Saturday, 1 September 2012

Party nights and neon lights: my love of Wham! explained

I was born in 1979 so I was a bit late for Wham!  They were definitely there  lurking in the background of my eighties childhood– on telly and the radio, in magazines – but that was about it. I never had any of their records and neither (if memory serves me) did any of my older siblings, whose music tastes I absorbed as I grew up.

These days I like to think that i’ve got fairly wide ranging music tastes, but I have to admit that eighties pop is probably the genre closest to my heart. So I have for some time appreciated the indisputable pop genius of wedding disco favourite ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. But it’s only quite recently that I’ve started to properly get into Wham! I admit that 32 is an odd age for this to happen. But happened it has and I just cannot get enough of them.

Those Wham boys are easy to laugh at and I know that in many people’s minds they’re probably associated with the overdone, luminous camp of the Club Tropicana video and the bad 80s nostalgia nights it spawned. But beyond the fake tans and cocktail umbrellas, beyond the cheesy grins and blonde highlights, beyond Andrew Ridgely’s pretend guitar playing, there really is some great stuff going on.

To start with an obvious point, they made fantastic pop. There is, I admit, a fair bit of daftness among the back catalogue (of which more later) but there are also moments of pure joyful brilliance. You just CANNOT argue with the opening ‘jitterbug’ hook on Wake Me Up, or with the drama of the ‘pack your bags…’ middle eight in ‘Club Tropicana’,  or with ‘Freedom and its fab thumping Motown-style beat (not to mention that glorious bittersweet trumpet solo at the end).  They also did a brilliant line in heartbreak, and ‘Last Christmas’, aside from being probably the best Christmas song ever, is also a great bit of soulful pop. Every time I hear it I am struck anew by the sheer pain in George Michael’s voice. The way it builds to that soaring, pained crescendo near the end – soppy bastard that I am, it actually bring tears to my eyes.

So that’s the stuff that I would happily and confidently defend in the Court of Pop. And then there’s the daft stuff, like ‘Wham Rap’, which is half totally shit and half absolutely brilliant. It’s their anti-wage labour anthem, in which George Michael *ahem*  ‘raps’ about his refusal to get sucked into a soul-destroying 9-to-5 job. ‘I’m a soul boy, I’m a dole boy;’ he tells us. ‘I take pleasure in leisure, I believe in joy’. Right on, boys! I love that lyric – it’s so brilliantly of its time and so unlike anything that any two-bob boyband, for all kinds of reasons, would sing about today.

There’s a genuine, almost punk-like, spirit of youthful joyousness and rebellion in that song and others like it (see also ‘Young Guns’ and ‘Bad Boys, also a bit silly). Those songs grapple with all the stuff that pop should grapple with– freedom, fun, sex, telling your parents to fuck off. There’s a side to their songs that genuinely wants life to be as good as it can be. Take ‘Club Tropicana’, on the surface a shiny eighties anthem about an exotic getaway where you can ‘rub shoulders with the stars’. But at this place everyone’s welcome and what’s more ‘there’s enough for everyone’. No one has to do without - it’s socialism!

It’s all that stuff, combined with those amazing hooks, choruses and tunes, that makes Wham! so great. They are pure pop and pure joy. My favourite lyric - and perhaps even my life motto – is from ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’:  ‘Come on baby, let’s not fight, we’ll go dancing and everything’ll be alright’. And when I hear that line, there is genuinely a part of me that thinks, as long as that song exists, that everything will be alright.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Immigrants - the bottom of the pile

At the beginning of my ESOL lesson this afternoon, I chatted with my students, all of whom are women, have very little formal education and speak very little English, about their housing situations. One woman - one of the more confident in the class - talked openly about the temporary accommodation she's living in at the moment, as a result of domestic violence she experienced last year. She is living in a bedroom in a grotty hostel with her young son and is desperate for somewhere decent to live. She complained - as best she could with her limited English - that the council ignores her because she can't speak English very well. (I posted something on Twitter about this, asking for advice and was overwhelmed by the response i got - well done Twitter).

Hearing this, the other students piped up. One woman told me that she's living with her husband's parents in their three-bedroom house, along with two of her husband's brothers. She and her husband and her daughter all share a room. Another woman lives with her husband and her four children in a tiny three-bedroom flat, which has a serious damp problem. Another woman is disabled and the council have housed her in a tiny flat on the sixth floor, in a building which has no lift. Another woman is also in temporary accommodation with her husband who suffers frequent health complications from his severe diabetes. All told me, in their various ways, how difficult it is to get out of their situations while they can speak such little English and how unsympathetic the various councils are to their plight. 

They all showed a remarkable sense of humour about all this, I must say. They laughed with each other, as they told me about the health problems they suffer from the poor conditions they live in, or how difficult it is to get a decent night's sleep, or how stinking the toilet in their hostel is. It was an enlightening and depressing conversation.

I've worked with migrant groups for nearly nine years as an ESOL teacher in various contexts and I suppose I should have developed a thicker skin about this sort of thing by now. But after every conversation like this I am struck anew by what shoddy treatment my students receive. Immigrants have long been the bottom of the pile when it comes to accessing services like housing, benefits, childcare, legal aid, education etc. A fantastic article on the Institute of Race Relations website back in March pointed this out and highlighted the fact that the mass privatisation and securitisation of public services currently going on started with immigration and asylum a few years ago. Immigrants are easy targets and are often the first vulnerable group to have access to services removed . And during a recession it becomes even easier to target them, the logic being that if we can't afford to provide these things for native people, why should we shell out for them? 

