Google and the ‘corporate singularity’

People are angry, angry that some companies aren’t paying their way. Politicians, chameleonic lifeforms that they are, are appearing to rush into action. Companies need to ‘do what’s right’ they say, to ‘share the burden’. In short: the world would be a better place if corporations were nice. Ed Miliband reminds Google that their motto is “don’t be evil” and talks of cultures, of irresponsibility. Commentators talk as if corporations are moral beings.

But they’re not, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

If a company is owned by the people that run it, who live in the same area they work, who live with the people they serve, then they can act for good. It’s their good too. But when companies get to a certain size, lose the founders and or their families from the board, lose connection to their community: then we must understand that they have absolutely no connection to anything but money. The company cuts loose, becomes an entity free of ties—floats above the earth in a fiscal air, as if someone has cut the tether of morals holding the balloon to the ground. It runs by an internal logic: each person and their function operating like cells of an organism to further the propagation of the company’s own selfish gene. Decisions, made by people in theory, are subsumed to the cause. And those genes are fed not by reproduction—but by growth.

These corporate organisms are independent of people, they have no morals as they have no minds. They exist to change, to route around blockages, to kill competing corporations: all in order to increase the differential between the money they are worth and that which other corporations are worth. If consumers change behaviour, the corporation will change tack. If consumers protest they will change—if it suits them. And only until enough people have forgotten. If laws change they will exert pressure, if they can they will break the laws. They have no morals and no loyalties.

Once a company becomes untied from people it passes a sort of corporate singularity, where only its hunger and desire for money matter—what’s ‘right’ doesn’t even connect with it. The company has a kind of intelligence and is capable of reacting, and acting, but it’s not feeling, nor thinking about the consequences of its actions on anything but its bottom line. Like the machines in Terminator it’s in a war for its own survival—they may band together for their own advantage, but it’s giant-spiky capitalist dog eat giant-spiky capitalist dog.

Some fish evolve markings that look like eyes making predators think they’re always aware, and corporations will pretend to have morals if that’s what will get them more growth. They’ll say ‘don’t be evil’, they’ll pretend to be little independent businesses such as pub chains and Tesco’s Harris and Hoole coffee shops—but most of all they’ll do whatever will get the biggest return. They are parasites on wellbeing—corporate growth is meaningless to most people, they only feel the pain as wages are cut, prices are hiked, and control is wrested from them. The only thing that can affect corporations past the singularity are laws that are tight and fiercely protected. Wooly regulations will be cut through, tax laws with complications will have their meanings muddied, anything that is open to challenge will be challenged.

Median wages, are falling—even the Office of National Statistics admit that workers have seen pay drop by 3% annually between 2010 and 2012—while economic growth goes up. That’s because the rich are getting richer, so much richer that the growth in their wealth shows up on countrywide statistics. The rich and their corporations float from country to country, cherry picking the lives they want to lead and the amount they wish to pay for it.

It doesn’t matter if one corporation ‘dies’, it doesn’t change the system—other moral-less singularity-passed entities with expand to fill the space. You can bring down one, but the money will get out—the gene will transfer—the singularity has happened. With the system as it is the battle is lost.

But that doesn’t mean the war isn’t still to be won, like Terminator’s Sarah Connor you can battle the machines: try to do enough damage and hold out for long enough for the system to change. Resisting each immoral act by each corporation, while pushing for real change—tight laws, unilateral laws if need be—is the only way.

Beasts of England

Plastic chairs the weapons are the weapons of England’s most feared men. No tracking technology, just utilitarian furniture flung by arms either burnt red or clad in branded sportswear.

The English disease has returned and the seating is being aerially rearranged with malice aforethought across the country. One of this year’s League Cup Quarter Finals saw arrests, 27 injuries and a flare bouncing around between two sets of fans.

But it was no Battle of Rocky Lane.

On an evening in September 2002 150 Aston Villa fans fought around fifty Birmingham City to celebrate the teams’ first meeting in the Premier League. They fought across waste ground and dual carriageways, with fists and knives, with drainpipe and bottles, with each other and with Police.

 “Yet again Blues had to bring it to them despite the game being at St Andrew’s. They were the ones that were tooled up. They had bottles, knives, gas, bricks and sticks and they go on because one of our lot had a piece of car engine. If you watch the video (Set here to some banging grime ) you can hear the bottles landing before you see any of them. […] There were thirty of us against 150 and they call it a result as we didn’t turn them over—judge it for yourself.”

The quote from ‘Wally’ is from Caroline Gall’s book Zulus—Black, White and Blue: The Story of The Zulu Warriors Football Firm. The book itself is uncritical, trading tabloid outrage for access to the leaders and organisers of the gang. It’s part of a trend that came before hooliganism’s recent revival—a rewriting of the eighties that longs for a era grounded in working class life so much that it’s willing to overlook assault, battery and Sergio Tacchini.

Almost every large football club will somewhere have a hooligan memoir, they will be placed by the till in the local HMV around Christmas and feature expanding waistlines and expansive tales of great battles and trips away. It’s a major industry: satellite channels less secure in their sexuality will fill hours with this shit, and films keep getting made, The Firm, Green Street, The Football Factory, Green Street 2: Stand Your Ground. You can learn nothing of humanity and something about capitalism from these, all are without merit.  (ID is an worthwhile exception, despite starring Reece Dinsdale, but then its focus is the identity of the title rather than the game or the relationships.)

Part of the reason for the success of such dire tellings is popular culture’s inability to cover representations of brotherhood or comradeship—only that operating like war provides the easy skeleton for such stories. Football itself would work on less dangerous ground if filmmakers or authors could get to grips with the sport. They can’t handle the game itself, that much is certain, but they are seemingly unable to get a handle on the culture around the sport either.

Take centre-half turned old-lady-resembling Sunderland manager Steve Bruce’s Striker! which is an obvious attempt to create a Dick Francis-style franchise of murder-mystery novels around a sport. The novella is stuffed full of uncomfortable attempts to get across the mature camaraderie—that which binds all sorts of groups together in real life, full of nuanced relationships. It fails, but only in the same way that it fails with other aspects of the writer’s (proofreader’s, editor’s, cover artist’s, blurb writer’s) art—quality rather than effort or ambition.

Professionals can only feel the bonds of mercenary colleagues, fans form an ideological grouping and the casual gangs—however misguided—have the comradely togetherness of a militia defending their home. Zulu top man Cud can confirm; reflect how the phrasing could easily have come from one of football’s more traditionally British managers:

“There was a togetherness within the firm, like a family and every Saturday we were going to war. Others go to Iraq or wherever to fight for a cause they believe in, and defending our area was what we believed in.”

Special mentions, he says, are due to (amongst others) “the B.U.G. (Billesley Urban Guerillas) […] Rockarse, Lance, Smelly, Frog, Mong, Bear, Jed and the Jellies, Cranmore Boot Boys, Jammy, Ozzy, Slim, JJ, Kibs, Ize, Clive Warstock”.

To believe as strongly as to fight has a romance, when that means altruism even more so. If the cause was yours and the war was tomorrow, would you fight? Would you leave home and risk your life, travel to defend the people of another country just because of your belief? The Spanish Civil War offers me a chance to test that hypothetically for me. I would like to think I would have gone, but I can’t be sure.

Seeing the Spanish Civil as a trial run for World War Two is to play up political reasoning over economic. Britain’s politicians, and those of France, pursued policies of non-intervention in 1936 and appeasement up till 1939—the governments fought fascism but not until it was too big to ignore. Without the wealth of weapons or aid offered to the fascists by the Hitler and Mussolini lead states the Spanish republic relied on the sacrifice of individuals, and there were around 30,000 strong enough to do so by bearing arms.

These men formed the International Brigades, they came from across the World—from Germany and Italy exiled socialists and communists fought not just for a brotherhood, but for hope of a country to settle in. Esmond Romilly, a British member of the Thälmann Battalion, wrote of his comrades (Quoted in Preston, P. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War):

“For them, indeed, there could be no surrender, no return; they were fighting for their cause and they were fighting as well for a home to live in. I remember what I heard from them of the exile’s life, scraping an existence in Antwerp or Toulouse, pursued by immigration laws[…]by the Nazi Secret Police. And they staked everything on this war.”

But the British, in essence, fought for their beliefs. Bob Cooney, a folk singer who became part of the renowned scene around Birmingham’s Jug of Punch Club, became Political Commissar with the British Battalion, returning with songs and a conviction that led him to join up to fight again at the start of the Second World War.

Jason Gurney left England to fight for “the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of fascism went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth.”

He was wounded so that he couldn’t work again.

Loach’s Land and Freedom—despite suffering severe Finlandization alongside Homage to Catalonia—succeeds in capturing the certainly of a cause and the complexity of relationships between comrades-in-arms. It borrows heavily from Orwell’s account of the conflict, but immerses the viewer in motivation and that motivation includes the power that comes from a union.

In Bloody Casuals: Diary of a Football Hooligan (I could swear I first read this in an edition titled “Diary of an Aberdeen Soccer Casual”, but no evidence of that exists) Jay Allen gives a plausible version of just that feeling: “Whenever your mob gets off a train, out of a bar or out of the ground it always looks so much bigger.[…]walking in a mob of 200 or more is a fantastic feeling—it’s probably the security and the feeling of power. ”

Lack of power both societally and over the game that unites them has to be seen as a catalyst. The rise of the English hooligan in the eighties came as political power was drawn away from the electorate and placed firmly in the hands of the rich and the corporations. It was also the dawn of the distance in the game itself, while players hadn’t started earning the millions they do now the money machine had started and the clubs that were once part of the communities were packing consumers onto crumbling and dangerous terraces.

Control had left, and by the time of the Football Spectators Act (1989) the very liberty to attend games was under threat—membership requirement and travel restrictions joined fences and contempt as tools for the powerful to use on the powerless. It became more difficult to connect with the game, except through the increasingly regulated media. Football itself was a political football.

Jorge Luis Borges was no fan of football it’s popular-opiate role, and as an Argentinian under the junta that used the World Cup in 1978 to distract from all sorts of human right abuse one can see his point. One of his Bustos Domecq short stories reveals everything to be a sham:

“There’s no score, no teams, no matches, […] The bogus excitement of the sportscaster—hasn’t it ever made you suspect that everything is humbug? The last time a soccer match was played in Buenos Aires was on June 24 1937. From that exact moment soccer […] belongs to the genre of the drama, performed by a single man in a booth or by actors in jerseys in front of TV cameras.”

That casuals took what power they could over their lives, applied organisation to the business of ‘a ruck’, created uniforms shouldn’t be a surprise. A small army needs manoeuvres to gauge itself, and as Mussolini used Spain as a testing ground the casuals used European tournaments. No face could be lost, the enemy wasn’t organised as well.

It may seem further removed than authors, sculptors, and singers taking up arms but Aberdeen were somewhat of a force in Scottish and European football in the eighties. Under Alex Ferguson the team won the Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Real Madrid in the final in Gothenburg. The ‘Aberdeen Trendies’ traveled across the continent stealing Fila tracksuits, and drinking themselves unconscious. The trouble they wanted wasn’t really there, however, as they couldn’t in the end find anyone to fight with.

“A Mark McGhee cross and a John Hewitt header made it 2-1. Everyone exploded—we all leap the fifteen feet down to the standing terrace below. […] When the final whistle went, some of us tried to scale the fence, but it was a really high barbed wire fence. Hundreds of police in white jackets and big clubs put us off a bit as well.”


No such problems in at home, the fights were much easier to come by. “God knows why we loved to fight Motherwell so much […]  Just after 2.15pm someone ran in and told everyone that 70 of the SS [Motherwell Saturday Service] had just got off the 11.05, someone shouted the signal “come on Aberdeen!”.

That violence is sometimes premeditated and orchestrated between firms in the UK is a given, but abroad with the national team such control isn’t so possible. England fans have been involved in trouble during every major finals the team have got to since 1990, but it’s small numbers that will go prepared to fight, and larger numbers that are to stupid not to. It’s even the case that the reputation of the English—those beasts, the disease, the physical representation of imperialism—provides an excuse for attacking travelling fans.

In 1998 I had my first experience of being caught up in trouble abroad, and the overriding feeling was of powerlessness. Less secure, or braver, men may have fought back but it didn’t occur. I’d gone to watch England play Romania. A thirteen hour drive to Toulouse from Birmingham we barely slowed down until we got there and enjoyed a thoroughly drunken evening, and a throughly drunken morning in the centre of a town with some beautiful trompe l’oeil and a very poor Chinese buffet.

We’d had a great time: seeing no trouble, getting a mate into the game without a ticket (but with a wooden sheep) after his was pick-pocketed, and attempting French. Talking more loudly in English wasn’t working as if there was a second language it seemed to be Spanish.

But leaving the stadium, the feeling of the town had changed, the steeply-banked streets were dark, the noises no longer the voices of brotherhood but of harsh recrimination. It was getting cold, we were in the Englishman’s most vulnerable attire, lose shorts, the replica shirt and flip-flops. The sound of thick shattering glass shook you each time you started to relax, like a noise you hear while sleeping and pray has stopped. We made our way back in a concentrated silence not commenting on the we felt, making it obvious that we weren’t looking at the groups of men who gathered in corners and pockets.

There had been no real warning, the pre-game euphoria and 90th minute devastation—coupled for us with what was the end of our tip—could have marked a blackening of mood, but the whole city now seemed dusty, dangerous and shadowy.

Two other fans joined our group of four, showing no shame in fear they asked if they could walk with us; safety in numbers. They reminded us of the reports of skirmishes between England supporters and local Algerian men, something we hadn’t seen as we’d stayed the night before in a village some miles away.  There were missiles thrown, the only protection was to hold souvenir programmes over our heads—we hurried without breaking stride. We weren’t going to react, but then we weren’t looking for trouble.

Leaving them at their car found our way back to the bar we’d be happily shouting “bis” for Vindaloo in a few hours earlier, forgive us that; it was new, it was very much an absurdist reaction to the fake takes on national passion that big culture had offered before. The shutters were down almost to the ground, but there was activity inside. To prevent trouble, we were told, bars had been instructed not to open after the match; however the landlord’s quest for custom overrules these ideas worldwide.We banged, not urgently but insistently, the metal rattled and undulated and after establishing identity we were let in. We settled in to have a calming beer, meet the other guys and wait out any trouble but the barman was most insistent that we didn’t leave alone. Whether the locals were more or less attuned to the threat, I don’t know—but he made it clear we were to stay as long as we liked and then he’d arrange for us to be driven to the car park we’d used.

When we left it was to find the easy truce between English clubs had broken, there was apparently at least one bunch of Birmingham City fans on the hunt for Villa on whom to take out their frustration. Lennon and McCartney’s masterpiece Shit on the Villa forced itself off tiled walls and floors. We left.

Recriminations for just this sort of behaviour were long rumoured to have been the reasoning behind the unexpected levels of fighting around a game against Wolves in 1999. The firms of much smaller teams who command less fans, and so less hooligans, but often see the wider England team as something more important had arranged to teach the Zulus a lesson. This was the ruck at which a “homemade rocket launcher” apparently made an appearance, although what that would do, look like, or how it would be constructed are questions the whispers don’t answer.

Groups, factions; internal strife is seemingly inevitable. The fall of the Spanish Republic may be blamed on the non-intervention of European Governments, but it was characterised by the splintering of the Left—anarchists were sidelined, striped of responsibility in battle and eventually blamed for all manner of ills. George Orwell watched as honest men were imprisoned and persecuted for fighting for the cause under the banner of one group rather than another but for a glorious moment  her “had been in a community where hope was more normal that apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.”

The more strongly you believe the greater chance of you believing something different to the next man. The stronger the motivation the worse the fight.

And if you have no real motivation the fight may be all you have.

¡No pasarán! Keep Right On.

First published in Dirty Bristow Issue Two.

Red and Dead

The past scares the fucking shit out of me. Not in the way that a dimly remembered faux pas leads you down the path to self harm; that happens too, but I’m no longer scared, just resigned. The past that makes me uneasy about going to our outside toilet, about looking into a darkened pane of glass, is long before I was born.

Any era most reliably pictured with a woodcut print puts the wind up me in ways I can’t describe. It’s not just the deformed people and perspective. It’s not the evil rictus grins, or the oddly curved limbs. It’s not the veiny skies and fields – they score the vista, making you view the middle ages through a bashed wire fence, but I can dig that. I’ve played a lot of five-a-side, and life during the crusades was very much like the Aston Powerleague on a Wednesday night.

What makes me dive for the comfort of Dave is the terror of time stretching back, year-on-year, each year more gruesome than the last. Peeling back every layer of social reform, of comfort, of law, until we’re eating babies and burning at the stake while Princes flay festering skin from our nether portions.

Empathy is not imagining the feelings of others, it’s worrying what you would feel if subjected to the same transgressions. There is a different type of thought used to consider the plight of the human race, empathy and horror are bedfellows with numbers and hopeful theories.

Robin Hood is the only hope of woodcut-man for compassion, so was he the birth of the welfare state — of the protection of the masses? Even as the medievalist church mis-sold empathy with fear of damnation, he strode around the Midlands propping up failed evolutionary strategy with bags of gold coin and false hope. But Robin Hood wasn’t a socialist, he was simply less of a cunt than the next Earl along. Not that he was an Earl, probably, or even gave to “the poor” (that’s pretty much everyone without a title isn’t it?). Look back at the original ballads, and the best you can hope is that he’d decided it was only worth robbing the really rich people.

My favourite ‘wither Robin Hood’ theory is that the ballads are some great fashion marketing ploy, based on the absurdly high attention paid to costume and cloth within the text – so much that it approaches the work of Bret Easton Ellis. We’re not talking designer label, but do contemporary ballads bother with such mise-en-scène? The suspicion is that the yeomanry or the guilds (prone to the wearing of hoods themselves, it was cold out, they had money for cloth) had something to do with the spread of the stories.

Robin was at best some champagne (mead?) socialist type; he wore Lincoln Graine, which was normally a scarlet red (not green, cloth-fact-fans) while his men wore the cheaper green and bowed at his feet. He’s not that bothered about the tax system, and let’s face it he’s doing nothing but playing to the peasant gallery until he gets his way. Shades of every modern politician — and this was the good guy — there’s nothing more than devotion, just to the best ruler out of a bad lot. You knew where you were with the Thatcher of Nottingham, at least he admitted he was a bastard. Does Robin take Nottingham and then plan a First International, sending Little John off to probe revolution in Derby? Nah.

For real revolt, for reform, you need Wat Tyler. Tyler led the Peasants Revolt and wanted to overthrow the feudal system — and had a good knock — although there is no record of the system that they’d thought up to go in its place. History paints the Peasants Revolt as a fourteenth century G8 protest — anarchy, Mile End and sacking the Savoy. That the protests were whipped up in direct response to the original Poll Tax is a lovely eighties metaphor, but not exactly helpful when you’re trying to work out if this was original collective altruism or just something to do in-between rotating the crops. It seems to have had very little impact on the history of the class struggle in England, if you can’t do better than a few releases on Rugger Bugger Records then you may as well be the Levellers.

Great moralist, and master of the Greek pun, Sir Thomas More is pretty much the first person to have a crack at a collective vision of society. It’s a pity that it’s a satire, and the joyless view of monastic communism is no advert for a socialism that you want to fight kings for. Particularly fat kings who are good at tennis (even if they are somewhat of a one-hit wonder). Fat tennis kings that will pick a fight with the Pope — in the days of proper hard popes, not just the ex-Hitler scouts we get these days — rather than hide the woman in the wardrobe as Brian Rix has taught us.

Was More joking? It’s hard to tell. Generations of translators have added prefaces about whether it’s pun (Utopia is either No Place or Good Place) or politic. Unless it’s some double bluff, I’d probably call a clumsy Bremner. The last translation I read even has the narrator called Nonsenseo. More loses his head, for all his humanistic leanings, which must be preferable to another round of Greensleeves on the harpsichord and sackbut.

But worse, Utopia — socialism — is set in stone from the 1500s as a rather dull place. It gives root to the ideas that creativity can’t function in an equal society, that to create one we must be drugged and the savages only can save us. From Huxley’s Brave New World, to feeding Barney from New Order Prozac — we can’t be happy and creative and fair and equal all at the same time.

Many of the misreadings of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene focus on the misapprehension that he promotes the idea that the human (the “survival machine”) isn’t capable of altruism. He certainly spends much of the book debunking any notion of group selection — which sees individuals subjugate themselves for the good of the group. Where would such an evolutionary strategy end, he says “For the good of the species? The mammals? The vertebrates?” Dawkins doesn’t mean that we can’t act altruistically, although he does a damned fine job of showing the working on why pure utopian communism wouldn’t be, what he calls, an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS). I’m simplifying towards no meaning whatsoever, but Dawkins runs us through example after example of how, basically, if everyone’s good all the time, then it’s advantageous to be a cheat. It’s the genes that are selfish, not the machines — and in the second edition there’s a long chapter about how the “generally nice” will prevail — but there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the ideal welfare state. Would Marx and Engels have bothered if they’d have thought about ethnology over economics?

No doubt darling Dickie Dawkins would label the basic premise of Das Capital a meme, pointing to its evolutionary replication — and he’d be right. But it’s a stupendously unstable idea as far as political theories go — and fully in keeping with the exploitative selfishness of the “cheats” or capitalists as we’ve learnt to call them.

There are photos of Marx, with a touch of the Just For Men on the tache—or was it a post-bovril portrait? So although there’s no succour for the proletariat, I can imagine him with a meaty drink. He was a rather chunky fella, so a sudden loss of income wouldn’t have been the end—I can imagine a safe world having seen the reality. Not so for the Paris Commune. Although we’ve moved on from woodcuts, and it’s easy to imagine a team of hot-shot documentary watercolorists setting up easel around the barricades, I can’t place the struggle. I can only fictionalise, and my imagination scares me. That I know that we lost doesn’t help.

Sidney Lumet’s 1965 film The Hill captures this feeling better than anything I’ve ever read or seen. You can lose—there are situations in which you have no control. Set in a North African military prison, it shows inmates helpless against a Staff Sergeant intent on breaking them, over and over again, over a constructed mound of earth. Eventually one dies of heat exhaustion, a chance to expose Ian Hendy’s vile guard, but one they’re unable to take. Roy Kinnear’s fright and Sean Connery’s temper see to it that it’s impossible to do anything but the basest fight-back. And the system wins. Forever. We’re left with sheer heat, claustrophobia and sweat (which works much better in black and white). The frustration drips like the sweat from Kinnear’s brow. The system surely must be changed, but it isn’t.

It’d never be made today, the good guys lose — something it shares with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One senses that Orwell was always angrier with Aspidistra’s advertisers than ’84’s oppressors, or is it that anger is one of the showier emotions – and incompatible with the totalitarian oppression – and impotence against that? He reserves special distain for the propagandists, or does he hold them and their newspeak in the highest regard? It’s more dangerous than bombs or threats.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four at exactly the right time, the same age at which I watched every episode of The Prisoner. Both affected me in similar ways, and there’s no doubt that they shaped how I react to other realities. The past is nothing if not another reality, and the less control I would have if placed there the less I’m able to comfortably deal with it. For each, the lack of control is total. Well, unless you watch one of the later Prisoners where Patrick McGoohan had stretched himself too thin and his messianic off-screen control had started to affect the story.

A year or so ago, I went on holiday to Pisa by mistake. Pisa’s nice. It doesn’t have much more than the tower though. It’s a day-trip to take when in nearby Florence rather than a destination. Something else it does have is the fading Piazza dei Cavalieri, now a sort of nominal centre for the university, but historically the administrative centre of the town. Guidebooks focus attention on the main building, with busts in nooks and just the right amount of restoration, but I read about the building across the way; home to starvation and cannibalism. At the order of an Archbishop, Count Ugolino de’ Gherardeschi and his offspring were sealed in and left to stave. The Count lasted a little longer than expected, as he ate everyone else, although he doesn’t seem to mention this bit to Dante in the Inferno3. These, I’m forced to remember, are the good guys the Holy Justice, and I couldn’t settle in the square.

I’m not thinking of how the Count feels as he gnaws on a close relative, nor even how the relative felt (or tasted), but the sheer impotence of the trapped. They have no control of the situation, and no hope of a benevolent, well, anything.

And that’s what scares me more than anything.

First published in Dirty Bristow Issue One, with the standfirst “Was Robin Hood the first Communist?” and wonderful illustrations.

Planning committee

Have you ever been consulted? How did it feel?

I’ll wager it felt a lot less like being asked to help direct a process and a lot more like a cowboy exhorting you to leap onto a runaway steam train, unhook the carriages, and save the women and children. The brakes aren’t working, the lever on the points has snapped, there’s a tunnel coming up and you’re on the roof.

Now imagine that train isn’t uncontrolled, there are drivers and they’re intent on stoking the boiler. And that train has over a million passengers.

