Smash the State? (1)

Where’s King Kong (when you need him)?

Looming over the heart of my home town, and haunting it like a reproach, is a huge presence that is simultaneously an absence. The State cinema in Grays Essex, a great cathedral of a place, opened in 1938 with seating for 2,200 people, complete with a mighty organ capable of rising colourfully from the orchestra pit like Vincent Price from the grave, has been kept in Grade 2 listed mothballs since 1988, with the paint slowly fading and the buddleia slowly growing, a giant amphitheatre for pigeon poo; having been finally killed off by the opening of a multi screen at Lakeside and the rise of VHS rental: which also left the adjacent High Street as a by passed ghost of its former self at the same time.

The State was so in big in so many ways. Its capacity was more than twice that of the Odeon Leicester Square (a puny 950). If you want a feel for the scale of it, the cinema scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was shot inside it. A swashbuckling gesture of bravado for a small town worthy of the Errol Flynn films it showed, it dominated the skyline and still does.

Only its smaller, dowdier younger sibling the Ritz, huddled away up the hill with its back to it, and with a tighter 1500 capacity, stands any comparison. The Ritz always had an inferiority complex, completed as it was in a hurry in 1940, with lots of corners cut and expenses spared. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” An inessential building at a time when all the local railings were being sawn down to make Spitfires; pointlessly as it turned out because the quality of the metal was so poor. (2) Sadly – and characteristically – its entry in the Cinema treasures web site states baldly “No one has favourited this Theatre yet.” (3) Although less loved, the Ritz nevertheless survived in a zombie half life as a Bingo Hall, before being born again as an evangelical mega church in 2016; just in time for Trump and Brexit. Truly the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

The State brought a little whiff of luxury to a town built on factories and docks and in its heyday the place hummed. Before television people would “go to the pictures” several times a week. If not to the State then to the smaller but somehow more elegant Regal – up on New Road past the train station, or just round the corner to the older Empire – the first cinema in town, seating for 800 and a bit of a flea pit. But the State was classy. The tower over the entrance was lit up with neon lights that changed colour, a little bit of Broadway on George Street. A uniformed commissionaire complete with peaked cap and aguillettes called out the prices of the remaining tickets and ushered people up the curving sweep of stairs to the circle or down the slope to the stalls. He was memorialised in cardboard replicas as the cinematic glory days faded in the 50′ and 60s, with life size, if battered and dated, cut outs of uniformed bell boys half bowing and smiling a Stan Laurel sort of smile while pointing the way to the seats.

Generations were moulded by it. Hundreds of kids queuing up as late as the 60s for a Saturday Matinee all the way down the street clutching a thru’ppeny bit for the stalls (4) and round the back to the car park, excited to watch the latest Norman Wisdom or the Magnificent Seven or Guns of Navaronne or 101 Dalmatians, cheering the goodies, booing the baddies and giving the sloppy scenes a groan. Collective – and often dubious, mass bonding. Anyone growing up there between 1938 and 1988 will be grateful for its shows as the pretext for a first date – and probably first kiss. If these things were memorialised with plaques, the place would be buried in them.

Closure cut all that dead. The heart of the town no longer had a heart. After a partial reopening of the ticket area as a wine bar in the 90s, the building has stood empty as a memorial to itself and slowly crumbled ever since.

A planned rebirth as one of Tim Martin’s soulless boozing warehouses – perhaps as a reward for Thurrock having delivered the largest urban leave vote in the country – may fall victim to Coronavirus. But even if it doesn’t, this is a bit like being reincarnated as a lesser being. Life Jim, but not as we know it. All the same, if it comes back to life, there will be many ghosts, the actors – their technicolour all faded away, flickering in the smoky beams from the projector that is no longer there: Yul Bryner behind the bar, Margaret Rutherford nursing a G&T with her bicycle leaning against her table, Kenneth More leaning over the balcony like the bridge of a Destroyer in the North Atlantic -and all the multiple ghosts of our younger selves.

1. “One, two, three four, don’t forget the class war, Two, Four, Six, Eight, organise to smash the state.” Anarchist slogan. Trad. Anon . There is something appealingly domestic about this slogan. Like a to do list. Buy baked beans, Put out cat, Overthrow hegemony of Bourgeoisie.

2. I was quite shocked when I first went to posh areas of London to find handsome railing still intact. “All in it together” has always had its imitations.

3. http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/22456

4. Paying the extortionate price of 6d for the posher seats was seen as a sort of betrayal.

Trying to keep up with the Kardashians will kill us.

Most carbon accounting is done country by country. While this is useful – as it is what states do – or don’t so – that will determine whether humanity is able to hold global heating below a level that will be survivable for human civilisation – it is also partly mystifying in missing out on who is primarily responsible for the threat that affects all of us.

A new report from OXFAM and the Stockholm Environment Institute tears away this veil by looking at the income levels of those responsible for the lions share of greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2015. (1) The findings are stark.

Within the 10%. the Richest 1% (just 63 million people) were responsible for 15% of carbon emissions.

This can be seen by sector.

The richest 10% are responsible for 75% of aviation emissions
And 45% of all land transport emissions. SUVs were the second biggest driver of global carbon emissions growth between 2010 and 2018.

So, if you look at this per capita, each person in the top 10% has a carbon footprint 250 times larger than everyone in the bottom 50%. That looks like this.

This is a direct ratio between the richest 10% and the poorest 50%.

The Report argues that cutting carbon emissions is therefore overwhelmingly urgent in the wealthiest countries, primarily the US and EU, which is where the majority of the 10% – and almost all of the 1% – are concentrated.

An economy in which profits are generated by hooking people onto a false “apirational” dream that emulating the conspicuous consumption of the uber wealthy in all sorts of cheap and nasty ersatz forms – with velocity and quantity substituting for quality – “Too much is never enough” – “Faster, Faster, Faster” – “You: only better” – “Keeping up with the Kardashians” – will kill us. Even the uber wealthy themselves; hunker down in a survival bunker, or flee to New Zealand and Patagonia though they might.

The delirious quality of a lot of current political discourse – and the increasingly frantic culture war distractions from the right – comes from the tensions involved in trying to stick to this suicidal course.

