Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Category: culture

Glasgow 2018 European Championships – Continuing the Journey

The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was a pivotal experience for the city and its people. This is not to say that there was not controversy and criticism of specific aspects of both the delivery and certain dimensions of the legacy. My point in this post though is whether or not lessons are learnt and applied to future undertakings. It is undoubtedly true however that Glasgow has demonstrated that it has the technical capacity, the facilities and the wherewithal to compete as a host for major events. The success of those 11 days in 2014 in these terms and for the city in the sense of jobs, visitor numbers, festival effects, investment in facilities, etc. now means that Glasgow can host other major sporting events: the world gymnastics, cycling, swimming and the Davis cup to name four since 2014.This is a remarkable achievement if we cast our minds back to just a few years ago.

I understand the critics of what are referred to as post-industrial neo-liberal urban policies fixating on heritage, tourism and culture or sports and also concerns about the ability to bend such programmes towards reducing inequality and proactively supporting multiple disadvantaged communities. But does being an event host competitor and winning these events make a broader kind of economic logic? It depends on whether we think the opportunity cost of event delivery is outweighed by the economic, social and more indirect tor implicit benefits of such activities. The raft of legacy research findings on economic returns, jobs, visitor spend and the like do seem to be additional – but they are also an investment if facilities can be reused not just by citizens but for further events, too. Other legacy lessons about volunteering, physical activity, community development and sports clubs, etc. are much less clear cut. Many of these debates will actually need a longer time period to be resolved.

My point in this piece is more that the city is on a journey and is being transformed into a place which can deliver these mega events (and sport-specific international events too), and if properly constructed this can add value to the city-region economy and change the way we think about it. It could enhance rather than displace other investments, job creation and economic activity (though there is no necessity for this – it requires careful design and constant attention).

It is in this context that I should declare an interest – I was a member of the cross University legacy research partnership that the City Council and Glasgow Life established for the 2014 Games. As part of that role I agreed to facilitate a workshop this week. The meeting sought to learn lessons from 2014 both operationally and in legacy terms, and apply them to the development of the delivery and legacy plans associated with Glasgow’s co-hosting of the summer 2018 inaugural European championships. Working with Berlin this will involve bringing together a series of European sporting championships for individual sports into one mega event. Glasgow and satellite venues will host cycling, swimming, triathlon, golf and rowing, among others; Berlin will do the athletics.

My role the other day was really just to hold the coats and keep things to time but it was nonetheless a thought-provoking morning and a fascinating insight into how partners (lead officers in the council, Glasgow Life and other relevant public agencies) are thinking their way through the challenges of the event. A few things struck me in particular.

First, a considerable amount has been learned about what works and what does not work as a result of the 2014 experience. This ranges from the locus of control and the relationship with other non-local partners integral to a mega events programme, but includes issues over community engagement, communication, managing expectations and trade-offs (e.g. seeking to widen inclusivity among volunteers but also selecting those with the right skills). However, people clearly recognised that there are limits to the transferability of these experiences because of the different nature of the two events.

Second, there was a complete absence of complacency and instead a shared desire to work in partnership with neighbouring councils involved in delivery, with Berlin, European broadcasting, the business community, local sports clubs, volunteers and the specific sports organising bodies. People present were both aware of and thinking hard about identifying and managing risks.

Third, it is clear that Glasgow has changed and is changing as a result of the 2014 experience. This is not just branding and the after glow of the festival effect from 2014. There is a palpable capacity to maintain and strengthen Glasgow’s recently won position as an international mega event host and to lever economic and social benefit from it. While they do not happen by themselves and are easily over-estimated, we should equally not dismiss the potentially major long term effects this may have on the city and indeed for Scotland.

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From Protest to Subversion

 

There is a long-standing history of protest in popular music. In my view a lot of it does not really stand the test of time though there are many honorable exceptions – Free Nelson Mandela by the Specials stands out as one. But many of such songs age, lose their anger and are less effective at directing emotion than other more direct or personal musical forms.

