John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for February, 2012

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Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan? That’s the sound of ageing | John Harris

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Rock may be uncool, but it’s not dead – as long as it accepts its new status as the music of the ageing

On 18 June this year, Paul McCartney will turn 70. “There’s a little cell in my brain that’s never going to believe that,” he says in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine, though there are signs of the burdens of old age starting to arrive. Certainly, he has finally quit smoking what some still call jazz tobacco, apparently because of the demands of raising his eight-year-old daughter. “Your sense of responsibility does kick in, if you’re lucky, at some point,” he reckons.

The avowedly clean-living Ringo Starr will soon be 72. Bob Dylan is 71. Further down the age range, John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, has just celebrated his 56th birthday – which makes him old enough (just) to be George Osborne’s dad. Even the Britpop generation is now greying fast: when Blur performs at tomorrow night’s Brit awards, the drums will be played by Dave Rowntree – who, at 47, is two years older than the prime minister.

All of which proves two things: that rock music and the culture it spawned are getting on a bit; and that anyone who can convincingly call themselves young will want nothing to do with either. In the face of mounting evidence, I remain a firm believer that the electric guitar is the embodiment of excitement and the four-piece band as close to the Platonic ideal of the gang as anyone has ever managed. But these illusions are now largely confined to those of us over 40, while the young understandably seek their musical thrills elsewhere.

If you want an idea of where pop music has arrived, go straight to the inescapable Ed Sheeran (21). The extent to which he draws on hip-hop points up the quarter-century reign of rap culture. Look at his chosen instrument: if there are guitars around, they now tend to be acoustic. And there’s not just him: more proof that solo artists – Dizzee Rascal, Florence Welch et al – are the modern norm, while the last young British band with the power to shape the culture were Arctic Monkeys, who arrived seven long years ago. As far as the singles charts are concerned, all the key elements of rock’n'roll have been retired: at the time of writing, there was not a single song that would deserve that label in the top 40.

“Rock is dead – deo gratias,” wrote one Guardian online reader over the weekend, reflecting a very common assumption. But that’s wrong: in fact, the music is alive, and packing people in – it’s just that it’s finally settled in on the wrong (no, the right side) of the generation gap. According to the latest figures, the biggest selling British music magazine is now the cerebral and luxurious Mojo, whose last cover star was 77-year-old Leonard Cohen. I read it, and write for it: it speaks as powerfully to me as the NME did when I was 22.

As all this happens themes of age and experience are finally entering the music. Grinderman, the project led by the Australian singer Nick Cave (54), was purposely created as an outlet for the angst of advancing years, as evidenced by the charmingly titled No Pussy Blues: “I changed the sheets on my bed / I combed the hairs across my head / I sucked in my gut / And still she said / That she just didn’t want to.” The impressive new single by Paul Weller (53) is called That Dangerous Age, and opens thus: “When he wakes up in the morning / It takes him time to adjust.” Less cartoonishly, when I watched the eternally great Sinead O’Connor (45) perform a new single called The Wolf Is Getting Married on Graham Norton’s show, I wasn’t looking for the perspective of a twentysomething: she was singing about craving security, and there was something in the midst of it all that was worldly, and overwhelmingly mature. From PJ Harvey to a Dylan who wheezes and croaks his insights, this is what the best rock music is now – stuff by and for the ageing and old.

There is only one problem: the tendency of too many rock’n'rollers to stick to their old hits and try to approximate their younger selves, lately made worse by all those reunions. On the live stage this is what McCartney does – but given that the Beatles sent my childhood self word of what adulthood might be like, it would be nice if he could update the same trick. As an expression of the 50-plus condition, sappy collections of pre-rock standards like his current album Kisses on the Bottom won’t do: put simply, I’d like him to tell me, at length, what it’s like entering your 70s. He has form on this score, as evidenced by a very underrated song from 2001, From a Lover to a Friend, which evokes the loss of his first wife Linda: a real wonder, full of fragility, self-doubt and intimations of mortality.

In his Rolling Stone interview, McCartney is asked about where he stands relative to younger musicians. “You get the argument ‘make way for the young kids’,” he says. “And you think, ‘fuck that, let them make way for themselves.’” By way of indicating who he thinks “the young kids” are, he then mentions the Foo Fighters – who have an average age of 43.6, and a guitarist who’s 52.

Last week the genuine article was lurking on Twitter, where people responded to his performance at the Grammys. “Wait, who is Paul McCartney?” asked one tweeter, though the reply was even better: “To be honest, I have no idea.”

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Work for free and ‘be of benefit’ to a multinational like Tesco | John Harris

Friday, February 17th, 2012

A Tesco job advert offering ‘JSA plus expenses’ reveals the sinister reality of government work experience schemes

So now we know. Back in August last year, I wrote a comment piece for the Guardian, focusing on the increasing noise about people being forced to work in return for their jobseeker’s allowance – an idea whose roots extend well into Labour’s time in government. It focused on two things: so-called mandatory work activity (MWA), whereby people are forced – via the threat of their jobseeker’s allowance being suspended – to put in 30 hours a week doing work “of benefit to the community”; and other “work experience” schemes, in which people do up to eight weeks of unpaid labour, with one proviso: they can refuse to take part or pull out during the first seven days, but thereafter the work becomes compulsory, under pain of their benefit being withdrawn.

Yesterday, my colleague Shiv Malik pointed to the numbers of people involved in the scheme between May and November last year; 24,010 had done MWA, while 34,200 had participated in the second kind of work experience. The key revelation, though, was that in the last month for which there were figures, MWA numbers were outstripping those for non-compulsory(ish) work experience by 8,100 to 6,600. In other words, MWA seems to be mushrooming, along with its hardline sanctions regime: the first time you refuse to take part, you lose your benefit for 13 weeks; the second, for six months. Subject to the passing of the current welfare reform bill, rejecting MWA for a third time will mean no benefit for three years – and, one assumes, destitution.

At which point, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what all this actually entails. Thanks to referrals by both jobcentres and private-sector Work Programme providers, it’s about people effectively working for nothing, not only in charities and the public sector, but in huge retail chains. Thanks to the legal action launched by Cait Reilly, we all know about Poundland. Asda, Boots, Argos and TK Maxx, and the Arcadia group (including Topshop and Burton) are also involved. Hats off, perhaps, to Sainsbury’s and Waterstones for announcing that they have ended their involvement with this kind of work experience, but if you want an indication that workfare may be turning into an immovable part of the private-sector economy, consider last night and today’s blizzard of outrage about a Tesco ad placed on the Jobcentre Plus website. It’s for nightshift workers in East Anglia, who will be paid “JSA plus expenses”. In response, Tesco’s Facebook page has been transformed into a glorious example of an online demo, brimming with anger. “I’ll be boycotting your stores with immediate effect until you stop this exploitation – I will also be urging all my friends and family and contacts to do the same,” goes one post. “No more Tesco for me until you withdraw from this government workfare scheme … It is compulsory forced labour,” says another. The company are trying to keep a lid on it all, with little success: “You can delete as much as you like but this will now go viral,” offers one poster.

On Twitter, Shiv Malik revealed other adverts for similar roles at Tesco, and Tesco’s explanation shifted. As Left Foot Forward reported this morning, their initial line was that they “are taking part in a government-led work experience scheme to help young people” which “has already led to 300 permanent jobs”. They then put the advert down to “an error made by Jobcentre Plus” and claimed that it should have been “for work experience with a guaranteed interview at the end”. As far as I can tell, they still want to employ nightshift workers for nothing.

Whatever the answer, the crucial point is that unpaid work – bad enough when it applied to supposed “interns”, but grim beyond belief when used on the unemployed – is now being built into what some people call The New Normal. Given the thousands involved, it clearly represents a boon to the kind of multinational giants whose profit margins must be creeping upwards thanks to the plentiful supply of people – and please, all you free-marketeers, read this bit slowly – effectively paid a pittance to work for them by the taxpayer. Note also the way that even more sinister aspects of all this are pointed up by the breakdown of people who’ve done work experience, as opposed to MWA: 13% of work experience “participants” are from ethnic minorities, but when hardened compulsion is used via MWA, that number rises to 24%.

Last year, a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson told me the “community benefit” meant that MWA would be kept out of the private sector – but on the ground, that doesn’t seem to be working, at all. Now the DWP claim only that they “expect that every placement will offer people the opportunity to gain fundamental work disciplines, as well as being of benefit to local communities”. Also, if you still think that all this denotes only short-term arrangements that aren’t an offence to public morals and shouldn’t be too onerous for anyone, consider one of the more overlooked aspects of current welfare-to-work practice: something called the community action programme, under which people are mandated to work for their benefit for up to 26 weeks. That’s six months, to you and me. Such outrages continue to be rolled out at speed; the horror is only compounded by how little attention mainstream politics continues to give them.

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Occupy London: what went wrong? | John Harris

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

It gave a voice to the usually ignored, but Occupy’s consensual model has seen it too often take the path of least resistance

“The situation had degenerated to the point where capitulation was only a matter of time. The cellars and corridors were now running with rats, the students themselves were now filthy and lice-ridden. The free-wheeling and lawless atmosphere had become a magnet for every dope-dealer, whore, minor criminal and apolitical, gormless hippie in Paris.”

So reads a passage from Andrew Hussey’s biography of the late situationist, agitator and theorist Guy Debord, which describes the fag-end of 1968’s legendary occupation of the Sorbonne. By some weird coincidence, I came across it on Thursday, on a tube ride following another visit to St Paul’s Cathedral, where I beheld what has become of the Occupy camp. If you have seen any recent press coverage of its fate, you’ll be familiar with the essential picture: the story is now seemingly one of decline, exhaustion and imminent defeat.

“The phenomenon, at least in its tent-based form, seems to be almost over,” reports the Guardian. With evident glee, the Telegraph quotes from a message circulated by a “leading member” – which, give or take rats, minor criminals and “whores”, has strong echoes of those scenes from 44 years ago: “It really is tough … We have people with alcohol and drug addiction issues, we have people with mental health problems and very challenging behaviour. As time goes on we have more and more of these people and fewer peaceful activists.”

The high court is due to rule soon on the camp’s eviction from its main base. If it goes ahead, that would leave only the small Occupy offshoot on Finsbury Square, and the “liberated” former Old Street magistrates court. If you’ve recently spent any time at St Paul’s, you will have seen inescapable proof of a demise that looks almost complete, no matter what the judge decides. When I went last week, there seemed to be no more than 15 or 20 people around, and there was precious little happening even in the famed university tent. Back in October, when Occupy camps had supposedly sprung up in 1,000 cities worldwide, the place fizzed with ideas; on this evidence, the contrast was astounding.

So, what happened? First, one important caveat: I have not spent long nights in the gnawing cold, and in midst of increasingly trying circumstances. What it has taken to keep the London camp in existence is unimaginable, and as it splutters to a halt, it’s worth reflecting on its very real successes.

So, here goes. Occupy LSX’s impact on a dithering Church of England was a joy to see. There is no doubt that the people involved played an important role in the upsurge of anger that has lately crystallised around the issue of bonuses, and the fact that the byzantine Corporation of London has seen an unprecedented burst of interest in its affairs. At least some of the camp’s output (read, for example, this piece by its economics working group) has defied all the caricatures, and been incisive and original.

It’s now a cliche to malign the fact that the camp at St Paul’s became a “magnet” for the homeless and addicted, but I’d rather look at that issue from a slightly different perspective: there and in Bristol, I was struck by the fact that the camps seemed to be giving voices and roles to people who are usually completely ignored (and if anyone should know about the downsides of neoliberalism – well, you get the point). Most importantly, whatever happens in the next few days, do not think we have seen the last of the hundreds of people involved.

And yet, and yet. As the St Paul’s camp fades out, it’s worth reflecting on what you might think of as the Poverty of Horizontalism, and the serious drawbacks of organising – or, rather, not organising – in the way that just about all the Occupy protests have. We all know the drill: clear demands have been spurned, any idea of leadership remains anathema, communing with mainstream politics is largely off the menu, and the running of everything is almost painfully collective.

“This is what democracy looks like,” is the campers’ mantra, and fair play to them: to watch all those general assemblies in full flow has been both exciting, and fascinating.

But here are the problems. As can happen with any rudderless collection of individuals, Occupy has often seemed to turn introspective, until the issue in danger of consuming them has been the camps themselves.

Moreover, given a consensual, effectively leaderless model of decision-making – “jazz hands”, and all that – it has ended up, pretty much by definition, recurrently taking the path of least resistance. This matter of basic logic presumably explains the absence of a clever exit strategy, and why the St Paul’s camp is so miserably fading away. Any alternative, no matter how creative, would always be greeted with at least some opposition, whereas staying put and fizzling out proved to be the least controversial option. On Occupy’s terms, the result is assuredly democratic. From the outside, it also looks tragic.

Towards the end of last year, the basic point was put pretty well by the venerable Malcolm Gladwell, who compared Occupy to the civil rights movement: “It was a carefully controlled, incredibly hierarchical, thoughtful, even Machiavellian assault on the status quo. It couldn’t be more different than the Occupy movement.”

A reminder: the state – and I’m not talking here about such minutiae as the governing style of a particular leader, or whether British coalition politics is a little more collegiate than usual, but the state that sends the cops in, or takes away your benefits – remains every bit as top down (verticalist, if you will) as ever. If you want spectacular proof, have a look at last night’s scenes in Athens, or think about the imminent arrival of the law outside St Paul’s. The same, needless to say, is true of the world’s most powerful corporations.

Power, moreover, has a habit of ensuring that any potential threats are usually so diffuse as to represent no danger at all – and in the case of Occupy, the job may well have been done for it, with no need for any effort. The most basic argument may actually be even simpler: in the end, what is there to fear from a movement that is not only fading, but has had such profound problems articulating what it wants?

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Dodgy’s fifth album is a musical reunion worth celebrating

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

I thought I’d had my fill of musical comebacks, but Dodgy’s new album is a revelation

Self-evidently, there are all kinds of issues surrounding the modern mania for musical comebacks. Increasingly, browsing through the live ads at the back of rock magazines suggests there will soon be nothing else, as not just bands but entire genres decide to patch things up, and have another go. If you doubt this, consider the knock-on effects of the Stone Roses reunion: a full-blown baggy resurrection that has also put jump-leads on the Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets. For reasons that are unclear, their Liverpudlian peers the Farm are now playing their biggest album – oh yes – “in its entirety”, and such long-lost attractions as Paris Angels, Northside, and good old My Jealous God are surely preparing to join in the revels. I can’t wait. There again, perhaps I can.

What is all this about? Somewhere at the heart of it is an understandable human urge, common to fortysomethings: if only for a night, to wind back the clock, forget about the next day’s grinding hangover, and make like you’re 22 again. Which would be fine, were it not for the burden of expectations it places on the musicians. Even in his late 40s, Jarvis Cocker must do those disco-karate moves he minted when he was he was in his 20s, and sing songs about his time at St Martin’s college; this summer, at least some of the Roses may quietly marvel at the incongruity of reawakening their younger selves, and reviving such lyrics as: “The past was yours, but the future’s mine.”

A question, then: is it possible to reunite, and make a virtue of age and experience? Two weeks ago, I doubted it – but then a new album by the once-estranged trio Dodgy arrived, and delivered something of a revelation. Stand Upright in a Cool Place is their fifth album, and the first made by the original trio of Nigel Clark, Andy Miller and Mathew Priest since Free Peace Sweet, which came out in 1996. By way of a reminder of the era that album reflected, consider the following: Tony Blair was widely liked, Princess Diana was alive, and Paul Gascoigne was still playing international football. As evidenced by Priest’s splendid grey beard, it was an awfully long time ago. The album suggests Dodgy well know it, and the key to this latest record’s magic is the kind of melancholy and worldliness – not to mention musical expertise — that can only come with advancing years.

For all that their fleeting success was built on apparently breezy pop songs, there was always more depth to Dodgy’s music than their reputation suggested. The once-ubiquitous Staying Out for the Summer was actually about a life in danger of falling apart; even the decidedly perky Good Enough began with the line: “I’ve got an aching in my bones.” On such songs as 1995’s epic Grassman, they captured a yearning profundity you didn’t get from, say, Menswear. But their halcyon period was at the time of Britpop, when pop life approximated an Austin Powers film, and such virtues didn’t count for much.

Here, those qualities have matured. The harmonies now sound both sun-kissed, and sad. There’s the odd intimation of mortality (”Darkness looming everywhere, fear steals my heart and holds me there,” goes Only a Heartbeat, cheerily). On such songs as Tripped and Fell and Find a Place, the mixture of acoustic guitar, ambient echo and sun-kissed vocals might remind some people of Fleet Foxes. But whereas that group’s essential shtick amounts to people in their early-to-mid-20s trying to be grizzled men of a certain age, these songs suggest the real thing. Thus far, my favourite song is Did it Have to be This Way, a relationship-gone-bad song that suggests (à la Paul Weller’s very underrated All The Pictures On The Wall) not straight-ahead heartbreak, but the poetic details of domestic strife, and the sighing perspective of people who have seen it all before.

If you were born much after 1980, it may not be for you. The rest of us should rejoice in that rarest of things: an album to play on drives to the in-laws’ place, or during the quiet hour you maybe get once a fortnight. If you’re old enough to have sepia-tinted memories of the 1990s and feel the onset of middle age, you’ll like it.

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The desperate search for jobs in Warrington | John Harris

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Shifting blame on to the jobless under the guise of positive thinking is not only demeaning but sinister

Among a pile of papers and leaflets in the Warrington branch of Cheshire Training Associates there are two American self-help books. The New Dynamics of Winning and Seeds of Greatness are both by Denis Waitley, a graduate of the US navy academy at Annapolis and mentor to astronauts and American football stars. The former brazenly offers the chance to “gain the mindset of a champion”; the blurb on the back of the latter promises “secrets” that will help any reader to “become a happier, healthier and more successful person”.

Waitley-ism, perhaps, sits awkwardly with the town outside, in which youth unemployment increased by 230% in 2011 and gaining the mindset of a champion must be challenging, at least.

But his credo fits perfectly into what happens in these offices: the day-to-day operation of the government’s work programme. In Warrington the standard payment-by-results contract was given to the security firm G4S, who outsourced the work to Cheshire Training Associates. The impression is of bright, sparky people – “employment consultants”, they call them – seeing to a machine that runs on one article of faith: that unemployment should be understood not in the context of a dead job market but the knowledge, motivation, expectations and behaviour of the individual.

At the end of last week an indication of the essential idea came from the Conservative work and pensions minister, Maria Miller, when she appeared on Radio 5 Live. “There isn’t a shortage of jobs – what there can be is a lack of an appetite for some of the jobs that are available,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a lack of jobs at the moment … I think it really is making sure that we’ve got people knowing where those jobs are.”

You’re generally eligible for referral to the work programme if you’ve been out of work for a year, though for those aged 18-24, nine months is sufficient.

When we asked for firsthand testimony about what it involves from readers of Comment is free, we received about 300 online posts and emails: accounts of dead-end unpaid “work placements”; stories from people in their late 50s who couldn’t see any way back into work; suggestions that, in the face of rising unemployment, some of the work programme’s providers are barely bothering their clients.

One of the most incisive responses came from someone freshly inducted into the care of DWP contractor and multinational group Maximus. “The exploratory talk centered around our perceived failure to achieve employment,” they wrote. “The woman asked each of us for potential ‘barriers to employment’, which seemed to be a general trawl through people’s private lives … the national employment crisis was not suitable for discussion, apparently.”

Thirty years ago Norman Tebbit told the story of his father’s bike, and attracted not just controversy but infamy; now, much the same thinking is tightly built into how the state treats the unemployed. This is unsettling: you could easily think of it as being close to a moral outrage. There again, before lefty ire got the better of you, you might just as easily wonder whether, if the only option available to the unemployed is to stoically look for work, why not equip them with the skills and mindset such a grind requires, and encourage the habit of positive thinking?

The problem is that the infusion of the work programme’s gospel into individual minds can seem not just sinister but demeaning. In Warrington the DWP’s press person introduces me to 27-year-old Richard Dunn, who has spent time on the programme and now has a job, of sorts: as a driver’s mate for furniture chain SCS on a six-month contract. He was unemployed for nine months. At the peak of his search for work, he says he was averaging 25 to 30 applications a week, most of which did not even get a reply. So, I wonder, in the end, does he think that the fact he was unemployed was his fault?

“Yeah,” he says. “I do. I think I should have applied for more. I should have picked myself up in the morning, got out, come to a place like this – tried more. When you’re feeling down you start blaming the world for your mistakes … You feel the world owes you. And it doesn’t. You owe the world: you have to motivate yourself, and get out there, and try. And that’s what this place helped with.” I mention the 2.6 million people officially out of work, and suggest that his time on the dole was possibly not because of any failings on his part. “But half the people don’t want to work,” he says.

Which brings us to an immovable aspect of the national understanding of unemployment. Do not think that the recasting of joblessness as a matter of individual failings, or the shift to conditional benefits, are anywhere near as controversial as some – myself included – would like. Look at the latest British Social Attitudes survey: when presented with the suggestion that “unemployment benefits are too high and they discourage the unemployed from finding jobs”, 54% agreed, up from 35% in 1983.

Sped on its way by pop psychology, the free market conception of joblessness has oozed into the national consciousness; as more encounters in Warrington prove, it even defines the thoughts of some of the unemployed themselves. On this evidence there is not just no such thing as society – by implication there must be no such thing as the economy, either.

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