Thursday, 14 June 2018

Grenfell Tower

The Grenfell Tower fire happened 1 year ago. This is an almost uniformly excellent article/edition of the LRB about it. 

You don't need me to tell you that the fire itself was awful. I didn't read all of the sad bits toward the beginning of the piece. Maybe you can.

I found the account of the aftermath both less emotionally wearing and also more interesting. There are interesting echoes of the Sharon Shoesmith affair in the cavalier, panicky, headline-grabbing treatment of local government by central government. K&C and various Tory councillors come out of it well; central government comes out much less well.

But for this blog post, I want to show you some bits about the aftermath that I found most shocking.

"‘Nobody said “no” to anybody,’ one of the department heads told me. One survivor said he needed a pram for his one-year-old. ‘We said: “No problem: dozens have been donated.”

“No,” he said, “I want a new one.” The one he wanted cost £900. We bought it.’

Well, that's just a pram, you say. Yes, it is - but it's also an example of a wider pattern of behaviour.

"‘But the council as a whole,’ I asked. ‘Did they help you?’

‘Yes, they did,’ she said. ‘Any time we needed money – for a PlayStation, an Xbox, they bought them for us. They sent keyworkers. I read this stuff, people are unpleasant with what the council did, but for me they did it all.’ Karen and her boys lived in a local hotel for four months, paid for by the council, before accepting a brand new flat off High Street Kensington. Though she had rented privately in the tower, after the fire she was made a permanent social housing tenant. Her flat cost £1.2 million on the open market. She won’t have to begin paying rent or utility bills until July 2019. ‘It’s a relief,’ she said.

‘If this had happened in another country,’ I asked her, ‘do you think the response from the authorities would have been better?’

‘Well, if it happened in my country, in Lebanon,’ Karen said, ‘we would have been thrown on the streets, for the dogs.’

Of course I am glad that this country is rich enough and generous enough to provide more lavishly for Karen than what she describes as her own country. But does something not strike you as odd about all this? Let me put it this way. The article also quotes the Daily Mail reporting that "The wealthy Tory councillor who was in charge of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment has fled his £1.3 million home after allegedly receiving threats from angry residents". The "wealthy" live in (or flee) £1.3m homes (Daily Mail valuation) while the "poor" live in £1.2m homes (open market valuation): and the poor also get free PlayStations, Xboxes and a couple of years with no rent. If this is what Tory Kensington & Chelsea is like, who do you vote for if you want austerity and inequality? 

Well, that's just £1.2m, you say. Yes, it is - but ...

"‘So, with this particular family,’ a senior housing officer said, ‘the government got itself into such a situation that the government itself had to find a two million pound property for the family. They live there now. And of course when other families heard the story they were like, “Where’s my two million pound house?” ... Almost all the residents I spoke to brought this up with me. One of them printed off a list from Zoopla of four properties near Westbourne Grove at two to three million pounds each, and she wrote ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, and ‘four’ beside them in order of preference. She gave it to her keyworker and imagined the council would go ahead and buy one."

Read it and weep.

The world today

1. Have you ever wondered what is happening to music nowadays?

Well, classical music being is being weaponised: "“[D]espite a few assertive, late-Romantic exceptions like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff,” notes critic Scott Timberg, “the music used to scatter hoodlums is pre-Romantic, by Baroque or Classical-era composers such as Vivaldi or Mozart.”" And it's being ruined in other ways too - see the link. Meanwhile, pop[ular] music is unimportant.

Of course, there is that kind of music that is associated with gangs. But the more you look into it, the more interesting it gets. I tried investigating Stormzy. The music is better than I thought it would be. But also more varied: it turns out he has written a hymn, which he performed at a funeral. Remember that the world is always bigger and more complicated than you think.

3. Teenage relationships nowadays: only in AmericaOnly in the Park Slope white-parent community? I find it hard to imagine that kind of behviour becoming widespread, but then I am terribly old and set in my ways. Some completely different - but also very weird - American young person sexual behaviour is here: "Is it possible for two people to simultaneously sexually assault each other? ... The one important thing you need to know about the case is that according to the lawsuit, a woman has been indefinitely suspended from college because she let a man touch her." (I have left the final word out of that quotation, but without changing the meaning.)

Monday, 28 May 2018

Some recommended links

(1) Bret Easton Ellis - American Psycho! enfant terrible! - is almost a conservative ("With my ideology I’m considered borderline conservative now") and sounding a little like he's auditioning for the American version of Grumpy Old Men: "there were no helicoptering parents, I barely saw my father and we rode bikes and played in other neighbourhoods, like the Canyons above Los Angeles. We didn’t have cell phones; our parents didn’t monitor us. No parent of mine came to a dress rehearsal of the school musical and posted about it on Facebook. I could barely get my parents to come, and that was normal. My parents took us to the movies they wanted to see. There wasn’t this kid culture." There there, Bret: we all have Facebook friends who share too much.

(2) Are you a hoarder? The official way to find out is here.

(3) "Here’s something interesting: the sky is dark at night. No, you say. Never. But, then, why is it dark? It is filled with billions of billions of stars, so many in fact that at every point in the sky one shines. We are surrounded by beacons of nuclear fusion which emit light that can travel uninterrupted in the vacuum of space for millions of years. If in every direction there is a star, everywhere should be burning white. But we see pinpricks in the dark. Is this not odd?" More here.

(4) Interesting people who think differently (not altogether differently from each other, but differently from most people): Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Dominic Cummings.

