The homeless suffer at the hands of thugs, and our institutions

At the mercy of others
At the mercy of others. Photo: Eyevine

There has for many years been a discussion about how to ‘take back’ public space. In a time where we have retreated from public view into our homes and rarely know our neighbours or meet across the fence, the world beyond the letterbox has often become a place of fear.

How ironic then, that those thousands that live rough in our public streets and parks feel much the same way – rough sleepers are more likely to be attacked, abused and robbed than any other group, and yet they are also subject to harassment from the authorities as well as the public.

When Big Issue vendor Ralph Millward was kicked to death in May it shocked the quiet Dorset community of Westbourne. But he was not the first, and will sadly not be the last – in the same month another homeless man in Bournemouth was badly battered in a late night attack, and a homeless man in Worthing was beaten and left with serious head injuries for hours before an ambulance was called.

Britain’s local newspapers often carry brief stories of such pointless city centre savagery, while the national tabloids content themselves with tales of grisly murders by “homeless schizophrenics”, thereby tarring with a broad brush two vulnerable communities denied a platform to defend themselves.

Of course violence can affect anyone, but without the protection of four walls and a door the homeless are at the mercy of any passing predator, whether that’s aggressive drunks, thieves – or the supposedly civil servants of the police and the blooming ‘homeless industry’.

The close working of the police and homeless charities has not gone unnoticed. Under Operation Poncho, City of London police and homeless organisations have for several years woken rough sleepers at night, hosed down their sleeping pitch and moved them on. Broadway, the organisation involved, states it offers advice and routes off the street, while rough sleepers argue the hostels offered are so unappealing that the street is preferable.

In July, Westminster police arrested 35 people when they and charity Thames Reach targeted beggars in central London during Operation Loose Change. Beggars do so to support drug addictions, the police said, while Thames Reach argued that arrest would force addicts to confront their addictions.

Writing to The Pavement magazine, one rough sleeper reported that after refusing to give his name to two Camden outreach workers, one told him that “he’d be back” the following evening with a constable to get it (without suspicion of criminality, police have no right to demand names, and the exchange suggests a data gathering and swapping exercise that would breach the Data Protection Act.)

Crime Reduction Initiatives, the firm operating Camden’s outreach programme, said: “To deliver social care interventions we work in close partnership with enforcement agencies” – though the combination of “care” and “enforcement” is mystifying.

So: stopped and questioned, targeted and moved on, offered only punishment instead of assistance, hounded out of the public realm and the public’s gaze; swap “homeless” for “black”, and you have the basis of the Brixton riots.

Sadly, the argument about “reclaiming public space” has less to do with reconnecting our communities as it has with brushing aside undesirable elements. That rough sleepers occupy our streets and parks is a testament to our failure, not just theirs. Those apparently working to help the homeless would be wise to not lose sight of their values and the human rights and liberties of others while falling over themselves to meet government targets.

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2009]

Festivals

The British summer is now awash with festivals, as much as those festivals are often awash with rain. From late April to Late September, the festival calendar is relentless and caters to all tastes and persuasions. Well, all tastes with a strong emphasis on boozy camping, music and silly hats. Images here are from Field Day 2007, Camp Bestival 2008, Secret Garden Party 2009, The Big Chill 2009, and Notting Hill Carnival 2009.

 

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Gang of Four

Gang of Four. Photo credit: Shamil Tanna - www.shamiltanna.com
Gang of Four. Photo credit: Shamil Tanna - www.shamiltanna.com

Fame and recognition comes only posthumously to some bands, whose influence takes years, or decades, to emerge. But when the 20-year trend cycle comes back around and unearths the music and fashions of the previous generation, those bands – Killing Joke and Nick Drake for example – resurface for a second hearing.

Gang of Four are one of those bands, and their reappearance was foretold ever since The Strokes and the White Stripes and their ilk made spikey, angular, post-punk-revivalist rock fashionable again 10 years ago.

To the uninitiated, Leeds-based art students Gang of Four fused Andy Gill’s unconventional, staccato guitar, vocalist Jon King’s seething lyrics and the machine-funk rhythm section of Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham to produce some of the most furious and original music of the post-punk wave.

