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21 January 2016

Alsatian dog syndrome, long-distance working and the Tory “sink” estate scam

It is reassuring that we have a prime minister who returns from his Christmas break invigorated with new ideas.

By Peter Wilby

It is reassuring that we have a prime minister who returns from his Christmas break invigorated with new ideas. Among those that David Cameron discussed on The Andrew Marr Show and scattered like confetti across the Sunday and Monday papers was a plan to get rid of “sink” estates comprising “brutal high-rise towers”, where poverty is “entrenched” and social problems “fester”, and replace them with better housing. Naturally, this is not to be done with state money, except for a £140m start-up fund. The intention, as most of such estates occupy prime urban land, is to persuade developers to build high-value private homes, the proceeds from which fund regeneration for the rest of the estate.

The Sunday Times helpfully explained how this will work. The model, it reported, is the Packington estate in Islington, north London, where 538 “structurally unsound flats” were replaced by 791 houses and flats, 491 of them for social rent. In other words, the housing available for people on modest incomes fell by 8.7 per cent.


Migration and its effects

Men abroad, freed from the restraints and inhibitions of their normal environment, often behave badly. Britons, for example, vomit in Ibiza, have sex in public in Kavos and urinate in the streets of Tallinn.

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Some young men among the refugees and migrants entering Europe sexually molest and sometimes assault and rob women where large crowds gather. That is about all we can confidently say about what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. None of that excuses the guilty or denies the distress and pain that many women must have experienced. But it does not show that the majority, or even a large minority, of refugees and migrants are threats to European women, any more than most young Britons are threats to public order. The theory that “problems in Muslim society” – women being seen as inferior and non-believers as subhuman – explain the outrages requires, as academics say, further research.

Meanwhile, we should beware of what I call “the Alsatian dog syndrome”. When one Alsatian (or more often, now, a pit bull) savages a child to death, Alsatians across the country behave in a similar, though usually less serious, fashion for the next week, provoking calls for stricter controls. This is not because the dogs’ behaviour has suddenly changed but because every reporter in the land knows that savage canines are in the news and there is a market for more of such stories. Likewise, the Cologne reports, which seemed well corroborated, were followed by less-well-corroborated reports from other cities in Germany and elsewhere. The problem for Middle Eastern refugees, however, is that savage Muslims are hardly ever out of the news.


Getting the boot

It has been decades since it was first suggested that digital technology would soon make physical location irrelevant for millions of workers. If you had a desk job, it was said, it wouldn’t matter whether the desk was in Barbados or Carlisle. But the departed Environment Agency chairman Philip Dilley found, like other public figures in recent years, that the future can take a long time to arrive. It was no good saying he could co-ordinate flood relief over the Christmas period from a Caribbean island 4,000 miles away. He should have been getting his feet wet in Cumbria, presumably so that he could command the waters to recede.

Who would have thought that, a decade and a half into the 21st century, the must-have accessory for a member of the boss class would be not the latest smartphone, but a pair of wellingtons?


How many light bulbs?

Another example of how the future disappoints is the energy-efficient light bulb. Electric light used to be a simple matter: you got a standard bulb at levels from 25 watts (took little electricity and OK for the cupboard) to 150 watts (took lots of electricity but necessary for reading Private Eye’s back pages). Now there is a bewildering choice of bulbs and I have no idea which gives the best light and which guzzles least electricity. Meanwhile, the old-style bulbs, supposedly phased out, are still available online.

Now, US scientists have invented incandescent bulbs that are warm, quick to illuminate and super-efficient. I expect to buy the first of these in 2030 (God willing), only to find I don’t have the right light fitting.


The long and Short of it

The government, newspapers report, plans to cut “short money”, a disbursement from public funds to help opposition parties pay for some modest equivalent of the civil-service advice available to ministers. That should be “Short money”, after Edward Short, the Labour minister who introduced it in the 1970s. Almost every newspaper gets its wrong, usually because of what corrections columns call an “editing error”. This implies that sub-editors deliberately alter “Short” to lower case. What interests me is what they think “short money” means: a sum that leaves recipients short of money? Or banknotes with bits snipped off them? George Osborne, striving to cut the welfare bill, would surely be interested.


Critics’ conspiracy

I enjoyed, on a New Year family outing to the Savoy Theatre in London, Guys and Dolls, a Broadway musical set in the New York underworld. So I had no quarrel with the national newspaper critics’ seemingly unanimous awarding of four stars. Why, though, was one of them not sufficiently generous to give it five stars and why was there no highbrow grouch to give it three?

The unanimity of arts critics is often striking. Only when a play has an explicit political message do they seem to divide, ­always according to their papers’ allegiances. Perhaps they apply some objective set of critical standards. The more likely explanation, I fear, is that they collude, as do other groups of specialist journalists of which I have knowledge or experience. 

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie