, and has contributed not a little to Hackney’s current aura of coolness. Indeed, East London’s multiculturalism figured prominently in the pitch fronted by Ken Livingstone that led to the success of London’s Olympic bid.

Nevertheless, this unproblematised promotion of diversity glosses over a number of contradictions. These include multiple tensions within and between different ethnic communities, whether based on class, gender, religion or simply differences in the degrees of priority accorded to family and community loyalties on the one hand versus legal requirements and rules of fairness on the other.

In the 1980s, for instance, I remember a campaign for homeworkers’ rights (organised by feminists) in another East London borough falling foul of the borough’s equal opportunities policy because it was viewed by the ‘workers’ associations’ of various organised ethnic communities as racist. A socialist reading of this response saw it as an expression of the class interests of the sweatshop owners in these communities wishing to continue exploiting the labour of poor women workers; a feminist reading saw it as an expression of patriarchy. In either case, the equal opportunities policy was being used instrumentally, to promote the interest of a particular ethnic community, represented by its elite and dominant members. Their real motives. conscious or unconscious,  were, no doubt, a complex mixture of both of these elements, an example of the sort of problem wrestled with under the currently fashionable rubric of ‘intersectionality’.

Another dimension of complexity is introduced when one attempts to map this notion of multiculturalism onto national identity. Themes such as ‘One Hackney’ suggest that people from all ethnic backgrounds share equally in local citizenship. But this local citizenship is not seen as demanding exclusive allegiance, as is evidenced in phenomena such as ‘twinning’ with other cities in the countries of origin of local communities and a celebration of links with these countries of origin. The current festival, for instance, will feature a ‘Rio-Hackney’ collaboration, with Brazilian performers, no doubt in recognition of the recent influx of Latin Americans to the borough, alongside African drummers, Gypsy dancers, Caribbean acts and hip hop (as well, of course, as the fact that Rio will host the next Olympics).

This local identity is, to some extent, subsumed into a national identity, at least for the purposes of the Olympics: multicultural Hackney, in this discourse, represents a larger modern multicultural Britain, also reflected in the diversity of ethnic origins among the athletes in the national team. Yet there are tensions here too. Multiculturalism is generally constructed in opposition to Norman Tebbit’s notorious ‘cricket test’ (a phrase used by him in a 1990 speech in which he questioned the loyalty to Britain of Asian or Caribbean immigrants who supported the cricket teams from their countries of origin). The use of the flag of St George (the English flag with a red cross on a white background) by racist anti-immigrant parties is also disliked by many proponents of multiculturalism, though tolerated among supporters of the England football team. Patriotism here becomes a contested concept.

Simple allegiance to a national flag, anthem and team – the logic underlying the Olympic Games – is not therefore as unproblematic as it might appear. On the one hand, the logic of multiculturalism would happily accommodate an allegiance by the citizens of Hackney to the teams of the many other nations from around the globe from which they originate. But on the other hand the logic of ‘One Hackney’ also assumes a loyalty to the borough and, through it, to the larger entities in which it nests (London, England, the United Kingdom) and thus, by implication, some obligation to support the national team.

Formally speaking, the relationship between the international, the national and the local is also complicated. Here, the local trumps the international: it is One Hackney which will ‘welcome’ the Olympic flame on Saturday. But at the Olympics opening ceremony, it will be the President of IOC, Jacques Rogge, who will ‘welcome’ the Queen, as Head of State, to the Olympic Stadium, thus constituting that particular bit of East London as international territory for the duration of the event and rendering the Queen a foreigner in it, as she is in the House of Commons, allowed in by invitation only. If London hosts the Olympics which then in turn hosts the UK (which, however, has the power to ‘unhost’ undesirable visitors or immigrants) we might wonder who is ultimately hosting whom, and, indeed, what ‘hosting’, or ‘welcoming’ actually signify in terms of authority.

As the bunting goes up outside my front door, there is a lot to ponder.

Dalston clubbers

It is Sunday morning and Dalston is at its calmest. Cans, bottles and remains of fried chicken takeaways still litter the pavement; the puddles of urine are still wet in the Rio doorways, the direction of stream revealing the lie of the land; the shops are shuttered. A few straggling clubbers are still wandering up and down Kingsland High Street, with who knows what on their poor stoned minds. Trying to remember who they were with last night? Smarting from sexual rejection or a hazy memory of being found out in some act of uncoolness? Just looking for breakfast? Soon the Council workmen in their green and yellow livery will come to start clearing up and neighbours will venture out to walk their dogs or fetch a pint of milk and a newspaper. Round the corner, no doubt, the all-night cafes will be serving comforting cups of coffee to the night’s survivors.

To tell the truth, I am feeling pretty spaced out myself, it being my first morning out of bed after my most recent anaemia treatment last week. I am already starting to feel better but staring at me out of the mirror this morning from a parchment-coloured face were two black-ringed panda eyes (something to do with the way the hit of iron affects my liver which reacts to it as to a toxin, which indeed it is). So this is as good a moment as any to reflect on my profound ambivalence to the Dalston clubbers, poisoned by other substances.

I am in many ways as entertained and charmed by the Dalston hipsters as I am by the overheard self-absorbed play of four-year-olds. There is something poignant about the fragility of the boundary between looking cool and looking ridiculous, often only upheld by an enormously brave effort of self-belief; the determination to be individual in a world of mass consumption; the diligent inventiveness of their dress.

I find myself moved by the obvious high seriousness of their artistic pretentions. One morning last summer I passed a local cafe on a Sunday morning, just like this one only warmer, and there was a group at a pavement table one of whom was reading poetry aloud to his companions – who were not mocking. And a couple of months ago I went with a friend to a club in Haggerston to attend the first gig of the daughter of a housemate of hers. What this singer/keyboard/guitar trio were performing was arrangements of 19th century poetry, including a very funny version of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen’ complete with animal sound-effects.

The atmosphere reminded me not so much of the later 60s, when most of the people I hung out with would have been a bit embarrassed by the reactionary connotions of such highbrow pursuits, but of the late 50s/early 60s, which I indirectly caught the tail end of, when jazz poetry was taken seriously in little coffee bars in Soho and Liverpool.

Surely these must be kids who were seriously bullied at secondary school for their nerdiness and one cannot but admire their stamina.

And yet… I suppose it is a characteristic of all Bohemias that they carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Artists need audiences and most of them actively seek hangers on, even if there are some who are irritated by the poseurs and plagiarists who attach themselves to them. An artist without a fan lives with the daily risk of seeming simply sad or mad. It takes colossal courage to remain convinced of one’s own originality in a crowd of others equally sure of their own genius. And I suppose too that as long as there have been Bohemias there have been rich young people who realise that attaching themselves to artistic milieux will give them access to a sort of social status (as well as sexual opportunities) that flashing their money around in more obvious ways will not buy.

Dalston is being pummeled from two directions right now. On the one hand there has been a huge influx of such rich kids, who, in the interval between boarding school and going to work in the family business or the City and/or marrying a millionaire and/or moving to Gloucestershire or Tuscany or Provence, have decided that moving to, or at least partying in Dalston will provide them with just such an attractive aura of hipness. Ten or fifteen years ago they would have moved to Shoreditch, where there was rather little in the way of a local community for them to destroy. Now they are here in their thousands. The local police estimate that 15,000 people from outside the borough come every weekend to congregate in the couple of blocks between Dalston Junction and Shacklewell Lane. It is evident from the braying public school accents that wake us up between 2 am (when most of the clubs close) and around 5 am that these well-heeled kids make up a significant proportion of them. There is something comical in the conviction of the more naive among them that they are venturing into a dangerous slum. One summer evening last year I was disturbed by a young woman, with the accents of Roedean, telling the entire street at high volume that her erstwhile friend ‘is only jealous of me because I’m a lesbian. Well I’m not really a lesbian I do go with guys too but, like, she SO obviously doesn’t get me’. She was addressing a group leaning against my front wall, most of whom had a bottle in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. I stuck my head out of the window preparatory to asking her to turn it down a bit and she looked up at me with genuine amazement, as though she had been accosted by a peasant in Ibiza, and (well-brought up as she no doubt was) asked me very slowly and clearly what my name was, as though addressing a foreigner. Everything in her manner suggested that she believed she was conferring a favour on the whole neighbourhood by gracing it with her presence. It had not crossed her empty little mind that she might be annoying anyone. On the contrary, she seemed to think she was so interesting that any listeners would be flattered to be taken into her confidence.

