On the first anniversary of Bowie's death yesterday, I thought I'd post this piece I wrote soon afterwards on Facebook; it was longlisted for the Fish Short Memoir Prize. As it's gone down quite well, I thought I'd use it to re-launch my blog: Ashes to Ashes Dead things come in threes. Monday, David Bowie; Thursday Alan Rickman, then on the Friday morning… As usual, soon after 8am I put the dog on his lead and opened the front door; there at the top of the steps to the front gate was a dead cat. I knew it was dead the moment I saw it. I put the dog back in the house, found a suitable box and put the cat in it, and then the box in the safety of the garage while we sorted out what to do next. I’d had David Bowie in my head all that week. I was pole-axed on hearing of his death, and the whole day passed in a cotton-wool smudge of Bowie records, memories and introspection. The poor cat put me right back there, and made me remember Bowie doing the theme song to Cat People. The film may not have been an Oscar contender, but the song was good, written with disco legend Giorgio Moroder. Cat People. A movie full of cats and dead people. People and dead cats. I discovered Bowie when I was fourteen. As a young teenager I could be a bit pompous (not for the last time, I hear you say), and had decided pop music was something that I should grow out of. I was dismissive of my younger brother’s interest, and was attempting to convince myself that now I preferred classical music. All that changed the first time I heard that riff pumping out of the car radio on the way to school. Der-der-der duh-duh-duh, der-der-der duh-duh-duh. The Jean Genie, let yourself go! And I did. From that moment on, I was a Bowie Freak. That’s what we called ourselves, not Bowie fans. We were freaks, and proud of it. “Are you a Bowie freak?” “Yeah, are you?” “Yeah.” That was it. Friends for life. As the comic Bob Mortimer’s been saying for a while, if you want to know if it’s worth continuing a conversation with someone at a party, just ask them if they like Bowie. If they don’t, walk away. I was too young to have seen Ziggy Stardust live, but I set about buying the back catalogue (even the re-released ‘Images 1966-67’ with Antony Newley-esque songs like the excruciating Laughing Gnome) and immersing myself in everything Bowie. I tried to look like him too, as far as school rules permitted. We weren’t allowed to dye our hair, but I washed it in henna every day, which gave it a vague red tinge you could just about spot in bright sunlight. I went for the feather cut, growing it as long at the back as I could get away with. I tried to make the top and front stick up, but I never achieved David’s spiky heights. I wore black platform shoes under my voluminous grey flannel flares. I was so skinny I nearly blew over in the wind at the best of times; with my four inch heels I was a safety hazard. We had to wear a white shirt and tie, but my shirts had massive collars and my ties were all pinks, purples and oranges, tied in a double knot. One school holidays, I bought the single Rebel, Rebel. It was to feature on Diamond Dogs, but the album hadn’t come out yet. My brother bought Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd at the same time. We shared a bedroom and had one of those record players like a Dansette though I don’t think it was a proper one. A big red case with the amplifier in the bottom; it opened up to reveal the record deck and the top divided into two loudspeakers. One turntable, two new records – it was war. I was the bigger, older brother so I won, and the Rebel riff rang out from the feeble speakers – “You’re not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”. But I had discovered the person I wanted to be. If not myself, Bowie wasn’t a bad option. It came at a handy point in my life. I was starting to fancy girls, but I just didn’t have a clue what to do. Okay, that’s from a song by contemporaries The Sweet, not David Bowie. But as he was for a lot of adolescents growing up discovering their sexuality, Bowie was there for me. I got some stick from the other boys, but if anything I took pride in doing the peacock strut and being noticed. It was all OK, because I was going to be a rock star, and David the Starman, waiting in the sky, was watching over me. They even gave me the nickname ‘Mini Bowie’ for a while; that was just fine. Like a lot of Bowie fans, I was devastated when David killed off Ziggy Stardust, or as he put it in the song lyrics, when the kids had killed the man and he had to break up the band. And my desolation turned to horror when Bowie re-emerged as a white soul boy in his Young Americans phase. How could he do that? We were the freaks, the androgynous glamrockers, white and pale? But it was Bowie. He still looked amazing, channelling Hamlet via Major Tom as he sat up in a crane wearing an ermine cape and holdinga skull in one hand, the mike in the other. So we bought the record. And of course we grew to love it, and all night, we were the Young Americans, until it was time to be The Thin White Duke. Or the Man Who Fell to Earth – he could act, as well! We thought so anyway, although it’s true he didn’t have to stretch too far to play the alien. Bowie left his bisexual androgyny behind him, but I discovered there was a market for effete young men like myself, who were just gay enough. Boys who liked to be in a girl’s bedroom while they put their make-up on. I finally got to see my hero for real at Earls Court on the Station to Station tour; I’d already seen the pictures so I knew how to dress – black trousers and waistcoat, open necked white shirt, and a pack of Gitanes stuck in the waistcoat pocket, even though I didn’t smoke. I joined a thousand other disciples dressed in a similar way; others preferred to keep the spirit of Ziggy alive. We were united in our love though, and as the bright white lights and crashing rhythms announced the arrival of the Bowie train, we worshipped together at the platform. I’ve never known a rock concert of such intensity. Then punk and new wave came along, and it all got a bit tricky. My take on it is that put simply, there were two main punk tribes. There were the ‘Oi’ punks and there were the rainbow punks. The former owed a lot to skinhead culture, played thrash music and used to fight a lot. The latter were the offspring of Bowie; lots of art school students and creative young people with more subtlety and originality. I came across some of the pace setters quite early on. The so-called Bromley Contingent including Siouxsie of the Banshees used to go to the disco at the Windsor Safari Park (now Legoland) for the same reason we did - it was one of the very few discos in the country which played music like Bowie and Roxy and not the mind-numbing pop of bands like Brotherhood of Man and Showaddywaddy. Save all your kisses for me. Or not. So I joined the arty punk tribe, and saw all the bands like the Clash and the Pistols, but still put on the make-up sometimes for the likes of the Banshees or Ultravox!, and kept up with Bowie, now into his Heroes period. The grainy black and white Berlin aesthetic became the perfect backdrop for the austerity of Thatcher’s Britian. I even started making this sort of music now as well as listening to it, in amazing bands like AWOL, 1936 and Disturbance Term. You haven’t heard of them? No, neither has anyone else. But strutting the stage singing my own songs was the most fun I’ve ever had. The art school punks morphed into the New Romantics; one of the first ever clubs was called Bowie Nights at Gossips in Dean Street, we’d gone full circle. Steve Strange did Fade to Grey with Visage, David Bowie sang Ashes to Ashes and both videos looked the same. Steve Strange was even in both of them. The old romantic was just as cred as any of the new ones. Then both Bowie and the new romantics became more mainstream, groups like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran becoming mere pop bands, and David Bowie making Let’s Dance, his most commercially successful single and album. I saw him again, performing this and some of his greatest hits on the Serious Moonlight Tour, when it landed at Milton Keynes. That doesn’t sound promising, but he managed to turn the bowl into a suburban Grand Meulnes that balmy July evening; infectious tinkling dance music and thousands of gold and silver moon-shaped balloons choking the dusty sunset. We ended on a high, me and David, with that concert. After that, I gave up the music and got a proper job, and he did Tin Machine. Not heard it? You don’t want to. Of course he’s done the odd great song since then – like the Buddha of Suburbia and Absolute Beginners, both made for film and TV, and the recent Where Are We Now – but there hasn’t been another album to match Hunky Dory or Young Americans. Nevertheless, my respect for him kept growing. He may have become mega rich and an A list celebrity, but he never ‘sold out’, as us punks used to say. He set his own moral standards, he kowtowed to no one. In 1983 he asked live in an interview with MTV why they featured hardly any black acts on their burgeoning music channel. Now savvy bloggers would say he used his white privilege to do so, but people listened, And Bowie was a man who turned down not only an OBE but a knighthood. And didn’t make a big deal of it. No doubt, we’re in a poorer world without him, ashes to ashes. The man who organised his own cremation before anyone could start thinking about his funeral. No one else attended, not even his own family. Dust to dust. As for the cat, there was no collar, but I took him to the vet, who found a microchip. He was a Bengal, named Blue, and his owner lived round the corner. You could tell Blue had been a character, a big powerful cat even in his box. I left him at the vets, and that was an end to it. You wish and wish, and wish again You've tried so hard to fly You'll never leave your body now You've got to wait to die Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue © David Bowie, Silly Boy Blue, 1967
I was at the local Westminster Council Area Forum earlier in the week – I suspect some of the main issues are common to the whole Borough. Here’s some key points:
I saw a presentation on the Parking Sensor trial – not sure about Labour’s claim it’s a money-grabbing scam – at least not yet. As currently piloted, it would appear to improve efficiency and can be an aid to motorists. However there is a danger that the technology could be abused for enforcement/surveillance purposes in the future, and we need to keep an eye on that.
