Archives for category: Politics

Whatever happened to Generation X?

As I take a look around at those in power and the rising stars of the future be it in politics or business, on a national scale or within my own workplace, I see a yawning generational chasm occupied by just a few lonely voices where my age cohort should be out in force.

It feels like my generation has been skipped; late to the party, missed out on all the good bits. We’re absent from the table when the cakes are being handed round. Most of my school friends dropped off the conventional career ladder long ago and I’ll soon be joining them. Where did Generation X go wrong?

For those who don’t already know, Generation X are the kids who were born between the mid 60’s and mid 80’s. We’re currently in our thirties and forties. Those older than us are the Baby-Boomers and those younger are the Millenials.

About now we should have been expecting to see the bulk of power and capital passing into our hands as the Boomers retired but it hasn’t happened. To me it feels like we’ve been by-passed. True enough, politically, all three major party leaders are early X’ers and what a sorry bunch they are in the great scheme of things. I suspect that by this time next year they’ll all be gone and odds are that their replacements will come once more from the older generation, or even the younger; a safe pair of hands or a breath of fresh air.

But why did it come to this? What happened to us and why are we so disorganised and seemingly lost in the world? It all comes down to history.

Generation X grew up during the seventies and eighties. These were our most formative years when the ideas that we absorbed shaped our futures. In childhood we learn our basic lessons and are forever dominated by the things which play on our minds most and for us as a group, that was the bomb.

It may not seem such an obvious thing to those who were over ten years old in 1970; or indeed to ourselves, but we grew up in the era of ‘mutually assured destruction’. We were children safe in the knowledge that we could all be annihilated in the blink of an eye; we were too young to understand the politics, the why’s and wherefores. All we had were adults talking darkly about ‘four minute warnings’ and ‘fallout shelters’, and how if we were lucky we’d be vapourised. We rehearsed for it at primary school and dug play nuclear shelters in the garden. We dutifully read our set English texts: On the beach, Z for Zachariah, Adam’s Ark… but they didn’t prepare us for life; they prepared us for death.

The end of the world was real and imminent from my earliest consciousness, but speaking to older generations now, I know that it didn’t register with them in anything like the same way; they all watched the news of course whereas we just had the fear.

Plenty of us watched Threads though; and those that didn’t heard about it at school the next day.

And this is the problem for Generation X. Most of us didn’t expect to ever be in our thirties and forties; or at least if we did it would be in a world so far removed from that we knew that it was hardly worth preparing for. The survivors were the ones going blind up on Curbar Edge. What good would education and wealth be to us there? We might just as well get drunk.

So we played like there was no tomorrow, enjoying ourselves while we could. We never studied too hard preferring instead a life of binge drinking, drugs, cheap sex and illegal raves.

Then, twenty-five years ago the wall came down and everything changed. We found ourselves wondering what to do with our lives. We were never prepared for that and all of a sudden we were expected to adapt to a new reality. Peace.

We still lived our lives of self-gratification, quick credit and short-termism because that’s what our formative years had taught us to do. We didn’t bother with pensions and have the lowest voting turnout of any generation, ever.

Now most of us have debts up to our eyebrows; mine was the first year to get student loans (albeit modest by today’s standards). Those of us who didn’t end our lives in crack dens finished school and graduated into a ruthless boom and bust economy which sapped our spirits before we even got going.

We mortgaged ourselves up to the hilt to try and get on the housing ladder whilst still being in that dangerous mind-set that tomorrow would never come. Now here we are; tomorrow has come and there’s another long recession partly of our own making. We’re broken and shell-shocked as we lose the lives we’d gained once we belatedly realised we needed to work hard. At the same time we find ourselves as the sandwich generation having to care for both our parents and our children simultaneously. What a mess.

Meanwhile the following generation have come along with their work hard, play hard attitude and wonderful self-assurance. I don’t pretend life is easy for them at the moment but they do seem so much better prepared for it. They take life seriously and care about their future. The first of them are just entering their thirties and yet they’ve already produced social and political commentators, entrepreneurs and thinkers the like of which have rarely been seen before. Generation X are struggling to find our feet; meanwhile the Millenials have already found theirs and started walking.

heater

It’s cold. Well it’s not that cold, not outside anyway, but I am cold.

My flat uses night-store heaters and when I switched them on for the first time this autumn they tripped the power circuit out. These are big old heaters; probably as old as the flat; they just don’t feel safe anymore so I switched them off and decided to replace them. All well and good.

Now night-store heaters it seems are expensive – about £1000 for two. I was also not aware – though it’s probably fairly obvious if I think about it – that they are full of heavy heating bricks. I approached my small local electrical retailer who is excellent. The woman (always a good sign in my view) came round with a measuring tape, chose a couple of new heaters for me, and got them delivered without much fuss which is just as I like it. I found myself temporarily accommodating two very large cardboard boxes and a pile of heavy bricks on my nice wooden floor. She arranged for an electrician to come around at my convenience – so a Saturday then – to install them.

Saturday came, and so eventually did the electrician. He set to work with the aid of a cuppa and removed the first heater. He carted a stack of bricks out into the communal hallway leaving scrap metal propped up in my living room. He then fixed the new heater onto the wall but was clearly starting to have difficulty. A few moments later he said he was to ill to continue. Before leaving he assured me everything was safe but I now had one new heater fixed to the wall but unusable without bricks inside. The remains of the old one and the bricks from it distributed around my flat and outside in the hall. I felt I had little choice but to get those to the dump myself which was hard work but not insurmountable for a forty year old by herself. My nails suffered.

Now I await the return of the electrician “sometime in the next few days”. I hope he’s okay. I feel guilty about pursuing it.

So here I am. Cold. I’ve been chilly for the last two weeks but I knew I was getting the heaters fixed and it wouldn’t be long but now the weather is turning colder and I don’t know how long it will be.

My experience with electricians isn’t good. I have had another electrical job needing done for quite some time but haven’t been able to get anyone to do it. The job’s too small apparently. In years gone it’s the sort of job I might have done myself, but I am  not a qualified electrician so that is now against the rules, but changing a couple of light fittings isn’t big enough for a qualified electrician so they haven’t been done. I have ceiling lights which I’m frightened to use. The chances of me having a “big” electrical job in a very small flat are limited so now the heaters are being done the lights will be done as well once the electrician is fit to do them.

Anyway back to the cold. I took the prime minister’s advice and put on another sweater. He’s right, it does make you warmer. A bit. Though as I say it’s not really cold yet. But just being a degree or so cold is a problem. You become lethargic and don’t want to do anything. Most of the housework I intended to do this weekend didn’t get done because I just wanted to sit on the sofa huddled around my portable heater and keep warm. I didn’t do it last weekend either for the same reason so the place is getting dirty. I haven’t washed my towels or sheets because I don’t want wet linen drying when there’s no heat – I’m in an upstairs flat so I don’t have access to any other drying facilities beyond a clothes horse and a night-store heater. I daren’t open the windows when I’m cooking for fear of drafts chilling the fabric of the flat even more, so now the place smells of food and there is condensation from the steam making the window frames damp. I’m coming down with a cold.

I’m lucky I have a job. I can go to work where there is a reasonable level of warmth but what of those who don’t work? Pensioners? The disabled? As I’m finding, being cold isn’t just about being cold, it also contributes to a downward spiral of general squalor, poor health and misery. Nor is it always down to poverty or fecklessness, sometimes it can just happen by accident. Maybe that’s worth remembering next time you tell someone to wear an extra jumper.

larner2a

I must have been seven or eight and was being taken to Birmingham on the train. As the train entered the city fringes I remember very clearly passing a huge forest of high-rise flats. I now know this was the Castle Vale estate and there must have been well over thirty towers. They were standing ethereal above the haze of a misty morning; at once beautiful and forbidding. As a child from the country they were the epitome of urban living; glamorous and sophisticated. They were my fantasy. I wanted to live somewhere like that. 

That train journey was in the very late seventies when the development was a little over ten years old; relatively modern in housing terms, but by that stage the estate had a reputation for crime and deprivation that was far from the glamour that youthful me imagined. It was designed as a solution to urban deprivation; a massive overspill estate on a former airfield accommodating 20,000 of the cities least advantaged residents. 

Unwittingly I was living the vision of the planners. From the safe distance of the railway this estate had an awe-inspiring beauty stimulating the imagination. But that was the closest middle-class kids like me were ever going to get to it. The real story for those living there was one of vandalism, crime and squalor compounded by poor maintenance and ever diminishing services. Since then, this and similar estates in every major British city have gradually been demolished. Only two blocks at Castle Vale now remain amid the replacement low-rise development because schools were incorporated into the structures and demolition was too complicated. The standard of living has improved and it is now regarded as a model of community-led regeneration. 

Most commentators now see high-rise housing estates as a huge mistake born out of the ceaseless optimism of modernist sixties planners who had an idealised vision of an urban utopia which was ultimately defeated by human nature. The estates were laid out paying great attention to visual aesthetics to reflect that fashionable post-war idea of what the future might hold but with less thought to the wind tunnels and eddies they created. Going almost unnoticed was the fact that these were homes to thousands of people; these were where people actually lived. The inhabitants were the poor and the vulnerable; the elderly and disadvantaged; this was where disaffected youths congregated in stairwells and objects were thrown from high windows; where lifts broke down and weren’t fixed and as they became older crime and anti-social behaviour increased making them ever less desirable. For all their architectural splendour this type of high-density communal living is best removed from the housing stock, but it would be wise to remember they were built in response to specific problems. 

The danger here is that the economic realities which produced these huge estates are back with us today. The competing interests of a desperate need for additional housing and a powerful conservation movement; both equally valid could yet focus developers on the advantages of large scale high-rise development to make the best use of limited space. The signs are there. Modern blocks are getting taller and wider. Initially most are intended for first-time buyers but invariably they are becoming buy-to-let after a few years. Occasionally even very tall residential towers are springing up across London and other cities marketed as desirable new concepts in urban living which is exactly how the original estates came about. How long will it be before we see a twenty-first century Castle Vale trumpeted as the solution to all our housing problems? The post-war slab sides, flat tops and regimented rows may be a thing of the past but how much better will living conditions be with amorphous design and air-conditioning?

 

UKIP have won council seats right across the country in yesterday’s election. They’ve had a lot of coverage and undoubtedly many people will have voted for them as a protest against mainstream parties which are seen as detached and unable to provide solutions to the problems we face, but this is not the whole story. Whilst there are legitimate concerns with their language and policies and certainly several of their candidates have not covered themselves in glory, they are still winning votes and fulfilling a genuine role in UK democracy. 

It should be no great surprise that UKIP have gained most of their seats in unfashionable parts of rural England nor should they be thought of particularly as a protest party for their success in such areas. The anti-EU rhetoric and opposition to large scale immigration have certainly been popular but these are not the only reasons for their advancement; it’s just as likely that they have won support because they’ve filled a glaring gap in the political spectrum and energised a new group of activists. 

UKIP won sixteen seats on Lincolnshire County Council becoming the official opposition. Fourteen of these seats are in the east of the county remote from major cities and transport links. A similar pattern seems to have emerged in Norfolk. They have won in the seaside resorts, marshes and fens where seasonal work and labour intensive agri-businesses are the major employers in the local economy; in small, isolated market towns that are off the beaten track and dispersed villages of nineteenth century red brick farm houses. It’s the countryside but it’s not picturesque in the traditional sense though it’s often eerily beautiful with wide-open spaces and big skies. Services are few and far between and cuts are felt deeply. The price of petrol is a huge issue here as the car is an essential part of life and if you don’t have one you’re cut off from the world. Wind farms are springing up everywhere with little perceived benefit to the local community. Welcome to the rural fringe. 

UKIP have spoken to a large group of people who hitherto haven’t really had their own party. In Scotland and Wales these votes would be swept up by Nationalists but in peripheral English regions they’re there for the taking. These are the rural working class who have for various historic reasons such as dispersed communities and lack of unionisation, never really engaged with the Labour movement and have been too remote from Labour heartlands to have been noticed. Voters who may have previously considered the Liberal Democrats and Greens, but aren’t that right-on and environmentally concerned. Most of the people voting UKIP are socially conservative and will traditionally have given their votes to the Conservative Party yet at a time when that party seems more elitist and metropolitan than ever, the working-class “common sense” rural voter can see little to keep them loyal to a party which has only really ever been the least bad option. These are not the ruling classes. They’ve always been here and they’ve always felt the way they do yet hitherto there hasn’t been a party which really reflected their beliefs.                                                                                                                       

If UKIP are to become a major player in British politics they, like other parties, must cultivate heartland areas and what we have seen in this election may be the first signs of an establishing powerbase. To dismiss them as clowns and fruit-cakes is unfair and will only serve to galvanise all those supporters who are glad to finally have a party to vote for with enthusiasm and who have never felt as if their concerns have been taken seriously before. Maybe the comparisons with the progress the SNP has made in Scotland in the last twenty years aren’t so far-fetched. This is a very interesting time for British political diversity and could yet enrich our democracy.

 

thamesmead

For most of the last thirty years we have been told by the government that we should maintain close family ties and support our parents and grandparents in their old age rather than allowing them to become a burden on the state. This, along with stable (heterosexual of course) marriage, is usually referred to as “traditional family values”. At the same time governments have told us that if we can’t find a job we should move to where we can; assuming we have the skills of course. For many of us these two aspirations are contradictory. If we do one, we can’t do the other. 

As of April 1st, those council and housing association tenants claiming housing benefit from the state for their living accommodation are subject to what is now commonly known as the “bedroom tax”. Actually it’s not a tax at all; it’s a benefit cut, but to those affected the result is the same. Tenants will lose money for every spare room that their council deems them to have. Each adult or couple is entitled to one room but children under sixteen must share if they are of the same sex (don’t get me started on gender expression at this point!) and those under ten whatever their sex. Separated parents will not be allowed to keep a room for their child to visit; nor will it be possible to keep a room for a child who is away studying. 

Of course, as with so much in this country, the “bedroom tax” was dreamt up by political advisers who live and work in London. Down here there are huge numbers of one-bedroom properties and ample public transport connecting them together. Unfortunately this situation does not extend much beyond the M25. In most provincial towns and cities one bedroom properties are few and far between. Land is cheaper and there was never any need to build them in such large amounts. Now people will be priced out of larger houses as incomes outside London are much lower, yet there are less one-bedroom properties for them to move into. The result will be increased homelessness, empty houses, dispersed families and overcrowding as children share rooms and make way for lodgers; as a consequence of all this there will be a likely increase in domestic violence and child abuse as well as an increased birth rate. This has all happened before during the industrial revolution. 

Through the late twentieth century we’ve lost sight of the risks that serious, widespread overcrowding brings as we’d largely eradicated it. It is not just a problem for those who have the misfortune to live in those conditions; it’s a problem for all of us. Infections and diseases spread like wildfire in cold, damp and overcrowded conditions. The prevalence of air-conditioning in our modern trains and buildings will ensure that the overall health of the nation will take a tumble with consequent effects on the wider economy through sickness absence and reduced productivity. 

Meanwhile in London; more and more studios and one-bedroom properties are springing up and they’re getting smaller and smaller. Often they are marketed as “executive” or “luxury” but to me they look like the sink estates of the future. These properties also inevitably lack storage space; few new flats inside the M25 have any storage areas – a luxury you may think – but fairly crucial if you want such basics as an ironing board, a mop and bucket, a broomstick and a clothes horse. These usually have to live in the bathroom and kitchen where they become dangerous obstacles. Most flats do not have a garden so there is no drying space for clothes leading to damp within the building (especially in winter) or the need for a washer-dryer; either way heating and electricity bills will increase accordingly and as we all know electricity is expensive. In these conditions mould and condensation become problematic and have a negative effect on our health. 

The result of the bedroom tax here will see older people living in the cold, damp upstairs flats that they had to move to when their children left, struggling to store the necessary items to keep themselves clean and safe. They won’t be able to have family members to stay so the NHS/DSS will have to step in and help. People of all ages will need to relocate to unfamiliar areas away from friends, families and the social networks that they rely on. 

