Just imagine if seven white children had been murdered on our streets

Published in the Evening Standard

The scariest thought is that we might not even be scared anymore. Children are killing children on the streets of London, and we?re gradually getting used to it.

Seven boys aged between 14 and 18 were either stabbed or shot dead in the capital since January, yet how many of us can name even one of them? The family of 14 year old Paul Erhahon won?t forget him, not after he died in his mother?s arms outside his home in Leytonstone last Friday. Nor will the family of Jevon Henry, 18, stabbed in the heart in St Johns Wood in January. Nor the loved ones of James Andre Smartt-Ford, a 16 year old shot dead at Streatham Ice Arena. Nor Michael Dosunmu, 15, shot and killed in his bed in Peckham. Nor Billy Cox, 15. Nor Kodjo Yenga, 16. Nor Adam Regis, 15.

The rest of us, though, read about these boys in the papers on the way home from work; we might see their pictures flashed up on the local television news later that night. And then, because they are not our sons or our brothers or our friends, we move on ? and forget.

That?s partly because we?ve all got busy lives and there?s only so much room in our crammed heads and over-stretched hearts. But, if we?re honest, we?ll admit there?s another factor at work here too. For too many Londoners, this spate of killing has seemed to be taking place at one remove ? as if it were somebody else?s problem. Specifically, too many white Londoners have been able to put this to one side, neatly labelling it a ?black problem.?

I don?t exempt the media from this charge. On the contrary, I?m trying to imagine the coverage if this had been seven white children slain on the streets of London: something tells me the media drumbeat would be much, much louder.

Yesterday the prime minister weighed in, calling for action on knife and gun crime. He also urged the black community to step forward and admit the truth: ?We won?t stop this by pretending it isn?t young black kids doing it,? Tony Blair said.

Of course, it?s good that the PM realises the gravity of this problem ? and most people will nod at his statement of the obvious. But there is an implied insult there, one which helps nobody.

For implicit in that remark was the suggestion that the black community currently does ?pretend? that this is someone else?s problem, that it is in a state of denial from which Tony Blair is stirring them. But that?s not true.

In February, an estimated 2500 people, mainly black Londoners, marched from Peckham to Windrush Square in Brixton in a ?prayer walk? to mourn the deaths of the teenage boys murdered in those bloody winter weeks. It was organised by Pastor Nims Obunge of the Peace Alliance, with the backing of several predominantly black evangelical churches, in less than a week. As anyone who has even dabbled in activism will know, assembling 2500 people in a few days is a huge achievement ? and it illustrates a community that is in anything but denial.

Instead, black leaders insist they have ?owned? this issue for nearly a decade, urging every home secretary since Jack Straw to take action. Black radio stations and newspapers wrestle with it constantly. There is no need to tell them to face up to what they already know: rather the rest of us should start listening.

What we will hear is that this epidemic of violence comes out of a grim confluence of several problems, which have come together in the black community in a lethal combination.

Top of the list is poverty and deprivation. It?s easily forgotten, amid all the hoopla about London as a financial centre and global capital, but this city still harbours some of the worst poverty anywhere in Europe. Combine that with a high incidence of single parent families ? though not the highest: that still occurs among white Britons ? and you have communities that are exceptionally vulnerable to the kind of breakdown these crimes represent.

There are other, specific factors ? with the gang culture central. That, says Lee Jasper, the mayor?s adviser on race relations, is itself the product of large, open drug markets alongside areas of great deprivation. ?Once that culture takes hold,? says Jasper, ?it spreads.? A decade ago, drug dealers might have shot each other over drugs. Now, you get children killing children ?over nothing, trivia.?

The police have acted, their Operation Trident targeting so-called targeting crime in the black community and jailing some of the most established gang members. But that?s had an unintended consequence, say community activists, as younger, more hot-headed gang members have replaced the old guard, now in jail.

And it doesn?t end there. Yesterday Ken Livingstone added the prevalence and availability of violent movies and videogames to the list of possible culprits. It sounded like a side issue ? after all, plenty of people saw Kill Bill and didn?t go out and stab a teenager. But black leaders argue that while those from stable, well-resourced families might be able to watch and dismiss such movies - helped by other, more positive influences - this easily-available diet of violence can have a terribly desensitising effect on the vulnerable. The white kids in the suburbs might listen to 50 Cent?s ?Get Rich or Die Tryin?? on their iPod with no great consequences, but for a black kid in Peckham it can have a rather more pernicious impact.