What I am here more interested in, as result of something I witnessed at the weekend, is the capacity of music and other performers to subvert live broadcasts. I remember Saturday morning TV phone-ins and that high risk that there might be a set up for a profanity fest as happened to Five Star. Or the Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy (though John Lydon said at the time that the real punk was the householder who was so horrified by the Pistols that he put his boot through the TV). You may also recall Jarvis Cocker’s stage assault on Michael Jackson at the Brits? A bit more impressive than hacking Corbyn’s tweets.

What happened on Sunday morning was that Andrew Marr has the PM on to discuss the European referendum and a much over-hyped social housing estate regeneration programme, which seemed from the dialogue to be yet more ideas to grow home ownership. Regular watchers will know that Marr often ends his show with live music. This week it was a new song by the venerable post-punk band Squeeze. There should have been a clue in the title of the song ‘From the cradle to the grave’ since this is a well-worn phrase in terms of the UK Welfare State. However, those naughty Squeeze boys changed their lyrics.

A new third verse added lines to the effect: ‘I grew up in a council house, part of what made Britain great, now someone is hell-bent seeking to destroy the welfare state’. You can see the action here.

First of all it was impressive because they cannot have had much warning and indeed chose such an apposite subject given the topic covered in the interview. Second, the Prime Minister seemed oblivious which made it all the more striking – I actually wondered if I had misheard till it was confirmed later.

Of course, we can be cynical about it and view it as a publicity stunt but I really don’t think so. It was rather well-targeted opportunistic subversion of the live music medium.

On this very sad day where we lost David Bowie, I was  reminded by a piece in the press that one of his many impressive acts was to twice refuse an honour from the British state – an act of subversion in itself?

 

Bletchley

We took a day of leave this week to travel to Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes. It was an early flight to fly down and then get a train to Bletchley (and a late night to get back home). But it was fascinating. We had planned to go down a few years back but were unable to do so – just as well in the sense that we benefited from the recent investment to renew and recreate the centre of wartime codebreaking.

The place is a proper museum now though it still has a lot of further work planned. Many of the huts where crypto-analysis and computation took place have been restored along with the mansion house and the grounds. It feels more like a campus than anything else. There are various multi media strands, as well as a reconstituted ‘bombe’ computer and archaeology such as coding sheets found doing the restorations. There are of course lots of Enigma machines and various decoding brain teaser exercises (are they still recruiting?).

Alan Turing is, rightly, everywhere, not least because of the recent Benedict Cumberpatch film which is also unavoidable. But there is a real sense of history and importance about the place and it is incredible how close we came to losing the site altogether (there were plans to extend a housing development which did in part extend into the historical site). The museum designers or recreaters have made a great job of it though there are still blocks outside that are waiting the same treatment once sufficient funds are raised.

It was a bit emotional for me walking round the site and taking it in because I knew that my mother, then a teenager, had been a WRN working in a Bletchley outstation in London towards the end of the war. She did not talk about it until comparatively recently (they took their secrecy seriously). This was a principal reason for wanting to visit and also why in a sense it is a shame that the museum has only recently become the fantastic resource it now is. If you ask her now about it, the things she most recalls about the work include the close work of setting up the machines for computation, and working to strict navy watches of 8 hour shifts. She also remembers the  Heath Robinson cocktail parties – but that is another story.

Three stories about justice

Every year of late we have a spent a week around this time in the Austrian Tyrol. And one of the great things about this week is the chance to read. For no obvious reason I picked three books all of which have a legal or justice based dimension at their core. They were all, in their different ways, excellent diversions and genuinely thought-provoking. 

The first is a well-known book in Scottish terms, one that I am not sure why I had not already read it, but I really enjoyed it. This is Andy Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers. It is the history of concentrated land ownership in Scotland, its legal structures and the slow, evolving and on-going process of land reform. It is also a first rate scholarly and pedagogical exercise in that it explains very clearly how the law on land and property works, where it came from, how title is registered and the challenges for the researcher to map and detail who owns Scotland.  

 The edition I have is from 2011 so it is set in the context of the first wave of post devolution land reforms. There is a strong sense of unfinished business in the final chapters’ proposals for further reform and the book has certainly whetted my appetite to follow and try to understand the current wave of land reform happening in Scotland (wherein Andy and also my colleague David Adams have been directly involved).

 There were two things I particularly liked about the book: the personal nature of it (Andy was a participant in several of the stories within the book) which added to the strong human sense that it has been institutions rather than individuals that created one of the most concentrated patterns of land ownership in the developed world; second, the tour through the critical sociological history of land and property law is quite fascinating. The feudal laws were supported and amended by the politicians and lawyers who were representative of or indeed were themselves often the principal beneficiaries. Laws that sustained their position and concentrated that ownership and its benefits included: Primogeniture and the law of Succession, feudal land tenure, Prescription and Entail. These allowed land, respectively, to be handed down to one person in each family, weakened the position and rights of tenants, allowed land ownership to be confirmed as a result of possession after a minimum period of years and prevented indebted landowners from losing their heritable land. As the author says, it is important that we better understand how the law has been used in this way in our name.

 The second book is American and about a case of wrongful conviction but with a massive twist. In the mid 1980s a young white student in North Carolina was raped. She later identified a suspect in a ID parade and he was subsequently given life imprisonment. Eleven years later and after a 2nd trial also found him guilty and lengthened his term of imprisonment, the advent of DNA came to his rescue shortly after the OJ Simpson case made it famous. He was innocent after all and the correct person was convicted. Now the woman who had identified the innocent man had to come to terms with her error and its consequences.

 What is amazing and moving about the book is that the woman and the wrongly convicted man were not only reconciled but became close friends who went on (and still do) speak and write about their experiences, about forgiveness and their work to exonerate the innocent and overturn wrongful convictions. They are also involved in anti death penalty work. If the rape had occurred in the 1970s, the (wrongly) convicted man would have been on death row. Picking Cotton is written by its two protagonists, Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, it spans 25 years and is written very effectively from their very different perspectives. It is genuinely inspiring.

 The third book is a wonderful collection of legal cases by a (or the) leading defence QC of his age, Jeremy Hutchison. Hutchison is now 100 and safely retired both from the bench and from a second career in the House Lords. For a period in the 1960s and 1970s, he defended an amazing array of cases at the spear tip of the battles over individual liberties, the early 1960s establishment crisis and censorship. In his time he defended Penguin over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, fought several cases against Mary Whitehouse, he defended the spies George Blake and John Vassall, as well as Christine Keeler. He also defended journalists like Jonathan Aitken (pre-politician phase) and Duncan Campbell, and the inimitable Howard Marks. 

Apart from humour, humanity, his belief in liberties and the rule of trial by jury – he also made his mark by presenting some rather unusual defence arguments e.g. in a fraud by forgery case, what appears to be a forgery is actually a  pastiche and was never knowingly traded as the work of the artist being imitated.

 The book (Thomas Grant – Jeremy Hutchison’s Case Histories) is littered with these famous and important cases that speak to a period of huge change in Britain. Some of the stories are quite incredible. My favourite is about the theft of a Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington, stolen from the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1961, shortly after it was purchased for the nation for £140,000 (a fortune at the time). This was the first time such a theft had occurred in the UK. Originally it was thought to be the work of a professional until ransom letters appeared seeking payments to be made to charity and the thieves given immunity. The theft remained a mystery till 1965 when the painting was found after an anonymous letter. It had even featured jokingly in Dr No.

 In 1965, Kempton Bunton, a retired bus driver from Newcastle, confessed. And it turned out he did write the ransom letters. He claimed he did it to support his principled campaign to allow the elderly to be exempt from TV license fees (and had been in prison for non-payment). He argued that he had no intention of either keeping or of damaging the painting, only to make a point. Hutchison used the ‘borrowing only’ defence – and Bunton was acquitted of all charges except stealing the picture frame (which was never returned), for which the defendant was given three months.

 Two subsequent things to note about this bizarre story. First, the law of theft was changed the following year to prevent such a legal defence (though as Grant notes – it took till 2000 for free TV licenses for the over 75s to happen). Second, and peculiarly, no-one questioned Bunton’s confession – that a portly 57 year old could unnoticed climb in through a bathroom window of the Gallery, take the painting and leave the same way. In 2012, documents released by the National Archives suggested that it was in fact Bunton’s son, then 20, who had done the act and passed the painting on to his father. The matter was not taken further by the authorities. If it hasn’t been made already, what a great film that would make.

 A final point to make about this third book is if you get the chance do read the postscript by Hutchison, written when he was only 98. It is a scorching critique of where the English criminal justice system is heading and its political leadership, written in 2013. Quite amazing.

Reflecting on the Play-Offs

I have just been through my first experience of the SPFL play-offs. I hope it will be the last for a while – I don’t think my nerves could stand it. I am a Motherwell supporter, in case you didn’t know. More than 20 years of season tickets: a lot of games and a fair share of triumph and disaster; pain and delight.

It had been a pretty awful season. Partly it was because, if I am honest, that we exceeded all reasonable expectations in 2013-14 and massively over-performed to come second in the league (chiefly I think because of a good winning run in the middle of the season and unaccountable stuttering by other teams later on). This season was a mirror-image: a really bad losing run in the middle of the season and other clubs around us, notably Ross County, performing heroics when it mattered. The fact is on most days any result is possible between almost all premier league sides and it all too easy for things to go wrong and subsequently for problems to compound. It had to happen to Motherwell eventually.

Two further issues compounded our difficulties – a lot of injuries to a small squad (something we have managed to escape in recent seasons) and considerable off-field change. After Stuart McCall’s departure of a club in late Autumn when we struggling on the pitch, we were also groping towards new ownership of the club. Since then and in rapid succession:
• Ian Baraclough took over as manager
• Alongside an entirely new coaching and scouting team, the club was taken over by a philanthropic buyer (Les Hutchison) pledged to run things until the community in the form of the Well Society could take over majority ownership.
• The new manager brought in a virtual team of new players in the January window including the return of Steven Pearson and Scott McDonald. After a good start we went on a long losing streak as the team got to know each other.

There were some green shoots: on three of four occasions in the last third of the season we played really well; I would argue better than we did most of the previous season. We had two fast wide men, a much more purposeful midfield and some threat in attack. But it was never quite enough to achieve escape velocity and we tumbled into the play-offs in eleventh position. The inevitable re-acquaintance with McCall at Rangers loomed large in everyone’s minds.

The last two weeks of the domestic season leading up to the play-off final were surreal. First of all we had a meaningless game against Partick Thistle and the manager took no risks with injuries by playing a vastly different team to what had become the norm. Second, we had to stand back and wait while the teams that finished 3rd and 4th in the Championship played off (the quarter final between Rangers and Queen of the South), and then the semi-final between Rangers and Hibs (who had finished 2nd). This meant that by the time we did meet Rangers, they were playing their fifth of six play-off games in a matter of a couple of weeks or thereabouts.

The received wisdom is that the play-offs favour the team seeking promotion but this year that has not been the case with several of the teams from the higher division winning, despite, obviously, having poor seasons. Alan Burrows, who is Motherwell’s general manager, said after the final that Scotland should move to the English model and have two leg semi finals and a one off final at a neutral venue. That does seem fairer. However, this may all be undercut by rumours of further league reconstruction.

And what about the final with Rangers? I watched the first leg on TV and went to the second leg at Fir Park. In a strange way I was pleased that the game at Ibrox, although strongly to our advantage, was not definitive. Somehow defending a two goal lead would not make us over-complacent (and there was in truth no danger of that when you felt the palpable tension at the second leg). Nonetheless the period between the two matches was incredibly tense and I took to doing all manner of work-related things to take my mind off the game.

The second thing that I will retain was the Fir Park crowd. Decades of going to games against the old firm has made me used to a large away support, often I think exceeding the home support. Sunday was different because, as is well known there was a dispute between the clubs about away supporters and Motherwell had most of the ground to themselves. And, undoubtedly because of the importance of the game and the first leg, we had a noisy committed full house in the rest of the stadium. Our average gates have been on a downward trend for a while (despite the success of recent years) so it was great to have such an atmosphere.

The game was never going to be a high quality affair and it was nervy, competitive and settled by two deflected goals and a last minute penalty. The joy of staying up was well worth all of that tension but you’ll understand, if I hope we are not in such a situation next season. I will not add to the many things said about the after match fighting between players and the partial pitch invasion that ensued (and always does on the last day of the season).