Yet again developers are trying to slink out of their commitment to social housing. Clearly maximum profits are derived from selling on units at the highest possible prices, but the Council needs to be pressured to monitor this and ensure such contraventions do not occur. The current spotlight is on Lodge Road, where the developers are trying to secure 47 ‘intermediate’ units and no ‘social’ at all.
A key issue locally has been the proposed development of St John’s Wood Barracks – the King’s Troop has now departed, but the site has lain vacant for nearly a year. Looks like the previous developes caught a cold on their £200+ million and sold it on – the new developers are expected to make a new application in due course. Isn’t Groundhog Day about this time of year?
Another local issue which has caused consternation is the redevelopment of Quintin Kynaston school – it seems some of the plans are going ahead despite not all planning conditions having been met. Clearly the Council should be held to account if it’s letting this happen.
Basement development has caused problems here as it has across the borough – there’s a call to have more control over this disruptive and potentially damaging trend. Karen Buck is championing this and running a survey with the St John’s Wood Society.
There’s much concern over cuts to police budgets and numbers. Looks like St John’s Wood police station is closing.
There’s £68,000 left in the Abbey Road ward budget! Anyone got any ideas how this could be spent? Who’s hurting most from the cuts? Can we help them?
Shame two of the six councillors didn’t turn up – these forums only happen three times a year, you’d think they could manage that.
The next forum will be held in the Spring
I haven’t blogged since I stood as a PPC but thought I’d use this space for Janice’s excellent motion, supported by the Social Liberal Forum and with Steve Webb’s approval
Pensions reform in the public and private sectors
a) the commitments in the Coalition Agreement to “safeguarding key benefits and pensions” and to “simplify rules and regulations relating to pensions to help invigorate occupational pensions encouraging companies to offer high quality pensions to all employees”.
b) there is now a major crisis in private sector occupational pension provision and, while welcoming the introduction of auto-enrolment, NEST and the Coalition proposals for reform of the state pension as important steps forward, acknowledges that these proposals cannot in themselves resolve this major crisis.
a) the party’s historic commitment to fighting poverty in old age which a century ago brought our introduction of the Old Age Pension
b) the fundamental Liberal Democrat principle that “none shall be enslaved by poverty”.
Conference notes with concern that:
a) the retreat of private sector employers from providing quality pensions is the result of the failures of previous Labour and Conservative governments.
b) the severe market volatility and its uncontrollable impact on Defined Benefit (DB) pension fund deficits demonstrates that current actuarial funding policies introduced by Labour are not fit for purpose and are needlessly damaging sponsoring employers’ finances and destroying DB pension schemes.
c) DB pension schemes are under further pressure from over-regulation, in particular regulatory demands to pay off longterm theoretical deficits in short term time frames.
d) growing numbers of private sector workers are losing confidence in occupational Defined Contribution (DC) pension schemes which push all risk onto the individual, are too expensive and complicated and provide no guarantee of even a minimum pension.
e) there is too little transparency in the fees and charges of pension industry companies including investment companies and that there is a case to answer regarding the levels and structures of fees and charges.
f) the growing number of pension schemes that have no oversight by representatives of the beneficiaries;
g) The proliferation of a multitude of local government pension schemes with their costly duplication of administration costs, fees and charges, inadequate regulations to ensure member-nominated representatives on all LGPS boards and inadequate provision of training for LGPS representatives.
a) the Coalition government’s concessions in November/December 2011 regarding its public sector pension proposals;
b) the announcement dropping ideologically motivated proposals that would have allowed companies winning public sector contracts to lower their bids and increase profits by abolishing the privatised workforce’s “Fair Deal” entitlements;
c) the ‘big pots’ proposals to allow private sector workers to put their pension savings from multiple schemes into one place.
Conference calls upon Liberal Democrats in government to:
1) Act with great urgency to protect private sector DB schemes including
a) immediate reform of pension scheme actuarial valuation rules that make pension scheme costs so volatile for employers,
b) lifting such overly interventionist regulatory practices as automatic investigation of longer deficit repair periods; and
c) opposing European-level legislation that would inadvertently have the effect of closing DB schemes.
2) radically reform and simplify the design of occupational defined contribution pension schemes in order to achieve greater certainty of pension;
3) Legislate to ensure real transparency and accountability to scheme beneficiaries of contract-based schemes and make it a requirement that all trust-based schemes have member-nominated trustees;
4) investigate and act in relation to pensions industry charges, fees, annuity prices, benchmarks, transparency and disclosure, including investment charges and charging structures, in order to ensure that pension schemes and their members achieve better value for money.
5) Save money from the local government pension schemes by merging them into one or more schemes, while ensuring more effective control by member and employer representatives, with the resulting benefits shared with the scheme members.
6) Investigate the extension of the Pensions Regulator’s Online Toolkit, the foundation stone of private sector trustee training, to include training modules for public sector representatives, and introduce an entitlement for all pension scheme trustees and representatives to have specified minimum levels of paid time off for training and preparation.
The proposer has sought the advice of Conference Committee on drafting and all advice has been followed.
This motion has been discussed with Lib Dem Pensions Minister Steve Webb and he supports the motion.
Conference notes with concern b): The 2004 Pensions Act and subsequent 2005 regulations forced pension schemes to carry out their three-yearly valuation using a method based on theories of efficient markets. Schemes have to value their liabilities over a 30 or 40 year timeframe, but the new law forced them to value their assets on the basis of market prices on the day the valuation fell due. So if the markets did really well that day the scheme’s prospects would look good, but if the market did disastrously then the pension scheme could face closure. This has made DB schemes wildly unstable: last July the Pension Protection Fund stated that the combined pension scheme deficits were around £8.3 billion, but six weeks later it was £117.5-billion. Pension funds should plan for the long term but this makes it impossible and nearly 2.5-million people’s pension schemes are at risk of closure. Closures are being announced almost every week.
(b): announced by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander in advance of the 30 November strike.
(c): the “Fair Deal” agreement made some years ago between the government and the public sector unions ensured that public sector workers who were compulsorily transferred out of the public sector as a result of contracting out kept their entitlement to either remain in their existing pension scheme or transfer to a scheme with similar benefits. The government decided to review this policy and one option was to abolish this entitlement completely.
Conference calls upon…
1a) this is not a reference to international accounting standard IAS 19 or FRS 17, it refers to the 2004 Pensions Act and subsequent regulations.
1c) Solvency 2 is one such proposal. A European Commission green paper published last July aimed to launch a public debate on how to ensure adequate, sustainable and safe pensions across the EU. Its proposals include increasing capital requirements and possible pan-European regulation of pension funds. Pensions Minister Steve Webb, who is building an international coalition against it, believes the proposed “Solvency II” rules could burden DB schemes with a £100-billion bill which could trigger massive numbers of scheme closures.
6. There are more than 100 local government pension schemes. Unison commissioned a report from the world’s third-largest public sector pension fund management company which concluded that over £1-billion could be saved by merging them into around 14 schemes. The savings would be by removing duplication, negotiating better fees and obtaining better returns. By comparison, the government’s public sector pensions proposals were requiring £900-million savings.
In November the Coalition’s controversial proposals on public sector pensions reform led to one of the biggest strikes of recent years. This motion, which welcomes the concessions the government made, will allow this to happen. It also sets out a way of making substantial savings in the LGPS to be shared with the scheme members.
If these proposals are adopted, they will bring back more stability into DB schemes and corporate financial planning and allow these schemes – the best in the private sector – to better ride out market downturns. But in radically reforming and simplifying DC schemes they will improve the retirement prospects of millions of private sector workers who are not in DB schemes. And by investigating and acting on the issue of pensions industry fees and charges, in particular investment fees and fee structures, the Lib Dems will be ensuring better value for money for all private sector pension schemes (and funded public sector schemes). This positive action for private sector workers’ pensions will put our party far ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives on this issue.
This motion is on the long side, on a par with the longest motions at the autumn conference. But most of the issues in this motion have not been debated by conference since 2004 and so much has happened to pensions since then that it has inevitably led to substantial proposals for change.
The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:
The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.
A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,000 times in 2010. That’s about 7 full 747s.
In 2010, there were 57 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 61 posts. There were 14 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 20mb. That’s about a picture per month.
The busiest day of the year was May 5th with 121 views. The most popular post that day was Election Day -3 & -2: Just time for a little story….
Where did they come from?
The top referring sites in 2010 were westminsterlibdems.org.uk, libdemblogs.co.uk, libdemvoice.org, twitter.com, and forum.notobikeparkingtax.com.
Some visitors came searching, mostly for mark blackburn, body scans at airports, markblackburn.wordpress, mark blackburn blog, and expressing embarrassment.
Attractions in 2010
These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.