The policy prescriptions in the report are in line with the findings of the first UK Citizen’s Assembly on the climate crisis, have widespread public support and a lot in common with Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution policy.

“Wealth taxes, luxury carbon taxes – such as carbon sales taxes on SUVs, private jets or super yachts, or levies on business class or frequent flights – and wider progressive carbon pricing to fund, for example, the expansion of universal social services;
• Ending the tax-free status of aircraft fuel, unconditional aviation industry bailouts and tax breaks for company cars;
• Public investment, including to create decent job guarantees, alongside working-time reductions where appropriate, for example in:
o building infrastructure for electric mobility, public transport, cycling, walking and digital communications to create alternatives to carbon-intensive transport;
o improving energy efficiency of housing, especially to reduce energy bills for low income or marginalized groups;
o expanding low-carbon sectors like health and social care which overwhelmingly benefit women, low-income and marginalized groups;
• Banning advertising in public spaces, requiring more circular business models and a right to repair on manufactured goods, and changing corporate governance to curtail companies’ short-termism and create accountability for long-term social and environmental impacts;
• Setting science- and equity-based national targets to reduce carbon emissions from consumption as well as production,
• And, critically, incorporating principles of social dialogue at all levels to ensure that the voices of workers in affected industries, women, low-income and marginalized groups are heard in designing just transitions to an economy that keeps global heating below 1.5C”
(1)

The political problem is that they strike at the wealth, power and prerogatives of the top 1% whose interests our societies are structured to serve. Their resistance to polices like these – taking a peculiarly grotesque form in the Trump administration, but not restricted to it – goes some way to explaining why countries that consider themselves Socialist – like China, Cuba, Vietnam – whether they have received benediction in this respect from the Western Left or not – have done rather better at reducing the carbon intensity of their economies (see Blog – Mike Pompeo is standing on thin ice – and its melting).

  1. https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/carbon-emissions-richest-1-percent-more-double-emissions-poorest-half-humanity

Memo to the Chancellor: OECD calls for Green Stimulus.

The September Economic Outlook Report – Coronavirus: Living with Uncertainty -from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (1) is worth reading; not least because it fires several shots across the bows of the course the UK government is already pursuing and warns of the consequences.

It makes four key points.

  1. China is the only large economy that is recovering this year.
  2. Global co-operation is needed both to fight the virus and ensure an economic recovery.
  3. Premature attempts to balance budgets and revert to fiscal conservatism will choke off any recovery.
  4. A Green stimulus is both necessary to avoid climate breakdown AND to ensure an economic recovery and this has to be state led.

All quotes from the original document. Emphasis and bullet points added.

  1. “China is the only G20 country in which output is projected to rise in 2020, helped by the earlier timing of the virus outbreak, rapid control of the virus, and the policy support provided to enable a quick rebound in activity. (p6) “A sharper-than-expected recovery took place in China, with activity returning quickly to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the second quarter, fuelled by strong infrastructure investment”. (p 2) Put simply, this means that China squashed the virus with a thorough lockdown that lasted just six weeks, keeping deaths and economic damage low. After which, the state invested directly in infrastructure. Putting public health first with a zero COVID approach provided secure foundations to reopen the economy. The state investing directly built on them. Trying to recover without squashing the virus is trying to build on shifting sands. The current talk in the West of “living with” the virus and the sort of push me pull you, hockey-cokey lockdowns, alongside eat out to help out schemes and such, guarantee that there will neither be an elimination of the virus nor an economic recovery with any momentum behind it. The ongoing Chinese recovery has also had a beneficial impact on the rest of the world economy, limiting the extent of its decline; a reality not noticed in the West, buried under the avalanche of diversionary accusations and aggressive moves on trade sanctions coming from the White House.
  2. Global co-operation and co-ordination are needed to tackle the severe health challenges all countries are facing. No country is able to obtain the range of products necessary to combat COVID-19 purely from domestic resources… Greater funding and multilateral efforts are needed to ensure efficient production of medical products and allow affordable vaccines and treatments to be swiftly available everywhere, rather than being limited to particular countries. ” (p9) “Enhanced global co-operation and co-ordination is essential to mitigate and suppress the virus, speed up the economic recovery, and keep trade and investment flowing freely”. (p 9). This is in line with the “win win” approach advocated by the Chinese, and the opposite of the zero sum almost mercantilist operations of the US administration; which has defunding the World Health Organisation, imposed sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, and ramped up its trade war with China while the Pandemic has been in full flood. The OECD projects upside and downside scenarios, with a fuller recovery if global co-operation and fiscal support are worked through, and a stunted one if not. They project that the downside scenario is more likely. Its quite clear where the responsibility for that lies.
  3. “The aim must be to avoid premature budgetary tightening at a time when economies are still fragile”. (p 2). “With the recovery remaining hesitant, sporadic outbreaks of the virus still occurring, and many sectors still struggling to adjust, fiscal and monetary policy support needs to be maintained to preserve confidence and limit uncertainty“. (p8) “Premature withdrawal of fiscal support in 2021 would stifle growth, as occurred in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in many countries” (p 10) ) This is stating directly that obsessions with deficits, all the arguments about balancing the books and not spending more than you earn, and all the household budget analogies that sustained the austerity narrative for the last ten years would choke off any recovery now as effectively as they did in 2010.

In the UK we have a government that thrives on ambiguous, even contradictory, policy statements spiced up by overblown rhetoric – we are opening up, while staying alert, going back to work while preparing for another lockdown, having a border check in the Irish Sea while not having a border check in the Irish Sea, proclaiming “world beating” systems that don’t work, launching a “Moonshot” initiative for universal mass testing involving a supposed £100 billion investment in technology that doesn’t exist yet and which the Prime Minister forgets about two days later. These sustain themselves in the air until they confront reality and then come crashing down. To have your cake and eat it you have to be powerful enough to impose the costs of that onto other people. The UK is now far weaker than the mental habits of its ruling class allow for, hence a style of politics that is quite delirious by historical standards. Despite arguments that are still being heard here that there will be no return to austerity, the signs of what the government will do are not good.

