Saturday, May 20, 2006

"A million are socially excluded"

Oh the beauty of the Internet. You're miles away but you're still drawn to the place. And so the absurdity of it all reaches a new high with the news that newly appointed Social Exclusion Minister Hilary Armstrong reveals the astonishing truth of "a million people in the UK [being] socially excluded [while] 5% of the population are at risk of becoming so". I'm quite worried she may not fare too well at the Acute Observers' Olympics. Did any commentator dare to ask her where the Blair Government have been in the last 9 years? A report or two shows that the social gap under progressive St. Tony the evangelist has widened like never before...Still, Ms Armstrongs continues :"It's my job to pull people together across government, so that we are intervening early". Never has the concept of velocity seemed such a subjective one.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

So in my bedroom from those ugly new houses

Those samey city-living apartments are sprawling everywhere.

During my time in London I remember asking the clichè question: how can people afford it?

Have a walk around. It makes you wonder who's ever gonna be able to repay those mortgages in full before they snuff it. Which explains why adults past 35 still rent and share as if perma-studentdom was to last forever. Or how about those city-living apartments that are sprawling everywhere, in each single town centre, from Cardiff to Birmingham, from Sheffield to Brighton. Monstrosities closer to hives than they are to human dwellings.

Until recently the consensus was that never again the fiasco of post-war social housing was to be repeated. Those high-rise blocks -the script reads out- had been the hard way of learning how you don’t do urban planning. Ugly, alienating, anonymous. But at least the post-war social housing drive was a positive one. It was the government taking on board the task of allowing everybody modern and affordable living in some shape or form. The UK had taken on the noble task of mammoth slum-clearance. And modernist post-war housing was seen as the quickest, most affordable and most effective solution.

But now? What’s all this? At the turn of the 21st century you cannot believe the rate at which humongous apartment blocks are mushrooming throughout the UK. Housing it may be, but this time it’s no social we’re talking about. No cheap, affordable, “homes for heroes”. They are all invariably high-rent, glossy, “city-living”, “south-side”, “west-side”, “urban- splash” dens. Not even that glossy, to tell you the truth. But certainly re-mortageable, if you don't fancy repossession.

I’m sitting outside a bar in Hurst Street, on a rare April sunny afternoon, sipping rose wine, what else. The building opposite us must have been assembled in less than five minutes. Lego for giants. For a second I express bewilderment. I didn’t know the new A&E department was being built in Hurst Street. Not quite.

A pink banner sheds some light “City Living- Show Room- Southside”. “Enjoy life at the heart of the business district”. You really should take a look at the building. Had it been a guessing game, chances are the A&E speculation would have been followed by a) school, b) prison, c) police HQ. Scratch beneath the surface of extortionate prices and…but that's another story.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Blighted in Blighty

It’s been three weeks since I first trotted around the streets of this town in Portugal. Afternoons are a notoriously quiet affair here. The place is industrious but unhurried. The region was described as one of the richest of the EU and “typical Calvinist spirit, a far cry from the stereotype of lazy Poland” by a Yale University research. None of that frenzied English clone-town centre vestige. Since legging it, a few weeks ago, it didn’t take long to register that the perception of Britain abroad is a far cry from reality, a testing concoction of misconceptions and distorted myths of a green and pleasant land stuck in aspic.

People here come up with all sorts of ideas suggesting that Britain may find itself a mere step short from being a heavenly kingdom, were it not for inclement weather and stodgy food.

How many times do I have to repost that, no, drive-by shooting does exist in the UK. That their lovely new cultural phenomenon called “happy-slapping” isn’t quite in the league of mini-skirts, Britpop and all those slightly more constructive old British exports. That no, music people do get a hard time too, outside London you’d easily get a beating for sporting a Mohawk or looking like an ‘indie-kid’, a poofter, or a goth. That schools are blighted by bullying.

That men don’t all prance about speaking like Hugh Grant and rarely spend more than a minute in front of the mirror. That a look at a beer bellies and football-geezers wouldn’t go amiss to have an idea. That timber-frame homes ended their reign quite a while back and haven’t they heard of clone-towns, that whether you hurry with your shopping down Dudley high street or Southampton town centre, chances are the plastic bags you’re carrying sport the same logos.

That pubs have long ceased to be cosy pretty social hideaways and bring your earplugs along as you try the Actress &Bishop on a weekend. That vomit on pavements on a Friday night is run of the mill. That, no, I don’t live in London and I haven’t met the queen. And that, yes, corruption is endemic in the UK, too.

And when they look at its “model of democracy” they’d better take notice of that kick in the eye that answers the moniker of the House of Lords, the peer- selection backhander scandal, or at the one-man band that has been Tony Blair’s government in the past few years.

And when the Latvians whinge about their manic political system, they may want to take a peek at the United Kingdom of Apathy and the lowest electoral turnout in Europe, perhaps explained by the non-existent choice between two incredibly similar and unrepresentative political parties.

And that –for goodness’ sake- the next time you give me that look when I tell you that trains in Greece are actually cheaper and NOT more inefficient that those in Britain, I’ll take you for a ride on that packed overpriced Birmingham-Brighton Virgin Trains service and the bill is on you. But here, in Slovakia, on a sunny, sultry afternoon, with a heat that you don’t get in Brum were it not for the first two weeks of July when you’re working your arse out and wait for that evening drink in the pub, something finally hits home.

The bank guy –Mehmet, his name is- isn’t taking the piss nor having me on. A tinge of embarrassment twists his face for a split second. You’d want to cuddle him if it wasn’t for my now endemic suspicion that he may be after something. A **********, maybe. The request for a signature that would tie me for life to an insurance scheme, arguably. Oh haven’t years of Blighty turned me into a conspiratorial watchdog type.

No, all he utters timidly, as he squeezes an English preposition or two within his lovely Serbo Croat, is: “This one I’d really love to know. It’s been bugging me for a while. people in England really walk around carrying a suitcase and wear a bowler hat?”. Oh dear, where do I begin. This time I could write a book about it.