John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for February, 2015


In a country like Britain, obsessed with the now, libraries are a political battleground | John Harris

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

From library closures to relations with Europe, Britain is haunted by fear of cultural amnesia

Relative to our basic understanding of what a city’s main library ought to provide, it seems mind-boggling: 240,000 works of non-fiction, quietly taken from the shelves, and either given to other institutions or handed to a local company which “buy, recycle and find a second life” for old library stock – a polite formulation for a process that often results in books simply being pulped. The people in charge reckon the breadth and depth of their collection remains “good across all subject areas”, whatever that means. Horrified campaigners say what they have done is “morally reprehensible”.

Such is the cloud of controversy hanging over Manchester’s recently refurbished Central Library, and revelations that have come to light thanks to a Freedom of Information request. The story, reported in the Guardian this week, actually goes back to 2012, when the books’ disposal was first proposed, and an outcry led by writers such as Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Jeanette Winterson led to an apparent stay of execution. In retrospect, the city council’s pronouncements back then were as troubling as they are now: the books in question, it said, were “duplicates, outdated or otherwise obsolete”. Anyone halfway sentient will surely read those words and wonder: who decides? And how?

Precious things are now only a corrupted hard drive or system upgrade away from being lost, for good

For all their air of tweedy conservatism, the quintessentially modern political phenomenon might be Ukip

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The new special educational needs maze, where parents go back to the start

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Laws meant to ‘simplify’ support for children with SEN have made things chaotic, and in some cases catastrophic, say families, schools and experts

Besides the presence of a frisky Gordon setter, the scene when I arrive for my appointment with Melinda Nettleton and John Friel exudes simplicity and order: a pristine meeting room at a London legal chambers, tea and biscuits served on spotless white china and conversation of lawyerly precision.

What I’ve come to discuss, by contrast, seems complex and chaotic. The revised English system for special educational needs (SEN) was introduced via the Children and Families Act of 2014, and local authorities have been rolling it out, in theory, since last September. Friel and Nettleton are lawyers and campaigners who have closely followed the whole story – voicing alarm when the legislation threatened to reduce parents’ rights and pushing for amendments that, in a few cases, made it into the final act of parliament. Even so, they are less than pleased with the result.

On the face of it, it seems some children whose needs were met by the old system have been cut out in a stroke

Related: Funding rules on special educational needs are leaving inclusive schools with a cash shortfall

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A lament for the death of bohemian London | John Harris

Friday, February 6th, 2015

The eviction of the 12 Bar Club squatters is just the latest chapter in a devastating saga of politics aligning with business

At about 10 o’clock yesterday morning, police officers and bailiffs began to swarm into the 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street in the West End of London to evict its occupants. In December, the management had been told to leave the premises by 14 January; soon after, this most cramped and rickety of places was squatted by a group of battle-hardened activists who called themselves Bohemians 4 Soho.

Each night there were events and performances; this Monday saw a gig by the arena-filling singer Frank Turner. “The spirit of Soho, even the spirit of London, is gradually being whittled away,” one of the protesters told my Guardian colleague Peter Walker, a few weeks before the authorities turned up. “Do we just want another load of chains, Tesco and Starbucks?”

Soho: home to an alliance of artistes, chancers, impresarios and dreamers

The arrival of Crossrail – linking east and west London – has triggered this, disrupting Soho’s borders

Related: Saving Soho: the ’spirit of London’ captured for posterity – in pictures

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‘We feel betrayed’: the towns abandoned by Tesco

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Tesco’s profits crisis means that plans for 49 shiny new stores have been ditched. Where does that leave places such as Kirkby, Bridgwater and Wolverhampton, where regeneration schemes linked to the supermarket chain now lie in ruins?

At first sight, you would think something terrible had happened to the town centre of Kirkby. And in a way, it has. To all intents and purposes, this is a new town, built in the 1950s and 60s to house human “overspill” from Liverpool, 10 miles to the south-west. Its main feature is the modernist shopping centre that runs down Cherryfield Drive, Kirkby’s main drag – though these days, any visitor’s attention is more likely to be drawn to what sits on the other side of the road: two great mountains of rubble, which then give way to a strip of boarded-up buildings and an expanse of empty houses, some of which are already being demolished.

Look closely, and you can see curtains still draped in the windows, different shades of wallpaper, and, among the nearby debris, traces of the lives now being lived somewhere else. Nestling next to bricks and severed pipes are satellite dishes, garden furniture and a child’s car window shade featuring the incongruous image of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh. All of this sits behind a tangle of steel fences, and hoardings that feature the Tesco logo, along with the insignia of Spenhill – one of the supermarket giant’s subsidiaries, which specialises in construction – and a slogan that now has a grimly ironic ring: “Making life better.”

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‘Vote British, not Bolshie’: election posters that chart a changing Britain

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

When women got the vote, how were they wooed? Why was Harold Wilson forced to puff a pipe? A Manchester show chronicles a century of election strategy and spin

In a glass case on the first floor of the People’s History Museum in Manchester, there sits a pipe that once belonged to Harold Wilson. The Labour leader – who was resident in Downing Street twice, once in the 60s and once in the 70s – did not smoke it by choice. He preferred cigars. But he and his aides understood that a pipe was a signifier for authenticity, roots and a mind that would not be rushed. Every time Wilson publicly puffed away, in other words, he was indulging in the modern political game we know as spin, long before the word was ever invented.

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