Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Charles Dickens

Tired of London? London in the 21st century. A tale of two Sams.

A version of this article appeared in the July issue of Echelon magazine although they forgot  to  put my name on it. I originally used a strapline – Capitalist capital of crap. London in the 21st century – but the editor did not like that.

 

 

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Sam Johnson

johnson

Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell was a Scot. Johnson was not a Londoner. He came from Lichfield and spoke with a harsh Midland accent. Boswell and Johnson were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits from Scotland. Boswell wrote in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.”

 

‘London claims to be a world city – a modern, 24-hour metropolis – but this is mostly just a pretence put on for visitors.” – Sam Jordison.

 

Another Sam, Sam Jordison came up with the idea of a league table for crap towns of Britain. The original Crap Towns was a publishing sensation in 2003 and came out of a conversation between Jordison and Dan Kieran, deputy editor of the Idler magazine, (Dr Johnson published a book of essays called The Idler) about the respective awfulness of their own home towns.

The city of Kingston-upon-Hull proudly sat at the top of the league for five years. Hull was Hell and “smelt of death”. It may come as a surprise that London was the city that toppled Hull.

How can London be crap? London is a major world metropolis. It has recently also been voted top city in the world in terms of overall attractiveness in a survey organised by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in cahoots with the IMF and other multinational financial groups. Financial houses, multinational corporations and management consultants form a major component of what makes today’s London unattractive to humans.

The PwC’s survey boasted: “The women and men of PwC reflect the highly skilled, globally mobile services sector whose personal investment of themselves and their family is so critical to the ongoing progress of urban communities worldwide.”

 

So, all urban dwellers should be grateful to PwC? Many people in London are less blessed than the golden PwC employees are. Significant numbers of families across Britain are skipping meals in a bid to make ends meet. Every region of the country is affected, but in London, the proportion rises to 28 per cent of families.

leather bottle

When I moved to London from Manchester, I had to double my mortgage to get a much smaller house. True, I was able to drink alongside Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones in the Leather Bottle pub, but he lived in a six-bedroom house on the posher side of Kingston Road in Merton Park. Back in 1982, I wondered how the lowly paid people, whose contribution was vital to the operation of the city and the comfort of PwC’s golden employees, managed to find homes. The situation is worse now.

 

I lived in London from 1982 to 1998. I visited it many times before and many times since. I still love many things about the place.

London_National_Film_Theatre

I can also understand the perspective of those who voted it crappest town in Britain. I was living in London at the time of “greed is good”, when Thatcherism was forcing many to sleep on the streets. Travelling to work on a jammed up underground train, I witnessed an incident that epitomised the tenor of the times. A pregnant woman was straphanging. A gentleman of the old school stood up to offer her a seat. Before she could sit down, a Yuppie type slid underneath her and claimed the seat with a look of triumph.

 

Towards the end of my stay in London, I was paying GBP 2,000 per year for a season ticket to commute to central London from Lewisham (posh Blackheath/Greenwich side).

blackheath-and-the-clarendon

It should have been a ten-minute journey but took longer because all the trains were full after six a.m. With privatisation the trains got shorter and shorter. I never got a seat – on these cattle trucks we were just grateful for a small pocket of breathable air away from armpits. One day I thought I  saw an empty seat and made my way towards it. As I approached, I saw that the seat was occupied by a pile of human turds. People were standing all around this without complaint. That is my enduring image of London.

Sam Jordison said that many who live in London are fed up with queuing, rocketing house prices, the chore of commuting, “the dangers and pure exhaustion of living there”. I once enjoyed a memorable night at Charlie Gillett’s World Music Disco but getting home after was a problem. I was a member of Ronnie Scott’s Club and saw many jazz legends perform there. Ronnie’s shuts at about 3.30 am, but the Tube closes its doors around midnight. People complained to Jordison about city bankers and a transport system that abandons late-night revellers to the mercy of rickshaws, minicabs or night buses. Cab drivers do not like going “south of the river”. Taking the night bus is a not recommended- it is a vomitorium on wheels full of drunks and psychopaths.