That’s how I felt about a huge consultation exercise announced by Birmingham City Council in late 2008: The Big City Plan, the council told us, was to be about “the next twenty years” of the City Centre and by extension have a huge impact on the rest of the city. “Get this right or face years of problems” it seemed to say. So I wanted to help, I wanted to spread the word, to make sure that as many people as possible would contribute. I wanted to have a real conversation with people who understood the issues and chip in where I could be helpful. I’d been running a fairly well known blog about the city (Birmingham: It’s Not Shit) for eight years or so, I knew there was a knowledgable audience out there that would engage if they found it easy enough.

And then I saw the consultation documents. A glossy leaflet what seemed to say as little as it could, and a monolithic downloadable ‘Work in Progress’ PDF that talked of “sustainable delivery vehicles”. I liked the idea of a city buzzing with shop-bikes, rickshaws and sack trucks instead of lorries, but I wasn’t quite sure what was being proposed. I needed help before even starting to read it.

Birmingham had a very well connected online scene by that point: it still does, but it was fairly unusual as far as towns and cities went that that point. Bloggers, web people, early adopters, had started to meet offline and form the real-world connections that helped things to happen. The social glue of the nonsense talked online, the quick, friendly and fun interactions had really created bonds. We’d played hashtag games on Twitter before anyone had thought of hashtags secure in the knowledge that our networks understood what we were doing, we’d drunk coffee and beer together, we’d even performed an online pantomime. So at the next Social Media Cafe, a coffee morning for webbies organised by Joanna Geary, a few of us sat around a table and asked “is there anything we can do?”

A consensus emerged that there were two issues with the consultation that we could help with. One was that the online space didn’t have open comments on it (they were accepted but not published, so there was no space for conversation)—a forum or a blog with comments on it would be easy, we’d just need to make sure the huge amount of words and questions were divided up properly. There were plenty of people who could set up and host a site, I volunteered and had a basic place up and running pretty much by the end of the meeting. I used WordPress, a blog platform that says it has a “famous five-minute install”. In reality it can take less than that, was live for use very quickly.

The other just looked much more difficult, it was going to be impossible to have conversations if people couldn’t understand the questions.

It wasn’t just the jargon ‘regen-speak’ as one of us called it, there were references to further ‘spacial plans’ and bodies that just wouldn’t mean anything to the uninitiated. Essentially, we agreed. The whole thing needed ‘translating’ before any conversations could begin. Did we have the skills, time and motivation to do that?

Consultations officially last eight weeks, and by the time we saw how this Big Plan was shaping up one had already gone. To add to that the council had scheduled this one over Christmas. We might have more free time, but getting people to forgo enough of that might not have been easy. The problem is a lot of larger scale volunteer effort is that you need to believe that others are as committed as you—if I spent two weeks translating but not enough other people do to finish we don’t succeed. You can’t build half a boat.

But those, supposedly weak, online ties were enough to trust that the volunteers would see the job through. Those inconsequential interactions to have consequences. They build relationships. It wasn’t inconsequential to my mind that the majority of the volunteers had appeared in the Twitpanto we’d held the previous year. Nick Booth, Nicky Getgood, Julia Gilbert and Michael Grimes made up the team.
Over the first week or so of the new year the small team of five translators spent a good few hours every evening translating, but it wasn’t just a case of using Plain English. There was great discussion over the web about what certain passages actually meant. We used our contacts inside the council and with other experiences to try to get past the words to the actual meanings, to be able to link to supporting sites and explain how some of the ideas linked up. It had us tearing at our hair, Michael and Nicky spent at least a day fretting about the meaning of one paragraph, the collected wisdom prevailing that it didn’t really mean anything. We had to be very careful not to be seen to be influencing content, and to make sure that any comments we did get would be counted as official.

There were comments aplenty, we counted nearly 300 by the close of the consultation period. They were constructive, conversational and intelligent. And while a few hundred might not sound a lot the whole consultation got around 1,500, it was backed with billboards, bus adverts and all sorts of publicity.

But if the wisdom of the crowd was to help direct that train those comments had to be fed into the official process. That proved more difficult than it needed to, the council staff weren’t ready to deal with the volume or the idea that people would spend so much time and effort doing what our team had done.

We could have been confrontational at this point, but while there might be the temptation to shout being nice always seems to have the better effect with large organisations. We were relentlessly positive and helpful, we offered every format imaginable and eventually submitted the comments by post and email making sure that they couldn’t be ignored.
Did we stop the train? I’m not sure, but a small group of constructive activists couldn’t have done more to make sure that a supposedly huge consultation reached as many people as possible. If Birmingham gets to the right place in twenty years then it owes some to it’s engaged online community.


This was originally written for The Community Lovers Guide To Birmingham.

Immigration is not the problem

When I was nine or thereabouts our family moved from Perry Barr, which would be considered a multicultural inner-city area, to the more suburban Hamstead, which was then pretty much monocultural. I’m fairly convinced that this would be seen as a ‘white flight’ response by some, but I don’t know. After a long period of unemployment—it was the eighties and another Tory recession—our family now had two incomes and moved to a larger house. Larger that our two-up-two-down that is, my and my sister now had our own bedrooms, three bedroom houses just weren’t available where we had been living. Now I’m sure that our moving would be seen by some as a failure of multiculturalism and a problem of immigration—that’s why every party is rushing for the UKIP position.

Immigration is good for the country: it’s good in terms of overall economics, we’re told, and for our cultural mix. Why do politicians tell us it’s good, and yet simultaneously cry “something must be done”? Why do they talk GDP and also spend parliamentary time making it harder for people to come to live in the UK?

Almost everybody, when presented with facts and a tikka masala, can agree immigration is an overall good thing. Even those that don’t, like UKIP or wings of the Tories, have to pretend that they do. So why doesn’t it feel like that for some?

Business people can see the GDP rise and feel safe in the knowledge that they benefit from it, but most people don’t. Since 1979 the GDP of the UK has increased to about seven times what it was, forgetting about inflation, but the average income has just about doubled—the increase in the GDP is all about increase of one figure. It might not have any impact on you ever, and even if you believe the lie of the trickle down economy it might take tens of years. The extra money per head is for the rich, the bosses—the only GDP that directly impacts on you in a way that matters is that of your family unit. Most statistics are about comparision, real life takes a good while to catch up.

There’s no doubt that people moving into a country will provide competition for work, provide competition for housing—there are more people for finite (at one moment in time) resources. Natural ghettoisation and the slow pace of cultural integration (which can take generations) provides pressure points. The poor, those who don’t or can’t move around the country to base themselves where the cultural mix feels right to them, those that see areas change around them while at the same time finding jobs harder to come by, are going to feel put upon.

The ‘free moving consumers’, the hipsters, the humous class, can see the cultural benefits even if they don’t get any more money. New cuisines, new culture, it’s exciting—and they can move away if they don’t like the pace of life or find bits of the culture they liked before being replaced. Not everyone can, not the poor, not those tied by family and work and history to right where they are. Hell, they might even want to stay.

It’s inevitable, but disappointing, when these changes contribute to racist feelings, statements and actions. The issues are complex, and often those affected are amongst those least likely to have easy access to the real facts. What they do get is the racist crap from the mainstream media, fulled and perpetuated by some supposedly mainstream politicians on the pretext of reflecting ‘what people on the street are saying’—a opprobrious loop of protectionism and blame. There must be something beyond the usual left wing response “it’s good,” shutting down any discussion or, more dangerously, “something must be done”.

One other response you hear is that “the NHS wouldn’t function without immigrants” or “who would clean our offices”. Illogical and faintly colonialist it amplifies the myth that “these people” are here to serve us, to do jobs that we wouldn’t want to do.

The worst of it is that Labour and a lot of others on the left are complicit in this narrative—Ed Miliband will address the issue but talk about how to minimise immigration; this supposedly good thing. The only way to get past that is talking about issues of class, something the modern leftist parties are very scared of. The problem is that the concerns the working class might have about immigration, are “genuine”. They’re not lying. But they are not “right”—in a moral sense, nor in the context of a county and a culture as a whole.

What is happening right now is that people are being convinced what they feel is due to something different than what it really is—the problem isn’t that incoming Polish people might have jobs, but that not everyone has one. That’s what we need people to stand up and say.

If my Dad eventually moves out to Warwickshire in retirement as he talks about—is that going to be a failure of immigration policy? Is he a UKIP target, worried about the influx of people from Eastern Europe? I doubt it, he just fancies being out in the countryside.

Immigration is good, in wide terms, but without support, jobs, housing for all that reside in a country, then some people will lose out. Some will be those immigrants, some will be those already living there—a poor native has much more in common with a poor immigrant than either have with a rich man, to say anything else is deliberately divisive. People are finding decently paid work, decent and affordable housing, and propped social support difficult to come by—and that’s because it isn’t there. That’s down to the policies of successive governments and their business mates, not the people that are sharing the space.

We haven’t the money, they’ll say: but if immigration is good for the economy there’ll be more tax money to help pay for the support—won’t there?

Being Frank

I really can’t put my finger on where I first came across Frank Sidebottom, logic would dictate that I’d have spied him on one of his regular appearances on Number 73 but there aren’t any memories I can dredge up. I know I watched it every so often, but apart from the theme tune there’s nothing on any cortex I can connect to, maybe the ungodly presence of both Sandi Toksvig and Neil Buchanan has led to a form of repressed memory syndrome.

I guess it may have been one of the famous (how many other TV guest spots have songs written about them?) Match of the Day episodes — both when Altrincham were doing “well in the F.A. Cup” — or perhaps it was when he was booted from The James Whale Show, I used to watch all sorts of crap. Getting the Spanish archer from what was such a disorganised show was an achievement that later touring partner Charlie Chuck never managed, proof perhaps of an anarchy of spirit belied by the colouring pens and deference to his elders.

I don’t remember the first time I saw or heard Frank Sidebottom, it’s sort of like he’s always existed. But I do remember the first time I met him, or Chris Sievey to be pedantic.

The battered leather aviator’s jacket didn’t identify him, nor did the mess of black oiled curly hair or the ever so slightly bulbous nose — mind you I had absolutely no idea what Chris (as opposed to Frank) looked like at all. However there were no other middle-aged men sitting outside New Street Station with luggage big enough to house a Casio keyboard, and the boxy suitcase had a suspicious papier-mâché head shaped bulge. “Chris?”, I said. It was him.

The Reading Festival has always been the strangest mainstream gig in the British summer calendar, a three-day festival where the rock hangover meant that it was completely possible to go and find yourself after two days of indie’s finest suddenly confronted with a sea of plaid shirts and not a single discernible tune. So that’s the reason I was in the comedy tent that Sunday evening in 1995 and instead of seeing Neil Young muscularly backed by a lumpen Pearl Jam, was shouting “spiders!” in an attempt to put off the apparently arachnophobic singer. Frank was leading that, and I was as smitten as one man can be with another who has a perfectly spherical fake head.

Variery Is Back poster

So that was why, almost ten years later I’d bullied — apparently — the man out of semi-retirement to play a hugely shambolic gig upstairs in a pub in Moseley. We, mate Gavin and I, were intent on “bringing back Variety” and after one, equally shambolic but way less good, night (band, comedian, raffle, bingo essentially) we’d decided that the only act that could top it was Timperley’s finest. I’d stumbled on a fantastic set of arty pictures of Frank online and established a route in via the photographer.

So, after a gushing phone call in which the subject of money was only lightly touched upon, Chris reckoned that Frank would be able to make it, that he was looking to get back into showbiz, and that £250 and a cut of the door was plenty.

As I drove him to the venue he talked non-stop: about other gigs he’d done in Birmingham, asking after Dave Travis, about Tony Wilson and the Channel Four show Remote Control. There was one anecdote about how he’d made an African tribesman Frank and it hadn’t gone down well with the director, it was brilliant stuff that I couldn’t do justice even if I could remember it.

The show was the most disorganised I ever saw Frank perform, crawling along the floor pushing his suitcase, interrupting my weak-assed comedy turn as a camp NUM shop-steward (don’t ask), going off after a couple of songs so as to encore all night — fantastic. He even pinched my backing band Wedge Grundy and the Big Rons for a medley of hits where they didn’t know the chords. That was okay though, because Frank didn’t know the words and it became the funniest jazz-funk work-out I’ve ever seen — as well as the only one I’ve ever watched all the way through.

Frank at the Pat Kav

Frank was out of practice, not unprofessional, although Chris had definitely had a good drink. We had too, the night was wet with booze, and I even — whisper it — got to try the head on, it didn’t fit. At this stage I hope it doesn’t break any illusions to tell you that without the head it was Chris, with it, Frank. Supremely method, but there was one other piece of preparation — Chris would wind electrical tape around his nose, presumably to get the nasal voice just right. I didn’t have the heart to mention that it made almost no difference to pitch or rhythm.

After the gig we went to the curry house over the road, where Chris held court. He ordered twenty-seven poppadoms, as the World Record was “twenty-six actually” — he’d apparently eaten twenty-five in a restaurant before where he was told of the record: “I could have  eaten two more but… I couldn’t be arsed”. He then picked up the tab for the whole crew, costing almost all of his fee I’m sure.

But the best Chris moment didn’t come then, nor the next day when he regaled us with tales of Manchester City whicle drinking shandies made with coke instead of lemonade, nor even when clinking with bottles of Bacardi Breezer he climbed into the back seat of Cookie, our bassist’s wreck of an MG for a lift back to Timperley and promptly fell right asleep. No, the story that I’m proud to tell most happened back at Woody (née-Wedge)’s flat where there was nothing but Prince’s Purple Rain that would satisfy him — it was played many time that night, and the following morning too when Chris discovered that he needn’t have slept sitting on a stool in the kitchen “oh you do have other rooms then”.

I only met Chris that once although we talked on the phone and over email a bit, most recently to arrange a slot for him on my radio show. But when I heard of the cancer I was upset, and upon hearing the news yesterday I felt a hollowness that I can only match with deaths of people I’ve known and really cared about, so I think I was touched. I saw Frank quite a bit though, each time at a bigger and better organised gig: Little Civic, Jug of Ale, Wulfrun Hall and on Manchester’s Channel M and heard him in recent months on Manchester Radio Online. He’d finally got that second Greatest Hits compilation out, the marvellous E,F, G. & H, and seemed to be heading back to something like his peak.

me and Frank

In truth he was rediscovering an old audience, one with more opportunity to enjoy him and more money to pay, rather than developing a huge new one — but it was growing again and he was playing regularly again.

More importantly he was creating again, I’ve been searching iTunes over and over these last weeks waiting for Three Shirts On My Line (his World Cup anthem) to go live for download. At the moment it hasn’t yet, but there are Internet People awaiting to propel it into the charts.

Frank never got to do Guess Who’s Been On Top Of The Pops, although he outlasted the programme, and while the power of the number one has long since faded you can bet that Frank Sidebottom would have loved it. He was pop all the way through.

A giant of light entertainment, and a man I’m proud to have spent time with. You know I am, I really am.

Thank you.

This was written a couple of days after Chris passed away, other better tributes were written: John Robb’s tribute is well worth a read, as is ex-Oh Blimey Big Band-er Jon Ronson’s article for the Guardian of 2006.

Video of the Variety Is Back gig does exist, it’s now online here.

You can back a wonderful looking documentary right now on the interweb begging forums: