BACK TO BLACK

This business of race never seems to go away. Just when it looks like we’ve got it covered, out comes another initiative, another documentary. This week in the US, Starbucks is encouraging its baristas to kickstart a conversation about race at 12,000 locations, by scratching “Race Together” on the cups of waiting customers. In the UK we must settle for the more subtle approach of Trevor Phillips presenting last night's Channel 4 documentary Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True.  Phillips is well-placed to tackle the subject, having been a Labour party member for decades and active in equality quangos for almost as long. He’s an established insider – privy to the rarefied sphere of political debate in which the language of liberalism is shaped. A few years ago he did a volte-face on multiculturalism that led Ken Livingstone to suggest that Phillips would “soon be joining the BNP”.In the documentary he’s critical of the equalities industry and the manner in which racism is now tackled. A development that could perhaps lead to a less empathetic and inclusive society. One in which people in the media are “terrified” to discuss race, and in which multiculturalism is a “racket” exploited by those that opt for isolation, segregation and nativism. He says this because he can.

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EASTENDERS

Built at great expense for a series that was expected to survive just a few months, Albert Square could have become one of those BBC relics - TV Centre, Alan Yentob - that have proved so costly to maintain. Yet, on a half-lit, very English afternoon in January 2015, it is an absolute masterpiece. Representing a London that has given the present the slip. It’s more a testament to the city of the 1950s, an era of smog, lodgers, and rationing; reminiscent of the Nigel Henderson photographs of the east end at the time. Albert Square was an anachronism in the 1980s, rather like that older generation of east end caricatures - that owed a debt to Dickens -  found in the Queen Vic sipping stout and spouting malapropisms (Dot Cotton is still with us, as though the 1880s, let alone the 1980s, never happened). 
But if the backdrop remains much has changed in the 30 years since Radio Times introduced Albert Square to the world with a cover that announced: The EastEnders are here… Characters have come and gone and the television landscape is transformed – the idea of 30 million tuning in for an episode, as happened at Christmas in 1986, is laughable even though the soap regularly pulls in 6 million viewers.

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THE THORNBERRY AFFAIR

What is striking about the Emily Thornberry affair is not that a Labour minister has “shown contempt for the working class”, as has been suggested, but that this should be a surprise.This contempt wasn’t a clause in the party’s constitution, but increasingly it came close to being a policy within the past fifty years - finally becoming official in the 1990s when the Labour government embraced an open-door approach to immigration, fully aware that it would be opposed by the masses. And so - it didn’t tell them. It kept the news within its ranks in the hallowed halls of Westminster, and at north London dinner parties far from the postcodes where white vans are parked and the flag of St George flies. Well, it certainly smelt like contempt.

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BEYOND THE M25

In the recent past, Basildon, Essex, has proved a barometer: since 1983 the constituency has voted for the winning party in general elections. This week’s by-election in nearby Clacton may prove a taster for the main event next year. In 2010 Labour trailed the Tories by 12,000 votes. Now Douglas Carswell may win Ukip’s first elected seat. Essex itself had been a target for ridicule in the lead-up to Thursday, and long before, aided by the cartoon characters — the fake tears and tans — of the risible The Only Way Is Essex. Previously, “Essex Man” was coined by enemies of Thatcherism to deride an aspirational working-class that dared to jettison council homes and city living for mortgages in the suburbs. 

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ORWELL AT THE BBC

The entrance to BBC Broadcasting House has this week been the centre of controversy — possibly for the first time since Eric Gill’s statue of Ariel prompted questions in the Lords over the size of its genitals. This time the focus of attention is the proposed statue outside the building of George Orwell. Baroness Bakewell says she was informed by the outgoing director general, Mark Thompson, that Orwell was “too Left-wing a figure for the BBC to honour”. Although considered a propagandist during his wartime stint as a journalist for the BBC’s Eastern service, you can’t imagine Orwell comfortably fitting the label of “Left-wing”.  As the late Christopher Hitchens argues so well in Orwell’s Victory, the writer was appropriated by both Left and Right. Just as he was unwilling to align himself with institutions, he avoided the limitations of the Left-wing stereotype. His patriotism and his prejudices were simply too apparent.

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THE HUDDLED MASSES

In a recent BBC interview, I asked the Housing minister, Grant Shapps, if our housing situation today was as critical as it was around 1900. He said "crisis" was the only word to describe it both then and now. The solution then was council houses. Legislation after the First World War resulted in 170,000 new homes. Yesterday the Prime Minister attempted to deal with our own crisis; the emphasis was on home ownership, but council housing has its part. There were initiatives to correct misuse of the system and issues around tenure, in a bid to make council housing a springboard for social mobility – which is what it once was (notably in the post-war New Towns). 

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THIS USED TO BE THE FUTURE

With the opening of Conran’s Skylon restaurant at the Royal Festival Hall in 2007, a taster for this year’s sixtieth anniversary of the Festival of Britain, Terence Conran’s career came full circle. Skylon, the iconic metal sculpture designed by Powell and Moya symbolised the futuristic, sky-high thinking behind the festival, while the event itself gave Conran his first job as a designer. Writing in the recently published celebration of the Festival of Britain, Beacon For Change, Barry Turner notes: ‘Habitat and Heal’s were pure Festival, so too were Ercol and G-Plan’. It’s been said that 1951 was the year that the British home began to leave behind brown paint and porridge wallpaper. Terence Conran would take a leading role within the modernist vanguard that brought about this change. It was a slow train coming.

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THE WHITEWASHED WORKING CLASS

In its attempt to address the demonisation of one section of the working class, this book succeeds in demonising another. What emerges is a text as outmoded as its title. The "chav" phenomenon belongs very much to 2004, and a moment when liberal broadsheets and right-wing tabloids alike dismissed anyone living in a deprived neighbourhood and in possession of a Burberry cap with a label that, as Owen Jones rightly points out, is an old Romany word for child.For Jones, this demonisation reached a peak with the press coverage of the abduction of Shannon Matthews: her mother's guilt was assumed long before it was confirmed, on account of her image as a dishevelled lager-lover living on benefits. And it wasn't only the culprit, but an entire community and class, that was on trial.

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STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND

Identifying the territory of southeast England—minus London—is simple; articulating its identity is harder. Officially it includes Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Sussex, Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, the Isle of Wight, Surrey and Kent. But like most regions of the country, its characteristics become fuzzier the closer you look. The southeast counties incorporate many Englands: the Surrey of the professional, commuting class; the Kent of London’s working-class diaspora; the postwar new towns; the southeast coast; Oxford’s dreaming spires and so on. The region lives in the shadow of the capital and many of its inhabitants are ex-residents—but it is almost defiantly not London. At the end of last year I travelled to Surrey, Kent and Sussex and observed the aspirant working-class people who moved there from inner London. It was a timely expedition with a general election looming and renewed concern about the white working class.

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SHORT STORY: JUNKSPACE

We're doing it for the kids. The door to Gap Kids wafts the vocals of Kylie and Robbie onto the main stretch of the shopping complex with every swing. Lucy Webb’s sticky hands are suctioned to the glass like Garfield’s paws to a rear windscreen. She appears younger than her four-and-something years. A veil of dry skin covers her crown like cradle cap. The remains of a lolly form a snail trail from her chin to her jumper, jeans and jelly shoes. “Lucy do it,” says her mother, Debbie, gently. “Lucy open the door. Lucy do it.”
As the child can’t control a lolly, it’s unlikely she can shift a thick glass door, but — “Lucy do it,” Debbie says, going for the hat-trick.
With the heat and pressure almost melting the child’s digits into the glass, Debbie Webb gives up and puts her full weight forward. Her reflection makes her wince. Fourteen stone she was the last time she stepped on a set of scales. It must have been over a year ago.
A tiny queue of shoppers wait to file into the store. For them, this tiny playlet isn’t about littleLucy’s dexterity — it’s the portrait of a mother acting out the role of performing parent, with those forced to witness it cast in the role of the cornered punter.
The scenario is repeated later at the Disney Store. The family unit almost complete, with the arrival of Tony. Robert, their 14-year-old, is back at home.
“Pay the lady,” Debbie tells her daughter.
They are first in the queue at the counter. Lucy is purchasing a Wizard of Oz headband with fascinator attached, the glittering green of the Emerald City.

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THE LEGACY OF THE DOCKS

The aerial view of Canary Wharf in the opening sequence of BBC1's The Apprentice is the iconic image of Docklands, now fixed in the public consciousness. It's impossible to imagine the docks that Henry Mayhew witnessed in the 19th century, where the scents of tobacco, rum, coffee, spice and "the stench of hides" greeted the passer-by within a "forest of masts". Even the desolate wasteland in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe in the 1970s, just as the southside docks had given up the ghost, seems remote. Where the Design Museum now stands, alongside a colony of Conran restaurants, the late artist Derek Jarman once occupied an old grain warehouse, and scouted for coins and pilgrim badges on the shore below. That moment, before the builders and the bulldozers arrived, is documented in his Super-8 shorts of the time about Bankside and Shad Thames. Even by the mid-1980s, when I lived there, there remained suitable remnants of the past, between the skeletal warehouses fortressed by corrugated iron stained with graffiti ("Local land for local people") to bring a last-of-England theme to Jarman's The Queen Is Dead film for the Smiths.

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TRIBES OF CLUTTER

This book sums up how far social anthropology has progressed since Henry Mayhew wrote about the skull shapes of costermongers in the 19th century. Daniel Miller's approach is more in keeping with that of the wild and weird Tom Harrisson and the pioneers of Mass Observation in the 1930s. Having studied cannibalistic tribes in the New Hebrides, Harrisson despatched researchers to Bolton and north London to spy on the British working class at play. They reported on, among other things, the fixation with astrology, the football Pools, and "the cult of the aspidistra". These brief expeditions were undertaken as a tentative consumerism began to lighten the lives of the masses. At the time, George Orwell, having returned from his sojourn in Wigan, suggested that fish and chips, tinned salmon, radio and strong tea might have averted revolution.Ultimately, if hope lay with the proles it lay with them as consumers. This, at least, was the contention of Dr Gallup, whose market research techniques attempted to understand the British as consumers, just as Mass Observation attempted to understand them as citizens. In The Comfort of Things, Miller investigates the citizens of contemporary London by way of their consumerism - or at least their material possessions, in an era of unprecedented mass consumption.

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BACKLASH AT THE BALLOT BOX

A tiny bit of history repeated itself with the results of last month's London mayoral election. In the spring of 1908, the Progressive Party, the first administration at the London County council, was ejected from the office it held for almost 20 years. In The Condition of England the following year, parliamentarian Charles Masterman wrote: "The Progressive Party ended its political career in the Metropolis because it had forgotten the Middle Classes." Those middle classes dwelt in suburbs in what became Greater London, and existed as figures of fun, particularly to authors such as George Gissing and even HG Wells, himself a native of Bromley, south London. They were cast as thrifty conservative clerks living in villas named Homelea, grudgingly handing over taxes for the indolent proles they feared were ready to revolt and head their way.  A hundred years on, many of those suburbs are populated by the white working class, once resident in inner London's poorer neighbourhood. This time it is they who were forgotten, ruinously, by London's ruling politicians. 

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UTOPIA REVISITED

The disappearance of 30 electricity pylons from a chalk quarry in Kent heralds the construction of Britain's first new town of the 21st century, and the nation's first "wired" neighbourhood. By the autumn, the burgeoning town of Ebbsfleet will be branded by a "landmark" piece of British art. It will be the largest statue in Britain, chosen from a shortlist of six contenders currently exhibited within the megalithic Bluewater retail complex. Standing in the backyard of Bluewater, adjacent to Ebbsfleet international station - Eurostar's suburban link to Europe - the acreage of Ebbsfleet Valley is three times that of Hyde Park. As the realisation of this whole vision will take 25 years, the developers behind the scheme, Land Securities, will be selling dreams of the future for some time yet, even though show homes for the first stage, at Springhead Park, have recently been completed.  Any doubts harboured by prospective residents - 10,000 new homes in total - about how the completed town will look are reassured by computer imagery that conjures up a 21st-century environment similar to beautifully clinical neighbourhoods in The Sims computer games.

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