But, although they have by far the most irritating voices, the young English rich are not alone. The fame of the area has spread across Europe and we are also visited by large numbers of people, wealthy enough to arrive in black cabs, speaking various European languages. Again, when they are not so drunk as to be incapable of communication, they seem on the whole to be well-mannered middle class kids. About a month ago I saw one member of a Spanish-speaking group opening his flies to pee against my front gate and asked him not to. He half zipped himself up again and inquired politely if it would be all right if he peed between two cars instead. When I said that actually the people living in the street preferred it not to be used as a urinal at all and suggested he find a public lavatory he put on the injured expression of someone who is used to being found charming – a look that said ‘but i need to pee and you look like a Mamma and Mammas are supposed to LOOK AFTER nice boys who need to pee’. But, when I refused to relent, he sloped obediently off round the corner to relieve himself. Of course there are many who don’t respond in this way. One needs to be skilled at decoding the signifiers of class and race before daring to accost anyone. ‘Why don’t you just sell your property and move somewhere else’ one guy yelled venomously at me on an occasion when I hadn’t said a word, merely appeared at the window to see what was causing a ruckus. What I found so depressing about this was first the assumption that I was an owner-occupier (which surely no-one would have made thirty years ago) and second the use of that awful word ‘property’ – the assumption that a home is just an investment. ‘But I LIVE here’, the outraged cry of millions of people around the world whose lives are disrupted by development, quite beyond the comprehension of these alienated kids.

The other aspect of the double whammy is the, quite understandable, way that copycats are trying to cash in on the cool Dalston boom. Every week there are two or three new applications for planning permission or licenses to open new bars, clubs and off-licenses or extend the opening hours of existing ones. Several of us local residents are now much more familiar than we would like to be with the green leather seats and art deco furnishings of Hackney Town Hall where we have to attend endless hearings to voice our objections, most of which fail. The entrepreneurs are becoming ever more cunning. Applications rarely spell out their true intentions. We are told that premises are going to be used for the sale of organic food or for exhibitions or the showing of artistic films or ‘community meetings’. Since the success of the Efes snooker club (where the likes of Florence and the Machine play live till the small hours in what was once a snooker hall) there has even been a spate of people wanting to host ‘indoor sports’ until 5 am. Some of the local Turkish-owned cafes trying to get in on the act haven’t quite mastered the subtle art of hoodwinking Councillors – one application currently going through the committees is for a venue with the commendably honest name of ‘Tipsy’.

With the exponential growth of what the planners coyly call the ‘night-time economy’ in Dalston, the original Bohemian cachet of the area of course starts to wear thin. It seems only a matter of time before, like Shoreditch before us, we will become a destination for stag night parties, with lurching lager-louts driving out the fey hipsters. In the process a lot will have been destroyed. Dalston is a place where many different communities have muddled along together over the years: the old white East End working class (the original model for Albert Square is only a few blocks away); a large community of West Indians who arrived in the 1950s, and more recent influxes from Turkey, Vietnam, Africa and the Middle East as well as the hippies and lefties who moved here in the 1960s and 70s and the middle class public sector and media workers who followed them here later. The chaotic and happy mixture of cheap shops, street markets, cafes, Turkish restaurants and small businesses may seem resilient, but if it were to be unbalanced would be almost impossible to reproduce. Once a high street with several cinemas and a department store, Kingsland High Street has avoided the fate of most other London high streets (petrified by the Medusa glare of the chain stores) and kept its vibrancy, thanks to the cussedness of its local inhabitants and their customers. It is now in mortal danger, not so much from the planners (although some of the new developments are not helping) but from the very effects of its own vibrancy and the affection it inspires in those seeking some sort of authenticity. Like a Greek island or a Cornish fishing village, it is dying from the very consciousness of its own charm. What we love we destroy. Or, perhaps, more accurately, what we love those who copy us destroy, but we are responsible – for pointing out its loveability. (When I say ‘we’ here I mean self-referential observant intellectuals – and yes, you too Iain Sinclair).

The Hackney planners are not really to blame here. They seem to be genuinely trying quite hard to get it right. They know that the area cannot stay still and seem really to be seeking some sort of balance. Like many others around the world they are trying to encourage the ‘creative economy’ in the area. And by some sort of slippage this ‘creative economy’ has become equated with the ‘night-time economy’ (a slippage that is perhaps understandable if you focus only on places like the Cafe Oto, the Vortex Jazz Bar, the Dalston Superstore, the Arcola Theatre and the Rio Cinema but less so when you get to the Tipsy and its ilk). So when local residents start to complain about being kept awake all night and having their doorsteps used as urinals, vomitoria and worse, these local residents are cast as anti-creative. And this is the real irony. Because just about all the local residents I know who are active in the campaign to save the neighbourhood really do create things. They are architects, painters, writers, editors, designers, film-makers, publishers, singers and actors, mostly living and working from their homes, mostly having moved here partly because it was cheap and partly because they loved the racketiness and colour of the area and were tolerant of quite a bit of noise and grime. But it is precisely these people who are now cast as the killjoy NIMBYs. And the incontinent clubbers, most of whom have never done anything more artistic in their lives than choose which ear to get pierced, are now the ‘creatives’.