  • the impending abandonment of the furlough scheme on the argument that “the country can’t afford it”- in contrast to the extension of these in Germany, Italy and France – leading to impending job losses estimated at between 700 000 (the Daily Telegraph) and 2 million (The Guardian).
  • the failure by central government to shoulder the COVID costs imposed on local authorities which, combined with a loss of income from business rates means they face a £2 billion shortfall in income this year, which will mean cuts to services and local public sector jobs.
  • the abandonment of the evictions ban, leading to a quarter of a million people facing the possible loss of their homes.
  • the increasing practice of companies like British Airways sacking staff then re-employing them on worse terms and conditions
  • resistance to any demands for financial recognition of the value of front line workers and a continuing wage freeze for most public sector workers.

The paradox of this is that the UK government has no strategy beyond hoping that people will go out and spend – which is rather tricky if you’re scared of losing your job, or have already lost it, or having your wages cut and may be evicted from your house because you can’t afford the rent.

4. Governments need to invest directly “Prospects for a sustainable recovery could also be strengthened if governments move beyond income support and stimulate aggregate demand directly through public investment. With long-term interest rates close to zero in many advanced economies, the social rate of return on public investment is likely to exceed the financing costs for many projects. Investment is particularly needed in areas that have large positive externalities for the rest of the economy and where under-investment might otherwise occur due to market failures, including in health care, education, and digital and environmental infrastructure.” (p11)

“Government efforts to support the economic recovery also need to take advantage of the opportunity to incorporate the necessary actions required to limit the long-term threat from climate change.

  • Sector-specific financial support measures should be conditional on environmental improvements where possible, such as stronger environmental commitments and performance in pollution-intensive sectors that are particularly affected by the crisis.
  • The potential for an extended period of substantially lower fossil-fuel prices than previously expected further raises the urgent need to introduce effective incentives for firms to invest in energy-efficient technologies.
  • Governments can also help directly by implementing well-designed investments in low-carbon infrastructure and making use of opportunities to support behavioural changes that may help a low-carbon transition, such as facilitating teleworking and enhancing widespread availability of high-speed broadband in rural areas”. (p13)

This is in marked contrast to the UK government’s pressure to workers who could work at home to go back to the office, its failure to put any environmental conditions on bail outs, its removal of subsidies on renewable energy, its spending nine times as much on road building schemes as on energy retrofitting for homes.

The OECD Report provides an implied critique of what we are already seeing from the UK government that Labour could use to focus a “national consensus” on green recovery and social justice that already exists (2) but is belied by the Government’s approach. Nothing would be worse than ignoring this to try to triangulate with Johnson instead.

  1. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/oecd-economic-outlook/volume-2020/issue-1_34ffc900-en;jsessionid=aB3y0MW2ISPKKRj07Mj5-dTx.ip-10-240-5-97

2. The  All Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal Reset Report published on Thursday showed among other things that two thirds of the public think the Government should intervene to make society fairer, 66% of UK adults want the government to prioritise health and wellbeing, 65% support rent caps, 57% support some form of universal basic income, 63% support a jobs guarantee, over 90% think NHS workers and care workers should get better pay and conditions, more than 70% think nurses and carers should be paid more, over 82% think supermarket staff and delivery drivers should have better conditions, people who have been able to work flexibly during lockdown, want to be able to continue to do so for some or all of the time in future and there is majority support for investment in local community hubs, green spaces on the high street, residential spaces and cultural ventures, the development of local neighbourhoods so they are more varied and welcoming, more green spaces, and access to green space for all and permanent reductions in traffic. Full report here. https://reset-uk.org/

Best laid schemes? Are schools “COVID safe”?

Possibly in a “limited and specific way”.

Helmuth Von Moltke, commander of the Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian war (1870) made the practical observation that – in military matters – “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force” – usually quoted as the less subtle, “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy”.

And so it is with Coronavirus and the widespread reopening of schools.

Von Moltke’s point – that plans have to be adapted to fit realities, that pressing on regardless can lead to disaster, and that it is always useful to have at least one Plan B and some defence in depth, appears to have passed the UK government by.

Daily COVID infections rose slowly and inexorably in the UK from the low point of 352 on 6 July; and reached a seven day rolling average of 1338 by September 1st; after so many people had eaten out to help out in August.

In the two and a half weeks since schools have reopened, this has risen to 3003 per day on a seven day rolling average; and there’s no doubt at the moment that the only way is up.

Schools reopening will not be the only factor here, but it stands to reason that having more nearly 9 million students and 750 000 educators going in and out of work every day is going to have an impact, leaving aside what happens when they get there.

Government guidance on this is based on out of date presumptions and groundless assertions. “Now, the circumstances have changed. The prevalence of coronavirus (COVID-19) has decreased, our NHS Test and Trace system is up and running and we are clear about the measures that need to be in place to create safer environments within schools.” (1)

To take these one at a time.

1. Circumstances were changing even as they were writing this. The prevalence of the virus is increasing again sharply now and is already above the level it was when the initial lockdown was launched in March; and the R rate is above 1 everywhere, which means that the genie is getting back out of the bottle. The last update of this guidance was on September 10th, when this was already apparent; so they are marching boldly forward with their eyes firmly shut. The death rate is now also beginning to rise. The WHO is warning of a significant increase in infections as we go into the Winter.

2. The problems with Test and Trace are yet another “World Beating” fiasco. Outsourcing a public health imperative – to SERCO for goodness sake – was never a good idea. It is the reverse of Deng Xiao Peng’s dictum “I don’t care whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”. In this case the government seems less concerned with whether their cat catches mice than if it makes money for some of their friends. For this to work, the tests need to be available plentifully and locally and the results turned round quickly. Suggesting to someone in Telford – if they eventually get through -that the nearest available test is in Aberdeen – indicates how thinly this system is stretched. Average waiting time for a test result, if you can get one, is now 83 hours, not the targeted 48. Schools have been allocated 10 tests each to avoid the first problem. Nevertheless, as COVID symptoms are similar to more regular illnesses, a precautionary approach will mean that everyone in the Protective Bubble will have to be sent home at the first sniffle and wait for nearly a week for the test to confirm whether this indicates COVID or not. As this is extremely disruptive, most schools are sending home the individual with symptoms, but not the whole bubble until a positive test result has come through. As COVID is asymptomatic in its most infectious period, this is likely to mean that the infection will take hold within the bubble on a more widespread basis. Even sending home individuals is nevertheless already having an impact on attendance – as presentee-ism among staff and students (coming in when ill) is no longer feasible as a way to keep the show on the road. Much larger numbers of students are being sent home, in some schools after a precautionary temperature check on their way in. This is leading in some schools to teachers being told that they have to set up online lessons for students at home at the same time as in person lessons in the building – simultaneously presumably.

