Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The rise of authenticity and what it means

Some years ago, fourteen to be precise, I wrote a book called Authenticity. The subtitle was ‘Brands, fakes, spin and the lust for real life’, which had a kind of ring to it. I’ve since written more in a collection of essays called The Age to Come.

I was predicting the rise of a consumer revolution – real beer, real experience, real shops – which involved bending the meaning of ‘real’ a little. Things and services could never be wholly ‘real’ because such things are about travelling hopefully rather than arriving. But with those provisos, I believe I was right.

So it is fascinating to come face to face again with the phenomenon in the example of the authentic textiles, curtains, wallpapers and so on, by New Weather pattern-maker and member Sarah Burns, and her label Dora Fabrics. In the interests of full authentic disclosure, I should also reveal that I’m married to her.

Sarah has re-discovered some of the lost art of wild dyeing, using plants and techniques from the South Downs where she lives to dye cloth by hand.The results are there to see in the Guy Goodfellow showroom at 15 Langton Street, just off London’s Kings Road.

There is another chance to see Dora Fabrics at the moment at the Virginia White Collection pop-up shop in 17 Rugby Street, London WC1, off Lambs Conduit Street, where you ca see her Sompting pattern in fabric and on the walls too, inspired by some of the medieval carvings you find in the South Down churches.

For those of us who have not followed this particular debate about authenticity, there is a something of a stand-0ff between those who believe that authenticity is impossible by definition, and that any appeal to it must therefore be fraudulent – and those, like me, who regard it as a growing phenomenon and reaction against the all-pervading pushing of the virtual and the fake.

In that respect, Sarah’s designs have depth and so do her fabrics. In an age where nearly everything looks and feels exactly the same, built to a shiny, glitzy formula, this is the real deal.

But it is worth thinking about what makes it real? Is it the natural element, using plants gathered by hand? Is it the sheer inconvenience of it – the less than universal availability, given that plants have seasons? Is it the fact that you don’t have to throw the cloth away when it is faded (you just dip it in the dye again)?

My own feeling is that it is all those things but, most of all perhaps, it is the human contact – the fact that someone has collected the plants and made the dye and coloured the cloth. That it was done by someone specific, and done somewhere specific, with a name that you can pinpoint on a map. The human element, for me, is the new definition of authenticity. It can’t be perfectly authentic – nothing can and you might buy it online – but i is the direction of travel and not the end destination that is important.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Tiny ray of hope from Manchester

















I was surprised to find, this morning, that the news still has the power to reduce me to tears. The vision of parents struggling through Manchester in search of missing children after the bomb there is particularly gruelling for other parents like me. It hardly needs saying that one's heart goes out to them, because it has become an over-used cliche - but it does.

It may be that the immediate legacy of the bomb is to cement Theresa May's general election victory. I don't know. It may be that the next best thing to having someone strong and stable in adversity is to have someone who claims to be. I don't know that either.

Yet I have a feeling that the long-term impact on the nation may also be some pride in itself. The taxi drivers who converged on Manchester without being asked. The photograph of the empty water cups on the police car roof. They are all testament to the kind of nation we are, and the way human beings are too - this is a patriotic point, not a nationalist one.

It reminds me of Ken Worpole's recent description of the East Anglian reaction to the disastrous floods of January 1953 which sank the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria, when every local organisation came out to help in a tide of volunteer effort.

This was partly the result of the war, which had finished only eight years before, that all these small organisations were still active and effective. Ten members of the South Benfleet Yacht Club alone saved over 60 people from Canvey Island.

Back then (2013) I wrote rather depressingly: "The difference now is not that these small organisations have disappeared, or that they are somehow less effective – quite the reverse – but their existence is somehow taken for granted by the authorities."

This may be so, but the reaction of ordinary people in Manchester last night shows that this doesn't matter. It may be premature to say that anything else matters compares to the brute fact of the blast, but I draw some comfort from the reaction and I believe we will do so when the immediate pain has settled a little.

Big changes can happen as a result of small shifts in perception like this. The earthquakes in Christchurch and Kyoto kickstarted a whole new kind of voluntary sector in those cities. Earthquakes and fires a century ago in Jacksonville in Florida gave it the kind of voluntary ethos that makes it such an inclusive city today.

These considerations may not outweigh the horror, but they are not unimportant. When William Blake talked about "Joy and woe are woven fine". I believe this is what he meant,

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Friday, 19 May 2017

It's the economy, stupid. Isn't it?

The idea that the UK is a nation perched on a knife-edge division between Brexiters and Remainers has begun to unravel over the last few days – and probably a good thing too.

Let me cite three pieces of evidence, at least two of them deriving at least partly from the new thinktank Radix.

The first is the Financial Times report on what they called the ‘Re-leavers’, the people who voted to remain but now want to accept the result and get on with it. The report suggested they were about 23 per cent of the electorate. Or a big chunk out of the 48 per cent.

The second is the blog on Radix by Professor Corrado Poli on the distinction between the racist Leavers from the old right and the reformers who might go either way, and which also divides the Remain camp potentially into two.

The third, I have to admit in all modesty, is by me. It is my Guardian article about the division, this time within traditional Lib Dem voters, between the Remainers and the Liberal Brexiters – those who voted to leave last year, especially in former Lib Dem western strongholds, because they are sceptical about the power of supranational bureaucracies (any large bureaucracies actually).

You can read this here. There are, as I write, 400 comments so far ‘below the line’ slagging me off about it.

The main implication of this fragmentation is the way it confuses a previously clear Lib Dem election strategy. This will matter only if the party hollows out its radical message to make their campaign a re-run of a flawed, technocratic, cerebral and somewhat punitive referendum campaign last year.

My advice is to think a bit about the kind of themes the Liberal Brexiters want to hear about – the failures of the banks to nurture our struggling local economies. The Lib Dem manifesto commits them to forcing the big banks to pay to set up a network of local banks capable of doing the job with small business that they manifestly no longer want.

In short, the fragmentation of the Lib Dem target market only matters if they forget that elections are fought, won and lost on economics. It should not have to be said – but it’s the economy, stupid.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday, 1 May 2017

It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it - how Twitter caused Brexit


In 1780, a mob led by the half-crazed aristocrat Lord George Gordon stormed through London, shouting anti-Catholic slogans, demolishing buildings, setting free prisoners and - if Dickens can be believed in Barnaby Rudge - drinking molten lead from the roof of Newgate Gaol.

The Gordon Riots cemented the British establishment's horror of populism as the central plank of good government, and especially somehow anti-Catholic populism, which - as I have argued before - includes the sentiments behind Brexit.

The Nazi experience convinced the Left too that all emotion should be excised from politics, for fear of - well, to start with, for fear of the Mob.

The trouble is that this rendered the forces of good government all but powerless in the face of the skilled manipulation of emotion.

I don't mean Donald Trump, who is only using the clothes of populism to disguise an old-fashioned plutocrat. But Trump is also an example: his use of emotion was so crude that the only people it could possibly flummox was technocrats shorn of all feeling.

Unfortunately, that was all we had to defend the UK's involvement with continental Europe. The rest is history.

But it is a history that has yet to be written, and a fascinating report by the Radix thinktank this morning makes an important start. They used these assumptions about emotion and commissioned research from the University of Milan - analysing ten million tweets from the Brexit referendum and the Brexit debate since.

In fact, you could have predicted the result, they found, just by looking at the coherence and emotional content of the tweets - just as you could with the rise of Trump. The report All Atwitter about Brexit found that:

  • Besides having a greater intensity of use, the pro-Brexit camp has compelling leaders who use emotive messaging around a cohesive narrative that galvanizes supporters 
  • The anti-Brexit camp remains diffuse. There is no single leadership focus and a lack of a consistent, cohesive narrative that is capable of appealing to the emotional rather than the rational.
  • There is significant volatility among users around their Brexit sentiment. A large number of users still consistently shift between pro- and anti-Brexit positions 
  • Over the last few weeks, anti-Brexit sentiment has shown a sharp rising trend while the pro-Brexit community has shown slow decline 
  • The pro-Brexit camp has won the air war to date. But, as the general campaign starts, those parties and candidates that choose to make Brexit the defining issue in this election still have everything to play for.
That is extremely interesting. It means that, if you use Twitter as the way you analyse the way sentiment is shifting, it looks as though the energy is with those who want to stay entangled with continental Europe.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Southern Rail compensation deadline looms - and guess what?