The manager is now rebuilding, has already signed a player and is in talks with others. Several of the existing squad are now gone too. He has been vindicated in his approach – and I do hope we persist with the fast counterattacking down both flanks. If we can sort out our defence we might well be on to something. For once we will avoid the usual early exit from European football and thus have a normal pre-season. The footballing future is not so bleak after all.

Remembering Miller

I was sad to learn today that Miller the cat is no longer with us. This cat was not only well known to thousands of staff and students past and present at Glasgow University, he was a fixture of the place for many years. His fame has stretched so far that there is even a story of his passing in the Glasgow Herald today and on other news websites [1].

I always thought he lived quietly in Hillhead street in the residential area near the middle of the campus. Apparently he was known to frequent the main gatehouse of the Gilbert Scott building too but we knew him best in terms of his many forays into the Adam Smith Building and to Urban Studies in Bute Gardens.

In fact, he did rather well for many years via secretaries who fed him and kept him warm in inclement weather. You would often see him climbing the Adam Smith Building stairs heading to one of his sanctuaries along a teaching corridor (I seem to recall the urban studies journal office was for a long time a favourite destination) Miller had a facebook page for many years (I think called something like ‘the Adam Smith building cat’).

The Herald story said that he was 18 though it feels like he has been around much longer than that. The last time I saw him was a month or two ago and, to put it mildly, he was not exactly in playful mood. More to the point, in the midst of the University building a new smart campus over the next few years, the cry is now going up to name one the new buildings after this splendid cat. Quite right, too.

Note (includes photos):

http://www.deadlinenews.co.uk/2015/01/22/top-university-may-name-building-after-cat/

 

 

The Return of the Rentier?

I read Will Self’s thought-provoking piece on housing in the FT at the weekend (A rentier nation’s fading dreams of home). Home ownership has peaked and is now at a 25 year low; while, at the same time, this has been redistributed into the quickly growing buy to let rental market and hence the new rentiers of the title. Self argues that the visible growth in new rental apartments, the normality of renting in the market (he describes the experience of his son in Hoxton, London), and the importance of the recycling for former council homes into the rental market – are symbols of the fading of the nation of home owners and the new rentier Britain.

This comment piece is a vivid polemic, colourfully described in terms of images of Pooterism and Dickens’ character Wemmick – the latter had a suburban home that was indeed a (mock) castle. It is anecdotal rather than scientific but that is fair enough for a piece setting out to challenge the reader. While the comment piece was a little metrocentric, Self does cover a broad canvas and in particular seeks to make the case that we may have passed a tipping point of sorts that is moving the UK away from its long term relationship with home ownership. I am not convinced but it is an argument worth exploring.

Critically, Will Self argues that: ‘The idea that we can make a smooth transition from a society in which the homeowner is seen as the metaphoric as well as the literal pillar of the community to one in which everyone rents presupposes we are happy to regard our homes as not only non-fungible but not even transferable; which in turn implies a shift in a range of other cultural values. And I believe cultural values, rather than the mechanical drivers of economic theory, are the operative factors here.’ Add a ‘Discuss’ to the end of that great quote and you have a pretty mean essay question.

How would I answer such a question?

There is a sense that a large number of households have become used to not owning (who might previously have done so) – but do not own fundamentally because it is ruled out financially. They cannot afford to own if they want to live in a given high cost area. That is not the same as a culture shift to renting across society. While it is clearly something important for a growing generation of people, where it applies, it is still largely the outcome of a decision driven by constraints, not preferences. But I do not deny the importance of the growing group of non-owners (and new landlords). The media, the political class and, I believe, the great majority of households still undoubtedly hold home ownership up but are currently in a form of cognitive dissonance in that they want to promote owner-occupation but at least in part or implicitly recognise the deeply dysfunctional nature of the housing policy, tax policy and unaffordable prices that underpin it.

What about the new rentiers? Private renting in the UK as in many countries relies on many small-scale landlords, many of whom are amateurs. Few countries have successfully shifted the sector into large scale institutionally-funded corporate landlords (though that does not mean it might not yet happen because of market forces, complementary policies and relative rates of return moving in such a way as to make it more attractive). Until this does happen, however, there will be a preponderance of small buy to let landlords, some of whom are reluctant landlords but many are established and probably in for the long haul.

