Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Budget 2010: Make the best of us, not the worst

For me as for many, I suspect, the merchant bankers snagged by TV news cameras supping in Corney & Barrow last night (could have been any C&B, didn't matter) looked altogether too relieved and thirsty and ready for the weekend. Not that I didn’t want the markets to approve the ‘Unavoidable Budget’™, you understand – au contraire. I was just fantasising that the markets' handmaidens might have to feel as sober and filled with foreboding as the rest of us, at least for an evening.
Because I have no imagination I couldn’t foretell any of yesterday’s Budget except for what had been leaked, plus the surety that Nick Clegg would be talking it up weasel-style in front of a camera and his imaginary legion of fans. I almost didn’t want to buy outright the Krugman thesis that we are on the brink of a historic error, austerity in a time of weak demand. And I didn’t fancy going along automatically with Alastair Campbell’s tribal reading of the runes: “...George Osborne puts the fragile recovery at risk with his ideological onslaught on public services, by pretending the economy is worse than it is, and using the quisling Lib Dems as political cover.”
However, it seems clear today that the poorest areas and people in this country have been disproportionately hit by Osborne’s cleaver. As Tory minister Bob Neill put it with such candour a few weeks back, "those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt." (Eh?) Anthony Painter gave a strong response today: “any group that disproportionately relies on benefits will be marginalised, plunged into poverty, and facing despair. This is not the way it’s meant to be. Not in a decent, relatively wealthy society. The basic post-war compact on support and advancement for all in exchange for doing the responsible thing was broken yesterday. Not only lone parents, but also those who are poor, mentally impaired or incapacitated, the disabled, certain minority groups, and anyone relying on benefits to get by.”
Now, to say quickly - I do appreciate the rebuttal that to live 'disproportionately' on benefit is not right for any capable and able-bodied person, and in those cases should not be encouraged/tolerated. I agree that the public sector contains waste (and by that I include the NHS) and that Labour was going to have to cut big too. I’m not in fear of 'Bankrupt Britain' but I can feel the horror in the concept of interest on national debt exceeding the economy’s growth rate. I just haven’t ever trusted the Conservatives to do the harrowing – they’ve never been notably skilful at it. But I agree with Hopi Sen that it’s not a case of 'whether' but of ‘whose public sector pensions and pay should be cut.’ (Even John Redwood seemed to show some appreciation of the case for exemption of the low-paid public servant on Newsnight last week.)
And still, the thought of 25% less spending by government departments is stomach-churning. Surely paying more tax would be cheaper? This blog favoured the D. Miliband ratio of spending cuts to tax rises (2:1) rather than what looks like the 77-23 split of G. Osborne. That would be what’s properly called ‘a progressive alternative’, if the tax rises were sensibly applied to some of the sorts of ‘middle and high-income earners’ who were feeling so cheery round the bars of Broadgate and Exchange Square last night. But, but… I also acknowledge and defer to what John Rentoul described the other day as: “a strong “tree” bias (“Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that man behind that tree,” as Andrew Dilnot, formerly of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, once surprised me by chanting in a television interview).” And if everyone with taxable earnings between £37K and £150K is to be taxed at 40%, and at 50% above that, then that’s about as much income tax as I would have thought proper or permissible.
I do understand the thinking and appeal of a firm smack from government so as to teach that Britain should ‘live within its means.’ But the other day John Redwood did that quaint Tory thing of comparing the nation’s economy to a domestic household knuckling down to unavoidable frugality: ‘I know it is asking a lot for an outbreak of commonsense by public sector CEOs in councils and quangos. But can they spare us the crocodile tears and the parade of the bleeding stumps? Can they do what any household or company does when faced with a few percent off their income? Just get on and manage it in the least damaging way possible.’ Redwood’s analogies, however, were all drawn Margaret-style from good Grantham housekeeping: (‘You can holiday nearer at home… eat in more than in the local restaurants… draw some money out of the savings account... buy more of the value items at the supermarket, and put more vegetarian dishes into the home menus.’)
I’m sure a great many Britons have come to terms with the end of their excessive consumption based on borrowing, and so would fit Redwood’s model. If you are a company, though, then you just have to fire a proportion of your staff. And if you are someone who never earned enough to have significant savings, or weren’t reared on a middle-class diet, and did all your eating indoors on ‘value items’ anyway… What commonsense homily has John Redwood got to tell you then?
Labour has to offer an alternative, of course. No sitting on the hands. I further agree with Hopi Sen that this alternative ‘needs to be built on creating growth’, ‘we need to create jobs to grow’, and so we ‘need to be talking about measures to support private sector job creation and these can’t be simply extensions of State Aid.’ For sure, with all these benefit cuts we’re looking at a big reserve army of the unemployed. But, really, where will the jobs come from? Can anyone say? They’re hardly going to emerge blithely when people are afraid to spend, businesses afraid to invest, and our imagined export markets are outbidding each other in the austerity stakes, Germany 'leading by example' etc.
Over to you then, D. Miliband...

English Soul: Steve Winwood

BBC4 has been building up a superb library of documentaries about rock ‘n’ roll music, and has just aired another one, English Soul, devoted to the career of Steve Winwood. Still, I’m struck by how many of these docs tell the same sociological story, i.e. how in 1960s England a lot of young lads – mainly working class or petit bourgeois, mainly from the north and the midlands (or, yes, the outskirts of London) – wanted very much not to do what their Dads had done. That willed difference is an old story, yes, but in the 1960s it had a brand new outlet in popular music.
Moreover, these lads’ Dads (or Mums) quite often had musical instruments about the house – the working-class way of making your own entertainment and all that. But whereas Mum & Dad were raised on music-hall and might conceivably have appreciated Lonnie Donegan or Cliff Richard, the key to the needful difference was these lads' youthful worship of black American music and musicians, the love of blues and R&B, the desire to imitate its sentiment, its feel, its authenticity. Thus Eric Clapton in the BBC4 doc, remembering how he marvelled at the vocal skill of the young Steve Winwood – that he could sing like that, as opposed to what must have been his actual life experience. He ‘sounded black’, ‘like Ray Charles.’ (The doc went on to reveal that 60-ish Steve now talks with the clipped vowels of a long-time multi-millionaire country gent, whereas his brother Muff is still a cast-iron Brummie.)
When I was at the age (17) that one has a ‘favourite song’, quite often something a bit moody/melancholy, the one for me was ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ by Blind Faith (which I first heard over the end credits of Kevin Reynold’s terrific movie Fandango, sadly neglected now as it was then.) The song was written and sung by Steve Winwood. When Winwood was 17? Well, he was enjoying knocking The Beatles off the top of the pop charts with ‘Keep On Running’, recorded with The Spencer Davis Group. And – you get my theme – when I was 17 Winwood was enjoying a solo US number one with ‘Higher Love’, a pop-'soul'/dance tune that rhymed ‘fire’ and ‘desire’ and was packaged in the Arif Mardin mode of the day whereby everything – keyboards, horns, drums – sounded programmed and spring-loaded and utterly inorganic… except for the voice.
After ‘Higher Love’ for Winwood came ‘Roll With It’, another sing-a-long hit that, if I remember right, was licensed to advertise Michelob beer. I well remember Keith Richard giving his hoarse opinion of the ambition of that record to Rolling Stone at that time: ‘Ahh, come on, Steve...’ In English Soul Winwood talks half-apologetically about ‘going along with things’ for commercial reasons at various points in his career. He was a prodigy, so he was doubtless offered at least as much as he could initiate creatively. What size of an artist has he been? The definitive answer is presumably in the new box set Revolutions. For my part I confess I prefer a master songwriter/musician who sings his/her own stuff, however flawed (cf. Warren Zevon, who actually covered Winwood’s 'Back in the High Life', albeit a little awkwardly) to a great singer who settles too much into familiar grooves and co-authored lyrical clich├ęs. But for Winwood’s Blind Faith songs alone – also ‘Sea of Joy’ and ‘Had to Cry Today’ – on top of all the Traffic stuff and the solo material – I admit I remain a keen fan.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

World Cup 2010: The cream also rises

This World Cup is getting good, people. Argentina were admirably patient tonight in their disposal of Greece, inspired by their entirely-correctly-rated talisman, whom the coach properly kept in the starting XI ("I think it would be a sin", Maradona told the press, "not to give Messi to the people, to the team...") Brazil and Portugal showed their essential beauty to best advantage the other day. Holland are safely through and capable of better. I keep everything crossed for Germany and for Spain. Right then, who’s left…?

Sean Whelan, blogging from the World Cup for NUFC site True Faith, is presumably one Mag who’s shouting for The Ingerland, if we judge by the ‘we’ in his screed below. But on that basis his opinion of David Beckham’s presence on the England bench can be taken as less one-eyed, or more rounded, than mine (which is that Beckham is, quite clearly, one of the most disastrous liabilities ever to appear for England at (5!) major finals.) But forget me - come in, Sean:

‘David Beckham is p***ing me off. The players must be getting annoyed with him. If you’re not playing well, you don't need that self-obsessed whopper moaning on the bench. He's only there for his own benefit, he needs to be seen at the World Cup to promote the Beckham brand. He's a footballer, not a chief executive, so why wear a three-piece suit? Hair immaculate, the bloke's a w***er. He stopped being a serious footballer when he left Man Utd 6/7 years ago to become a bit part player at Madrid. As for going to America, well, it's a joke. He should be doing what Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are doing at Man Utd. Scholes shows Beckham up for what he is; a flash c*** - more concerned with fame and fortune than football. I wish we had a Roy Keane in the squad just to grab that perma-tanned phoney by the throat and tell him how it is...’

Monday, 21 June 2010

The English Summer, forever fleeting

A great friend of mine once told me feelingly how much he hated arranging his family’s summer holiday too far in advance: ‘You get it booked then you wait and it never comes’ was his existential complaint. Thus, the burden of hope and expectation that falls on an English summer, and the shadowing sense of inevitable disappointment - some of which I find myself feeling whenever I see Magritte's famous 'Empire of Light' (pictured).
This morning London bathes in high June heat, pools of shade and light glinting off any exposed hard surface. It’s the longest day of the year, and for me that always comes too soon, feels like a premature curtain drawn down on the possibility of ‘Summer.’ ('Dark nights coming now, just you watch...') But maybe it’s part of the process, the turning of the earth, the subjective experience of Time.
21 years ago this month I sat my Eng Lit A level paper, composing my no-doubt deathless responses to a set of classic texts that included The Great Gatsby: the sort of novel a young person should read regardless of curriculum, and which will linger in the mind of any reader. Today is the day in the calendar when I always think of that enviable nameless sylph at one Gatsby soiree who says:
"In two weeks it'll be the longest day in the year... Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it."
I only wish I could be so negligent… For me, though, the tenor is more in line with Tom Waits as ‘Benny’, the ponderous soda fountain proprietor in Francis Coppola’s Rumblefish – my favourite movie when I was 14, and still a cracker, I assume:
"Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. Y'see, when you're young, you're a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years here, a couple of years there... it doesn't matter. Y'know? The older you get you say, "Jesus, how much I got left? I got thirty-five summers." Think about it. Thirty-five summers..."
That many? Still, what are we waiting for?