(5) Nixon. What a guy! "Arthur Garfield Hays of the generally left-wing American Civil Liberties Union sparred good-naturedly with Nixon, whose fairness, he said, “confirms my faith in the American system of government”. ... [Later, in the 'Checkers' speech] “In thirty minutes”, a Time magazine reporter concluded, “by the exposure of his personality, he had changed from a liability to his party to a shining asset. He had established himself as a man of integrity and courage.” Eisenhower himself changed his mind about his running mate. “Well that boy’s got a lot of courage”, he remarked." Oh, and he did some bad things too.

(6) "Those people (you know the ones) keep banging on about how they are being silenced and you can't anything any more and it's PC gone mad - but they are talking non-stop, so it must be rubbish." You've heard the argument. Here's the counter-argument.

(7) Women's magazines of the past: "In the February 1901 issue of Ladies Home Journal, on a single page between a portrayal on the “Life of an English Girl” and a feature asking, “Is the Newspaper Office the Place for a Girl?,” the then-obscure American architect Frank Lloyd Wright published plans for a home “in a prairie town.” It might seem like a strange host for architectural plans, but Ladies Home Journal frequently featured them, amid Rubifoam toothpaste ads, tips on what to do with cheese, serialized romance novels, and journalistic muckraking. It makes sense: Architecture is the foundation of home life, a matter largely relegated to women then—and still today, like it or not." More (about open-plan living - "Today’s homes are far larger than their predecessors, and yet they often boast fewer types of spaces" - not women's magazines) here. Is that an unusual place for architecture? Not really. A lot of what used to be architecture is now interior design. Do ambitious architects design domestic houses for middle-class families any more? If they did, I don't see why the plans wouldn't feature in a magazine with diet plans and true-life crime stories.

(8) A freediver dancing. Don't try this at home.

(9) China's communists fund Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party Forget about Russia, guys.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

A new Leviticus?

"Tusked animals will be banned from flying, but miniature horses will not.

The ... banned creatures list [is] to include amphibians, spiders, goats, snakes, "non-household birds", or any smelly or unclean animal.

Reptiles, hedgehogs, insects, and rodents are also banned ..."

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Four film reviews

I've taken a couple of plane flights recently so I've watched some films (adapted for the airline) on a little screen, occasionally interrupted by seatbelt-related announcements. Here are the benefits of my thoughts on four of them that you might have seen advertised.

1. The Last Jedi. Tedious and poor. I’m not saying that the Star Wars Universe is particularly worthy of respect, but if you are making a Star Wars film then I think you ought to respect what has gone before. Even leaving aside the new apps that have been installed on the Force (inter-planetary 3D film projection and weird telephone functionality, I kid you not), did I really see Princess Leia swimming through space? I am certain that I saw one spaceship fly very slowly over another one so that it could "drop" its bombs (drop! in space!) in the right place. And it turns out that you can destroy big spaceships just by ramming them at lightspeed: why did no-ever do that with any of the various Death Stars that have had to be destroyed in the other films? Why was Supreme Leader Snoke sometimes very clever and sometimes just a moron? Indeed, why did any of the people do any of the things that they did? Why did no one have a consistent character? Why why why why why? I overcame difficulty sleeping the other night by reminding myself of what happened in this film. Now, I am afraid, is the time to withdraw any benefit of the doubt from the Star Wars films. Stop watching them and let the series die.

2. Molly’s Game. Not a bad film, but an entirely unnecessary one. Woman runs illegal gambling game; woman pleads guilty to charge of running illegal gambling den; woman receives non-custodial sentence for charge to which she has pleaded guilty. That's it. All of that is padded out with Aaron Sorkin dialogue, which I could parody but won't bother. Reminds me of black and white films I used to watch for no reason when bored: perfectly well made film, but utterly trivial.

3. Darkest Hour. At best, Churchill’s Greatest Hits set to soaring music. Mostly it is just Gary Oldman doing an impression of Churchill, in between pouting from Lily James and flouncing from Kristin Scott Thomas. It also has a cringingly awful bit in the middle when Churchill boards a tube (that takes forever to go the one stop from Embankment to Westminster) and exchanges Macaulay quotations with the multi-ethnic Cockneys of 1940s London. There are also lots of posh people who can't say their Rs. Also a completely unnecessary film, and a far less imaginative idea for a Churchill film than, say, Churchill (the one about his doubts over D-Day and increasing irrelevance compared to Eisenhower). Again, there is nothing actually wrong with the film (except for the bit on the tube).

4. Downsizing. Pick of the bunch by a long way. This is a surprisingly ambitious film and well worth a watch. The trailer suggests that it is a satirical comedy about social class in America starring Matt Damon. That's certainly part of it. But it's a lot more than that. It's not laugh-out loud funny, on the whole, and it's a bit like two films squashed into one (in the same way that Brideshead is a bit like more than at least two books squashed together), but it's got a lot going for it. See it if you think you might be interested in any of these: thoughts on Tesla-style saving the world by having cool stuff; an unambiguously positive representation of an evangelical Christian; no representation without taxation; how to tell if you are Noah, or just a regular guy; very small people talking through megaphones to normal size people.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The end of good free journalism?

The web has been the most amazing thing to happen to people who like reading journalism.

Only a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to imagine that, without leaving your desk and without paying a penny, you could read vast swathes of the newspapers and magazines of the world. Now, it seems only natural that all the news, opinion, jokes, investigations, cartoons, columns, photographs, videos and other paraphernalia of the modern media are immediately accessible to me, give or take a paywall or two here and there. Even foreign language publications can be given the auto-translate treatment by my browser. The world is my legible oyster.

Be grateful for this wonderful opportunity and enjoy it while you may: it can't go on forever and Megan McArdle explains why.