Hard sell: Jacques Peretti.
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Why does nothing last? The Men Who Made Us Spend on BBC2

The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturdays, 9pm) is a fascinating, well-researched series but be warned: it will make you want to punch the nearest wall. Plus: Britain’s Poshest Nannies.

The Men Who Made Us Spend; Britain’s Poshest Nannies
BBC2; ITV

Another morning, another skip into which another virtually new kitchen will shortly be hurled. Your street might not be like this – or not yet – but mine is and it makes me sick. Where did it come from, this relentless pursuit of the new, this complete inability to feel guilty about producing so much needless waste? Jacques Peretti – he’s roughly what you’d get presenter-wise if you put Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis in a blender and whizzed for four minutes – believes that Ikea must take some of the blame, its “Chuck out your chintz” campaign having been so effective. There are other culprits, too: Margaret Thatcher, who believed that the consumer should be sovereign; computer-aided design, which allowed manufacturers to vary their products minutely and at very little cost, the better to increase our lust; consumer credit, which allows us to spend even when we’re broke; and, perhaps most monstrously of all, the German businessman who first came up with the now widely accepted concept of built-in obsolescence by limiting the life of his company’s light bulbs.

The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturdays, 9pm) is a fascinating, well-researched series but be warned: it will make you want to punch the nearest wall. Cynicism, denial, greed, vested interests . . . All are on display here and it isn’t pretty. The disdain some companies have for the ordinary person! Consumers might be sovereign in western capitalist terms but we’re also suckers and don’t they know it. When Peretti told Benedict Evans, a snooty, San Francisco-based “tech analyst”, that most people who lust for the latest iPhone seem to have no idea how it differs from the previous model, Evans’s contempt seemed absolute. “It’s not the consumer’s job to know how it’s better,” he said. Suddenly it was obvious why Apple, which refused to put up its own representative for interview, had suggested Evans as a proxy. All power to Peretti for having given the man enough fibre-optic cable with which to hang himself.

In California, Peretti visited iFixit, a collective whose members spend their days tearing apart technology to see how it might be mended. The iPhone 4, for instance, is held together with two tiny five-point screws that were seemingly designed by Apple specifically to keep its owner from looking inside and iFixit has created a screwdriver that will fit them (you can buy it online). Inside the handset, the company uses regular screws, which only underlines that Apple would rather you buy a new phone than attempt to replace a fading battery yourself.

Some technology is considered obsolete even before its built-in obsolescence kicks in. Peretti visited a recycling plant full of kit that had not even managed to make it out of the box before being abandoned. He also provided some pretty shocking footage of post-festival fields filled with row upon row of tents that had been used only once. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, this upset me more even than the mountains of printers and phones that had preceded it.

However much I loathe them, I’m now accustomed to the skips and to the four-by-fours that roar in once the makeover is complete. But even my jaw swung when, the other day, I saw a Norland nanny walking by, complete with a silly hat and white gloves. Where had this exotic creature appeared from? It seems she must have legged it to our litter-strewn borough hot from Bath, the home of Norland College, a fact I came by courtesy of Britain’s Poshest Nannies (17 July, 9pm) on ITV.

Will her skills come in useful in these parts? I’m not sure. These days, Norland nannies don’t just learn how to change a nappy; they’re taught how to dodge the paps (celebrity culture has invaded even the talcum-powdered world of the Victorian establishment). I suppose a defensive move with a Silver Cross pram might prove effective down the Turkish greengrocer’s should our heroine find herself fighting for the last punnet of flat peaches – but should she be tempted to kick the local Staffies “like a ninja”, she could quickly find herself in a world of pain.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser