Thursday, November 19, 2015

So this writer has just returned to cold, foggy and rainy London from an extended break in warm California, hence the delay in getting anything up here (some pictures from that visit will be up soon). I noticed while I was away that a certain incident that took place at the Cereal Killer Cafe on Brick Lane, a place near me that's become a symbol of gentrification (on which I've written about already here). Advertised on Facebook as the 'third Fuck Parade', The Cafe was targeted by hundreds of anti-gentrification protesters, who set off a smoke bomb and threw furniture inside the doorway.
On the face of it, a small, independent cafe selling overpriced cereal seems a strange target in protests against gentrification. The Facebook page for the protests ranted: "Our communities are being ripped apart – by Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks, Israeli scumbag property developers, Texan oil-money twats and our own home-grown Eton toffs. Local authorities are coining it in, in a short-sighted race for cash by ‘regenerating’ social housing."
There's no doubt that property speculation in London - which often involves rich oligarchs and businessmen buying property in London as an investment, and then leaving said property empty, or nearly empty, in order to make profits – is a serious contributor to the housing bubble in London, and by extension the housing crisis, exacerbating social inequality and driving those on a modest income out of London (and it's not just London that is facing a housing crisis, either). Near where I grew up in Stamford Hill, the Woodberry Down Estate, a giant council estate overlooking the East and West Reservoirs, is now undergoing a vast transformation, leading to million-pound luxury apartments. A number have been bought by wealthy Singaporean investors, with no guarantee that they'll actually live in the apartments.
This is capitalism taken to its extreme, leaving communities behind in its wake. By contrast, to then obsess over a bunch of trendy independent cafes and shops in east London – even if one does serve overpriced cereal – seems perverse (though in fairness the protesters did target an estate agents down the road). The independent cafes and cycle bars that have been sneered at have become part of a cliched image of trendy parts of London, full of the usual predictable babble about 'hipsters' – handlebar moustaches, beards, tattoos, craft beer, etc.
These places might annoy some, but in fact are not what should be the real target of people's ire. The real target of the protestors' anger should be those high-street retailers who have managed to avoid paying full corporation tax. That means the likes of Starbucks and Cafe Nero, along with a number of online giants, from Amazon, Ebay, and Google, who have done the same (disclaimer: I actually use Ebay, despite knowing that it is a tax avoider). Yet there seems to be little physical protest outside both these groups of companies, both 'physical' and online. In contrast, the majority of 'hipsters' are probably not tax-avoiders, and it's unlikely that the majority own multiple properties (admittedly I am just speculating here, but I'm guessing that I'm probably right). In addition, in fairness, some high-street multinationals do pay full corporation tax (Ethical Consumers has a list of how much each high-street chain pays).
Going back to the protesters, it seems bizarre that they did not assemble around the various branches of those high-street retailers, given their ubiquity in east London. You can barely go down a street in London without viewing a Pret, Starbucks, or Cafe Nero. Small, independent business in East London often charge slightly more because of having to pay over the odds for rent in an increasingly pricey area; because they have to pay full tax rather than resort to the kind of 'creative accounting' that large multi-nationals can employ; and because they have to pay their staff despite not having the same profits of high-street chains.
What really needs to be addressed in the long-run is a global problem of Governments (of which the British Government is one of the worst offenders) being unable to address tax havens, which multi-national companies then exploit as a loophole. The issue of global tax avoidance is a hugely complicated area, and a legal minefield, but one that will not go away when discussing local issues of community and gentrification. The situations in which Amazon can pay very little corporation tax, while the local bookshop down the road from you has closed, remain related. Meanwhile, if Amazon did pay tax at the same rate as Lush, a high-street cosmetics chain that does pay full corporation tax, that would lead to a revenue of something like £100m a year which the Treasury, and thus British Government, could spend on social services – including, as this article points out, five secondary schools. That's just one of several Internet giants, who between them generate colossal amounts of revenue from tax avoidance that could instead be spent on social services and infrastructure.
Seen in this light, the Cereal Killer Cafe is but a drop in the ocean. But due to its visibility, it has become an obvious, if misguided, target.
In addition, the British Government specifically needs to address the fact that it has brazenly allowed the aforementioned property speculation, turning a blind eye to foreign investors leaving property empty at a time when there is a housing crisis in the city. The only realistic solution – proposed by Islington Council a while ago, to their credit - is to levy huge charges on any property that it left longer than around six months. This has to be done, and should be a policy that Labour under Corbyn will promise for their next General Election manifesto. That includes one building not far from me, next to Wesley's Chapel and Leysian Mission and Bunhill Fields on City Road, which has been lying empty for around twenty years. It was squatted for a while (I even went to a squat party there once), but has now been lying there empty for years. Nothing seems to be done about this house, which could be converted to affordable local flats. It's just one of many buildings that are lying empty while rents rise to unaffordable levels, ripping apart communities and leading to ever more people being priced out of the capital.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