Besides the bedroom tax, there is a clear need now to set stringent standards in housing quality. It would be good to see the reintroduction of a reasonably generous minimum floor area and designated bedrooms should also have a minimum size suitable to accommodate a king size double bed, wardrobe and chest of drawers with sufficient space to walk around them. Every new property should come with a storage cupboard of sufficient size to accommodate the household necessities; and if no drying space is available then there ought to be sufficient space to have a proper electric dryer alongside the other necessary appliances. Dividing walls between neighbouring flats should be solid and sound proofed; and all rooms, particularly bathrooms and kitchens should have an opening external window. 

Provision of housing should also be more carefully planned. Market forces are not necessarily best in this area; instead social housing ought to be specified according to need and then built by private firms within the prescribed guidelines. One, two and three bed properties need to be constructed in numbers proportionate to existing projected demographic requirements rather than endless executive studio apartments with high maintenance fees which will never see an executive within their design life. With these rules in place and a commitment to demolish older properties which don’t conform I believe that overall standards of living will be improved immeasurably.

 

Bitcoin is a virtual currency exchanged electronically. Nobody is quite sure who exactly created it but it appears to have emanated originally from a group of developers working under a pseudonym. It was first launched in 2008/9 and initially used to carry out online transactions in the gaming community.

The currency was created to automatically increase its circulation based on algorithms running on a finite number of servers. Coins are issued continuously at set intervals using encrypted alpha-numeric strings which are then harvested by private computers and smartphones equipped with bitcoin mining software optimised to compete for new coinage by solving mathematical problems. Mining software is readily available in the marketplace and the more efficient the software, the more expensive it is thus coins are most easily gained by those who already have the most money and processing power. Money supply is increased in an ever decreasing geometric curve until it reaches a hard limit some time in 2140. Each transaction is verified by a timestamp and recorded in a logfile stored on every device on the network. It synchronises around the network every few minutes to keep up to date. 

There is no central bank. The currency flow is controlled solely by an automated process independent of any outside factors or economic fluctuations. When I began writing this last week bitcoins exchanged for around US$60 each but with wildly varying values however the trend is rapidly upwards and they now appear to have passed the US$100 barrier. 

Since its creation the bitcoin has expanded in appeal. Its usage has moved beyond its intended purpose (if indeed it ever had one) onto the online silk road and thence into the terrestrial black market where it’s been used for drug transactions and money laundering among other things. Now it has started to become more mainstream. Increasingly bitcoin is becoming a tangible currency with notes and coins being produced in various places and is not-surprisingly seeing its greatest growth in usage in places such as Cyprus and Spain where traditional currency is becoming harder to come by. It has also become a haven for anti-capitalists; a subversive, anarchist currency. 

The problems here are beginning to look obvious. Bitcoin has no central bank controlling flow. It has no state to back it up; no gold reserves; nothing. It maintains its value solely by users’ belief that it is worth something. Its value is increasing rapidly as more and more people buy into it; either because they have to or because it’s “cool”. At the same time the increasing supply is slowing down due to the ultimate limit to which the programme is working. As the value increases sharply it is at the mercy of hoarders sitting on it whilst its value increases further thus reducing the amount in circulation which brings the risk of stimulating hyper-deflation in the bitcoin zone. 

Now we have the absurd situation of anti-capitalists speculating on a currency created for gaming which is being used by the poor to buy bread. It has had its first crash and at least one hedge fund is dealing in it. What could possibly go wrong? Here is a currency which was seen by many as the antidote to the current financial situation but it is still a currency and behaves like any other. Only this is a currency which now appears to have more in common with a Ponzi scheme than its advocates would care to admit. What happens when its fragility becomes apparent and its users lose faith in its purchasing power? Shares in the South Sea Company anyone?

 

It’s been fifty years since the Beeching report came out recommending closure of large swathes of the British railway network. Forty years since the last major closures took place. Over 5,000 route miles were closed along with over 2,000 stations. A handful of lines recommended for closure were reprieved but some others that weren’t on the initial list were also closed. At the time it seemed to be part of an inexorable run-down of a transport mode that had had its day. The Beeching report wasn’t all negative of course; it recommended wide-spread electrification of remaining main lines and proposed a revolution in freight transportation with the introduction of intermodal container trains and merry-go-round coal trains serving collieries and power stations. But it’s the closures we remember. 