When politicians want to pick up a few easy Daily Mail points, they pick on immigrants, assuming, usually rightly, that no one will kick up much of a fuss (I'm not always comfortable with the lazy Daily Mail shorthand but here it applies perfectly). Access to legal aid, access to free English classes, benefits - these all get targeted. Last year the Refugee Council had their funding dramatically cut and the Immigration Advisory Service were forced into administration after huge legal aid cuts. And so it is with the latest changes to migration rules announced by the Tories, which change the income threshold for non-EEA national spouses to move to the UK and also place other requirements about English language level and passing the Life in the UK test. These new rules are massively unfair - they are weighted hugely towards those with money and those with access to English in their country.

Immigrants get subjected to all kinds of interrogations and monitoring by the state. They have their passports/immigration papers poked through by councils, job centres, colleges, to see what their status is. Asylum seekers are questioned by the Home Office about how bad really was the torture that they experienced in their country. They have to present themselves at Home Office buildings monthly to prove that they haven't done a runner and get cruel labels like 'no recourse to public funds' slapped on them, which usually mean they can't claim benefits or work. One student of mine from Congo, who was tortured in his country, had his asylum application refused two years ago. He appealed and is still waiting for a decision. He is stuck in limbo and extremely frustrated, unable to work or claim benefits and is dependent on charity and the measly allowance that the Home Office give him every two weeks.

All this is scandalous but is something that the mainstream media never engage with. The drip-drip feed of the 'immigrant = scrounger' narrative from the tabloids over the last 15 or so years has properly taken hold and hardly gets challenged anywhere. Rarely do you actually get to here the stories of the people themselves. 

Monday, 14 May 2012

Some thoughts on gentrification from an ex-Hackneyite

I moved out of my flat in Stoke Newington last autumn. For just over four years, my boyfriend and I lived in a flat on the High Street above a hairdressers which our landlady owned and ran.  We were very lucky with our setup -  had a good relationship with our landlady, were just far enough away from the often insufferable ponciness of Church Street and the rent was relatively cheap (initially we paid 750 quid a month for the flat and after a few years it was put up by a whopping 30 quid.) I loved it there and was very sad to leave.
I work up the road in Tottenham now, so still get back to Stoke Newington fairly regularly, and each time I do am struck by how insanely gentrification seems to have accelerated there in the last few months. Of course Stoke Newington has long been the poncier bit of Hackney- those Guardian-reading, yoghurt-knitting, organic baby clichés have been chucked around about N16 for many years now. But the whole pace of it seems to have ratcheted up quite seriously recently, undoubtedly due to the ever-present regeneration pathology of the Olympics.

Vintage clothing and ‘upcycled’ furniture shops proliferate. Pointless shops selling miscellaneous designer goods  – cushions, nameless bits of patterned fabric and other such mysterious items – are everywhere.  The Clissold Park café, which for many a year had been a place to stop for a cheap cuppa or bowl of chips, caused a local storm when it reopened recently with a poshed-up menu and stupidly high prices to match. It’s happening everywhere in Hackney now. Every time I go back there, another previously useful business has been turned into a wine shop-slash-cafe or pop-up gallery. (Amidst this madness, thankfully the hardware shop on Stoke Newington High Street continues its trade in screws, mousetraps, ladders and other such things people actually need) 

Overpriced, frivolous north London shops are easy targets these days, but when they are springing up alongside massive, unaffordable rent hikes and sky-rocketing house prices the social cleansing becomes all too apparent. For a few years, my brother lived round the corner from me in Stoke Newington, in a nice, reasonably-priced houseshare. But a few years ago the rent was put up, he couldn’t afford it and he had to move out.  Of course, this is a familiar story now, in Hackney and Stratford and other parts of east London, as private landlords in an unregulated rental market use the Olympics as an excuse to chuck out their tenants and get in higher paying ones. During the last year or so that I lived in Stoke Newington I would walk around and look at the lovely terraced houses, many of which sell for close to a million quid these days, and wonder ‘Who on earth can afford to live here now?’

Places like Stoke Newington are moving beyond being middle class ghettos and are fast becoming millionaires’ ghettos – it’s already happened in neighbouring Islington. Taking into account this high-speed gentrification, coupled with the new housing benefit caps, what low-income or middle income person could move in there now? It’s a horrible thought and an incredibly bleak vision for the future.

When I’m back in N16 I sometimes pop in to see our old landlady, to have a cup of tea and a catch up on the local gossip. Last time I was there we talked about the guy who was now renting our old flat. She told me, open mouthed, that he’d been paying 1200 pounds a month for a one bedroom flat in Dalston before he moved in upstairs. She also told me how when she’d come to rent out the flat she’d put a listing for the flat in Loot. As a result she was inundated with calls from parasitic estate agents offering to take on the property for her, for a much inflated rent. She refused.
‘But what about the Olympics?’ they asked her. ‘You could get a much higher price’
‘I don’t care about the Olympics,’ she replied. ‘It’s not all about the money is it?’
When I heard this story I realised how lucky we’d been there. If only there were more like her.