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Ukania This Time Around

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Photo by ben cope | CC BY 2.0

Late August and early September always was a peculiar time for me in the UK.  Those who can afford them have been on their holidays (“vacations” in Americanese) and are showing off their often grotesque suntans, children are about to go back to school, and the weather is at its most changeable.  You can be wearing a t-shirt in the morning and needing a bulky sweater in the evening.

A subdued mild melancholy pervades the air, which is good business for the pubs, as less time can now be spent outdoors, and Brits have to seek their cheer indoors, more often than not in the pub– that uniquely wonderful British institution purveying fermented beverages for much desired “rehydration”.

The health industry sends out conflicting messages on the need for such “rehydration”.  Year after year the medical profession scales down the number of units of alcohol that can be consumed “safely”, while at the same time research conducted independently by university labs confirms that wine can ward off dementia, that beer has whatever enzyme able to counter depression and anxiety, and so on.

In the face of such endlessly conflicting advice, the best rules therefore are rules of thumb, of course entirely subjective, e.g. never drink so much that you become “paralytic” (as we used to say in my 60s student days), or can’t engage in what approximates to intelligent conversation.

I’m back in Ukania for a brief stay, and, my goodness, Ukanians will need the full range of liquid ministrations provided by their local hostelries if they are to cope with the Tory party’s shambolic misrule, especially where Brexit is concerned.

Today I watched the Sunday morning chat shows, where as in the US, politicians, coached by their spin doctors, give the impression of engaging with television interviewers and pundits.

Political coverage on Ukanian TV is much more adversarial than in the US– no American politician, apart from Bill Clinton or perhaps Obama, would last one-minute with the UK’s loathsome Jeremy Paxman.

But really skilled Brit politicians have developed a survival art for disarming the interviewer which does not rely on intelligence or verbal dexterity.

This is the ability to draw out proceedings, in the full knowledge that a 10- or 15-minute time-span has been allotted in advance for the interview.

So extended answers are best, as long as it does not look too obvious that one is winding down the studio clock– a detailed answer, followed by a caveat here and a caveat there, ending with a teaser that draws the interviewer down a side-track, is ideal.  That way you only have to answer 3-4, instead of 6-7, questions, reducing in this way the possibility of being ambushed by a difficult-to-answer question.

Someone like Jeremy Paxman will of course interrupt, often rudely, which means the interview now becomes a test of wills.  And those adept at doing interviews are also up to this challenge– “Jeremy, it is unforgiveable that you are simplifying this complex issue, so let me….” (the clock then starts to wind down again).

London has had to endure vehicular attacks on pedestrians, but people go about their business in relative tranquility.

However, socio-economic divisions are becoming even more deeply entrenched, and the number of people living on the streets is shocking to behold for a rich country.

In this regard London resembles Dublin in the 1970s, before Ireland became the “Celtic tiger” economically, where for the first time I saw several women and their children begging in a major city of a western European country.

My Irish friends said these were “professional” beggars from the gypsy community, but I wondered why this wandering community had not moved to more prosperous European cities.

Homelessness in the UK is rampant because housing is basically unaffordable for Brits on low incomes.  A useful barometer of what is happening in a city is provided by those reality TV shows where a couple views 3-4 dwellings, usually needing to be fixed-up in some way, and are filmed discussing the pros and cons of each before they make a final decision on their purchase.

I watched a couple of such episodes, centred on London and its surrounding commuter towns, and in every case the person(s) buying the property in question had no intention of living in what they just bought.

Instead the purchase was an “investment opportunity” for people who clearly had ample cash to spare– the property would be fixed-up and sold to someone else a few months later at a handsome profit, or else rented out for an exorbitant lease.

“Flipping” is the American word for this intolerable practice, and it was fascinating to watch people engage in it without any compunctions or inhibitions.

The hosts of these shows asked all kinds of complicated questions about acreage, the monetary value of an “unobstructed view” from a balcony, finances and mortgages, nearby schools, etc., but avoided the stupidly obvious question, namely: “Aren’t you troubled by the fact that by buying this property as an “investment opportunity” you are pricing someone out of the ownership/rental market?”.

The Tory government of course does nothing to put a stop to this ghastly practice.

It would be easy to impose a draconian sales tax on houses that are flipped, but the flippers are Tories to the bone, so they’ll be a protected species as long as the Tories are in office.

Socialism is the only way to render this parasitic housing “investment opportunity” species extinct, and a fair number of Brits must be of this opinion, seeing that Corbyn’s Labour has a comfortable lead in all the polls (he’s promised to take firm measures to rectify the UK’s housing crisis, including a significant increase in stamp duty for certain kinds of property sales).

Another way to assess London is to venture into a posh area or two (I revisited Bloomsbury and the South Kensington area where I spent my breaks when I was at university in the 1960s), as well as a slightly less salubrious area (I revisited the former dockland area Poplar in the East End) to get a sense of the contrasts existing on the ground, and these were glaring, as my photos below indicate.

However, this narrative needs to be revised, or at least, qualified significantly.  There is no way a student today can afford to live in a 3-bedroom apartment in a Georgian terrace building in South Ken, unless they have millionaires for parents.

Moreover, the social housing (seemingly) I visited in Poplar turned out to be anything but social housing.  It may have been this before Thatcher took office, but once she sold off social housing, private landlords snapped up these properties, with the result that what was once social housing is now occupied by a much more affluent type of client than one sees in the popular TV series “Call the Midwife”, which was set in the more or less immediate post WW2 years of a Poplar long gone.

After taking my photos of what had been social housing, I walked around the car park, and saw, not Ford Fiestas or Fiat Puntos, but Audis, SUVs of every stripe, and a couple of Beamers.

While not as “up-market” as Bloomsbury or South Ken, Poplar has clearly undergone a massive gentrification.

Which is hardly surprising, because a 5-minute walk from Poplar High Street brings one to the shiny towers of the Canary Wharf banking district (see photo below).

The banksters have displaced the dockers of yore.

The crux of this narrative is that the dockers were a highly significant part of the powerhouse that drove the UK’s Industrial Revolution, while the banksters, as Michael Hudson has pointed out over and over again in CounterPunch, merely sustain rent-seeking enterprises that contribute little or nothing to a country’s economic well-being.

I never expected a mere 5-minute walk to display, in a visual geography, the underlying basis of the UK’s economic decline and its associated crises, but this one did.

Ukania, for now, is in considerable disarray.

The Tories, in power since 2010, only remain in office with the support of the troglodytic Northern Irish Unionists.

The Tory policy of austerity, supposed to reduce debt and boost the economy, has had the opposite effect.

The Tory party is riven by internal divisions over Brexit, and has no coherent agenda for its implementation.

Meanwhile, the UK news gave us endless coverage of little prince George, offspring of Wills and Kate Middleton, being taken to the first day of his super-expensive kindergarten.

Somehow the entire rotten show must go on.

Bloomsbury buildings– Lytton Strachey (according to the plaque outside), lived in one of these.  Keynes lived a couple of blocks away.

Student accommodation in central London in the 1960s, absolutely unaffordable today.

Poplar, former social housing.

A 5-minute walk from Poplar, the towers of Canary Wharf.

All photos by  Kenneth Surin.

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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