Thursday, 20 November 2014

The People, Our (Anti-)Politics, & Stella Creasy MP

The cover-page of my Esquire piece
Over a few months in the spring I followed Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, around the houses for an interview-based profile that Esquire Weekly had kindly commissioned from me. (If you want to read the piece, published in issue #47 dated August 21 2014, you need to have an iPad or iPhone, but if so please look here.)

The piece was my idea, one in which I was encouraged by a few Labour-supporting friends who, like me, feel that Creasy is an impressively thoughtful and dynamic character who merits a position of prominence in any future configuration of the party’s front bench. But my editor at Esquire, Dan Davies, more broadly endorsed the idea that, over and above any specific debate about Labour’s fortunes, Creasy is of wider interest as a politician actively kicking back against the moody public malaise of ‘anti-politics’ that has been all around us like winter weather for so long now.

Creasy has a public profile and platform for which she has grafted steadfastly and knows how to use. It seems to help that she is a normal human being with musical and pop cultural interests. In the course of our chats I mentioned to her my strong memories of the NME putting Neil Kinnock on its cover prior to the 1987 election (a stroke I fondly imagined would win Labour, oh, millions of votes), and of The Face, the other bible of my 1980s adolescence, diagnosing that what Labour really needed to cure its electoral ailment was a ‘funky politician’. Creasy saw my insinuation coming and met it with a straight sceptical bat. ‘If I’m funky’, she replied, ‘we’re in trouble.’

Another highly significant aspect of Creasy’s profile is her vocal feminism. Esquire is of course a publication mainly focused on the leisure interests of men and when I asked Creasy if she was OK with that she laughed it off easily with a line about ‘manly magazines’, then segued (a special adeptness of hers) into some observations on certain sexually aggressive traits in our society, and how these manifest in young men and even schoolboys. (‘I had an 11-year-old boy tell me’, she recalled, ‘that the problem was that the girls wear all these revealing leggings...’)

So Creasy lacks for nothing in the straight-talking department. As my friend John Rentoul has noted, she possibly talks too fast for her own good, though this may also be the special lament of journalists lumbered with the job of transcribing her. (It could make for other issues, though. I noticed that in public speaking she always has good jokes but doesn’t always time them especially well – that is, in the haste to crack on she doesn’t routinely wait for the audience’s laugh then roll over it, a skill that most top pols quickly get themselves accustomed to.)

The big thing about Creasy, though, the thing that ought to stir Labour hearts, is that she is very much about the people – about forging opportunities for people, and demanding the reform of outmoded systems which obstruct that, and without being sanctimoniously utopian about it. ‘I came into politics to change the world,’ she told me. ‘People are starving now, we need stuff now. So just sitting on the sidelines waiting for perfection? Nah, it’s not going to happen.’ 

I followed Creasy along to three political outings, two of which were described in the Esquire piece. The first was a meeting for her Walthamstow constituents in an oak-panelled room within the Commons, a classic tea-and-biscuits get-together but one on which she put a twist. The aim was to address what she had taken away from surgeries as the most urgent local concerns – ’I can’t get a doctor’s appointment’ and ‘I’m being priced out of the area.’’ So attendees were invited to adorn huge sheets of paper with marker pens, listing their comments and complaints about healthcare and housing, and from the data thus gathered Creasy basically took a floor vote about which issues and suggestions should be acted upon. ('I need your help to challenge them', she told the assembled. 'This is going to work because of you, not us.’)

The second outing on which I observed her at work was at Keble College, Oxford, where she addressed a seminar of digital campaigners: passionate young people, in the main, just as adamant as her in their desire to ‘change the world.’

Ilford, May 2014: The campaign trail
An account of the third excursion had to be cut from what was an already generously sized piece, but this was a sunny May Sunday I spent with her in Ilford (together with the impressive local councillor and parliamentary candidate Wes Streeting) on a spot of local election campaigning - basically, following her down a succession of garden paths as she searched for someone who was indoors and willing to chat, the expending of shoe-leather being another great tradition of our politics. One woman, visibly shattered from working a night-shift, expressed to Creasy a polite indifference as to what voting has meant for her all her life: ‘Whoever’s in power, the same things don’t get done.’ Creasy nonetheless enquired patiently of the woman as to which local issues she rated as important, and persuaded her to have a word with Wes Streeting, too. ‘Turning up on someone’s doorstep is quite disruptive’, Creasy told me later.  ‘But if we can’t find a way to have a better conversation...’

