Saturday, 30 September 2017

Loch Lomond, Scotland - You Take the High Road

‘Twas then that we parted, in yon shady glen
On the steep, steep side of Ben Lomond
Where in purple hue
The highland hills we view
An’ the moon comin’ out in the gloaming

So runs the song of Loch Lomond, a traditional Scottish melody whose namesake is often synonymous with Scotland itself. Only fifteen miles north of Glasgow, this crystalline lake is the largest inland body of water in the United Kingdom and marks Scotland’s most significant geological and cultural divide.

Loch Lomond is both an anchor and a crossroads of identities and historical forces. Its still waters reflect stories of feuding clans and herds of swimming cattle; of islands where ancient monks studied and worshipped in seclusion; of still older, artificial islands that may be some of the oldest land reclamation works in the world; and of course, of that perpetual struggle with Scotland’s foil of a thousand years, the English.

Ben Lomond (974m), the most prominent mountain overlooking the loch and southernmost of the Scottish munros.

The Two Scotlands
Scotland’s two aspects, Highland and Lowland, are not entirely a human invention but rather date back over 450 million years.

In those distant days the north of Scotland was part of the great continent of Laurentia, along with much of what would become North America. Southern Scotland existed on a separate continent, Avalonia, with the rest of today’s Britain and much of Europe. These two continents collided during the Silurian period, crushing the earth of the two parts of Scotland together and raising mountains which, though now much eroded, once rose high as the Himalayas.

Monday, 4 September 2017

On the Lamentable Condition of Public Toilets in London

During recent walks in various parts of London, it has come to my notice that this city suffers from a distinct shortage of public toilets. On top of that, where these essential facilities happen to be present, such as in the central parks and major train stations, they almost always charge a significant entry fee. Many also lack stair-free access, while others still are dilapidated or closed altogether from obvious lack of maintenance.

Perhaps my attention is all the more drawn to this problem after five years in Tokyo, a city which for all its flaws is quite respectable on the question of free and accessible public latrines. Almost every station on the city’s rail and metro network has one in at least decent condition, as do the public parks, or if all else fails there is usually a department store or konbini nearby whose facilities you can use without fear or shame. The train station toilets are usually inside the ticket barrier, but even that is preferable to the situation in London where most stations have none at all, and thus the possibility that you will be able to pee after a long London Underground journey is a matter of hit and miss (usually miss).

Typical condition of a public toilet in a major London train station: locked behind a toll gate, wheelchair-inaccessible, and out of order so no-one can use it anyway.

The Politics of the Disappearance of Public Toilets
On further investigation this deficiency is not a coincidence. Last year (2016) the BBC reported that over 1,782 public toilets had been closed across the UK over the preceding decade. With no legal requirement for local authorities to provide them, they have apparently been one of the first things to go as the austerity movement eats into councils’ budgets.

It is an easy issue to joke about or trivialize – from a place of privilege, say if you travel by car or have private access to toilets in your place of work, and thus take regular relief of your bodily fluids for granted. But as with much of austerity, the greater your level of vulnerability or distance from mainstream norms and expectations, the less of a position you are in to treat this as a laughing matter. Consider for example women, who in general use the facilities to deal with more complex sanitary needs; people with bowel or bladder problems or other physical or mental health concerns which require more frequent recourse to the loo; people in wheelchairs or with otherwise limited mobility, who are often forgotten in the design of the facilities’ spaces; small children and elderly people; transgender people, who face discrimination concerning toilets that recent events in the US have made internationally notorious; and unemployed or homeless people, for whom 50p per use might not be an insignificant blow.

Thus it seems difficult to summarily dismiss the cynical view: that the collapse in public toilet provision in London, and in the UK more widely, is but one more component of the established belief system and political agenda of the day: that society should not exist, that the public sphere should be ruined for private profit, and that life should be made as miserable as possible for those who are vulnerable or seen as different.