They sliced and diced their way through two dark, danceable albums dripping with brutal irony – Entertainment! in 1979 and Solid Gold in 1981 – before internal tensions and a hard US tour culminated in Allen leaving. His replacement Sara Lee also contributed her vocal skills, softening the Gang’s hardest edges on 1982 follow-up Songs of the Free. This also spawned their most accessible hit, I Love a Man in a Uniform, whose lyrics pointed not so much to the brutality of war as to the battle of the sexes – but which was promptly banned when the Falklands War began anyway.

Then the Gang began to fall apart; by the fourth album, 1983’s Hard, Burnham’s departure left them as a three-piece, while the record sounds more Duran Duran than Damaged Goods, their first single from 1979 and only hit.

But more than ten years later, bands like Red Hot Chilli Peppers, R.E.M., Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi and Bloc Party had all discovered and imitated the uneasy listening combination of white-man punk rage and noise with basslines and guitar more reminiscent of Funkadelic.

Speaking backstage at the Macbeth – a tiny pub in Hoxton, London, that specialises in gigs that are small, hot and loud – King and Gill explain how they joined the ranks of the reformed at the start of a four-date tour to celebrate 30 years since the release of Entertainment!

“My 15-year-old son,” King recalls, “was playing music with his mates and I thought it was a Gang of Four track but couldn’t place it. I asked what it was; it was the Chilli Peppers’ new album. It was just the same as Return of the Gift, right down to the vocal a cappella at the end. I thought, why would someone do this?”

For bands that are ahead of their time, the sight of others treading in their footsteps with considerably more success must be galling, but also a slap on the back for being right all along.

“Gang of Four never really sounded like anyone else,” Gill ponders. “It had its own world view, not just musically but the way me and Jon thought about songwriting is rather unique, and became something everyone wanted a bit of.

“I suppose that at the point we got back together everyone sounded a bit like Gang of Four and other new wave bands – that era had produced a whole new young generation we could reach that perhaps hadn’t heard of Gang of Four.”

Above Gill’s guitar, which manages to simultaneously disturb and structure the band’s tight, funky rhythms, are highly critical lyrics to match the sonic assault.

For example, on Ether, with it’s discordant, unsettling melodica, the lyrics contrast the isolation of imprisoned IRA members with that of being trapped in a world sold on love, despite it’s impossibility. In 5.45 (the slot for the early evening news) they attack the media and the state, comparing the yolk streaming from a teatime egg to the blood from warzone bodies whose images are never shown, concluding: “Guerilla war struggle is the new entertainment.”

King said: “We were receiving reports from the TV like everyone else, trying to reassemble them into songs while life went on.

“We were always aware of the conflicting ideas that pull in different directions. Like the first time you saw those images of Abu Grahib, that shame and horror you feel for a moment… and then, hey I’ve got a new phone, or let’s get shitfaced.”

Natural’s Not In It introduces the band’s most common targets – pointless and bland consumerism and the use of sex to sell: “Economic circumstances/The body is good business/Sell out, maintain the interest”. Pointing to the mass market messages we soak up everyday, King explains: “Humans tend to think of themselves as great individualists, this notion that we can make our own lives. But all the research shows we are the product of our environment. Is the way we behave really something you spontaneously come up with, or the product of your environment?”

Not Great Men carries the most relentlessly funky guitar and bass work they ever wrote, while Contract reduces sex to a transaction: “You dreamed of scenes/Like you read of in magazines… Another disappointment/We couldn’t perform/In the way the other wanted”.

If this all sounds a little bleak, then recall that much of late 70s Britain was no fun at all.

“Leeds was shitty, impoverished, grim, violent, full of neo-fascists,” Gill said. “It felt like it was pre-war. I think everyone thought Britain was fucked, finished. There was potential for civil war.”

“You knew the cops were the enemy,” King adds. “They’d already killed someone [anti-fascist campaign Blair Peach, in West London 1979]. That Red Riding trilogy only touched on it – they were totally bent.”

Listening to them recall what drove them to write such sonically brutal, politically charged but danceable punk, what brings back Gang of Four is clear from the show that follows. King is energetic, even taking a swing on the lighting rig, while Gill, shrouded in pinstripe suit a few sizes bigger than he once wore, is a brooding, malevolent presence. It’s suddenly apparent how little has changed in 30 years: cops still beat up G20 protestors, power still lies in the hands of the few who line their pockets, the state still lies to us about wars, and we still lie to ourselves about love.

For a few moments Gill and King are boys again – invigorated not by new fans half their age but by the anger and energy that gives them plenty still to say, and the knowledge that it’s no less relevant now than at any time in the last three decades.

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2009]

 

Last Chance to See…

Stephen Fry and Mark Cawardine, photo: BBC Pictures

Twenty years ago, writer Douglas Adams embarked on a trek with zoologist Mark Carwardine to find animals so rare they faced extinction. His role was to be “someone extremely ignorant to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise” – a role, he said at the time, for which he was extremely qualified.

Carwardine recalled: “We put a big map of the world on a wall. Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey to every place that had two pins.”

The result was Last Chance to See, a BBC radio series and book that brought home just how threatened many species and habitats were.

Sadly Adams died in 2001, so writer and wit Stephen Fry joined Carwardine as the ignorant observer as they retraced their steps to find out if those rare beasts had survived. Of course, ignorance is not something we usually associate with Mr Fry, known more for his wordplay and broad knowledge of interesting yet useless things from quiz shows like QI. And here in the austere and entirely appropriate surroundings of the Natural History Museum, surrounded by the bones of other long-extinct creatures, Fry in a pinstripe suit looks more cloistered don than intrepid adventurer.

In fact Fry is known more for his technology obsession than he is for any predisposition towards animals. He claims to have bought the second British-owned Macintosh computer in 1984 (Adams bought the first), and wrote in his Guardian gadget column that he “never met a smartphone I didn’t like”. He has embraced the internet, using the Twitter message service to update more than 500,000 followers – second only to Barack Obama – on the minutiae of his life, from trips abroad to being stuck in a lift.

In fact his iPhone goes off three times during the interview and he breaks off to answer with an almost Tigger-like excitement at his modern technological marvel.

Outside acting roles, Fry is no stranger to British television. He spent weeks in a black cab travelling across the US last year to explore the land that, had his father not turned down a job at Princeton, could have been his home. “My fascination with America is something that propelled me towards doing the series,” he said, “and though it is odd to think that I could have been American, I could equally imagine being American and being quizzed on how it feels to have been nearly British.”

In 2006, ten years after being diagnosed with a mild form of bi-polar disorder, Fry made The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, praised for opening up the debate about mental health with frank discussions of depression and breakdown with the likes of Tony Slattery, Jo Brand, Carrie Fisher and Richard Dreyfuss. This confessional aspect continued the following year with HIV and Me, a look at how HIV had affected him through the deaths of friends.

“You could call it confessional,” he said, “I’d think of it as non-lying. If there’s a story you want to tell and it happens to be about yourself then it’s pointless lying about it. I think honesty is interesting.”

Fry’s only foray into wildlife TV was an investigation into the plight of the Peruvian spectacled bear, in which Mr Fry journeyed to South America to follow the bear while making humorous references to the origins of Paddington. So, the opportunity to ‘do an Attenborough’ and meet wildlife at close quarters has left him visibly thrilled. “Watching a turtle hatchling bursting out of an egg and rushing toward the sea as it follows its single, earliest programmed urge, and then to see them grow into this magisterial creature with a vast, domed shell, their slow graceful ease in the water, was simply fantastic,” Fry enthused.

In six months of trips to Brazil, Africa, Madagascar, New Zealand, Mexico, Malaysia and Indonesia they had mixed results. Two species – the Yangtze river dolphin and northern white rhino – are effectively extinct, while others like the flightless kakapo parrot from New Zealand are on the brink.

“There are only about one hundred kakapos left, the situation is critical,” Fry said. “The slightest wrinkle in the stability of their habitat could wipe them out.”

Other species have recovered, such as the Juan Fernandez fur seal which increased from only a few hundred to a thriving 10,000 after its habitat was protected by the Chilean government.

