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That yellow sky over London was really my week of cultural treats going up in smoke

On the whole, we’ve been housebound, and by God the house is quiet.

Our youngest has gone on a school trip so this is the first whole week Ben and I have had the house to ourselves for nearly 20 years. Originally we’d planned to go abroad on our own mini-break but it got cancelled, for one reason and another, so instead we arranged an itinerary of London treats – the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican, the swings at Tate Modern, dinner with friends.

This all starts well, and on the Saturday night we go out to the London Film Festival screening of Here to be Heard, a new documentary about the Slits. In the audience are a smattering of die-hard old punks – spray-painted leather jackets, spiked hair, faded T-shirts, now stretched a little tighter. For some of us, it was a moment in time, for others, a way of life.

The film itself is a typical music biog, where the first half is more interesting than the second, but worth seeing if only for all the early footage – Ari Up skanking on stage, Viv Albertine high-kicking in a tutu and, the best scene of all, a crowded bedroom where Viv is looking on in concentrated awe at Chrissie Hynde showing her chord shapes on a guitar.

But after that night out, our planned excursions fall apart, due to us both getting stinking colds, coughing and sneezing in a manner that would be called overacting in a sitcom. One afternoon we totter out in thick woollies and a taxi, to see another film, The Party – but it’s about middle-aged people having affairs and terminal illnesses, and so doesn’t quite have the desired effect of cheering us up.

On the whole, we’ve been housebound, and by God the house is quiet. At night, the bedroom ceiling creaks occasionally, as it does when the daughter who sleeps above is home and walking about; but she’s not here and so I know that it’s just the house settling at the end of the day.

The youngest texts from his school trip with a three-word message – “OH MY GOD” – the very text you don’t want to get from a child who is abroad, and this one is followed by a pause long enough to chill the blood. I’m imagining various scenes of horror or disaster when, after a few minutes, the text is followed up. “I think Orange Juice’s ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ might be my favourite song of all time!”

So I curl up on the sofa with tea and tissues, and alternate between watching season 4 of Transparent and reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair.

I love Transparent, despite the melodramatic solipsism of its main characters. No, wait, I mean because of that. Everyone behaves so badly all the time, it’s actually refreshing, like an acidic palate cleanser. In this season the family go to Israel, so they can behave badly to Israelis too.

After a few episodes, I go back to The Sparsholt Affair, which reminds me a bit of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It has a similar time frame, starting in Oxford during the war, moving through the artistic and literary circles of bohemian London in the Sixties and Seventies, and up to the present day. The characters are writers and artists, they paint small oils, and are sketched by lovers; write memoirs of their affairs, and are outed by the press; meet and re-meet in large shabby houses and at private views, where, “For the guests it was really a private view of each other.” The years pass, the same characters recur, they blossom, fade and die.

The afternoon ticks by, and I notice it is growing dark. Hang on, though – this isn’t normal dark, and it’s only 2pm. I look outside and the sky has turned yellow, the clouds dark and jaundiced, and the birds silent as in an eclipse. A hurricane is grazing the edge of the country, dragging up dust from the Sahara and smoke particles from wildfires in Portugal. The sun burns bright red, and then vanishes behind the sepia clouds, throwing the house into darkness.

All of London Twitter simultaneously tweets about the apocalypse, although you can tell everyone is secretly thrilled, and using the sky as an excuse to do nothing but stare out the window. Which is what I’m doing.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.