3. The new restrictions on social gatherings – no more than six people together – do not apply in schools because schools are supposed to be “COVID safe” managed environments. There are a number of problems with this.

Some discrepancy here? This is for a medium sized school.
  • It is now not contested that secondary school students and upper primary students over the age of about 10 both contract and spread the virus just as much as adults do. The government puts that like this “There is no evidence that children transmit the disease any more than adults”. Indeed. Nor any less. Nevertheless, the restrictions on class and bubble sizes in place in the Summer have now been relaxed to an absurd degree. “In secondary schools, particularly in the older age groups at key stage 4 and key stage 5, the groups are likely to need to be the size of a year group to enable schools to deliver the full range of curriculum subjects and students to receive specialist teaching” My emphasis (1) A whole year group can be up to 300 strong for a large Secondary School. As Bubbles go, that’s a big one. So, students with the same capacity to contract and transmit the virus can mix with up to 50 times as many people inside school as they can outside. This reflects a failure by the government to act on NEU proposals to requisition additional space and employ additional staff so distance can be maintained and Bubbles kept small.
  • As it is down to individual school managements to make their own plans, there is a wide divergence in what is being done. Many school leaderships have worked immensely hard, risen to the challenge and set up rigorous social distancing, one way systems, have teachers not students moving between classes to minimise corridor contact, and strict book marking protocols – where books are kept for 72 hours before being marked and another 72 before being returned, all parental contact is via zoom and masks are worn wherever necessary. Others have not. In a borough somewhere in London, students in more than one large Secondary are still moving in herds (without immunity) between lessons, masks are not worn, teachers asking about book marking protocols are being told – in one case – to “just get on with it”, whole year group assemblies – physical ones – are taking place (with 120 students) and there is even a suggestion in one school to hold a Musical Performance at Xmas, with rehearsals in the meantime.

The NEU has agreed a checklist with UNITE, UNISON and the GMB to hold school managements to the strictest possible implementation of government guidelines and will support its members in balloting for action where these are breached. But in the absence of a national Zero Covid strategy it is hard to see how even the best laid plans will cope with intensifying contact with the hostile viral force. The Plan B being urged by the NEU, particularly the emphasis on preparing for blended learning and resourcing children without access to laptops, is a bottom line to fall back on (2); but it is becoming increasingly apparent that we need the elimination of the virus if any recovery at all is to viably take place and the sacrifices made in the Spring and early Summer – not least by our children – be squandered.

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/guidance-for-full-opening-schools
  2. https://neu.org.uk/coronavirus-neu-national-recovery-plan-education

A Government of the 9%?

On Saturday the Tory Tabloids fired a co-ordinated broadside, from their front pages on every news stand in the country, hailing the triumphant achievement of a free trade deal with Japan as the first hurrah of the new “Global Britain” – now almost freed from the EU scaffolding that has been holding it up for the last forty eight years. These were usually accompanied by a picture of Liz Truss looking oddly happy – safe in the knowledge that there is little danger that Japan will be selling us any cheese. (1)

A deal with Japan is an important one. Japan is the world’s fourth largest economy. Only China, the USA and EU are bigger. But trade between it and the UK is actually very small, and not likely to grow by very much as a result of this deal; so maybe the Brexit supporters should put down their Union Jack party poppers and “Rule Britannia” song sheets and contemplate some realities.

Japan accounts for just 1.9% of UK exports, compared to 46% for the EU. So detaching the country from a free trade deal with a bloc that takes nearly half its exports means that there would need to be more than 23 deals with countries like Japan to make up for it (and these deals would have to be on the same lines as the benefits and obligations conferred by EU membership to have a comparable impact).

There are two problems with this. There are no other countries like Japan. Those that come closest – developed, wealthy and large – are mostly in the EU.

Comparison of UK trade with EU, USA and Japan from ONS Pink Book 2019 (2)

Moreover, the trade deal itself is not exactly going to have a dramatic impact. The Department for International Trade projects that it will increase UK GDP by ….wait for it …0.07% …after 15 years. That looks like this.

Impact of Japan Free Trade Deal after 15 years

Blink and you miss it.

The government’s own analysis of the impact of a no deal Brexit – on the other hand -is that, over the same 15 year period, UK GDP would be 7.6% smaller (and with a Free Trade Agreement 4.9% smaller). (3) Clearly, they know what they are doing.

Only 9% of the UK population think that a no deal Brexit would be a “very good outcome” for the UK and another 15% that it would be a “fairly good outcome”. That’s under a quarter of the population. Despite the government. And despite the daily barrages from their cheerleaders in the press. 31% think no deal would be “very bad” and another 19% “fairly bad”. That’s half the population. So, the government – in pushing for no deal – can no longer claim to be representing the 52%, at best the 24% who could put up with it, and most accurately the 9% who are really keen.

What is odd in this situation is that Keir Starmer has just written in the Daily Telegraph that it is time to “move on” from this debate, in which the government is on the rack – in a minority, heading for the economic debacle of no deal, and has just snookered itself by blocking off its preferred alternative deal with the USA by reneging on its agreement with the EU over the North of Ireland; because Congress won’t ratify any deal that messes with the Good Friday Agreement.

Where exactly does he want us to “move on” to?

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_wkO4hk07o
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_largest_trading_partners_of_United_Kingdom
  3. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2020/08/26/a-no-deal-brexit-may-still-be-more-costly-than-covid-19/

Half unlocked

A green, yellow morning, a bit of autumnal nip contesting with sunshine that still shines with more of a touch of oven that it has any business doing in September.