Since that time the demographics of this country have changed enormously. Booming cities – particularly London – have caused extra demand for property and rising prices have forced an increasingly wealthy and car-owning population to look further afield for places to live. They’ve moved out beyond the green belts into rural suburbs where they could have a garage, a garden and a spare room. Better roads have improved the daily commute and once small insignificant towns and villages in the Home Counties have turned into sprawling dormitory settlements. As the baby-boomers had their children in the late sixties and seventies the population multiplied and our towns and cities grew. Changing lifestyles see those children living alone well into their thirties before settling down whilst their parents increasingly separate and boost the demand for housing further. Yes there has been immigration as well. In short there are over 50% more households today than there were in 1963 and most of that increase has been accommodated in housing stock built on green-field land. Almost every part of Britain has been affected by this but some places much more than others. 

Society is changing too. When I was growing up there was only one thing every seventeen year-old wanted to own; one rite of passage to adulthood. We worked every hour we could and squirrelled away as much money as possible with one objective: our first car. In my case it was a 1978 Austin Allegro in Royal Blue with rusty patches. I painted the wheels pink (yes really). It was my pride and joy but it failed its MOT before I could make much use of it and I was saving again. Things are different now. Ask a teenager what they want and you’re more likely to be told about the latest fad of technology. Less often will a car be first on the list. For them the cost of insurance is absolutely prohibitive and the attraction of technology is greater – technology they can’t use whilst they’re driving of course… and that’s where the train comes in. 

We have, I believe, now passed what is referred to as “peak car” where the greatest number of cars was in regular use. Insurance and fuel costs make car travel ever more expensive for most people and with fewer teenagers even bothering to learn to drive it’s likely that road use will diminish steadily. 

And let’s be honest. Today’s railway is really rather good. We can pick faults – it’s a British national hobby picking faults with our railway: trains are dirty with noisy under floor engines; they’re late and unreliable in adverse weather; they’re overcrowded; they’re expensive. When there are no problems they’re also fast, frequent and convenient; much more so than back in the sixties. I remember reading an account by a railway photographer who having taken a picture of an express train, dismantled his camera, got in the car and drove several miles up country roads, reassembled his camera and waited to take a picture of the same express train. Trains are much quicker than that these days; even the slow ones. Many of those lines had three or four trains a day; they were pulled by beautiful but grossly inefficient steam engines; they had unheated, unlit carriages and at least three crew members facilitating the conveyance of small number of passengers. We love riding on those trains now but imagine if you had to do it daily? It’s no wonder our parents rushed out and bought their Ford Anglias. Today we generally find our trains run at least hourly and even a 1980’s Sprinter train offers a standard of warmth and comfort way in excess of those wooden carriages. 

So where to now? That’s a literal as well as a metaphorical question as I believe we’re on the verge of a “Beeching roll-back”. We’ll never return to the whole network that Dr Beeching inherited. The majority of the closures were warranted. They included pointless duplications and wildly optimistic branch lines; vestiges of completely unregulated nineteenth century private-enterprise and competition. Many have been totally obliterated by subsequent development. However the social and geographical changes i’ve outlined will bring immense pressure to provide better public transport in certain areas. Some of these will involve reopening rail routes – particularly in south-east England – where line closures which seemed entirely justified back in 1963 but subsequent percentage population growth in three figures would probably now merit a half-hourly service to London; towns such as Cranleigh and Hailsham. Elsewhere there are country towns which have long stagnated since their railway closed and which will now be looking with apprehension towards the post peak-car era. In Galashiels in the Scottish Borders things are already changing. 

The Borders Railway scheme is a great psychological step forward for the cause of railway reopening. Reopened railways have been joining the network sporadically for twenty years. However up until now they’ve either been in high population density areas on unobstructed track beds or heritage lines opened gradually by valiant groups of enthusiasts. The Borders Line is different. It involves rebuilding thirty miles of track to a relatively small town through open countryside with little intermediate population. At the same time it has required the removal of numerous properties including a block of flats and the realignment of A roads. These were things which were absolutely unthinkable even ten years ago. Now it’s all changed. When this route is added to the national network and seen to be successful, other towns will begin to realise that if Galashiels can have thirty miles of track, then they can justify ten – and the trains will start to return.