And yet, even as recently as the 1960s, the private renting sector in the UK was truly large (more than a quarter of all homes) and made up of many thousands of small scale landlords. What we see emerging today is less a new phenomenon and more the return of something actually both familiar and numerous in British society. However, the sector now is still smaller than it was even in the 1960s and the balance of probabilities suggest to me that from here on the main inroads will be from corporate landlords as the sector continues to grow and normalise into the future.

Will Self rightly points to the unintended consequences of the Right to Buy, in particular, the recycling of many of these properties into the rental market (something my colleague Nigel Sprigings has done much good work on in recent years). I find the interesting thing about this, and was also struck by it when reading the FT editorial on housing the other day, that the Thatcher project wanted to create an entrepreneurial Britain by facilitating property owners and also by encouraging share ownership. While there was a cumulative, major redistribution of wealth through the right to buy but mainly through rising real house prices, the share ownership growth was in safe privatized public utilities, largely quickly sold on for a profit – hardly an entrepreneurial rebirth. But in the future rental market growth may be in the form of corporate landlords who will often be public companies, such as REITs – and many individuals may become indirect investors in rental property though share ownership rather than traditional rentier landlords. More radically, perhaps more investors in the future will seek to hold housing assets in the form of bonds rather than actually letting property directly.

Are cultural forces more important here than economic drivers; are preferences more significant than constraints? To paraphrase Ben Goldacre, I think it is a little more complicated than that. But it is not just economic determinism (the role of constraints shaping housing choices in an increasingly unaffordable and credit limited housing market). The changes in the housing market are uneven, cumulative and context-specific. They reflect the complex interplay of choices consisting of both our preferences (wherever they come from) but also our constraints in terms of incomes, prices and our liquidity.

I argued in an earlier post that long term international evidence, including the UK, is suggestive that long term real house price trends are worsening, and may be doing so at an increasing rate. So, by dint of ever-worsening affordability, home ownership may have passed its peak and rental markets may have to grow to accommodate new and moving households. But this does not necessarily imply rentier-led, poor quality expensive insecure private renting for the masses. A groundswell of opposition means that high rents and short tenancies are becoming as politically unacceptable as bad landlords and poor conditions have long been. There is a legislative process underway in Scotland consulting over balanced regulation. I am the last person to call for first generation hard rent controls but the politics of the Housing Benefit cost of low income private tenants and unreasonably short tenancies do seem to offer a window for trading off rent increases with longer tenancies given reasonable landlord rights over eviction. Tying this to better quality standards of accommodation need not frighten away investors – but it needs to be carefully thought through and incentivised.

Perhaps a further question arising from the Will Self comment piece is what a large scale market rental sector would mean for the UK, in terms of its policy requirements, its impact on labour markets, cities and neighbourhoods? How would the (mainly local) state seek to manage and regulate it? How would it change attitudes to savings and investments if we are no longer funnelling everything into chiefly second hand homes to own?

The Return of Dudley Smith

I have spent much of the last ten days reading Perfidia, the new crime novel by James Ellroy. He is well-known for his series of novels blending fact and fiction, real and imagined people, in a continuous historical narrative stretching across nearly 30 years of post war American history mainly in Los Angeles. Several of his books have been filmed along with other screenplays. LA Confidential was a huge celluloid success; the Black Dahlia, less so.

There are three interconnected stages to the mature Ellroy books – first the four crime novels that start with the Black Dahlia and end with White Jazz. Second, there is the biographical My Dark Places which tells the story of his mother’s murder, his subsequent journey through tortured times till he became a successful novelist and then used his newly found resources to re-investigate his mother’s death. Everyone should read this book but don’t expect light entertainment. Third, he constructed his own fictional account of the alternate 1960s focused around the Kennedy and King assassinations, Hoover, the CIA and the Mob, drawing extensively from characters introduced earlier in the crime novels. The Underworld Trilogy began with American Tabloid and the Cold 6000. After a long delay the third book (Blood’s a Rover) moved to the early 1970s and dealt with the CIA in Central America, less so with domestic politics, and also rounded off the arc of the key remaining characters.

The classic crime and political novels are characterised by large ensemble casts, complex and highly detailed plotting, electric and often shocking prose, a highly stylised form of writing in the historical vernacular, and the unceasing, relentless analysis of evil in the pursuit of money, power, racial prejudice and control (usually) over women. It can be very dark but when it works it is compelling.

My introduction to Ellroy was White Jazz, out of order and last of the 4 LA crime novels. I had never read anything like it – how could the main protagonist, Dave Klein, someone of dubious morality himself, but wholly committed to an ethical goal, possibly survive and achieve his ends whilst multiple forces are arrayed against him. I think I then saw the film of LA Confidential and thereafter read the four novels in order. The Big Nowhere is probably the classic crime novel of the set but the book version of LA Confidential is by far the most complex story and much richer and deeper than the admittedly excellent film.

The key character through the LA quartet is Dudley Smith, the epitome of premeditated evil and avarice, all embodied in a clever, funny, smooth Irish-American police detective. Smith is to my mind one of the greatest creations of modern crime fiction.

The political trilogy that begins with American Tabloid and the Cold 6000 were broader and bolder and reinvented the Sixties in a powerful series of dark conspiracies, hidden agendas and political brutality. Scapegoats and media manipulation are developed alongside the unfolding plans of highly professional operators in the pay of different illiberal puppet-masters.

Each book is structured around on three or four characters with each short chapter loosely from one of their perspectives or tracing their actions and thinking processes. You see this sort of approach in a lot of modern writing but Ellroy is for me the master of this relentless style. The books have grown larger and more dense but are none the worse for it. You need to commit and submerge yourself in their fascinating though often shocking worlds that operate under the Hollywood radar.

So it is with this baggage that I approached reading Perfidia. I was slightly disappointed with Blood’s a Rover, his previous book, and while I looked forward to the new planned quartet of wartime LA crime novels involving younger versions of the key characters from both existing series, it was with a little trepidation.

I need not have worried. The new book is simply tremendous and a genuine return to his best form. Several of the key characters from both the Black Dahlia and American Tabloid are present and correct. There is the development of a new key character, the future LA police chief William Parker. There is the usual melange of serious crime and murder mayhem interwoven with powerful economic interests and political corruption and conspiracy – on this occasion the LA response to Pearl Harbour and Japanese internment. Best of all, at the heart of the book is a younger but instantly recognisable Dudley Smith who dominates the book. It is great to have him back, monster that he is.

I won’t say anything about the plot or its multiple threads to war, politics, crime and Hollywood. Racism in its different forms often plays a key role in Ellroy’s books and in this one the treatment of the American Japanese and the cynical manipulation of the situation to secure advantage is laid out in detail.

This has been the fictional book of the year for me (thus far) and it is great to have him back. I hope the next volume will not take 5 years. I know that Ellroy is not to everyone’s tastes but for those of who do like his books, Perfidia is very welcome and contains quite a few surprises.

Life in the old dog

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Unaccustomed…..

I know two people who are about to make important public speeches and in their different ways they are concerned to make the right kind of impact and not make mistakes. I do a relatively large amount of lectures, presentations, seminars and the like. It is par for the course for an academic and also if you are explicitly involved in knowledge exchange. I enjoy it when it goes well and I hate it if I don’t think or know that it hasn’t.

When I became a Faculty lecturer I realised that this was going to be a significant part of my working life and I had better work out some mechanisms and supports to help me overcome any problems speaking in public. I did some lecturer and media training, read some good books (e.g. Max Atkinson’s Lend Me Your Ears) and got on with it.

Actually, I did bit more than that. Periodically through my life I have had a stammer. For those who have a speech impediment there is no need to explain further but for those who don’t, they typically fall into two categories: those that are inherently physical and those are essentially in the mind. My form of problem – being unable to complete certain words and instead freezing on them – was it turned out something going on inside of me and not caused physiologically. When I started full time lecturing it was pretty obvious that I was struggling in certain classes, as I was also when speaking at some conferences and on other platforms. So, for the third time in my life I went to speech therapy.

What I found out from simply talking through the underlying causes of the problem was that, first, I needed to prepare properly and focus on things I was comfortable talking about (lecturers can find themselves in front of classes well outside their comfort zone). I used to worry about being asked questions I could not answer and that pushed the probability of stammering into near certainty. Second, I realised that I was not contributing to meetings, avoiding chairing and making up reasons not to make points – because of the risk I might stumble or stammer.

Third, I thought more about the things I knew already about my own problem. For instance, and somewhat bizarrely, certain individuals made me stammer (and there are not necessarily folk in positions of power). Equally strangely, I know before the fact when I am going to stammer – I can see the problem word lying ahead of me as I construct the sentence I am speaking. This makes me try to avoid the word or find a synonym. The problem is you can’t simultaneously provide a coherent smoothly deployed argument to the external world while internally trying to think of a non-stammering way to do it. Instead you blow up. The fact that a potential stammering episode lurks under the surface also makes you incredibly self-conscious and also very aware of how others speak and communicate.

Now this may all sound terrible but I think, now, that working one’s way through it reflectively, reading about speaking techniques and watching good speakers all helped. To an extent it is a phase that I have now, happily, largely passed through. Today I still sometimes stammer giving a paper or teaching but I am no longer that worried about it. I know if I prepare properly, try to add value in some way compared to the normal ‘talk to powerpoint’ mode, and just get a bit of perspective – it is not that big a deal and audiences are not generally out to get you.

Like blogging, you need to find your own voice. I would probably like to be more consistent but it is no longer a chore. Instead it is usually quite a bit of fun (for something that can be very important). Recently I have given evidence to Parliamentary Committees and done live tv and radio. This kind of public speaking is ok and I find I can thus far cope with it. This is so because I think I know what I am talking about, I know that I have survived doing media work before and I will have done my homework. As a result, I have really not been that nervous or unable to function as once would have definitely been the case. I even quite like to play what BBC presenters call ‘that’s a good question bingo’ and actually engage in proper Q&A and be quite relaxed if I don’t have a pat answer.

As I am a big fan of lists, here are a few thoughts about public speaking as a result of these experiences.

  • I rather self-consciously try to be humorous as a rhetorical device. I have two notebooks full of quotes and jokes. Just yesterday in a traffic jam I found myself scribbling down two great quotes from James Joyce heard on the radio. The big problem is not telling the same audience one of your favourite stories for a second time. You also need to go easy on these things, judge what is appropriate and make sure that it is the argument that they are listening to not for the next joke. And of course what I think is funny may not not be to who are listening. Know your audience.
  • I try to mix up my audio-visuals, including alternatives to powerpoint like prezi.
  • Some people I have heard speak effectively and remain in the memory work with a very straight but impressively clear presentation style. This can work just as well if you can be disciplined. This is what my colleague Jack Parr calls the ‘John Wayne’ style – you come into town, get off your horse, tell it straight, get back on your horse and leave town.
  • Narrative and logical progression are incredibly important. Also, Max Atkinson argues that you need to speak steadily and at a level of argument slightly below what you are comfortable with – audiences don’t necessarily follow at your pace so try to marginally simplify but don’t ever patronise.
  • Try really hard to prepare, speak and plan for the timed allocation you have to speak for. If that also means extemporising to finish on time, do that and even have a plan B (to coin a phrase). Try not to skip slides or race back and forward in your powerpoint.
  • Finally, if despite your plans and efforts, the worst things happen, you can’t answer a question [tell them you’ll get back to them and do so], technology fails [have a paper back up] or your paper simply does not work as a presentation and you confront a sea of baffled faces [rehearse it and test it with others informally especially if it is a new idea or application]. If all else fails, don’t worry and be happy. Tony O’Sullivan used to present the Scottish House Condition Survey publication at an event with teeming hundreds in front of him. I asked him how he kept so calm and normal. He argued that you have to recognise that there are much more important things going on in the world than your ability to speak through nerves – get a bit of perspective, man.

In the end I am a bit longer in the tooth now, fairly relaxed about public speaking and usually up for the challenge. I hope I have a bit of that perspective these days but at the same time I know I have to put the time and thought into each presentation and actually try to get something out of it that feels creative to me.

Good luck.