The annual Cities Survey, organised by the website Trip Advisor, collates the opinions of travellers to the top 37 urban tourist destinations around the world. Moscow came last. London came 11th, but achieved a respectable second place for nightlife and third for shopping. London’s worst performance was in value for money – visitors voted the city 34th in terms of how far a pound will stretch. London came 32nd of the 37 cities when the question was “how helpful were the locals?” The Trip Advisor website provides many horror stories of squalid and expensive London hotels. The horrors experienced by the Griswold family in Chevy Chase’s film National Lampoon’s European Vacation understate the awfulness of the reality.

griswold

London was rather drab in the 1950s and took some time to recover from the war. Years of decline and depopulation made much of the centre affordable. Artists, writers, musicians flocked in. It was possible, even up to the 1970s, to leave university and get a flat with your mates in Notting Hill, Marylebone or Camden Town. I stayed with people just as poor as me in Islington and Hampstead and Kensington. These days, only rich Arabs or the Russian mafia can afford those areas. Central London is a ghost town that only benefits absentee investors. The art students, musicians, and people starting out in the creative industries can no longer walk home from clubbing in Camden. The young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Soon there will nothing cool left about London. Cool will be residing in Bristol or Falmouth or Newcastle.

London has already changed irreparably. Rich financiers have made it unaffordable for the working class. The real threat comes from governments giving incentives to wealthy elites to take up residence. Russians receive a quarter of the “investor visas” that the UK gives to those who can pay a million pounds. The proprietor of the London Evening Standard is Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and former officer of the foreign intelligence directorate of the KGB.

Alex_Lebedev

 

To end on a more cheerful note: If you do decide to visit London, there is still much of interest (if you can manage to find somewhere decent to stay). I have many happy memories of walking around central London and the periphery. I was lucky enough to have done several jobs in the heartland of the metropolis, which enabled me to walk easily to Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, Bloomsbury, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, and Covent Garden and to eat my lunch to the accompaniment of brass band concerts on the Embankment near the Adelphi.

Half-Moon-Putney

My first residence was in Putney and on long summer evenings I could walk from Putney to Barnes, stopping on the way to enjoy Young’s ambrosial nectar at the Half Moon (also purveyors of excellent live music – I saw Dr John and Maria Muldaur there among many others). The Bull’s Head at Barnes also purveys Young’s ales and fine live jazz.

Iain Sinclair on the south bank of the river Thames, London, Britain - 26 Aug 2011

Before you visit, I would recommend reading the writing of people like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd who explore the psychogeography of London and examine the prehistoric atavistic mind of the city that entranced Dr Johnson, Dickens, Blake, and TS Eliot. Ackroyd and Sinclair explore the mythic strata upon which contemporary Londoners walk. Much of Sinclair’s recent work consists of a revival of occultist psychogeography of London. In London Orbital he wrote about a trek around the M25, which JG Ballard described as: “A journey into the heart of darkness and a fascinating snapshot of who we are”. Andrew Duncan’s walking guides provide practical help for those wishing to explore this magical world. Duncan’s Secret London tells you how to find London’s buried rivers, underground tunnels, abandoned tube stations, elegant squares, dark alleyways and cobbled courtyards and explains who owns most of the freehold property. Duncan, Ackroyd and Sinclair help to keep alive the magic of London.

 

 

Privatisation of Punishment for Profit

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on June 30 2014.

I have written before about the American prison system. Those articles were prompted by the irony of American politicians and NGOs criticising Sri Lanka for keeping 350,000 displaced people in camps in 2009. There are more than 2.3 million people in US prisons, more than any other nation on earth, a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the US. America has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. African-Americans account for 12% of the US population, but 40% of the US prison population. In 2005, 8.1% of all black males aged25 to 29 were in prison.

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Americans are locked up for crimes that would not warrant incarceration elsewhere. One is shocked to read in Dickens or Hugo about people being executed or transported to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread. Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law means that a lengthy sentence can be imposed for stealing a slice of pizza. The law made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One prisoner received three 25-year sentences for stealing a car and two bicycles.

More than 200,000 youths are tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day, 8,500 kids under 18 are confined in adult prisons. Only 34% of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes; many are confined for running away from abuse at home. 12.1% of young people questioned in a survey said that they had been sexually abused at their current juvenile detention facility during the preceding year. Rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside US prisons than outside, just as they are much higher among black Americans than white. As rape is a common in US jails, incarceration for trivial offences can amount to an unadjudicated death sentence.

The Prison-Industrial Complex

The US prison system is a multimillion-dollar industry with its own trade exhibitions, conventions and websites. At least 37 states have legalised the contracting of prison labour by private corporations, including Microsoft and IBM, to operate inside state prisons. The number of prisoners in private prisons tripled between 1987 and 2007. By 2007, there were 264 such prison facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult prisoners. Prison bonds provide a lucrative return for capitalist investors such as Merrill-Lynch, American Express and Allstate. Prisoners are traded from one state to another for profit.

The highest-paying private prison company is CCA (Correctional Corporation of America). CCA’s prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for “highly skilled positions”. For any infraction, CCA inmates get 30 days added to their sentence, which means more profits for CCA. Between 1982 and 1994 the prison population of the USA rose 2.7-fold and most of the newly convicted were fit young people, mainly unemployed. Was this coincidence or was the increase in the prison population deliberately engineered to provide a large but very cheap work-force to meet the needs of labour-intensive industries?

