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3 September 2015

A tale of two Islingtons, nostalgia for the Nineties, and the slow decline of the US Democrats

The journey from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn is irresistible, providing as it does a tale of two Islingtons.

By Amol Rajan

Humble hacks like me are forever looking for a neat symmetry in events on which to hang a narrative. The journey from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn is irresistible, providing as it does a tale of two Islingtons. Blair lived on the posh Richmond Crescent in Barnsbury in the south of the borough, a few hundred yards from the (ex-council) flat I call home. Emily Thornberry and Margaret Hodge are still there. Corbyn is MP for the much poorer constituency to the north. I can’t afford a house with a garden in Barnsbury, so I am trying (and failing) to buy one in the heart of Corbyn’s constituency.

It is true that Thornberry’s constituency is by far the wealthier. But this simple dichotomy is deceptive. I am a patron of a charity – Prospex – that helps kids in the area just off the Caledonian Road (Cally), which falls in Thornberry’s purview. The deprivation there is appalling, with gang culture and drugs rife and pockets of illiteracy and worklessness. Meanwhile, just to the south, the area around King’s Cross is home to one of the most thrilling urban regeneration projects in Europe, soon to be home to Google’s operations beyond Silicon Valley.

The kids of the Cally, who roam the streets between this coming Babel and Blair’s old gaff, feel no benefit from all the investment and soaring property prices. For them, this, the allegedly posh south of Islington, was and is a world of poverty. The more you know the area, the more you realise that the Islington of dinner-party folklore bears little resemblance to the facts. It is a useful myth with which to punish Labour folk for daring to live Tory lifestyles.


Don’t look back in anger

The Corbyn phenomenon is a giant nostalgia trip. Nostalgia is often based on the idea that the past was better than the present. Indulging it is a habit for losers. But sometimes even losers have a point. Prompted by Labour’s shift from Blair to Corbyn, I have been thinking recently that maybe it’s time we reappraised the 1990s. Wasn’t it the loveliest decade? Particularly if you expand it to include the fall of the Berlin Wall and mark its finish with 9/11.

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In global affairs, it was a time of relative peace, despite major conflicts in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. The world economy grew consistently, with little inflation. Living standards nearly everywhere rose; “austerity” was almost out of usage. British society became more tolerant, particularly towards gay people and ethnic minorities. We had the YBAs, Britpop and Euro 96 in England. And, yes, with Blair, there was a sense of a new dawn after 18 years of Tory rule. Call me a loser, but you might even say we never had it so good. A proper look back on that time is overdue, I reckon.

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Ashes to Ashes

Another thing we had in the 1990s was great cricket between England and Australia, generally with the latter winning. Any Englishman who remembers that time ought to take pleasure in our recent Ashes victory. But this was probably the most uninspiring summer Test match series in recent memory. It was impossible, watching a flat final day at the Oval, not to feel that slowly, subtly and surely, Test cricket is decaying.

I remember watching, at the same ground last year, Virat Kohli, perhaps India’s best-known current player, go through the motions. For him, the grey, dank Test arena of England must have had nothing on the lustre and lucre of the Indian Premier League, which plays a corrupt, shorter form of the game that is the new focal point of the sport.

The changes in cricket reflect geopolitics. Power is shifting irreversibly to the east.


Despite the Trump card

Jeff Greenfield of Politico recently examined a curiosity of American politics. Democrats are the favourites to take the White House next year and Barack Obama has been a transformational president, the best since Franklin D Roosevelt – but the party is in ruins at the local level and a young president is giving way to an older generation: Hillary Clinton (67), Joe Biden (72), Bernie Sanders (73) and Nancy Pelosi (75).

Obama has recently turned 54. When he took office, there were 60 Democrats in the Senate (counting two independents) and 257 House members. Today, those numbers are 46 and 188, giving the Republicans their largest dominance of the House since Herbert Hoover became president in 1929. The Republicans also have 31 governorships, nine more than they had in 2009. This is a remarkable collapse. Demographic changes and the bizarre, desperate candidacy of Donald Trump make the Democrats hopeful of winning the big prize in Washington next year. But Clinton, presuming she wins, will find getting her legislative programme through even tougher than Obama did.


Disco dungeon

A few weekends ago, I had a night out in Bristol that confirmed my prejudices about house music, which I have disliked in most of its forms over the past decade. Shanti Celeste, a very talented DJ, was playing at a “micro-club” called Cosies. This just means a bar with a dancing area that is the size of a dungeon. I was there for a reunion and had a terrific time but the music had that infernal monotony characteristic of house – bom, bom, bom, bom, bom. With minutes to go, however, the DJ put on a couple of belters: a remix of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”, followed by “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League. Immediately, all hands were in the air.

I have a theory that fans of dance music, except for a small minority, prefer tracks with lyrics. The more obscure or minimalist the music genre, the more it benefits from having lyrics on top. Google “Ghetto Dub” by DJ Probe & Sylo, one of my favourite drum’n’bass tracks, and you will see what I mean. I tried explaining this to someone I met in that Bristol dungeon but he was in no fit state to engage with the central point, which reminded me that I am far too old to be spending time in micro-clubs. l

Amol Rajan is the editor of the Independent

This article appears in the 26 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism