Tuesday, 18 March 2014

L'Wren Scott and the inevitable grim spectacle

L'Wren Scott was a fashion designer who died a tragic death in New York City, aged just 49. That's no age, as they say. But in today's papers, she was, above all else, the girlfriend of Mick Jagger who committed suicide yesterday, who happened to be a fashion designer and, hey, what better way to sell a few more copies than to run a poster cover purporting to show a gigantic photo of the moment the ageing rocker heard the awful news.

I get it. As a believer in the free press and a free market economy for the media with minimal government interference, I support the right of any newspaper to report on this story however they damn well please. And the Mick Jagger angle is going to attract clicks galore. Obviously. It's Mick freakin' Jagger. Don't like the coverage? Don't buy it or click on the website.

But a free press must be open to criticism. I find it sad that a 49-year-old woman with accomplishments of her own is reduced in death to a "girlfriend". Even the way the relationship is described is reductive and juvenile. L'Wren and Mick were together for 13 years. At their age and after a relationship that lasted longer than a lot of marriages, "girlfriend" can be upgraded to "partner". Yes, I know plenty of people find the word "partner" to be utterly naff but at least it is grown up. With the exception of Dennis Thatcher, dead men are seldom identified first and foremost by their relationship, but for dead women, it is often the preface to her other achievements.

From a cold and cynical free marketeer point of view, the three words that are "suicide" and "fashion designer" will attract interest and will drive traffic to websites and subsequently lead to newspapers being sold too. People are complete and utter ghouls. Those three words will lead people to ask themselves who committed suicide and click on the link and, hey presto, the media outlets get what they want.  We have the additional story of Mick Jagger understandably putting his Australian tour on hold. There's plenty of mileage in this beast yet.

Armchair psychologists will also have their own grim field day with this story. The earliest news on the inevitable question of "Why?" points to financial problems. Cue people asking why she simply didn't ask Mick for some cash, or claiming that financial problems are a lame reason to commit suicide despite not knowing L'Wren Scott personally, or trotting out the trite "but she had so much going for her" line.

But just as Fred Nile reduced Charlotte Dawson's suicide to an abortion she had 15 years ago, nobody will ever truly know what the final moments were like for L'Wren Scott. Instead, there is a morbid rabble out there tweeting nonsense and none of this will advance our understanding of suicide or depression.

And none of this noise, none of this crude speculation over an unspeakably sad situation, none of the awful pictures of Mick Jagger in a state of utter shock and heartbreak, none of this predictable ghoulishness will bring a talented, interesting woman back.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Mind The Gap. Part Two: Still lame

Old Street, where agglomeration happens...

After last week's disappointingly thin first episode of Mind The Gap: London vs The Rest, I naively had high hopes for the second episode. Maybe there'd be more analysis, less kissing of Boris Johnson's arse and perhaps some interesting ideas about how the British economy does not need to rely quite so heavily on the capital. Hell, was I wrong!

Instead, we got to see Evan Davis (and more of Evan Davis than I really needed to see in tight lycra shorts) as he messed about on a bike at a velodrome in Manchester, we had the word "agglomeration" beaten into our heads until we lapsed into a collective coma, there were a couple of women whining in the street where Ringo Starr used to live, and we had the example of one cute village as a model for anywhere north of Watford.

Certainly, it is good that Manchester is managing to thrive with a vibrant cultural scene, drawcard facilities such as the training centre for cyclists and a hub for media businesses (that'd be the agglomeration Davis is unquestioningly evangelical about). But Davis seemed to then reduce the rest of "the north" into a homogenous blur that was never going to compete with the might of London.

Bizarrely, Davis mourned the demise of ports in the north of England, blaming the rise and rise of air travel. It is indeed true that most of us jump on a plane rather than sail for months when we take a holiday or travel for work. But in the previous episode, he gleefully skipped around the enormous new DP World port in London without challenging anything in relation to its Dubai Government ownership and generally proclaimed it as a good thing. So there is still a need for ports. There are still plenty of things that need to be transported to and from Britain by ship. And many cities of the north used to have busy ports and the related infrastructure so why was that not continuously developed and updated? Britain is not a big place - it is not an impossible transport challenge to get goods from, say, Liverpool to London any more than it is to get goods from London to Liverpool.

Liverpool was reduced by Davis to the street where Ringo Starr lived until the age of four. The street is a depressing row of terraced houses, mostly abandoned, save for Ringo's old house where Beatles fans inexplicably go to write on the boarded-up window and a few residents who'd like the street demolished to make way for new houses. It was unclear from (yet another) lame interview whether the pro-demolition women owned the houses or not or who was meant to pay for the demolition and rebuilding.

Ironically, disused places such as this row of terraces could be used for agglomeration, which seems to be Davis's favourite thing. He waxed lyrical about London's Old Street, where IT/wannabe Silicone Valley types are prone to hanging out together, setting up IT start-ups and the like. Why not encourage businesses to get the hell out of London and set up shop elsewhere if there is no real need for them to operate specifically from the capital? Tax breaks for businesses that decentralise, perhaps? Hell, it is the very technology the agglomerating Old Streeters are so fond of that makes it easy for businesses to get out of Dodge City and still communicate with the rest of the world.

Then there was a pointless segue to a funky but failed arts centre in Bromwich. All that did was disprove the adage "If you build it, they will come." Sometimes you've got to build something people actually want to use. Crazy, I know...

And then Hebden Bridge, the charming little town favoured by well-heeled professionals who work in cities like Leeds and Manchester but would rather live elsewhere, was put forward as an example of how it could be. Davis said that while places like Leeds and Manchester are hubs, somewhere like Hebden Bridge is a spoke, a desirable place to live with a buzzing economy of quaint small businesses all of its own. Which is fine if you can afford the property as well as the season ticket for the train, but it's not the panacea for the north.

Davis completely ignored the north-east and the potential of places such as Newcastle and Durham, and Scotland didn't really rate a mention. Examination of what an independent Scotland would mean for the rest of the British economy was clearly not in the remit for this one, which is a shame because that would have been a chance for some interesting analysis. Equally, there was no discussion of how to revive manufacturing, how to finally reverse the damage done by inevitable but poorly managed coal mine closures, and no mention of the importance of high education standards in creating strong economies.

But none of that would be as fun as pissing about in a velodrome or having a chuckle with Boris Johnson. In short, Mind The Gap was a massive let-down.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Is Mind The Gap: London vs The Rest the lamest thing on TV this week?

Look at me, there I am, loving London...

First, a disclaimer: I bloody love London. I have loved London since I first lived in the UK as a three-year-old, I loved it when I made return visits and I love living here now. I love the noise, the chaos, the people-watching, the museums and galleries, and I even love the weather. But Britain does not and should not begin and end with one city. I, for one, would happily work in another part of the country. Indeed, I almost ended up as a lecturer at Sunderland University.

While London's economy goes from strength to strength, the rest of the country is lagging behind, aside from a few notable pockets of affluence outside the capital. The effects of the decline of manufacturing and industry in the north continue to be felt until this day and politicians with clear, meaningful policies and ideas on how to develop the regions are sadly lacking. In Germany, for example, the economy is not just Berlin - places such as Munich, Stuttgart, Bonn, Hamburg, Hanover, Leipzig, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Dortmund and Bremen are all doing well in a way that many cities outside of London are not.

So with that in mind, Mind The Gap: London vs The Rest should have been a powerful two-part TV series, a challenge to government, to businesses and indeed to the millions of us who cling stubbornly to London to think about the rest of the country, to be aware that Britain does not end with the M25.

The first episode was completely lame. A fawning blow job to the capital. Evan Davis, an economist, proved to be an interviewer who was about as hard-hitting as a knitted hammer. Even when he did express concerns about the implications of London getting too big and succeeding at the expense of the rest of the country, his attitude seemed to be one of "Oh well, it might be a bit crap elsewhere but it'll be fine because London just can't fail!". Up to a point, Davis is right. London probably is too big to fail. But that should not have stopped him from challenging the status quo. He had ample opportunity to do so in a series of interviews but he just didn't manage this.

Unsurprisingly, his interview in the Shard with Boris Johnson was especially embarrassing. BoJo's dubious charms worked their floppy haired magic on Davis. Only a starstruck interviewer would let the Mayor of London get away with explaining why everything will be all right with a nonsensical jam-on-Ryvita analogy. Boris bumbled his way through an explanation that was along the lines of "London isn't sucking the jam (as a metaphor for money) out of the rest of Britain, London is helping the jam spread across the entire Ryvita (as a metaphor for the rest of Britain) because the jam will spread more evenly the more you pile on." It seems to be a food-based corruption of the theory of trickle-down economics and it went unchallenged by Davis.

Davis also had golden opportunities to ask serious questions about foreign investment and how much it actually benefits London and, in turn, the rest of the country, how much it benefits foreign investors (who, let's be honest, don't invest here for the good of their health...) and why we're not getting the same investment within Britain by British companies. At London Gateway port, you could not miss the DP World signs. There was even one on Davis' high-vis vest. There was talk about how this project creates jobs and maintains London's status as a port city, but no questions about the ethics of a partnership with a Dubai Government-owned company, what Dubai gets out of this, and whether taxes are being paid to HMRC. But Davis got to load a container with a big Chinese crane so that's OK then.

Similarly, when Davis interviewed Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin, CEO of SP Setia Berhard, the Malaysian consortium that is developing the prime Battersea Power Station site, they had a giggle when he was asked if he was interested in building housing in other parts of Britain. He wasn't asked why he didn't want to invest in, say, Manchester, a place with a growing media industry and education sector, an international airport, good transport to other parts of Britain and a thriving cultural scene. Surely that would be an opportunity to not only create jobs outside of London but be ahead of other foreign property investors in spotting a new up-and-comer?

But given SP Setia Berhard paid £400 million for the Battersea site, more than 800 flats have already been sold for £675 million, prices start at £388,000 for a studio, and details are sketchy on how many flats have been bought by foreign owners, it's pretty clear places outside of London are not going to attract this large-scale level of investment, foreign or otherwise, any time soon. It was just a chance to marvel at overpriced studios, along with the tour through an enormous £40 million Mayfair apartment that came with its own hideous, gold bespoke crockery. It was property porn with no analysis.

And then there was his depressing schlep through Elephant and Castle's currently deserted Heygate Estate, where people who owned ex-council properties were forced out with not enough money to buy somewhere comparable, and where a redevelopment probably won't do a damn thing to solve London's housing crisis. His interview with a woman from the local authority was, again, weak and came across like an advertisement for the development. There'll be places for kids to play and cafes and stuff. No talk of how many more people this will bring into an already crammed part of London, no talk of things like the schools and hospitals that will be required, and no talk of why London's property market is so completely obsessed by the crowded and expensive inner city areas Zones One and Two. Three-bed flats at the Heygate redevelopment are now being advertised to overseas buyers before the demolition of the old estate is finished. The price? £700,000. It's another Battersea Power Station. There had to be a better way to improve this part of London but we'll never know.

I can relate to the "If you're tired of London, you're tired of life" adage. But even if you are not a homelessness or unemployment statistic, if you are on an endless waiting list for a council flat, if you cannot see yourself ever owning your own place, if you fear you will be an eternal renter in the land where mortgages are a badge of honour and people treat home ownership as a get-rich-quick-scheme rather than somewhere to live, it can be a tiresome city indeed. The first episode of Mind The Gap briefly visited Yorkshire for some fresh air and talked a bit about the Tour de France. It would appear that the second episode will focus on areas outside of London. But the first episode was a massive disappointment. There were so many missed opportunities to ask hard questions and do a bit of analysis beyond the whizzy map graphics.

 Episode One was a largely uncritical advert for London. Here's hoping for something meatier in the second episode. Christ knows, someone needs to make the issue of regional development sexy and interesting to the wider population because right now, our political leaders sure as hell can't manage it.