This is really the nub of Creasy’s pitch. ‘You get the political process you deserve’, she told me. ‘If you want to change the world you have to get involved.’ That goes for MPs like her and for people like you and me. There wasn’t room in the piece for the following quote from her but it nicely sums up her thinking:
‘The left has always had within it a very well-meaning strand that says we are fighting injustice for people because they are vulnerable and can’t speak for themselves. My own experience is if you find a way to give a voice to those people they are ten times better at presenting themselves... I happen to think rather than saying, ‘Somebody ought to do something about that’, we should do it together... Our job can’t be just to manage the situation as it is. Otherwise I’m looking at my [MP] email inbox, which is a series of misery and pain, and thinking, ‘The most I can do is mitigate some of this.’ We’ve got to be a lot clearer about how we can work with the public, because that’s the best way Britain can succeed. It’s challenging to traditional politics and to the public too. In my experience it’s more positive and constructive, and it has good results. And it’s a more exciting way to work.’

Creasy is associated strongly with the political use of social media and online rallying cf. the Sharkstoppers campaign to cap the rates of 'payday lenders.' But as the journalist Matthew d’Ancona has put it, ‘Representative democracy is not an app.’ And Creasy is entirely aware of the inherent problems of e-petitions and ‘hashtag activism’ where a pious click or retweet, however felt, becomes the sum of the citizen’s investment in the cause, and so leads precisely nowhere. On that she told me this:

'The payday loans campaign was successful not because we said ‘Payday loans are a problem’ but because it said ‘Capping the cost of credit is a solution.’ It was offering not just an anger but an action that would make a difference. Online communications allow you to have conversations about what are the actions that will make a difference and how do we get there much quicker and have a broader group of people with us. But you have to have a sense of purpose and not just say, ‘Right, who’s angry? Who can make a great joke about Wonga?'

On this form Creasy could remind one of Tony Blair’s injunction that Labour should be ‘the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger.’ Lazily, perhaps, I am also reminded of someone else about whom I write regularly. Back in 2010 when I was speaking to Sean Penn about his humanitarian efforts in Haiti, and his not unrelated disdain for the internet, he gave me a candid opinion of our wireless society and its capacity for change. 'There are too many people out there doing this' – he mimicked fingers dancing over laptop keys – 'and thinking that they're doing something. And they're not.'

In brief, so as to not be on the fence, as it's no sort of a place to be, I should say that I would be quite content to see Stella Creasy lead the Labour Party at any appropriate point in the future (such as tomorrow, for instance), and lead it into government. But, clearly, an awful lot of anti-politics, well-meaning strands and same old things not getting done would have to be waded through first. At any rate, this is how I ended the Esquire piece:
'Rather than her exit from politics, most journalists who have written about Stella Creasy have been more concerned with her prospects for advancement. But I wonder if the highest office would necessarily be the most progressive outcome of her political mission. She might just as vitally be a lightning-rod for luring new talents into politics – both female and male, within Labour or maybe even without, but people who are on the side of people, and don’t seek power for personal gain but, rather, in order to give it away.'

Monday, 10 November 2014

A new and updated edition of my 'Sean Penn: His Life and Times' from Faber & Faber in 2015

I’m pleased to report that I am now properly at work on a new and updated edition of Sean Penn: His Life and Times, originally published by Faber more or less exactly ten years ago, and so certainly due for a fresh lick of paint.

‘Time is a funny thing, huh’, as Tom Waits says in Rumblefish. ‘Time is a very peculiar item...’ I first met Sean Penn in 2001 and later that year secured his consent to do an interview-based ‘oral history’-style book about his life and work. I began work on that book in the autumn/winter of 2002 as Sean was shooting Mystic River with Clint Eastwood and then 21 Grams with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. One day in the midst of that I called his office to check his whereabouts. ‘Baghdad,’ came the unexpected – unexpectable? – reply. The first Faber hardback edition of Sean Penn: His Life and Times came out in October 2004, six months after Sean won his first Academy Award. A paperback edition followed a year later, with updates that concluded as Sean embarked on a journalistic assignment to Iran and secured the film rights to Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild.

So that was then and this is now, a good while later. Of course, lots of people lead very lively lives, whether or not they have the attention of a wider public, but Sean is livelier than most, and so the new section of the book detailing 2005-2015 is going to have plenty of good and all-exclusive meat in it. I hope it will appear around the same time as the release of The Last Face - Sean’s fifth feature as director, starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, on which he is presently at work, the progress of which I have had a fortunate glimpse, and for which – based on the quality of the material, cast, crew, and the calibre of Sean’s previous productions as ‘helmer’ –  cinemagoers would surely be right to entertain high hopes.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The name of this book is 'Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing'...

In summary, then... The title of my new book is Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing. It's available through the New Writing North website and also Amazon.

The book came about in late 2013 when I was invited by New Writing North and by Isos Housing, a leading social landlord in my native north east England, to investigate Isos's business and the broader story of social housing both as a modern-day 'sector' and a historical 'movement.' Illustrated with photographs by Sally Ann Norman, the book tells the 150-year history of subsidised housing in Britain, offers a case study of how a social landlord is required to operate today, and reflects, too, on what all of us could do to resolve our housing crisis.

It does affect us all - there's no escape. How the British people are going to access and afford the roofs they need over their heads will be a major socio-political problem for the foreseeable future. So for me as a writer it was a really vital, instructive experience to take a close look inside what Isos does, and to talk to its tenants about their experience of social housing – the form of provision that is feeling the keenest edge of our national housing crisis.

Probably the strongest feeling I came away with was that there are millions of people in the UK who will always need a socially rented home. Housing associations are the best-equipped vehicles to answer that need, yet what they do (and why they do it) is imperfectly understood, both by the public and politicians. Their virtues are not uniform across the sector or the length of the land; but I believe they deserve our support.

Me, in the Journal, defending social housing

Photographer Sally Ann Norman & RTK with our shared endeavour
Yesterday I continued to develop the arguments made in my new book Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing, with an article for the Newcastle Journal, given a headline just as bald as me: 'Writer Richard T Kelly on the need for social housing in the North East'. I'm told that the print edition had a picture of me on the front page with the strapline 'Leave your snobbery at the door', the idea of which appeals enormously. The feature itself ran over two full pages in the Agenda section in the middle of the paper.

Here is a pair of paragraphs as a sample of the whole:
'... By this analysis, housing only takes its place in the larger set of socio-economic problems that have beset the North East for all my life. We still routinely have the highest unemployment rate of all the English regions, and the highest proportion of employees in the public sector. Not that there are too many public sector jobs in the North East – we want all the jobs we can get. But as Lord Adonis identified in his North East Independent Economic Review of 2013, we need more (better-paid and higher-skilled) private sector employment to begin to dream of significantly more new housing.

As we know, this region still makes things and exports them, manufacturing generating about 15.5% of the region’s total Gross Value Added. Nissan, though, comprises a notably big chunk of those figures. New businesses, especially hi-tech ones, are now getting born in the North East at an encouraging rate, and people who instinctively believe that ‘not enough is done’ for the region might yet be surprised by what people in the region can do for themselves. But that growth remains a work in progress.'

Me, in the Guardian, defending social housing

Lynemouth, Northumberland, where Isos rent 200 homes
Last Wednesday was a bit of a red letter day round mine - my first ever piece in the Guardian's 'Society' pages, headlined 'Why we should be shouting from the rooftops to defend housing associations', and marking my debut as a commentator on public sector finance and provision, so fulfilling a boyhood dream... The photos illustrating the piece, as above, are taken from my book Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing, and all are the work of the estimable Sally Ann Norman. As to the argument therein, here are a couple of preview paragraphs: 

'Social housing, then, is a cause that needs defending. Whereas mortgaged home ownership is thought to be one of our national obsessions, social housing is dimly viewed as a “residual” tenure of last resort – a political stepchild, too, its constituents uncourted at election time, unlike all those owner-occupiers in key marginals.

While Ken Loach’s 1966 BBC play, Cathy Come Home, did much to strip the scales from Britain’s eyes about the calamity of homelessness, Cathy’s fictional plight seems unlikely to greatly detain audiences of today, more routinely tickled (if not feigning to be outraged) by Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Whether we have a national consensus that social housing is an essential service, or whether societal attitudes have hardened to the point where more of us believe people have to lump whatever shelter they can access – I must say I’m not certain...'

Debating the Future of Social Housing at the Durham Book Festival (Saturday October 18 2014)

Debating in Durham: from left, John Tomaney, James Meek, Lynsey Hanley, RTK

Saturday October 18 saw me back at the Durham Book Festival for the first time since 2011, the purpose being a discussion of the UK’s housing crisis – and the share of that pain facing the social housing sector – with a couple of excellent writers who have, like me, published on the subject. My contribution is a new book called Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing, commissioned by New Writing North and the Gosforth-based Isos housing association - who basically invited me to root around their business for six months and draw my own conclusions about what they do and why they do it.

The Durham discussion was chaired by John Tomaney, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UCL. My co-panellists were James Meek and Lynsey Hanley.

James Meek is an acclaimed novelist and contributing editor to the London Review of Books, whose new book Private Island is the outcome of a series of investigations he made, mainly for the LRB, into the steady selling-off of the UK's public resources since the Thatcher era. His chapter on housing is derived from an LRB article entitled Where Will We Live? and it recounts and laments what could be called the privatisation of council housing. Lynsey Hanley writes mainly for the Guardian and in 2007 she authored a fine book called Estates: An Intimate History, inspired by her experiences of growing up on the massive Wood estate in Birmingham and, later, making home on another problematic estate in East London.

Hanley's book also attempts – just as James Meek and I have attempted in our respective efforts – to recount a history of social housing in the UK, and in her version there is a melancholy and aggrieved feel, a sense that good intentions and high ideals behind the cause of subsidised housing were betrayed by a push for brute numbers, a subsequent plummet in quality, and a steadily etched stigma upon social housing as a ‘residualised’ tenure of last resort. In Durham Hanley spoke feelingly about how social housing has been looked down upon, how the injuries of class end up inscribed on the unkempt bricks and mortar of the stock, also in the minds of the tenants.

James Meek set out some of the arguments of his LRB piece, noting, inter alia: how the UK’s supply system of housing (a tripartite arrangement of developable land, planning permission and volume house-builders) is not set up or incentivised to meet real housing need; how central government funds for housing associations have steadily shrunk over the last forty years; and how housing associations have got much larger, though not necessarily better, since receiving large-scale stock transfers from councils - a process begun under the Thatcher government and accelerated under Tony Blair. Meek cited the recent calamity of the Cosmopolitan housing association as a warning of how a landlord's failure to meet its loan agreements could put its tenants' homes at risk; and he also raised the spectre of larger (mainly southern) associations perhaps seeing no bar to self-financing and so turning to pure for-profit development.

As for my contribution to the debate – well, it’s all there in my book, really: I reprised my own opinions and arguments. I ought to say, though, that in chatting to James Meek beforehand he told me that he felt I had misrepresented his argument, especially so in this passage from the book:
For Meek, one suspects, housing associations are the spawn of original sin. They just shouldn’t have got the position that they obtained. Having done so, one might, if sympathetic, call them the victims of their own success. But Meek seems to want them quietly put down.
It’s a fact that nowhere does Meek say he wants to see the back of housing associations; and since I don’t have the power of reading his mind, it was needlessly quarrelsome of me to imply otherwise. My error, probably, was to conflate some of his concerns and contentions with those of assorted other parties, without proper discrimination.

What I said to the Durham audience was that in my research for the book I quite quickly felt jaundiced by arguments emanating from some quarters of local government, certain journalists, and from within the Labour Party, to the effect that local councils make the best social landlords, and that housing associations are a poor second or substitute - essentially for the reason of their not being councils, tainted by association with the policies of Thatcher and Blair, and with borrowed money and bond issues.

In the last century local councils did create social housing in the UK as we know it. But post-war council housing did not solve the housing problems of Britain's poor: these were carefully allotted homes for working people in an age of full employment. Moreover, a council house was a state-furnished product that had no incentive for any sort of improvement, and unsurprisingly it didn’t get any. If you think council housing is better for being democratically accountable, somehow answerable to the people, you need to take at least an occasional dip into Private Eye’s 'Rotten Boroughs', also to remember that social rental is a minority tenure with strictly limited ballot-box clout.

You could say, in spite of the foregoing, that council housing is still a better idea than the public/private model of the housing association. One may second James Meek's argument in the LRB which builds to a defence of the principle of ‘public responsibility for meeting basic needs’ and 'the ideal of social housing supported from general taxation on the better-off, the ideal that it is not only the prosperous who matter.’ But if one adheres to that, one must then say what is to be done about  our current housing crisis, our absolute need for new homes, right now. Even Labour has promised no new funds for housing after 2015, only re-prioritising within capital budgets. And no party now seeking your vote intends once in government to borrow an extra £5 billion annually so that the state can build 500,000 houses with it.

The crux, really, is that a lot of wise heads want to see councils build houses for rent again. This time, though, unlike in 1945 or 1968, councils will need to borrow the funds to build, against their future rental incomes and assets. In other words, they will have to get up to speed with what housing associations have been doing for the last 25 years, using basically the same kinds of skills, savvy, and funding. It’s quite understandable that campaigners of today might want to see social housing reinstated in the public sector and flying free of what some consider the all-too-worldly pull of big developers and private finance. But if those campaigners honestly survey the work that needs doing then they ought to see that housing associations remain best placed to lead the effort – with, of course, local councils working in comradely partnership.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Talking to Teju Cole @ Faber Social (07.10.2014)

Your correspondent & Teju Cole at The Ace, Shoreditch
Last week at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch I interviewed Teju Cole onstage before an enthused audience, under the banner of Faber Social, Faber’s excellent series of cross-pollinated cultural and conversational soirees. (I recall it was David Peace, Simon Reynolds and me on the bill at the inaugural Social back in June 2011.)

Talking to Teju Cole was a lively and engrossing discussion to be part of. Right at the top Cole previewed a sardonic piece that he had just written for the New Yorker (and which was duly posted online there the following day) about CNN’s coverage of the Ebola crisis. Cole is an assured and beguiling speaker, and his prefacing remark about feeling uncomfortably ‘like a slam poet’ in delivering this new text (off the screen of his smartphone, no less) turned out, you might guess, to be modesty in extremis.

Cole is Nigerian-American, or American-Nigerian – born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, raised in Lagos, educated in London and New York inter alia, and now a citizen of the world in the manner of all writers who attain his level of accomplishment and reputation. (Cole was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award of 2012 for Open City, his debut publication in the US and UK.) Accordingly the conversation ranged freely. He was in the West Bank this summer past, so there was that for starters.

His most recently published work Every Day is For The Thief (actually his first discrete book, originated as a sequence of blog posts and then published by Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria around 2007, before Open City went out and made his name) concerns an unnamed protagonist returning to his native Lagos and encountering a society in which daily transactions seem to be endlessly debased by a climate of corruption: one that seems rather to emanate out of the yawning societal gulf between the powerful and crude-wealthy, and the mass of the people in the streets grafting for coppers and fighting among themselves.

Every Day is For The Thief is full of pained scenes and observations that stay with you: from the narrator’s desultory wander around a denuded, asset-tripped, historically dishonest national museum to his pilgrimage into a heaving marketplace where a pilfering child had been burned alive by a mob and the killing recorded on video. Reading this book certainly brought sensory elements of my visit to Lagos in September 2013 vividly back to the front of my mind, but nothing I saw was nearly so dreadful as that.

Every Day is a different sort of book to Open City, in that the latter can be read with a familiar gratified sense by anyone at home in the great city-centred literature of modernity that was born in the nineteenth century and probably attained its high watermark after the Second World War, before rolling back. Open City has been reviewed as a notable entry in the celebrated literature of the flâneur, and its narrator Julius is keen-eyed but as full of melancholy as Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, seemingly unable to affect the course of events he perceives so sharply. Cole is not his narrators, though, and the depth of his engagement with politics, coupled to his facility at speaking freely on political matters in his own voice, are noteworthy.

Cole told the audience in Shoreditch that for him the novel was very much about New York in the aftermath of September 11 2001. (He also professed his high regard for Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.) The legacy of traumatic events is certainly of great interest to him. Open City, though not a heavily plot-carpentered work, nonetheless builds to a revelation of personal trauma which shows Cole working in a plangent way on more than one register.

A significant element of Cole’s oeuvre has been made on Twitter, which he has made use of in a manner of ingenuity that far outstrips any other writer of fiction I can think of. If you don’t know of his Twitter projects – Hafiz, Small Fates, A Piece Of The Wall – you should investigate immediately. Cole has been a forceful advocate of the economy Twitter presses upon a writer (‘When you're tweeting, the sentences are isolated, naked, so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work’.) For the moment, though, he seems to have retired from the medium. I expect there’ll be another medium along shortly he will use just as adroitly.