Luckily, black campaigners are not short of suggested remedies for this grave problem. The core solution is one the prime minister should embrace: if we want to get tough on this crime, we have to get tough on the causes of this crime. That means investment in employment and education, so that schools stop failing black boys. It means more black male teachers in the classroom, offering whatever incentives are needed to bring them there. It means London equivalents of America?s ?midnight basketball? schemes, in which schools and community centres stay open after hours, getting kids off the streets and giving them a place to go and things to do. After years in which youth services were run down in the Thatcher era, it means new investment ? soon to be helped by the mayor?s plan to put in a pound for every pound spent by the local boroughs.

This is not the problem of one part of London, but of all London. Unless we want to become the kind of city where children murder children ? and everyone else walks on by.

Watch out for the new poll tax

Published in the Evening Standard

When Americans speak of an issue that’s too hot to handle, they call it “the third rail”: like the power cable on a train line, you only have to touch it to die. In Britain we have a third rail of our own – and it’s called local tax.

We’ll see it’s destructive power again next week, when Sir Michael Lyons publishes his review of local finance. Leaks suggest he’s going to add a couple of new council tax bands at the top end, so that someone living in a #1m home could see their annual bill double to #4,400.

It’s no coincidence that it’s an unelected official who’s been saddled with delivering this bit of bad news. No politician wants to go anywhere near the issue. Look, they tell you, their voices a-tremble, what the poll tax did to Margaret Thatcher. Call it the rates, the community charge or council tax, it makes no difference. It’s a political killer.

That’s partly because it may be the only tax many people actually feel. For most PAYE earners, income tax is lopped off at source, before they ever know about it: it’s tax under anaesthetic. VAT is included in the price of most goods and services, so we hardly notice that either. But council tax is different. Either you write a cheque, or you watch the direct debit flow out of your account. You feel the paying – and it hurts.

Which is why the government has run a mile from the issue, even though the system is in dire need of reform. The current set-up is based on property valuations that were carried out when the Soviet Union was still standing, back in 1991. Yet ministers have found reason after reason to delay, even postponing re-valuation till after the next election. No one wants to repeat Thatcher’s error.

But they won’t be able to put it off forever. If the government endorses the Lyons proposal, effectively raising the maximum those in the biggest houses can pay, they will face serious heat from two groups whose votes they badly need.

First in the queue will be homeowners in London and the South East, who have seen the value of their properties sky-rocket since 1991. Plenty of middle class families, who would never consider themselves at the top of the heap, are nevertheless living in houses that have entered the top bracket. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of houses in this city and beyond are now worth the magic seven figures. Nor is this just the obvious mansions of Chelsea and luxury apartments of Kensington. One expert I spoke to yesterday said that when you see a substantial family house in Kentish Town or Camden Town, you’re looking at a million-pound home.

Most irate will be those people whose properties may be big, but whose earnings are small: think of the elderly widow, rattling around in a roomy house, but with no way of finding #4,400 a year. If Gordon Brown were to endorse Lyons, he would either have to ensure a battery of extra benefits, to cushion the impact on the poorest – or prepare to face the wrath of those two vital elements in the famed New Labour coalition, the London middle class and the elderly.

But there is another, more radical way. Instead of tinkering with the council tax, he could propose an entirely new way of funding our local services. The clue is in the word local. The answer could be a local income tax.

Under this approach, the Inland Revenue would simply make a note of your postcode, add three or four pennies in the pound to your annual tax bill and send the money to your local council. It may sound outlandish – after all it was part of the Lib Dem manifesto in 2005. But local income tax works well across the world, from Scandinavia to parts of the United States.

Indeed, when I lived in America that was how I paid for my bins to be emptied and my street to be cleaned. At the end of the financial year, I signed two tax returns: one for the federal government and another, much smaller, one for the local city hall. No one ever asked what kind of apartment I was living in.