Conservation’s potential benefits are shown best in the stark contrast between the northern and southern white rhino populations. The southern white rhino has been protected by an efficient and well-resourced conservation programme, mainly in South Africa, and has blossomed from a few dozen animals 100 years ago to around 17,000 today – probably the most successful conservation programme in history.

Sadly, the last four northern white rhinos in the wild have not been seen in a year. With two ivory horns to the black rhino’s one, the northern white has likely finally fallen victim to poaching but also to the warfare that rages across its habitat of the Congo, Chad, Sudan and Uganda.

Instead, Fry and Carwardine went in search of the highland gorilla, one of humans’ closest relatives. Decades of scientific study and films such as Gorillas in the Mist have raised public awareness of the threat they face, and though Fry acknowledged gorillas are popular objects of documentaries he denied they were over-romanticised.

“They are phenomenal animals. You feel this particular kinship with them as fellow primates, as we are,” he said. “Anyone who has ever encountered gorillas close up feels that without question. There is such a power in their presence, though you try not to anthropomorphise and see things from their point of view, they are so similar to us it is difficult not to use words like ‘wisdom’ and ‘patience’.”

Carwardine agreed, recalling an ecounter from his trip with Adams: “Douglas was writing notes in a pad while the gorillas were around us. This silverback male lay down next to him, propped on his elbow just watching him. After a minute he got up and took the pen out of Douglas’ hand, held it up to the sky and looked at it, examined it, then gave it back to him and went back to lying down.

“It was amazing to see; not only the inquisitiveness, but an understanding of a sense of ownership – he recognised that it was Douglas’ pen, and gave it back.”

Other creatures were less friendly: the fearsome komodo dragon native to only a few tiny islands in Indonesia has a vicious bite, a 10 foot tail that can break a man’s legs or knock a water buffalo off its feet, a mouth full of bacteria so virulent that even a slight wound will fester and eventually kill and, said Fry, “the worst breath of any creature I’ve ever encountered.” It is perhaps only the dragons’ popularity with tourists that saves it from its human neighbours.

And it is not just obviously lethal creatures that can be dangerous, as Carwardine found out to his cost when they went in search of the kakapo in New Zealand. He recalled: “One of these birds thought it was a person rather than a parrot, and tried to mate with everything it came across. We were getting attacked by it every time we left the hut, on one occasion it got on top of my head and tried to mate with me – drawing blood with its sharp claws.”

The island of Madagascar is famous for being home to many species found nowhere else, such as the entire family of tree-dwelling primates called lemurs. Among these, the rarest and perhaps most curious is the aye-aye.

“It is the weirdest of creatures, it looks like bits of other animals stuck together,” Carwardine said. “A bat’s ears, an ostrich’s feathery tail, rodents’ teeth, the body of a cat and an amazing long middle finger for pulling grubs out of trees.”

Unfortunately the nocturnal aye-aye is known locally as the bringer of death, and despite being harmless finds itself killed on sight. Protecting lemurs has been made a government priority, but poverty and deforestation are natural enemies to these shy creatures – the slash and burn policy of the last 50 years has reduced the island’s rainforest cover to a fifth of its size.

Fry said: “So much of it comes down to habitat. You can save a species by isolating it, by putting it on an island where it could be safe from introduced predators. That’s fine, but it’s not the same as protecting the entire habitat and returning them to the wild.”

And like it or not, conservationists have to accept the needs of the human populations too. “For example, the idea to reintroduce wolves to Scotland (adopts thick Scots brogue): ‘I’ll no have them roond here, I’ll shoot them.’ It’s easy for us to point our prosperous fingers at those that live by subsistence farming or hunting and tell them not to kill or burn their trees, but it’s a bit rich coming from us as it’s what we’ve done to our environment for hundreds of years.”

But having seen the evidence for themselves, both are aware of the urgency with which the message must be spread – on television, Twitter, by any means necessary. “We can’t keep silent about what must be said,” Fry warned. “All the data returned shows that the clock’s ticking, and if anyone cares then we have to do something now.”

You can read up on Douglas Adams’ original trip at www.tdv.com/lastchance

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2009]