For the last few months, I have been involved in volunteering for an organisation called On The Record, a co-operative based in London who are interested in oral and visual history. The project I have been specifically involved with is called A Hackney Autobiography, and focuses on the history of Centerprise, an organisation that was based in Hackney from its inception in the early 70s to around 2012 – a period of 40 years.
My father was involved in Centerprise in the 70s, and I was raised in Hackney, so the project has had some personal dimensions for me. I went to secondary school right near where Centerprise was based, in Dalston, and remember going there as a child.
It's easy to forget, strolling around Hackney now - with its myriad bars and coffee shops, and trendy-looking young population – just what it was like at the beginning of the 70s. To give you some perspective, when Centerprise opened its doors, there was not a single bookshop in the entire borough. There were libraries, obviously, but no bookshops – a remarkable statistic given that Hackney had and has a population of roughly 200,000. Stoke Newington Bookshop had yet to open. Not only did Centerprise introduce a cafe and a bookshop (below) together – something that was a regular feature in founder Glenn Thompson's native USA – but it also housed an advice centre, a reading centre, a publishing project, youth club, creche, and more. In addition, many groups, ranging from female-dominated collectives such as the Hackney Flashers to Chilean exiles from Pinochet's brutal regime in that country, took advantage of Centerprise's free meeting spaces. 

Centerprise bookshop. Photo by Ken Worpole
This was highly unusual in a Hackney which at that time remained desolate, largely ungentrified and working-class, with large swathes of unemployment. In contrast to the insanity of today's London housing boom, there was plenty of dilapidated housing and declining industry in Hackney during that period, much of which was taken over by squatters. The 70s was a dark time for not just Hackney, but for London and the rest of the UK as a whole. The economy remained in recession, framed against the backdrop of the 1973 oil crisis. In the late 70s, around the time I was being born, the 'Winter of Discontent' hit. Successive bin strikes ensured that rubbish lined the street as abnormally freezing weather hit. Three day working weeks were introduced to conserve electricity. It's almost unthinkable today, given the ubiquity of technology, but for some of the 70s television companies had to cease broadcasting at 10:30pm – again to conserve technology.
Operating with this as a context, Centerprise's publishing project allowed local working people's voices to be heard, with books released chronicling Hackney history and the autobiographies of those who had lived in the area for a lifetime. In addition, Centerprise Publishing Project released editions of poetry by local students, as well as housing left-learning publications such as Hackney Action and the Hackney People's Press. This flurry of activity was conducted while Centerprise was being operated as a collective co-operative, in the true spirit of the time. Every Monday, staff would meet and collectively make decisions on the running of Centerprise, with a rotating of duties. Many other organisations operated in a similar manner during those halcyon, heady, politicised days as the 70s blurred into the early 80s, reflected in the tense post-punk of the time (Gang of Four, The Slits, The Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Joy Division, and other acts too numerous to reel off) that was released from labels like Rough Trade (itself a co-operative), Factory, Mute, and many others. Feminism, anti-nuclear demonstrations (the CND were at the peak of their popularity) during the Cold War era, squatting and anarchism (exemplified by anarcho-punk bands such as Crass) were all prevalent during the period.
I got in touch with On The Record after writing, first, an article on an exhibition at Bishopsgate Insitute by OTR showing images of orators at Speaker's Corner; and then on Centerprise itself (the latter of which can be viewed below – there's also an extended version of the article here).

For the project, I have been based at Bishopsgate Institute, near Liverpool Street Station, which contains a huge archive of material relating to London, scanning much of the books released by the Centerprise Publishing Project, and archiving the seemingly inexhaustible various documents that have came our way relating to Centerprise – everything from old copies of Hackney Action to photographs, letters, and assorted ephemera.
I have also been researching numerous photos of Hackney during the 70s and 80s – the period that the project is particularly interested in – at the Hackney Archives on Dalston Lane, and have took part in workshops mapping the history of Hackney, and of events surrounding Centerprise and related to it.