The advantages of such a system are obvious. Income tax is progressive – with the rich paying more, the poor paying less – while a property charge asks the Duke of Westminster to pay the same as the penniless old lady in a big house. Surely its fairer for people to pay according to what they afford.

Income tax is also what the experts call ‘buoyant’, in that revenue does not stay static but goes up as incomes rise. That would give councils more money to spend on services often starved of cash.

It sounds like an obvious move. But there would be loud opposition. In London, where incomes are high, we’d suddenly be paying much more than we currently shell out in council tax for the same services – while those in poorer parts of the country, where incomes are low, would be paying much less. That would be the inevitable result of the Treasury gathering in all the money, then spreading it around according to need, seeking to equalise between rich and poor.

Alternatively, each area could be allowed to keep exactly what it raises in local income tax from its residents. Great for K & C or Westminster; not so great for Hackney or Brent. The solution then would be to do what I saw in the US: simply draw the municipal boundaries in such a way that no area was all-rich or all-poor, but contained a mix, as many London boroughs do already. That way redistribution would happen locally, without need for Treasury meddling.

If all that sounds too terrifying to our anxious politicians, they could always take it slowly. They could phase in a local income tax, so that it runs in parallel with a reduced property charge. Gradually the blend could change, so avoiding any sudden shock to the system. Then all they’d have to do is find someone else to announce it.

Don’t knock parents who put faith first

Published in the Evening Standard

Tory politicians have one big advantage over their Labour rivals: they can send their kids to whatever school they like. David Cameron could blithely announce this week that he?s going to choose a faith school for his daughter, rejecting 15 others closer to home, safe in the knowledge that not a fragment of flak will come his way. If he were leading Labour rather than the Conservatives, he?d still be cowering under the incoming fire.

It?s not just his party affiliation. Cameron has also been careful to say that politicians should be perfectly free to do whatever is best for their children. He said that when Ruth Kelly was hammered last month for sending her son to a private school, able to cater for his special needs. If that logic holds good for her, it should hold good for him.

More to the point, few London parents will scold Cameron for sending three year old Nancy to a school – the 210-pupil St Mary Abbots Primary off Kensington Church Street – more than two miles from his home. We?ve got used to going to much more extreme lengths than that to secure a decent education for our kids. All but the most ideologically committed now understand that in London, where so many schools face such severe problems, the conscientious parent is allowed to do whatever it takes.

For some that means paying fees. Others, who either can?t afford to pay or want to stay in the state sector on principle, have to find other paths to a good school. That can mean moving house, to be in the catchment area for a quality comprehensive. Or it can mean putting your child up for one of the handful of schools that are still selective. Or it can mean finding a corner of the state sector that outperforms the rest: faith schools.

David and Samantha Cameron have taken that last route, one that counts as a lurch leftward by Tory standards, where private education has long been the norm. There are contradictions, not least the call Cameron issued at the Conservative Party conference last autumn for faith schools to open up until a quarter of their pupils were from other faiths or none. At the time, Cameron explained that this quota should apply to new faith schools: in other words, emerging Muslim schools would be forced to open their doors, while a cosy Church of England establishment like St Mary Abbots Primary could stay just as it is.

Still, few will hold that against him. And I?m not going to bash him for taking the faith route, since my wife and I have made a similar choice for our own children, opting for a Jewish primary school (though one that is rather nearer to our home than St Mary Abbots is to the Camerons?.) Still, in some left circles, that counts as an ideological crime just short of going private.

The criticisms tend to fall into two categories. The first – call it the Richard Dawkins critique ? says that to send a child to a faith school is to submit him to a programme of religious indoctrination little better than cult-like brainwashing. The second, which we might call the ghetto argument, worries that faith schools lead to ethnic segregation, separating off London?s different communities almost from birth, so that even our youngest children grow up apart when they should be mixing.

The Dawkins view rests on what may be a misunderstanding of how religious schools actually operate. If the education of my five year old son is anything to go by, most of the ?religious? content he receives is not theology, but instruction in Jewish tradition and customs, from learning at Passover time about Jewish slavery in Egypt or wearing fancy dress for Purim. Beyond that, the school is infused with what the experts call an ?ethos?, a sense of values which owes nothing to the coercive indoctrination into superstition Dawkins fears.

