Going underground

Questionable pop ballads and Deptford's very own subterranean feel

'A song from the darkest hour': Brown's party playlist

All poets want to be rock stars, and all rock stars want to be poets. Which is fine. There will always be a place in the world for ageing poets in leather jackets, and no-one would begrudge a rock star a few too many bad metaphors. It’s more perilous by far, however, when it’s not poets but politicians who decide they need more of the guitar hero about them. They should be wary of such urges, as Gordon Brown’s choice of walk-on music for his speech on Wednesday shows.

The Prime Minister’s arrival onstage was heralded by Manchester folk-rockers James’ ‘Sit Down’ – which begins by announcing itself as ‘a song from the darkest hour’. It continues as bleakly: ‘Its hard to carry on when you feel all alone, / Now I’ve swung back down again, its worse than it was before’ – an odd choice for his make-or-break ‘Obama moment’.

James frontman Tim Booth links the lyrics to Brown in a way that the Prime Minister might not have intended. ‘The song was written as an expression and call for unity in a lonely and frightening world. Personally the lyrics were written during a 4am bout of insomnia when the world looked bleak,’ he told us. ‘Here, it's being used by a desperate politician trying to hang on.’
Booth isn’t keen for the song to be a regular on the conference playlist. ‘If the Labour party use it more than once we might have something to say about it,’ he warns.

Labour are no strangers to misguided musical choices. At the 1995 Labour Conference, Tony Blair bounded onstage to ‘If the Kids Are United’ by 70s punks Sham 69, in defiance (very punk) of the fact that the current Labour front bench were neither kids nor, at that point, particularly united. It could have been worse, however – other Sham 69 possibilities include songs about breaking out of jail, getting drunk, and throwing up in toilets. Two years later, Dream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ voiced the optimism of the 1997 conference. It didn’t seem quite as optimistic, however, when it was still being played in 2004.

Not that the Tories can feel superior. Boris Johnson's campaign to become Mayor took place to the apocalyptic sounds of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’. With lyrics like ‘We ain't got no swing / 'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing,’ quite why that ever seemed like a good idea remains unclear.

Knife crime and talking dogs

The winner of this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize was announced on Wednesday. The award goes to Patrick Ness' novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which combines talking dogs and mysterious pools of silence with the topical concerns the title implies. Todd, the novel’s protagonist, has to decide whether he can kill people with his knife, a ‘big ratchety one with the bone handle and the serrated edge that cuts practically everything in the world’.

‘I really wanted to show what it is like having a knife in your hand’, Ness said. ‘It's power. Power has terrifying consequences even if you think it's quote unquote “just”. Once used it changes you, and in ways you may not want and can't change back.’ Two weeks after Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about knife crime (and a murdered goldfish) was removed from the curriculum, it’s nice to see that not everyone thinks we should be covering teenagers’ ears to keep the world out.

From tavern brawls to grass roots art

Marlowe was stabbed there and Francis Drake was knighted there, but since the Renaissance, Deptford’s kept a bit of a low profile. This is changing, however – a new influx of cafes, galleries and studios are transforming the area into a hotspot for up-and-coming artists. Now the area's Deptford X, holding its tenth annual arts festival. Subtitled Ghost Trade and the Spectre of Change, the festival will include installations, film screenings and Cy Twombly-esque asemic carvings on the windows of the train station. “There’s a real buzz down here, but it’s not just an overspill of trendy east London,” says curator Julia Alvarez, who graduated from the nearby Goldsmith’s College. “Deptford’s got its own flavour, there’s an underground feel.”

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.