These workshops led to a presentation by myself and another volunteer of the history of protest and confrontation in Hackney, beginning at the end of the World War II with revolts by The 43 Group – an anti-fascist group set up by Jewish ex-servicemen in London - against the fascist agitator Oswald Mosley, whose Union Movement rallies in Ridley Road (now famous for its multicultural street market) were disrupted by the group. Various battles against Mosley's 'blackshirts' had culminated in the infamous Battle of Cable Street a decade earlier, when Mosley was leader of the British Union of Fascists.
Meanwhile, in the 70s, there would be repeated battles between anti-fascists (including the Anti-Nazi League) and the National Front, who had essentially inherited the raison d'etre of Mosley's mob, in Hoxton and Shoreditch. Again, given the gentrification of these areas today, with Old Street's nightlife strip and the seemingly never-ending night traffic, it seems difficult to imagine that in the 70s, these ares were desolate, violent places, on the frontline of these battles. The connection drawn between The 43 Group and Centerprise was that Centerprise Publishing Project would go on to publish a book on the history of the 43 Group in the early 90s (below).

From this, we focused on how Sandringham Road, in Dalston, had become another frontline of tension – this time between the local police and the West Indian community, after a raid on a local cafe. Related to this, we documented cases where a number of young black men had died in mysterious circumstances in Stoke Newington Police Station during the 80s, such as Colin Roach and Michael Ferreira.
The presentation can be heard below. 

The project will culminate in a book, a website and an app, which will map the history of Centerprise in Hackney. Links will be posted on here.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

It's been just under a month and a half since the Conservatives were re-elected to power in the UK, and two months since I've posted here (apart from the mention in a post below about a night I promoted at The Macbeth). I came back from a week-long trip to Berlin on the day before the election in early May, vaguely hopeful that the UK may be on the cusp of change. Instead, the Conservatives swept to power without even needing to resort to a coalition Government via the anachronistic First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system – one that most of the rest of Europe has seen the sense in avoiding in national elections.
At the same time as Berlin has voted through a rent cap law in the last few weeks, Tory voters have effectively voted to continue an economy tied to housing – a resource that, comparatively speaking to the UK's population, and like oil, is set to become more and more scarce (at least to much of the population). The housing crisis in the UK is somewhat symbolic of how housing has become the defining asset of the 21st century. While the UK, and London in particular, is one of the worst offenders, we are seeing the issue of unaffordable housing repeated in most of the world's desirable major cities – whether those be New York, Paris, Tokyo, or Sydney, as well as with smaller but densely populated and equally desirable cities in mainland Europe such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Oslo, and Stockholm.
The Tories' continued dominance is reflected in the fact that they remain the party of the property-owning class. What is obvious is that it's not the interests of the property-owing classes to see (a) new property built (unless that new property is obscenely expensive) and (b) rent caps imposed on existing property, as this would devalue their own portfolio.
To clarify, by 'property-owning' class, I do not mean those who are asset rich but cash poor (such as people like my parents, who own one house in an increasingly desirable area of London). Owning only one small property to rent out at a reasonable rate is not the target here. Rather, the 'property-owning' class refers to those who have multiple properties and derive their main income from it. Labour under Miliband would have introduced not only rent caps and a freeing up of empty land for new property but mansion taxes – all moves in their own way that would have harmed the interests of the property-owning class. Such a move who have also affected the international super-rich, the coterie of people with such extreme wealth that they have been able to indulge in the practice of buying up property in central London as an investment, and leaving it empty in order to benefit from the price rise. This practice has been a recurring feature of the last fifteen years – one that has led to a domino effect, in which families are consequently pushed out of an inner-city area, and forced as a result to relocate to a suburb, in turn pushing up the prices of housing there. The result of this practice has been that much of central London has turned into a ghost town, while the rest of the capital has surged in cost.
You can argue that this practice hypothetically should remain a self-defeating paradox for the Tories, as it leads to less of the general population able to penetrate the housing market – one of the main drivers of the nation's economy - and stymies the prospects of future generations. But that would ignore the fact that it has remained the objective of the Tories to see house prices and property remain as high as possible. This situation has been exacerbated by the UK's approach to new housing, one that has been geared towards constraining the supply of land for development, along with so-called attitudes of 'NIMBY'-ism ('Not In My Back Yard'), in contrast to Germany's 'right-to-build' approach (read here for more). This is precisely why it's not just London that is expensive to live in in the UK, but Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Bath, and certain other cities too (along with the fact that these cities are generally desirable to live in for a variety of reasons).
You could argue, of course, that the 'greenbelts' surrounding UK cities should be left alone, as they are there to preserve the countryside as opposed to seeing the entire country being 'paved over' – a chief defence from those who oppose new housing. However, there has to be a point at which some of that land is freed up. If managed correctly, such as with proposals for new housing placed in a 'snowflake' formation, the impact on the environment can be minimised.
It's worth asking where this all started. Thatcher's policy of 'right-to-buy' of Council property at the beginning of the 80s was one of the chief instigators, as it lead to a sharp depletion of pubic housing stock. But it was exacerbated by Labour too during their tenure in power. Running parallel to this, finance in the City was deregulated – a chain of events that ultimately led to the collapse of certain banks in the UK and their subsequent nationalisation in the global economic downturn in 2007/8. By this point, the UK's economy had shifted to becoming focused on a service economy and sustaining a housing bubble, in contrast to Germany and France, which, despite also having large banking sectors, had (and have) retained large manufacturing industries. There are exceptions, of course. But there's no doubt that much of the UK's manufacturing base has been drastically reduced.
In tying in their economy with their best pals, the property-owning class, the Tories have ensured that the nation's debt is shifted onto those who remain powerless to fight back – the young and those who cannot afford property, now forced to fork out astronomical amounts for rent. As a result, the UK has become one of the most unequal countries in Western Europe, despite other cities in the continent also commanding high rents, yet not racking up comparable levels of inequality. And London has seen that inequality become magnified as those on a modest income find themselves either priced out already or battling an ever-rising cost of living.
This is what has been voted in for the next five years. What will be the consequence for future generations?

Friday, June 05, 2015

Some more posts will be coming soon, but for now here's a flyer for another Pennyblackmusic concert in collaboration with GoodnightLondon, who will be in's at The Macbeth pub, 70 Hoxton Street, London, N1 6LP, on Friday 12th June 2015.
Tickets  - and a synopsis of the bands - available here for £6. £7 on door. Doors open around 8pm.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I was recently invited to take part in a performance of the British composer Cornelius Cardew's 'Treatise', along with roughly thirty other musicians, at University of Greenwich on guitar. For those not initiated, 'Treatise' is a mammoth piece, some two-hours long, of fiercely abstract improvised music (here's a live extract of one group of improvisers' take on it), guided not by conventional musical notation, but rather by a visual representation known as 'graphic notation'.
Coming from a conventional classically-trained background prior to turning to rock music, I had no real idea until the Cardew concert about graphic notation. Viewing the nearly 200-page score for the first time (an excerpt is shown above), I was as baffled as anyone by the mixture of circles, arrows, and diverging lines. I'd heard of Cardew, of course, along with his tutor Karlheinz Stockhausen; he was a composer, a member of free improvisation group AMM, and a strident Marxist in the 70s (as many were want to do in that decade), repudiating his previous output in the process. But I had no idea that an alternative system to conventional notation existed – that is until the gig, in which I turned up to the soundcheck sweating from having lugged a guitar and amp (about 100 watts) down from North London to Greenwich via bus and then the Docklands Light Railway.
It turns out that graphical notation was used by a number of contemporary modern composers and the avant-garde, including John Cage, Gy├Ârgy Ligeti, Xenakis, Krzystof Pendericki, and Stockhausen himself. If you can understand what on earth Cage was getting at with the score below, you've probably got a better grasp of graphic notation than I have: 


For the concert, I dispensed with any notions of playing 'ordinary' guitar riffs and chords; for such an abstract piece, there didn't really seem any point. Instead, I employed an E-bow; a kind of mini-synthesiser without any notes which achieves its affect by the user placing it close to guitar strings. The magnets within the E-bow, powered by a battery, produce a thundering sustained drone which, combined with effects like reverb, have been used frequently in popular music lore, from Jimmy Page's coaxing of guitar smoke in Led Zeppelin's 'Dazed & Confused' onwards. In addition, I used the handle part of a beater on the strings of the guitar.
There's something liberating about 'this' side of guitar playing; by that, I mean the improvisatory side of guitar playing instead of straightforward chord/solo conventions. Cardew undoubtedly was trained in conventional composition and notation, but with 'Treatise' he was trying to break out of this completely. Indeed, improvisation is built into the lifeblood of popular music. It's a liberating force that has been since in modern jazz and much left-field rock.
Conventional five-staff notation has become so ubiquitous that it has ingrained certain ideas in us: that if a note is higher up in a bar in a score than another note, then that must translate automatically to a higher up tone on the instrument. However, it wasn't always this way. In the non-Western world, prior to the conventional Western musical notation which has been adopted around the world, notation took on all kinds of different forms in the great ancient civilisations. These different systems of notation have been around for thousands of years, in contrast to Western notation, which we tend to think of as 'eternal', but in reality began only at some point in the middle-ages in comparison.

For example, India produced Swarilipi and the Bhatkhande System of notation among 

others, used in raga and other melodic modes in Indian classical music:

China, meanwhile, had the Qin tablature, which showed finger positions and stroke technique rather than notes:

But it was in Korea, with the Jeongganbo notation, that durations of notes was first indicated in all of the Far Eastern musical notation systems. It's possible that this could have partially been adopted and led to the conventional five-staff Western notation system which we use today.
Each square in the notation below indicates one beat:

Of course, we're so used to reading from left to right in the majority of the Indo-European languages (which you're doing right now reading this blog post) that it's easy to forget that many languages elsewhere are the opposite, going from right to left and from bottom to top on a page. This is evident from Hebrew and Arabic to Chinese Mandarin and Japanese. So it would have been with many of the scores above. By contrast, the musical notation produced in the Byzantine Empire (the largely Greek-speaking empire covering parts of modern-day Greece, Turkey, Italy, and others), is slightly more familiar, even if obviously still incomprehensible to most viewers, in that it ran left to right, and was separated into measures:

In a way, graphic notation is almost a kind of reminder, or return, to these pre-Western notations of music, in which interpretation was slightly more open to the listener, and the performances of the pieces were less rigid as in conventional notation.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Apologies again for the delay in writing on here; it been a while since I posted on here due to other commitments.
I’m back in the heart of East London, wondering around the area, witnessing the changes that have unfurled over the last twenty-five years. The pace of change can be dizzying. That includes Brick Lane, where there’s been a large amount of focus on symbols of gentrification in a traditionally poor borough (Tower Hamlets), seemingly encapsulated in a shop called the Cereal Killer Cafe, which sells cereal packets from around the world at slightly inflated prices, run by two bearded twins (pictured above). Over here in the UK, there was a huge media focus on the place as a harbinger of rising rates, backed up with a focus on other individual shops selling coffee and food at inflated prices, whether Look Mum No Hands or any of the new cafes/coffee bars setting up shop. If you’ve been in the kind of areas in East London where this stuff is happening - Hackney, Shoreditch, Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, etc. - you’ll know what I’m talking about. This stuff has been paraded around the media again and again. Hipsters. Cycle cafes. Beards and tattoos. One-gear bikes. Flat white coffee. Etc.
I passed the Cereal Killer Cafe recently, only to witness a huge long queue, thus seemingly validating the media’s obsession with the place. There was a huge amount of tourists from around Europe, who may have picked up on it with their own media.
My personal belief is that the obsession with these places as some kind of harbinger of doom to an area is something of a red herring. What’s missing is the focus on the other symbol of gentrification in an area - the presence of identikit food and coffee chain outlets such as Pret a Manger, Eat, and Starbucks. One of the things that’s always struck me about visiting certain other cities - such as Berlin, Montreal, and even Los Angeles among others, as well as a trip around Norway last summer - is the lack, comparatively speaking, of endless chain shops, compared to the UK. Britain seems to have a pathological obsession with identikit chain shops, as witnessed when you walk down the high streets of many towns around the UK. Every street will have the same coffee places, the same WH Smiths, and the same Sports Direct (though admittedly Cambridge seemed to be a refreshing alternative when I visited last December). The result is a kind of rising conformity.
So it is in East London, where there’s a Costa Coffee or similar on every corner. These places are symbols of gentrification too, yet the media has little interest on them. It’s a lot easier to focus on individual, independent outlets, because they stand out. Chain shops have little interest to the media. Yet it is the likes of Starbucks that, until recently, have managed to get away not with paying tax rather than individual shops such as the Cereal Killer Cafe, who are most likely having to charge the prices they do to deal as an individual business with rapidly rising rents in the area and employees to pay. It's some of these high street brands that have been the ones avoiding tax through creative accounting more than the small businesses in the area.
A debate on issues of gentrification is a complicated one, and outside the scope of this post. What is more arresting to this writer is the general acceptance of chain shops, to the detriment of everything else. We’ve stopped even thinking about what these chain shops are doing to neighbourhoods, and have instead gone for obvious but misguided targets.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Greetings and New Year's wishes as we reach the middle of the decade. It feels like only recently that the '10's' (or whatever we're going to call this decade) started. Time flies, I guess.
I'm very conscious that I haven't posted anything for a while, and plan to do so shortly. The delay was due to the usual busy run up to Christmas, including studying web design at the same time as working. But I will have more time after the 9th January, on which day this event will take place (see flyer below). As usual, I'm putting it on on behalf of Pennyblackmusic. This time, it'll take place at The Macbeth pub in east London. Should be a corker.

Friday 9th January 2015
Doors 8pm / First act 8:15pm
Tickets £6 adv from WeGotTickets here
£7 on door
8pm entry
The Macbeth, 70 Hoxton Street, London, N1 6LP [map]