Sunday, December 28, 2008

Essentials, crack squirrels and The Office

Some of my festive scrawlings:

Our office across the pond

On The Guardian website: a response to the ridiculous, provincialist idea that The Office (US) is inferior to The Office (UK) simply because it's different/American/bigger/isn't suffused with ennui.

A Lower End Spasm Christmas
Some south-London themed musical rarities on the Spasm, courtesy of Essentials, DJ Oneman, and the crack squirrels.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

London Gang Culture on Newsnight: Know The Levels

On Newsnight on Thursday there was a report into gang culture in London. I don’t want to get into all the issues I have with the media’s extraordinary coverage of this subject over the summer, because we’ll be here all night. There is just one issue for now: one segment, 34 minutes into the episode that you can watch here, featuring an interview with a young gang member from Walthamstow. BBC reporter Angus Stickler’s apparent misunderstanding of the word ‘ratings’ led to what I suspect might be a truly Chris Morris-esque bit of storytelling.

I am no expert in gang crime, not a bit of it. And I’m not going to go into the worthy (and less worthy) bits of reporting in this Newsnight piece, and some of the horrible things that do happen, infrequently, to young people on London’s streets. What I do know is that in this parlance, if you’re “getting ratings”, that means you’re getting an entirely abstract type of respect from your peers. Abstract. Not marks out of ten, not grades on a report card. I’m absolutely willing to be proven wrong on this, but I just wonder whether this is a teenager’s fiction, given credence by news media who are all too keen to believe his hype-talk. See what you think:

Angus Stickler: “When you first joined the gang I presume you were at the bottom level? You work your way up?”

Teenage Gang Member: “Yeah you work your way up. What you do, and how you are… the more stuff you do, the more ratings you get.”

AS: “More.. ratings? So you’re actually rated? What rating did you have?”

TGM: (slight pause) “Like, level five I would say.”

AS: “You actually have different levels?”

TGM: “Yeah different levels.”

AS: “And you were level five – out of what?”

TGM: “Out of ten.”

AS: “So you were middle ranking?”

TGM: “Middle ranking yeah.”

AS: “What did you have to do to get to level five?”

TGM: “Prove that I can do a lot of stuff.. do whatever, when it comes to it.”

AS: “Stab people?”

TGM: “Yeah.”

It seems intuitive that where they exist in a coherent form, street gangs are likely to be somewhat hierarchical. But the semantics above deserve closer attention: the BBC journalist is the first person to introduce the word “level” to the conversation, which is picked up a few lines later by the teenager. The idea of stratified, numbered levels suits Stickler’s theory: the introduction to the segment begins with a voice-over assertion that "the Walthamstow gang is organised". My question is, where is this notion of organisation coming from?

Friday, December 12, 2008

So. Farewell Then...

I popped into Woolworths this morning. You may've read the stories of frantic bargain-buying as the historic chain of general stores crumbles into crunchy dust, with 27,000 job losses likely. As I stepped over the threshold into the busy but forlorn Stoke Newington branch, something wonderfully inappropriate came on the PA: Ricky Martin's mindlessly jaunty Livin' La Vida Loca.

The horrendous, rather shocking bridge-line "she'll take away your pain / like a bullet to your brain" ricocheted around the uniformly unhappy shoppers, who were queueing 15 people deep. My friend Sara has done a lot of research into the anthropology of queueing in the past, and I wonder if she can explain why it is that more working-class orientated shops have longer, sadder queues. Primark, Matalan... it's always the same.

When the news of the chain's demise first broke, a friend's Facebook status ran as follows: "RIP Woolworths: heaven needed some shears, a sandwich toaster and a big bag of cola bottles". And that's the nub of it: there just isn't a commercial point to its overly-broad remit anymore; Woolworths is a relic, its outdated place in the British consciousness reflected in the battered, cold, grey linoleum that lines its floors.

Whoever chooses the music playing over the PA seemed to understand its obselescence: first the blackly ironic Livin' La Vida Loca, then, equally bizarrely, Geri Halliwell's 'Mi Chico Latino'. Why were they playing second-rate chart pop from 1999? Pop hits of the 60s would have seemed less dated, somehow.

Even the closing down sale itself was dripping with pathos - half-empty shelves supporting cheap, broken produce, attended to by poor, unhappy customers. 20% off a wilting mug tree? You're alright, thanks. The signs advertising "10% OFF" explained how much of a saving 10% worked out as, on prices of £1, £2, £3, £4, etc. If you can't work out 10% of £1 I'm not sure you deserve a mug tree. Your mugs can bloody well sort themselves out.

Monday, December 08, 2008

How To Be Alone in Dalston

I was re-reading Jonathan Franzen's excellent collection of essays How To Be Alone last week - in which he touches on the difficulties of maintaining subtlety and complexity amidst the deafening clatter of the information age, of the paradox of needing to be alone, while fighting capitalism's tendency to atomise us into lonely individualism. Technology, the theory goes, merely drives us further into what situationists thought of as capitalism's suffocating pod-like lifestyle (home-pod to work-pod to social-pod, then back to home-pod).

And then I went out shopping in Dalston.

As I returned with my weekly grocery haul from Ridley Road's wonderful market on Saturday afternoon, I came across a substantial huddle of people gathered around the Islam stall opposite Dalston Kingsland station. You will almost always find Christian, Muslim and socialist evangelists on Kingsland Road, standing behind their pulpit-like trestle tables hawking inky flyers, gamefully hectoring amidst the chilly weekend bustle, each hoping to save us in their own way.

You will always find them there, but people usually don't listen to what they're saying. Religion and socialism are equally hard sells in 21st century London, little more than evocative relics from the era of ideology.

But on this occasion, the Islam stall had somehow morphed into Speaker's Corner. "What's going on?" I asked the west African guy next to me. "Theological debate" he said, grinning broadly. We chatted a bit, then tried to turn back to the locus of the debate - but there wasn't really a single focus anymore. Initially everyone was watching as three Christian women debated with one of the (male) Muslim stallholders about Islam and gender ("if you respect your wives and sisters so much then why aren't they here?"), but already the crowd had started having their own debates among themselves. 20-30 people of all different ages and races - an ageing corduroy-hippy guy, a few Brit-Turk teenagers idling away their weekend, several mums carrying bags of shopping - having at least five or six different discussions about religion, politics, gender, and god knows what else, with people they'd never met.

This cracking open of our hermetic pods brought back memories of the summer in Dalston, when a group of us spent some wonderful evenings at the Fenerbahce Social Club supporting Turkey with our 'fellow' Turks, dancing in the street afterwards, banging on bus windows, and so on.

It says 'MEMBERS ONLY' in big blue letters outside the Fenerbahce Social Club. And we ain't members. Or even Turks. But you know what? We asked - slightly nervously - if we could join them to watch the game, and they said yes with more enthusiasm than we could ever have imagined.. "here, please have my chair! Can we get you a beer..?". At its best, London proves you don't need to look very far to find a sense of community with people you've never met. Atomised? Little Jonny Franzen needs to get out more.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

To the left, to the left

Everything you own in the box to the left.

Let's reimagine FDR with a bit of imagination shall we Gordon? Can haz unemployment-busting public works projects demonstrating a genuine commitment to renewable energy? 10,000 sacked city workers turning Surrey into one giant wind-farm? Flood the west London congestion charge zone and make Borisland hydro-electric? If only we could find a way to harness the formidable power of Tory cynicism as a renewable energy source.