Can we imagine a strike directed more perfectly (and literally) below the belt? Perhaps there is no topic on which the distance between privilege and oppression more starkly divides between reflexive, comfortable amusement on the part of those least affected by this problem, and the distress and utter collapse of dignity suffered by those it impacts the most.

Public Toilets as a Human Right and Public Interest
Who could dispute the case for free, accessible and clean public toilets? In the first instance, because our nature as human beings carries with it the frequent imperative to relieve both the greater and lesser calls of nature, the safe and hygienic means to do so should be considered a basic human right, and was as much as recognized as such by the UN General Assembly in 2010.

But even supposing we come at this issue from perspectives that for whatever reason reject human rights, we would be hard-pressed to deny that having this means available is much in the public interest. The thing about the aforementioned imperative to release our waste products is that it is ultimately going to happen anyway whether there is a safe and hygienic place to do it or not, and certain cities around the world whose embarrassment we shall spare here are well familiar with the consequences of failing to cater for it.

However, the prospect of monied, international London joining their ranks might be quite shocking to some. Many of its most overcrowded tourist destinations lack any toilets at all, including Underground stations such as Tower Hill, serving the single most popular attraction in the country, where one account has it that ‘visitors to the Tower brave a filthy concrete tunnel that reeks of urine at night’. Not only does this suggest how we all pay the cost of inadequate latrines in the form of a deeply unhealthy and unpleasant common environment (excepting perhaps those individuals who take a rare prurient interest in the substances in question), but it also perhaps ought to lead Londoners to wonder how many thousands of those visitors later return to, say, Paris or Beijing, to regale friends and families with stories of their experiences whose effect is that the very mention of London is from then on linked in their minds with the stains and odours of human excreta.

To avoid conflicts about whose responsibility it is to resolve this, perhaps we should all take on a share of it. On the surface it appears simple. On the one hand, a legal requirement should be introduced for local authorities to provide a bare minimum of free, accessible and hygienic public toilets, and the necessary resources be allocated them to do so. On the other, there should also be some manner of legal obligation on businesses and private organizations – restaurants, cafés, pubs, department stores – to offer the facilities, and these should be usable without shame or cost by anyone, regardless of whether or not they be paying customers.

As ever, the real challenge is the politics of this: it is hard to imagine responsibility being accepted either by a government which disdains human rights and the public interest in principle and is ideologically committed to their destruction, or by those businesses which operate to the same belief systems and insist that as businesses they have no obligations whatsoever other than to their own profit. We might predict then that the international image of London will become ever more drenched in urine until a substantial shift away from free-market capitalist culture is achieved, towards more socially responsible paradigms of what it means to be either a government or a business.

In the meantime there seem numerous efforts emerging as frustrated citizens go out of their way to pick up the burdens of these structural failings. Among them, the British Toilet Association has been campaigning for more and better public loos for almost twenty years, while researchers at the Royal College of Art have published both a design guide for publicly accessible toilets (very clear and illustrated, well worth a look) and a ‘Great British Public Toilet Map’, an open-data project which attempts to chart locations and information about public toilets in the UK. Also commendable are those local authorities and businesses which really have been making an effort: certain train stations which used to charge a fee for using the toilet, such as Victoria and Fenchurch Street, have now scrapped it and allow free access for anyone, while councils and businesses in some areas together operate Community Toilet Schemes by which the public can use the toilets on the premises of any of their participants.

This still falls short of the standard expectable of a global centre like London of course, but perhaps not all is lost. Once the more general free-market abolition of society has been reversed, these existing civic movements could become a valuable launchpad for the restoration of a public toilet network worthy of a respectable city.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower Disaster: the Noble Idea and the Non-Society

It should not have happened.

Words repeated thousands of times in the news this week, no less true for every repeat. But to think them, to agree with them, is one thing. To see the remains of Grenfell Tower for yourself is to find that to feel them is quite another.

It is not like seeing it on a TV screen. But then, seeing something that should not be never is.

The effect is sharpened by the local architecture. Kensington is a densely built-up suburb, and from many of its boxed-in streets there is no line of sight to the tower, or what remains of it.

Hence how it punches you in the face, when you glimpse it over the rooftops or framed in the sky at the end of a lane. Even in a warzone the sight would appal. Outside one it is all the worse for its incongruousness, least of all in the wealthiest ward of a modern international city.

It was chilling. The tower has been so utterly blasted by the flames that it is as though it has been not merely gutted but ripped into another dimension, a dark and twisted mirror of our own. A patch in the bottom left stands intact; the unblemished grey walls with windows still in place are a stark contrast, the only part of the structure to have resisted the forces that tore it from this reality. The rest has been left a mass of shades and shapes that do not belong in the world, punctuated only by flashes of fluorescent orange: firefighters who flit in and out behind the windows like solid spectres, combing through the ruin and no doubt witnessing things that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

To think that each little square housed a home. The dreams, the pain and the love that each would have harboured as their occupants negotiated their daily struggles through this troubled country.

The hope, and the despair, snuffed out alike in final moments that no-one was there to witness, and no-one will know while still in this reality.

But the universe knows. Everything that happens, it records, and it remembers.

The tower stands in North Kensington, an ethnically and culturally diverse neighbourhood which we might generalize as a ‘low-income area’. And then, ten minutes’ walk to the south, you have streets like this.

Notting Hill and the Ladbroke estate emerged from the 19th Century redevelopment of this area as one of the wealthiest and most fashionable zones in London. And now, barely in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, it feels so many worlds away from the communities next door. Broad leafy terraces lined end to end with houses, mansions, plastered and pillared and terraced and decked in the kinds of architectural features that would send most people reaching for a dictionary.

We may wonder how many of those fancy houses were among those that opened their doors to the survivors of Grenfell Tower following the disaster – in the same moment as wondering how many are owned by corrupt tycoons and oligarchs far, far away and kept empty on purpose.

The effect is surreal. London has many rich parts and many impoverished parts, but their uneasy coexistence here in Kensington is surely distinct. It is a patchwork of concentrations of affluence and abandonment, which phase in and out of each other in the spaces in between like waves in the fabric of time and space, vying for expression. The Portobello Road market, which reflects that shifting character as it stretches from the Westway into the monied heart of Kensington, is one such kaleidoscope.

RBKC = Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

And now there is rage here, and so there should be. It should not have happened.

But it did, and so it joins a catalogue of atrocities through London’s history for which those kicked to the bottom of the social hierarchy have always paid the harshest price. Northern Kensington has long been a microcosm of this. Before sections of it were redeveloped and gentrified, the area was known for its potting, brick-making and pig farming, a hell of clay mines and slurries and gravel pits which the London historian Andrew Duncan, in his Favourite London Walks, calls ‘one of the most notorious slums in Victorian England. Somehow’, he observes, ‘all this squalor existed until the 1870s side by side with the middle-class suburb on the slopes of the hill above’. It seems the threads of the Kensington puzzle run some way back.

An old pottery kiln, from when ‘potteries and brickfields were established here amid some of the poorest housing conditions in London.’ Opposite it is Avondale Park, ‘then a vast pit of stinking slurry known as the Ocean’.

But the horror at Grenfell Tower has a distinctly modern dimension that none of the history, however important, suffices to explain. It is a dimension best captured by the MP David Lammy in his Channel 4 News interview a few days after the disaster, one of the rawest and most poignantly sincere you might ever see from a standing politician.

‘We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable’, he says. ‘And that means housing. It means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built…and it’s falling apart around our eyes.’

What is important here is that that ‘noble idea’, the welfare state, is not merely an economic safety net but rather an explicitly political concept. It was the outcome of a conscious decision, taken by the Labour Party government amidst the ruins of World War II, for a new kind of British society: a vision that rejected the rich-eat-poor heritage that has blighted London for countless generations. Its pathfinder was a character called William Beveridge, who declared he was going to slay five giants: Want (i.e. poverty), Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness. And it would be the state, the government, that took the responsibility of standing in the front line of this battle, laying down the infrastructure of free healthcare, free education, social housing, railways, unemployment support, and everything else necessary to make this possible. Just as importantly was the example it set, the principles it embodied: Lammy’s ‘noble idea’ that society should care about the poor and the vulnerable and leave nobody behind.

In a country like the UK with its incorrigible ways of abuse towards the poor, this was a revolutionary accomplishment. And they knew it: they referred to it as building a ‘New Jerusalem’. And these visionaries would have had something to say about magic money trees too, standing as they were in blitzed-out cities with rationing still in effect and an empire crumbling around them.

Of course the New Jerusalem did not go entirely to plan, to say the least. But it laid a foundation, set a legacy, in values as much as in practice, until another revolution in the 1980s began to tear chunks off this infrastructure and hurl those values back out of reality.

This was the market fundamentalist revolution of Margaret Thatcher, and its goal was to abolish society. Its core principles were the opposite of those that built the welfare state: that people should not care about others, only about themselves.

That alone did not cause the Grenfell Tower disaster. Thatcher and her followers set about breaking up the welfare state because, objectionable as their logic may be, they somehow really believed that was best for the country. But they are no longer the pilots. They have since been replaced in the role by the only possible products of their ideology: people who believe in nothing, and whose every political act is calculated – typically with spectacular ineptitude – to serve their own shallow interests.

It may be no coincidence that many of these individuals, including David Cameron and George Osborne, the architects of the austerity project, are known as the Notting Hill Set and cut their teeth in these very realms of affluence that adjoin Grenfell Tower. It is on their account that the programme to strike down welfare state Britain has been transformed from a political movement into an entire culture: a pervading atmosphere of cruelty and contempt that squats upon all dimensions of British life today, by where the kindest and most courageous people are kicked where they struggle, damned as scroungers and skivers and unpatriotic saboteurs not only by the politicians but by the bulk of the mainstream media, their employers, their services, and the cloud of popular hatred that swells at every sign of difference or suffering.

A culture, in short, where it is normal not to listen, not to bother, and not to care – indeed to scoff in mockery at the very idea you are meant to. Society has been turned into non-society; the welfare state has become a hellfare state.

That is why the government, the council, and everyone else in a position to ensure the fire safety of Grenfell Tower so spectacularly failed in their duty in every possible way. Whether we want to talk about sprinklers or fire extinguishers or emergency exits or fire instructions or cladding is beside the point: it is reasonable to presume that if even a single one of any of the key aspects had been attended to, then the disaster could have been prevented, or at least mitigated so as not to result in the comprehensive catastrophe it became.

Only a perfect fuck-you culture could have caused the Grenfell Tower disaster. And perhaps only by it coming to a disaster like this, in the same period as a bombardment of terror attacks and political turmoil, could the country be shaken awake to just how perfect a fuck-you culture it has been reduced to. There is no doubt now that that awakening has started, at least in some segments of the population. People know it should not have happened, as they should. People are angry, as they should be. People are demanding justice, as they have every right to expect. And they are demanding that an atrocity like this must never happen again.

The only way they can achieve this is by vanquishing that fuck-you culture that now infests so many layers of British life: the government, the councils, the companies, the newspapers, and the very institutions of the welfare state it rots away from within. In its place, they must build a new culture where to not care is wrong and will be held to account.

Can they do it? Can they banish once and for all the very idea of the non-society, and make a renewed attempt to establish obligations of care as the driving force of life in this country? Can they bring back that noblest of ideas, the idea of society itself?

There is an opportunity now. It has come at an abominable cost, one that should not have been necessary and must never be paid again.