In our local park, where this year’s meadowing is somehow stragglier than last, some are gently working out on the public gym, while – in the middle of a sweep of grass and some way from others – a dozen or so men sit on a circle of chairs they have carried there to hold council on the issues of the day. An informal echo of Saxon times, when the Moot of the Hundred of Gore met nearby just south of Kingsbury Circle.

Nearer, a Yoga class of 30 – the maximum legal size for a public gathering – is laying on the ground in a rough socially distanced circle. The instructor – rather nervy and intense for a Yoga teacher – tries to get them to rise on their forearms and adopt the Cobra pose. Most seem to have fallen asleep and don’t.

An aging bloke in a white captain’s cap leans jauntily on a tree chugging Skol, though it is a little early in the day and the sun definitely hasn’t passed the yardarm yet. A scattering of discarded cans around him shows how much he cares.

On the main drag and a family is packing shopping in the boot of their car. Mum and children have no mask. The paterfamilias – as a sign of standing presumably – has one of those plastic face guards that make him look like a lightweight welder on a break.

The Library has reopened. It is quiet – too quiet. There are possibly three of us in there. There is no table for newspapers any more, so the elderly can no longer recharge their prejudices by leafing through the Mail and the Telegraph. Hashtag “ill wind”. There is a hand sanitiser worked by a foot pump so you don’t have to touch anything with your hands – clever. And when you go in you have to leave your name and contact details with the librarian just in case. This is the first time I have ever had to do that anywhere. Which might be one reason – alongside the lack of a functioning App – that track and trace is not working as well as it should.

“Behold the ant thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise.”

My primary school head teacher – Mr David – had about five stories that he told us several times a year; on the presumption that regular repetition of eternal truths was preferable to the pursuit of novelty.

A slight, neat, wiry man with crinkled hair and a crinkled forehead, widows peak and Bible black eyes; and a bit of a black hole quality to match – seeming to absorb energy more than radiate it – he was never seen to speak – or act – outside his role.

This was in the early 1960’s of course.

Religious Instruction was just that. Bible stories. Lords Prayer in Assembly every day. “Forgive us our trespasses”. A prayer before home time. Chairs up then “Hands together. Eyes closed.” And no one allowed to go until everyone had stopped fidgeting. It sometimes took minutes that felt like hours.

The stories had the familiarity of everything else about Assemblies. The closed seasonal cycle reflected in the hymns we sang every morning. Hymns for autumn, spring, summer, carols for Christmas – “Lord dismiss us with thy blessing” at the end of term – every term – (as the official benediction shared with every other school in the country) subverted in the playground by the more raucus

“Two more days of school, two more days of sorrow.

Two more days in this old dump and we’ll be home tomorrow!”

also probably shared with every other school in the country and sang with delirious abandon as we wheeled around with our arms across each others shoulders like a cartoon of solidarity – in a wild mood that evaporated as soon as the bell went.

The words of the hymns, hung on the tall wooden partitions high above our heads, in books that seemed six feet long and almost as thick, as weighty as a slab of commandments; great scrolls handed down from on high that had been there for ever and ever amen, their pages turned with great poles that looked like pikes*- “Thus is was and ever more shall be”- with poor old Mrs Smith plonking the tunes out on an upright piano; in a style more driven by concern for audibility than inspiration or feeling. Production line piano playing. She only ever cut loose at the end, as we all trooped out to class, with a non religious familiar tune that she obviously liked (which I have never heard at any other time in any other place) and played with a bit of bounce and gusto (and possibly relief that she’d got through an act of vocal worship without any bum notes).

The stories were each told with exactly the same intonation every time. That of a disappointed judge. A steady, slightly grim and downbeat construction of the mental walls our ancestors had always lived inside – if they had been good – and the standards against which we should expect to be held. He always had an air of world weariness and disappointment in the failings of humanity in general (and us in particular) probably inevitable in an intelligent Jewish man of his generation; barely twenty years after the death camps casting an overwhelming shadow of the recent past; with a sea of tiny South Essex factory fodder looking up at him as a portent of what the future was threatening. I imagine that something like the Duke of Wellington’s remark about his army at Waterloo might have gone through his head at times. “I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me.”

We were, almost to a child, the offspring of factory workers. When we were in first year Juniors we were asked where our dad’s worked – it being assumed that our mums were all housewives ; and it was, Thames Board Mills, Thames Board Mills, Hedleys, Thames Board Mills, Tunnel Cement, Thames Board Mills, Docks, Thames Board Mills. And so on. All 44 of us. Gillian Brainwood’s family owned the pet shop on Clarence Road; but she was our entire middle class cohort. Only one of these workplaces is still there. Hedleys soap works, now Proctor and Gamble. The rest are long gone, as is the future we were being prepared for.

Because that’s what the stories were all about. We were destined for small roles, bit parts in someone else’s world, but we needed some self respect to be able to carry them off.

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe, the horse was lost, for want of a horse, the rider was lost, for want of a rider, the message was lost, for want of a message a battle was lost, for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost – all for the want of a horse shoe nail.

The little Dutch boy who did his duty by his community by plugging a hole in a dyke with his finger and dying of exposure rather than let the tiny leak grow into a flood that would drown them. Tough one for seven year olds this.

Aesop’s fable about the foolish dog that was carrying a bone across a bridge, looked down, saw his reflection, became greedy for the bone he could see, opened his mouth to bark – and dropped his bone into the river.

And, consider the ant thou sluggard…the Ant and the Grasshopper. All very puritanical. A good life being about hard work, frugality, keeping your nose clean and your head down and yourself to yourself – and the probably fatal consequences of hedonism.

And an odd one for a Primary School that seemed to be told with particular relish. “Now I am a man, I have put away childish things.” This posed the future as a sort of joyless trap. All work and no play. As serious as the elder relatives that would come and visit and sit in the hard chairs by the windows talking about serious everyday things in a serious everyday way.

All this was about restraint and discipline, the potential nobility and necessity of working hard as its own reward, playing a small part and doing it well, and also of being content with what you had, not being greedy or wanting too much – because there’s not enough to go around. Don’t use it or there won’t be any. This was two parts solidarity to three parts know your place.

In some ways, grim and narrow. Definitely not “aspirational” in neither an individual nor collective sense; because it was assumed what our future was going to be. Thames Board Mills, Thames Board Mills, Hedleys, Thames Board Mills, Tunnel Cement, Thames Board Mills, Docks, Thames Board Mills…we would be going round the cycle, feeding the factories with our labour, forever and ever amen. A few might make it up, out and away, but most would not. The thought that any of this could be redefined and reordered was beyond the limits of what could be thought. Even sacrifice for the greater good was defined as a way to keep things as they were.

The Spring of 1968 was three and a bit years on…

Portrait of the author as a young oik. Front row. Tasteful white tea towel and checked blanket. Quarry Hill Nativity Play Xmas 1964. Acting debut. “Third Shepherd”. One line.

*This is, of course, a mix of two memories becoming more than the sum of their parts in a creative re-imaging of my primary school as even more like Gormenghast than it actually was. The poles were for opening and closing the high windows. Similar poles were in use in the school I worked in until a couple of years ago – where they still opened and shut all the upper windows in the cathedral height classrooms; or at least those that had not been painted shut by a team of painters who might have benefited from one of Mr David’s homilies; had they ears to hear with, or had they not been working for a bunch of cowboys who quoted cheap and moved on fast. The Hymn books were on a Heath Robinson system of pulleys, so they could be pulled down and the pages reverently turned to the appropriate hymn, then re-hoisted above our heads like a flag ceremony. Less spectacular, but every bit as much of a ritual.

The Virus does not negotiate.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the beach…

We are being told that it is a “moral imperative” (1) to get all our children back into school from September and that this is “non negotiable”. (2)

The problem for the government is that the Virus does not negotiate.

Sir Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust pointed out in Sunday’s Observer “The gradual uptick in cases has shown us we’ve now reached – if not already exceeded – the absolute limits of easing restrictions.” (My emphasis).

Chris Whitty of the official SAGE said the same. “We have probably reached the limits of what we can do.”

Although the death rate is steady at a low level, the number of new cases has began to rise. Death rates follow cases with a two to three week lag. Government gambles to try to reopen the economy and get people to “splash the cash” (3) that they don’t have and fear they are going to have even less of very soon- including the bizarre suggestion that people who can continue to work safely from home should travel in to work so they can buy some takeaway sandwiches – have “already exceeded the absolute limits” beyond which the infection rate goes up again.

The government has therefore paused further reopening, but not closed anything down except locally. That is more likely to slow the pace at which the infection rate increases than start driving it back down again. They do not have a Zero COVID strategy, with a single minded aim to eliminate the virus. This is a precondition for actually being to reopen the economy on any basis at all. Without it, whatever the measures and encouragement and boosterism, people will be voting with their feet and trying to stay as safe as they can.

We are therefore stuck in a push me pull you situation in which the government is trying to nudge people in two opposite directions at the same time. People are supposed to wear masks in shops. But many don’t. Just 3 out of 9 of us in my local Tescos a couple of days ago. And this is not enforced. All very lackadaisical.

The low point for new infections was on July 7th, when it was 352. By 10 August it had risen to 1 062. Almost tripled in a month. We are not in the same mess that the USA is in, but if you extrapolate these figures to the end of the month – the point at which schools are projected to reopen – we could be heading that way.

There has been an argument that school age children do not spread the virus in the same way as adults. There is no indication that this is the case for Secondary students and in the USA 97 000 cases were reported among the under 19s within two weeks of schools reopening in late July. (4)

The question therefore is – what concrete steps will the government take to make it safe to return to school? This is not yet a done deal. And the ball is in their court. At the moment they are talking about “trade offs” – which is a back handed admission that they expect the reopening of schools to have an impact on increasing infections, so they will need to close down other sectors to soak that up. If that is their intention, we need to see the modelling that it is based on – assuming of course that they have some and are not just going to make an amateurish punt with their fingers crossed.

Sir David King’s estimate is that reopening schools will add 0.5 to the R rate. With the average R rate running at nearly 1 across the country, unless there is a serious reduction in infections in the next three weeks and he commented “We need a proper test and trace system by September. Otherwise full school opening will put us right back. The Government has a month to deal with the level of infectivity as it stands now. Reopening schools should be a priority, but we believe we are nowhere near the point where it can be done safely…” (5)

The belated recognition that outsourcing track and trace to SERCO to run it through a national call centre with no local follow up, has not been effective – as many people are reluctant to pass on information, is an essential recognition of reality. So local authorities are now tasked with sending workers out to knock on doors and fill the gaps. But this needs to be functioning on the ground, the R rate needs to be coming back down and the health and safety checklist jointly agreed by the NEU, UNISON, GMB and UNITE needs to be met and fully functional in every single school if there is to be any chance of doing this safely.

And that does require some negotiation.

  1. Boris Johnson
  2. Nick Gibb
  3. Robert Jenrick
  4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/08/09/study-coronavirus-cases-children-rise-sharply-second-half-july-with-more-than-97000-infections/?hpid=hp_hp-banner-main_virus-children-503am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory-ans&fbclid=IwAR0jVkt2DJx_l0pg2M1ahAVyDxB2jy55pv08vFXj1v5VSofEoQFoAo4qK4c
  5. https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/uk-news/uk-heading-back-lockdown-next-18740395

“Words are bullets” Firing a few back.

“Words are bullets” is an expression used on the US Alt Right to express an essential political point; that it doesn’t matter whether an assertion is true or not, so long as it creates a desired emotional response, thereby creating a version of the truth in which the listener is emotionally invested and from which they can be mobilised – often against their own interests.

Their focus on ruthlessly targeted knee jerk reactions, designed to short circuit thought or reflection with a blaze of righteous certainty deeply rooted in fears, creates an essentially theological form of politics; in which anyone putting an opposing argument or providing inconvenient information is cast into the realms of Satan.

When you have such masters of the art of “alternative facts” as Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo* running the most powerful and dangerous country in the world – and on the occasions that their view reflects an extreme form of the broader interests of their class and not just their fraction of it – the whole of mainstream discourse in every country dominated by the US becomes infected with this style of discourse.

If you listen to Radio 4 a lot it seems like there’s a daily bash China slot, with Chris Patten and Tom Tugendhat on permanent speed dial; or with a hammock set up for them in the corner so they never have to leave. Sometimes I’ve switched on in the middle of one. You get to recognise the voice. Its the same with the Guardian. Every day there’s something. And its all from one point of view; which is presumed to be the truth. Contrary voices are squeezed out, not allowed air time or column inches, for fear that the bubble of speculation built on assertion will pop if challenged.

Campaigns like this don’t happen by accident. The old joke about how odd it is that every day there’s just enough news to fill the papers hints at the issue. What is being highlighted and what is being ignored? And if variations on the same story are relentlessly repeated to the point that it becomes a distorting prism through which the rest of the world can be misperceived, whose agenda is being served?

Most of the reporting on China is a mutually interlocking series of assertions and stories from pro US sources that feed off and reinforce each other but with very little actual evidence.

As a declaration of interest, I take the view that lifting 800 million people (give or take 50 million) out of extreme poverty in the last four decades – as China has done – is a staggering and positive achievement that benefits the whole of humanity, not just the people of China. These people’s lives are usually seen as a statistic. 800 million just means “lots” to most people. But, if you think about it, 800 million people is 13 times the entire population of the UK, two and a half times the entire population of the USA. So, imagine everyone you know and have ever met or ever seen and think of what it would mean for each of them to have gone from an income of $309 a year in 1980, to $10 099 in 2019. (1) I also take the view that this progress has been because China is not run by its capitalists but by its Communist Party. Trump has grasped this more than many on the European Left – as he has complained that China has an unfair economic advantage because the state directs investment, and the CPC directs the state. Quite so.

There are no “alternative facts”. Facts are facts. But narratives are constructed by emphasising some facts and downplaying others, by focusing on and sometimes exaggerating helpful information, and skidding quickly over anything that’s awkward. This blog is an attempt to challenge some of the dominant narrative on China in alt right and mainstream media (which increasingly overlap) and politics. So, what I am writing here is an attempt to challenge a dominant narrative by stressing the points that it hides, or elides, or ignores in a way that creates space for deeper thought and a fuller perspective.

A recent statement by faith leaders in the UK repeats the assertion that China is holding a million people in camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese deny this flat and say they have arrested around 14 000 people (out of a total Uighur population of over 11 million) in a campaign to squash a Jihadist separatist movement that has killed 458 people, mainly by knife attacks, but also with bombs and by driving into pedestrians at high speed.

Number arrested according to China

The people killed in these attacks are not much noted in the “West”. The attacks themselves are dismissed as “minor terrorist attacks” in reports in the Guardian. In fact several of them were more severe than the Charlie Hebdo shootings and have comparable casualties with the shooting in Christchurch in 2019 and the London bombings in July 2005; neither of which could ever be described as “minor” without a justified storm of indignant protest.

Not so minor

In fact, overall the accumulated casualties from these attacks (458 people) (2) is more than four times the 101 people killed in mainland Britain in blowback from the Troubles in the North of Ireland between 1971 and the turn of the Century. None of that would be considered “minor” either. But licking our own wounds while ignoring those of others was ever the Western way.

The way these people’s deaths are written out of the journalistic record – and therefore political reckoning – in the West, stands in stark contrast to the way the 2 977 victims of the 9/11 attacks were given proper respect. Film after film, documentary after documentary; on their lives, their loved ones, their final recorded messages; so after a time everyone who watched the News felt a connection with these people in a way that made the US reaction of invading two countries – one of which had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks – and start two wars which killed up to a million people – seem almost proportionate. A graphic example of the way a narrative can distort objective judgement. I write “up to” a million because the Iraqi civilian casualties of this invasion were not counted. Their lives literally didn’t count. Not even recorded. All lives matter? Not in this case. Nor in the case of the victims of the attacks in Xinjiang. The policeman cut to shreds in front of his children, the leader of the Mosque in Kashgar who was hacked to death in 2014, the Uighur girl who was an aspiring dancer who lost her leg in a bombing in 2014 and is now a doctor. None of these people have found the dignity of a reference in the Western media. Nor have any of the other 455 casualties either.

The figure of 14 000 detained is simply dismissed in Western accounts. It is taken as read that the Chinese are lying and the State Department – despite its record -is telling the truth. That presumption runs through all the coverage.

The “estimates” of 1-3 million people detained that have been made by far right “researcher” Adrian Zenz, which he admits himself are speculative and which have been effectively debunked here (3) are sometimes qualified by News organisations like the Guardian or the BBC – employing a homeopathic water memory of journalistic ethics – with words like “alleged”; but are nevertheless then taken as fact despite the paucity of evidence (and the wild variation in the figures).

The problem with this assertion is that the buildings identified as camps – or re-education centres – could not possibly contain the number of people Zenz is speculating are in them.

To hold a million people you would need five hundred and fifty complexes on this scale. Where are they?

This is not in Xinjiang. It is an old aerial photo of the H Blocks in the North of Ireland, where Republican and Loyalist prisoners were held during the “Troubles”; and Britain showed its commitment to human rights by allowing 11 Republican prisoners to starve themselves to death in the 1981 Hunger strike rather than concede their demand for political status. This complex looks as though it could hold a very large number of people. But it never held more than 1 800 at any one time. To hold a million people you would need five hundred and fifty complexes of this size and, with 300 people per H block, 3 333 blocks of this sort. Imagine what that would look like on satellite photos and how hard they would be to miss. What follows is not a typo or glitch. Its what 3 333 buildings like this would look like.

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There are nothing like this number.

In the BBC analysis of satellite imagery they conclude that between 2011 and 2108, thirty seven such centres have been constructed. Thirty seven. Nowhere near 500.

They go on to cite Zenz discovering “dozens” of construction contracts, which he has asserted are for these camps. Dozens. Nowhere near 500.

Zenz – who does not speak or read Mandarin – presumes that all these contracts are for camps not reeducation centres or anything else. In fact, in the last five years the Chinese government has invested more than $70 billion on the development of infrastructure in Xinjiang, which is the Central Asian hub of the Belt and road initiative.

When BBC reporters tried randomly phoning people in Urumqi and asking them about what the big new buildings were in the places they had seen them, everyone replied “Oh, they are re- education centres.” 

Images of the re-education centres functioning as re-education centres that appear in Chinese media are dismissed as window dressing in the West, but were endorsed by a delegation from Muslim countries. An invitation has also gone to the EU to carry out a similar fact finding trip, but has so far been turned down.

One of the BBC photos shows a school playground with additional buildings put in. They presume that this is a conversion to be used as a detention centre rather than an expansion of classroom space to enable the enrollment of additional students. This has also been commonplace in the UK as portakabins have been placed on playgrounds to provide classrooms the demographic bulge that is now making its way through Secondary School.

Uighur children have enrolled in schools in increasing numbers and since 2017 they have been guaranteed 15 years of free education, conducted bilingually, to overcome a backlog of poorly resourced education and weak results, which has led to poor employment prospects up to now. (4) With the rapid development focused on the Belt and Road initiative leading to a 6.5% annual growth rate, there has to be an equally rapid expansion in education provision.

The Uighur population has traditionally missed out a lot on this. So, $1.2 billion has been invested in school buildings and in 2017 an additional half a million Uighur children enrolled in early years provision. This is presented by Zenz and the BBC as an attempt to squash Uighur culture and remove children from their roots, but the more balanced Burgen Report stresses the opposite. (4) The difficulties and opportunities of bilingual education in previously backwater regions of a fast developing country raised here are not peculiar to China. In rural South Africa children learn initially in their home language but increasingly make a transition to learning in English, because of both the vastly greater range of learning materials in that language and the greater efficacy of learning it to communicate beyond the locality. To learn other subjects in both languages and become fluent in them at the same time will take a lot of resourcing if it is to work.

A further $280 billion is being invested for sustainable development, creation of jobs and poverty alleviation and there are guaranteed quotas for minority employment.

Bullet words “Genocide” and “Concentration Camp” have gone alongside accusations by Ian Duncan Smith and others that China is “Nazi”. Put those words together and the implication is that the reeducation centres are death camps. That doesn’t have to be explicit. The hint is in the phrase. It s meant to freeze questioning or contradiction. It is also absurd. There are no reports that anyone has died in these centres; compared with a death rate of 264 people per hundred thousand in US prisons. Overall, the Uighur population is growing fast – in absolute terms and as a proportion of the population. It has more than doubled since 1978. The “one child” policy was never applied to the Uighurs, or any other ethnic minority in China.

Accusations of “cultural genocide” don’t match with the awkward fact that there are now ten times as many Mosques in Urumqi as there were in 1989, and visitors report people going to them quite normally and naturally; as in this recent report.

Our delegation wasn’t a fact-finding mission; we didn’t have a specific aim to verify the truth of these various allegations. We did however walk freely around Ürümqi and the Muslim quarter in Xi’an, and failed to see any evidence of religious or ethnic oppression. In Ürümqi one sees mosques everywhere; indeed Xinjiang has one of the highest number of mosques per capita in the world. Walking well off the beaten track, we saw hundreds of Chinese Muslims, wearing their distinctive Uighur dress (including headscarves for many women) and going about their lives without any indication that they were living in fear of persecution. We ate in Uighur restaurants, in which halal food was served and alcohol wasn’t available. (5)

The points put above are widely accepted in the world outside the bubble of the US’s closest allies. In the UN the Chinese position is supported by 50 countries, the US by just 22.

*A recent op piece in the Washington Post commented that Pompeo is now lying about his lies.

  1. https://knoema.com/atlas/China/GDP-per-capita
  2. https://thefrontierpost.com/china-releases-documentary-revealing-truth-behind-xinjiang-terrorist-attacks/ Please note that the film cited in this article contains some shocking footage that is hard to get out of your head once you’ve seen it.
  3. https://thegrayzone.com/2019/12/21/china-detaining-millions-uyghurs-problems-claims-us-ngo-researcher/
  4. https://www.borgenmagazine.com/education-in-xinjiang/
  5. https://www.invent-the-future.org/2020/01/building-solidarity-and-friendship-with-china-notes-on-a-trip-to-the-peoples-republic/?fbclid=IwAR2hvyv3LVWcjJjKLryGxGV3xIomk2UtwqIPSjEBwzi-9UCLKDesyaVqpXo

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”.

It only struck me today, almost half a century on from reading this line in T.S Elliot’s 1915 poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, that there is more than one way to measure with coffee spoons.

I had always assumed that it referred to measurement by length. Spoons from the coffee drunk during the day, laid end to end in a surreal contemplative performance of the emptiness of routine.

Probably three of them.

The parameters of a small and narrow domestic life. Probably lonely. Personal coffee spoons. Laid end to end in a journey to nowhere very much.

At the time I first read the poem, 1971, measuring quantity with coffee spoons wasn’t an activity that allowed comparisons to be made. Coffee was measured in a very limited and regular way.

One spoon of Nescafe instant.

Never any variations. An iron law. Always the same.

In the 50’s it had been one spoon of Camp Coffee (which – being an evil chicory beverage the colour and consistency of Worcester sauce – was neither coffee nor, despite the bloke in the kilt, camp).

Measuring by quantity implies real coffee. Lovingly spooned into a cafetiere by someone middle class imagining themselves to be an artisan, carefully curating depth, colour, aroma; an activity salvaged from pointlessness by becoming a ritual of superficial class mobility.

Not that that journey has been far.

And why coffee spoons not teaspoons? Teaspoons would be more prosaic, everyday, common – especially in 1915. The word also sounds too short and sharp, like a hammer hitting a nail. Tea! Too definite. No room to breathe or contemplate. A clipped clink that is just too precise. A “just get on with it” sound. The word coffee sounds like someone slowly smoking; inhaling and exhaling with a whiff and a rasp, staring at the smoke coiling lazily towards a stained sepia ceiling.

It also has two syllables.

Prufrock, though, was measuring his life in small domestic measures during the First World War; in which other men’s lives were measured in yards of No Man’s Land, the length of a coil of barbed wire, the number of paces in a forced march to the front, the slow dying fall of a flare in the night, the inches of sludge drowning duckboards at the bottom of a trench, the last choking breaths after a gas attack.

And so, to the shell shocked silence of peace.

Let us go then, you and I, 
When the evening is spread out against the sky 
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Uncomfortably numb.