Election Day -3 & -2: Just time for a little story… May 2010
Full Body Scans at Airports? January 2010
Election Day -55: Something is Rotten in the State of Westminster Parking March 2010
Election Day +5: Thank You May 2010
Election Day -12: Sex and Gambling April 2010
The obvious answer is that there are two lots of protesters out on our streets, the UK Uncut bunch who are protesting over tax avoidance and the students with regard to tuition fee increases. But it goes beyond that; both are totemic of higher than ever levels of discontent with our political machine, and we are in part responsible for that because, having promised the electorate and especially young people that we were the “new politics”, we have broken our pledges and promises and shown that actually there is little to distinguish us from our predecessors.
I was proud to stand as a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate in May and among the many commitments I gave as PPC was a promise to the NUS that I would support their funding pledge. I felt secure in doing so; I’m a so-called “social Liberal” anyway and was brought up on Beveridge and Keynes, but more importantly in this instance I’d received a personalised message from Nick Clegg telling me that we’d developed a plan to phase out tuition fees over the next six years, which would ensure this vital policy would be affordable even in this time of recession. Additionally I received an email from party HQ saying that the pledge was consistent with party policy and I was free to sign it. So I did, along with about 500 others.
I appreciate we’re in a Coalition and compromises have to be made. And I appreciate that tuition fees have to be funded somehow. But that’s not the point. The point is what we said to get elected. On the basis of the pledge and our policy, I replied to emails from students telling them I backed the pledge, and some of our election literature made reference to our support of it. I’ve finally got round to putting all my old cuttings away, and a headline in Liberal Democrat News caught my eye. “The Fight to End ‘Old Politics'”, all about our radical plans and our difference to the two main parties. And that’s where Philip Green comes into it – one of the first actions the Coalition took was to appoint an alleged tax avoider to advise us on potential civil service savings – a poor decision which sent out all the wrong signals and which we should never have allowed to take place. Tax evasion, broken promises, bankers off the hook – it’s too much the “same as it ever was”, no wonder people are disappointed and angry. Meanwhile, just how many students could have been funded by the unpaid tax on the £1.2 billion Arcadia 2005 dividend?
Nick Clegg tells us that it’s time to grow up and take on the responsibilities that go with belonging to the party in power. But the irony is that the million extra votes which put us in that position were given because of the pledges and promises we made to the electorate, and in particular young people. Our MPs need to remember that tomorrow.
(nb this is my own view of last night’s events, no more, no less)
Last night Westminster’s planning committee met to discuss among other matters two applications relating to QK School. First there was an outline application relating to the redevelopment of the main secondary school (QK) and then a detailed application relating to George Elliot, the infant and junior school (GE) and the Alternative Provision Centre (APC).
The outline application for QK was merely a report on progress, and was duly noted, but the GE and APC application was a detailed submission, where planning permission was being requested. The application quickly ran into trouble, the main issue seeming to be the difficulty of dealing with the applications for different parts of the site as separate unrelated entities. There are so many issues relating to GE and the APC that have to be dealt with in conjunction with QK, and indeed the Chair (Cllr Alastair Moss) stated that a “more holistic approach” was needed in dealing with the planning process for what is a major educational facility.
Although not on the planning committee, Abbey Road Councillor Lindsey Hall spoke on behalf of the residents and I must say she made a very powerful case for the holistic approach generally and for careful further examination of the GE/APC part and its impact on the local community.
There are particular issues with both pedestrian and motor traffic, parking, floodlighting in a residential area and the Environmental Impact Survey, especially with regard to the loss of green space.
Indeed, it was interesting to me how important the loss of trees is becoming in the planning process. As Cllr Robert Rigby said, every application which goes before the committee seems to involve cutting down trees, and he implied that this could not be allowed to go on unabated. Indeed there was a suspicion that the developers had pulled a fast one in that an aerial photograph of the area in question produced by a local residents group showed a greener space than that in the drawn illustration by the applicants. The Chair feared the possibility of “a landgrab of the most sensitive part of the site”.
The APC deserves particular comment – on top of general concerns about such a facility being sited in the middle of a residential area Cllr Hall declared that we are “on the verge of merging education services with Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea” (not sure how these Supercouncil ideas fit in with the Big Society/localism justification for listening to residents’ concerns) could mean that excluded pupils from all three boroughs end up here.
In short, the Chair felt the committee was “incapable of making a decision at the moment” and the application was not approved, with an acknowledgement that a full site visit needed to be convened asap (slightly surprising this hadn’t already taken place?!) and the application urgently re-submitted – there was a suggestion that a central funding window was imminently closing, if it hasn’t already.
The residents were delighted, the applicants naturally less so – round two mooted for January 2011.