What follows is a guest blog by a Southern commuter who has been battling to get his compensation by their deadline, which is this weekend...

Do you find it slightly odd that, for a company with 300,000 daily commuters, to date they’ve only been in direct contact with 40,000 commuters owed extra compensation (and the doors close on 30 April)? I think the compensation scheme is run as poorly as their trains, and many eligible commuters will not receive the compensation owed. Why?

Well, as a daily commuter over the relevant period I’d bought seven monthly season tickets, several weekly ones and made many delay repay claims. With this information you’d expect they’d contact me and promptly pay the compensation due, right? 

 Wrong, they didn’t contact me. Eventually I called them, gave them my name, address, season ticket number, etc. – only to be told they could not find me in their records. I then had to wait several weeks to claim compensation online in mid-March.

With knowledge of Data Protection rules, I submitted a Data Subject Access Request to Southern asking for copies of personal information they hold on me - season tickets purchased and delay repay claims submitted. There were two statements from their compensation website that prompted this action:
  • “The process has been a complex one as we had to look through multiple data sources to be absolutely sure that we were correctly verifying a customer’s identity.”
  • “Unless we were 100% confident that the information we had was correct, we couldn't take a chance and make direct contact – for instance if there was a slight change in postcode.”
After all, perhaps I mistyped my address when making claims. But no, once they provided all the information requested it turned out that they had records of my season tickets and delay repay claims, and all accurately matched my name and address. So, are they going to appropriate lengths to identify and compensate contact eligible customers using “multiple data sources”? Clearly not.

When I pushed for a reason why I had not been identified by Southern, I was given a circular response that only seemed to reiterate the flaws in their own process. Quote below:-

“As you may be aware, this was a big undertaking required in a short period of time. The data gathering process was structured to process large quantities of data across different systems as efficiently as possible. The protection of customer data and accuracy of the compensation calculation was a priority. Two aspects of the data gathering process are relevant to your query:

1. Your Delay Repay record was excluded because the amounts had not been validated through the ticketing system. Our Customer Services team can either input the Delay Repay amounts manually or retrieve system-validated amounts based on ticket number. Both approaches are permitted in our process.

2. Your season ticket record was excluded because it had already been considered in Step 1 above. This was to avoid any possibility of double counting.”


If you can follow their logic, they indicate season ticket records (2) were excluded because they were covered under (1). But I was excluded from (1) because my tickets hadn't been validated! When I challenged the lack of logic, asking if I wasn't covered by (1) shouldn't I have been covered by (2), I was answered by:-

“If you were excluded under (1) it meant that your record was excluded and could not be considered under (2).”
Southern seems to be following a flawed process to identify eligible customers, and instead relying on people to make the claims for money owed to them. Some might think they did this deliberately by i) not contacting them in the first place, ii) delaying the online compensation claim site until mid-March by when most people forget they’re due recompense, and iii) giving them just 6-7 weeks to submit their claim by setting the deadline as 30 April.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Three condundrums the Lib Dems need to solve to breakthrough

I was as staggered as anyone else that Theresa May has called a general election in June, especially given her assurances that she would do no such thing, though I can see the logic.

On the one hand, it does provide Tim Farron with what he has been asking for – an immediate second referendum on the style of Brexit (and again she said she would do no such thing). On the other hand, the result may be a forgone conclusion – not because a great majority of the nation backs the government, but because of the slow and inexorable decline of the Labour Party.

There is a suggestion that we now have three conservative-looking parties ranged against each other. One is embracing a different future but lacks the skills, ideas or open minds to manage it. The other wants to revert back to the world in 1945. The third wants to revert back to the world in 1980.

Or does it? That is the question this blog post poses. Because on the face of it, this election provides a unique opportunity for the Lib Dems to shove Labour aside, because they have apparently no opinion on the main issue of the moment.

As a lifelong Liberal, I am obviously excited at the prospect, but three barriers loom in the way, and they are intellectual ones. To reach their potential and become the official opposition – which the Lib Dems could conceivably do – they will have to solve three conundrums that will otherwise frustrate them.

1. How to bring the Liberal Brexiteers back into the fold.
The unaddressed challenge for the Lib Dems is that their former strongholds, especially in the South West, came out strongly for Brexit last year. That implies a powerful constituency of Liberal Brexiteers, who were not beguiled by the promises of the leave campaign but still have a visceral dislike of supranational bureaucracies. This seems to me to be both reasonable and Liberal. Somehow the party needs to be able to speak understandingly and inspiringly to the Liberal Brexiteers as well as the Liberal Remainers. That is a difficult balancing act and it requires them to look closer at the motivations of those tempted by Liberalism – not for a flirtation in one election but as a meaningful lifetime commitment (this is my interpretation of the so-called 'core vote strategy').

2. Speaking for the consumers of services, not the professionals.
Until they unexpectedly became responsible for some of them in 2010, the Lib Dems had little to say about public services. One of their difficulties go back to the merger of the Liberals and Social Democrats in 1988. They have many roots in common and the Liberals always included a strong Fabian wing (they used to call them Whigs). The difficulty is that it confuses the party’s message on public services: social democrats tend to back professional judgement and processes. Liberals prefer informality and individual variation – perhaps especially when it comes to education. Somehow the party has to shun public services run for the benefit of the staff (Corbyn) and public services run for the benefit of the operators (Southern Rail springs to mind), and to articulate an approach that represents the users and the ignored and put-upon consumers of public services.

3. Speaking for and to the nation as a whole without compromising their message.


One party is looking for the enemy within, the so-called ‘saboteurs’. The opposition is so divided that their enemy really is within. The nation is seriously divided too. The Lib Dems will need to hold to their clear position on internationalism but still somehow speak for the nation as a whole. This is particularly so when it comes to economics - the nation knows that the old assumptions of economics are now over. We have dysfunctional and over-centralised banks, and tackling that is as good a place to start as any.

If they can do that, and the other two, then I predict an extraordinary result.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday, 10 April 2017

Taking children out of school and the death of Fabianism

I just posted this on the Radix website, but it applies here too...

No, Fabianism isn’t dead yet – but the flurry of debate about parents taking their children out of school does seem to mark a moment in the story of the great decline. When judges in the Supreme Court develop their own brand of Fabianism, and give parents no discretion at all, you know the end can’t be far away.

I am defining the branch of Leftist thinking here, developed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb – with a little help from George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells – as a gradual approach to social change, leaving the economic structures intact and mediated by a new cadre of professionals and technocrats who would ‘know best’.

It might be possible also to see the new dispensation, including Trump, Brexit and Le Pen, as reactions against Fabian technocracy. In fact, Le Pen pere even said so at one stage, describing his Front Nationale as the only anti-technocratic party in Europe.

This is an approach that would regard the ‘spirit of ’45’ as partly to blame for its own demise. This is controversial territory.

You can see the divide on the left in their attitudes to the schools judgement: backing the local authorities which want to fine parents for any absences from the classroom. On the one side, you have the Fabian line – that children must attend school and there must be protection for them against the whims of feckless parents (broadly the social democrat approach). On the other side, there is also an attitude that parents probably know best what is good for their children and require a little flexibility (broadly the liberal approach).

In a nutshell, you have Gladstone’s famous distinction between trust in the people tempered by prudence and distrust in the people tempered by fear. I know which side I’m on, personally, but let’s leave that on one side.

Behind all this lies a conflicting attitude to education, not it’s importance but its style. Fabians will tend to back the professional educationalists who say that every moment in the classroom is precious. Liberals will tend to regard education more broadly, arguing that every moment out of the classroom is also precious.

None of this, by itself, suggests that Fabianism is in decline. What it suggests is that the inflexibility built into the system – because professionals have deemed something to be correct – is not an attitude that can survive if we want to beat the ideas of Trump and Putin. It is no coincidence that the two great Edwardian doctrines, Fabianism and Taylorism (the ‘one best way’) back inflexibility. It smacks of the age of the assembly line and economies of scale. The period we appear to be moving into is sceptical about economies of scale, aware that we have been blind for too long to the diseconomies of scale. The new age backs flexibility because it is more human, and – in the end – less expensive.

It is also sceptical that classrooms are always and every day the right place to be – and that we should maximise children’s time in them. The emerging age is also horribly aware that they are too often extraordinarily dull.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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