There was certainly one example of a judge who was a major shareholder in a private prison who had no compunction about sentencing young men to work in his prison to increase his profits.

Reducing Prison Population

However, things may be changing. In the past few years, politicians from both major parties have begun to turn against mass incarceration. Attorney General Eric Holder has routinely condemned the “inadvisable and unsustainable” policies that have made America’s prison population by far the largest in the world. Even Republican presidential contenders are having a rethink. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has denounced a “failed war on drugs that believes incarceration is the cure of every ill.” In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has redirected two billion dollars from the prison economy toward alternatives like drug treatment. Incarceration rates have slowly declined since 2010; conventional private prisons may no longer be a growth industry.

Offender-Funded Justice

There are still ways to turn a profit. Sarah Stillman, (who once vividly described the plight of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East) in an excellent article in the New Yorker, recounts the tale of a woman who was arrested and jailed for a string of traffic tickets that she was unable to pay.

(http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/get-out-of-jail-inc).

A judge sentenced the woman to two years of probation with Judicial Correction Services, a for-profit company. She would owe JCS the sum of two hundred dollars a month, with forty of it going toward a “supervision” fee. She paid whatever she could, but when she lost her job, she often could not pay. Her total court costs and fines soared from hundreds of dollars incurred by the initial tickets to $4,713, including more than a thousand dollars in private-probation fees.

Federal law in the eighteen-thirties abolished debtors’ prisons. However, people across America are routinely jailed for fees and fines that they are too poor to pay, fines and probation that are supposed to be an alternative to prison.

Many courts allow probation officers to decide whether an offender possesses the financial means to pay their fines and probation fees. When that probation officer is the employee of a private company, this creates a direct conflict of interest. A probation company’s revenues are entirely derived from the fees probationers pay them. Companies’ financial interests are often best served by using the threat of imprisonment to squeeze probationers and their families as hard as possible.

 

Profitable Alternatives to Prison

Private-prison corporations themselves have seen the opportunity for profit in alternatives to prison. The industry aims to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers. Often, this means charging petty offenders for a government service that was once provided free. These probationers are not just paying a court-ordered fine; they are typically paying an ever-growing share of the court’s administrative expenses, as well as a separate fee to the for-profit company that supervises their probation and enforces a payment schedule.

Correctional Healthcare Companies claims that it deals with the “full spectrum” of offenders’ lives: “pre-custody, in custody, and post-custody.” The GEO Group runs private prisons all over the world (including the UK). There have been many deaths in their premises. They are now expanding into “community re-entry services”, treatment programmes and electronic-monitoring. In 2010, Judicial Correction Services made the magazine Inc.’s list of “the fastest growing private companies in America,” for the third year in a row. JCS’s fees included $240 for a course in something called “Moral Reconation Therapy.” CCA bought a California-based enterprise called Correctional Alternatives.

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch recently published a harrowing survey. The report was based largely on more than 75 interviews conducted with people in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi during the second half of 2013. It describes patterns of abuse and financial hardship inflicted by the “offender-funded” model of privatised probation that prevails in well over 1,000 courts across the US. It shows how some company probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors.

 

http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0214_ForUpload_0.pdf

Blood from a Stone

 

The courts issue thousands of arrest warrants for offenders who fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees even though the original offence carried no real threat of jail time. In Georgia, Thomas Barrett pleaded guilty to stealing a can of beer and was fined US$200. He was jailed for failing to pay over a thousand dollars in fees to his probation company, even though his entire income—money he earned by selling his own blood plasma—was less than what he was being charged in monthly probation fees.

 

Legal Challenges

Legal challenges to “offender-funded justice” are mounting, amid concerns about abuse, corruption, conflicts of interest and the use of state penalties to collect private profits. In a wide range of cases, “offender-funded justice” may not result in justice at all.

The business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in instalments. It is a blatant conflict of interest when the companies making a profit are allowed to determine how much an offender can afford to pay. Financial incentives colour their judgement.

In Alabama, people know the town of Harpersville as a speed trap, a stretch of country highway where the speed limit changes six times in roughly as many miles. Traffic fines were the biggest business in the town of 1,600. In 2005, the court’s revenue was nearly three times the amount that the town received from a sales tax.

In July 2012, Judge Hub Harrington of Shelby County, Alabama halted Judicial Correction Services’ aggressive pursuit of fines owed the Harpersville Municipal Court. He stated:”From a fair reading of the defendant’s testimony, one might ascertain that more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

Julie MacLusky

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