The second objection is even more frail, especially in London. Contrary to expectations, faith schools often end up being more diverse than their secular counterparts nearby. That?s because while most schools draw their pupils geographically, from areas that are often economically and ethnically homogenous, those guided by faith look further afield.

St Mary Abbot?s is a case in point. You might imagine it, with its Kensington address, being an all-white enclave where Nancy Cameron would join other straw-hatted, well-heeled girls dropped off in their 4 x 4s. In fact, its pupils also come from Shepherd?s Bush, north Kensington and Kensal Rise. The result is that some 43% of the children are from ethnic minority families, while more than half do not have English as their first language.

So the pre-conceptions about faith schools are often false: if David Cameron needed to defend his choice, he could. Where things could get trickier is when he and Samantha have to find a secondary school. (Though by then he may already be safely installed in Downing Street ? or consigned to the back benches.)

If they want to stay in the state sector, they may plump for a faith school once again. My own instinct will, I suspect, be different. Having chosen a faith school for the primary years, I?d be very wary of doing the same from 11 to 18 ? for reasons that go back to that ghetto argument.

I balk at the idea of children spending all their formative years with a single group. Fine for one stage ? either primary or secondary ? but surely too limiting for an entire education. And not good for our society either, not if we are to chase that elusive goal of integration ? pursued once again in yesterday?s report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion.

So this, as most London parents know, is a vexed area, too complex for the glib slogans of those who don?t have to make such decisions themselves. Cameron has made his choice; the rest of us are making ours. But let no one tell you it?s easy.

Get ready for the rubbish wars

The Mayor wants new powers to deal with London’s waste problem – and that has caused the first major break with Downing Street

Published in the Evening Standard

Their troubles seemed to be over. Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone may have their disagreements over foreign policy, but on everything else, the relationship had turned into one of respectful, mutual admiration. Blair warmly endorsed Ken for re-election in 2004, while Ken played the loyal footsoldier for Blair a year later. But Tony Blair did once warn that Ken Livingstone would be a ?disaster for London?: they were bound to fall out eventually.

And now they have. The only surprise is that it took so long ? and that it should be over rubbish.

Already the mayor has accused the environment secretary and prime ministerial favourite, David Miliband, of spouting ?fatuous waffle?, while the government says City Hall is guilty of telling fibs. And the cause of this dissension is, quite literally, trash.

It all comes down to Ken?s demand for a single waste authority, a London-wide body that would be in charge not of collecting our rubbish, but disposing of it. He wants that power included in the Greater London Authority Bill currently grinding its way through parliament. Right now, it?s up to the local boroughs to pick up the trash and get rid of it. Under the mayor?s plan, Barnet, Hackney or Hammersmith would keep sending out the bin-men and operating the dustcarts, but the refuse collected would then be dumped in Ken?s lap. So to speak.

He says it?s necessary because waste disposal is now a strategic matter, like housing or planning or skills ? areas in which the government has happily given the mayor city-wide powers. In an era of rapid climate change, he argues, rubbish is just too important to be dealt with in a haphazard, borough-by-borough way: we need a gameplan for the whole capital.

What?s trash got to do with climate change? Plenty, depending on what you do with it. If you dig a whole in the ground and dump it there, it spells disaster: landfill sites give off methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more harmful than CO2. But if you burn it in a giant incinerator, that involves serious carbon emissions and pollution, too. Ken?s got religion on climate change now ? and waste is one of the key battlefronts in the battle against it. He thinks London needs to get to grips with the problem strategically, as a single city. And that means under him.

It?s not just greenery either; there?s a financial incentive here, too. Britain is now bound by targets set by the European Union: if we don?t curb our landfill habit by 2010, there could be up to

Racism’s true face, as seen on Big Brother

Published in the Evening Standard

We should be grateful to Celebrity Big Brother. Not a sentence I expected to write, I confess. After all, the Big Brother house has become a kind of latter-day Bedlam, a place of misery which demeans those gazing in as much as those condemned to be looking out. Like the Londoners of the 18th century who used to head to the Bethlem Royal Hospital to pay a penny “to view the freaks and laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature, or at violent fights,” this is an entertainment that reduces everyone involved.

So, ordinarily, I would not be rushing to offer thanks to Channel 4 and the masters of the Elstree house. But sometimes you have to make an exception. The sight of George Galloway in a leotard, lapping like a cat at the cupped hands of Rula Lenska, somehow captured the vanity and exhibitionism of the man more perfectly than any number of political interviews. And now, the producers have performed another, even more significant service.

For the row over the treatment of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty has reminded us of something we’d prefer to forget. It has told us that, not very far below the surface of our society, there remains the most base, crude kind of racism.

Jo O’Meara, formerly of S Club 7, has been impersonating Shetty’s accent, in the manner of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. She, along with ex-BB inmate Jade Goody and beauty queen Danielle Lloyd, grew irritated that the Indian star had touched their food. After all, said Lloyd: “You don’t know where those hands have been.” O’Meara wondered if Indians were thin because they often got ill, thanks to undercooking their food.

It could almost be a throwback to the 1970s when British ignoramuses accused British Asians of talking funny, eating funny and being vaguely dirty. And yet this is not the 1970s, but the 21st century, when we thought we had left such things behind.

Officially we have. Today all politicians unite in praising the different communities that make up our society. In London, the mayor lets not a day go by without singing a hymn of praise to the “diversity” that makes us great. Big business has joined the chorus. Try to find an advert or company report which does not feature a mixed collection of faces when it seeks to show off its employees or customers. We’re all tolerant now, we tell ourselves again and again.

Indeed, to read some of our papers, you’d think the only problem is that we’ve gone too far, that it’s political correctness gone mad, when the only people who need to feel frightened are middle-class whites. For everyone else, London has become a cosmopolitan nirvana.

This complacency has not been confined to white circles. I have heard both black and Indian Londoners note, with a hint of guilt, that in the post-9/11 era, the pressure on them has eased. Muslims are the target now, they note warily. To be Afro-Caribbean or Hindu does not, they said, stir the hostility it once did.

Then along comes Big Brother to puncture that complacency. It’s been a reminder that whatever the platitudes repeated by official London – the politicians, the media, the big companies – at street level, some attitudes are stubbornly persistent. It’s rare for our official, public space ever to reflect that: how often are the likes of O’Meary, Goody or Lloyd given an opportunity to reveal their true attitudes to such matters? Usually, they jabber away about nothing. But pull away the showbiz veneer, scrape off the inch-thick layer of foundation, and look what you see underneath.

And there will be hundreds of thousands of Londoners who, when similarly candid, would talk just the same way. Note the testimony of novelist Hari Kunzru in yesterday’s Guardian, discussing the refusal by “celebrity” Jackiey Goody to learn Shetty’s name. That, said Kunzru, was “straightforwardly racist – every British Asian will have had that conversation at least once, complete with self-righteous complaints about the ‘difficulty’ of the task.” We should remember that next time we immerse ourselves in a warm bath of self-congratulation about British tolerance. On this point perhaps the smartest assessment has come from a former BB inmate, Narinder Kaur: “Lets not be shocked there’s racism in the house; there’s racism in society.”

She went on to say that viewers should be shocked, however, by Channel 4′s failure to act, even in the face of many thousands of complaints. Shocked perhaps, but surely not surprised. Does any one doubt that C4 executives are delighted by this turn of events? An ailing franchise, with a list of unknowns masquerading as celebrities, has suddenly been given a transfusion of publicity you couldn’t buy: condemnation from Gordon Brown, an echo from Tony Blair and questions raised in the House of Commons. Yesterday came the proof that it’s working: the ratings have surged.

What should Channel 4 do? They could send a powerful message by simply evicting, without fanfare, the three offending housemates. That could have an electrifying effect on playgrounds up and down the land, setting as powerful an example to young people as a referee showing a red card to a footballer guilty of hurling racist abuse. It would signal that some behaviour is not acceptable, no matter how famous or highly paid you are.

The downside is that the evicted three would become free speech martyrs, Goody, Lloyd and O’Meara cast as victims gagged for speaking their mind. Which leaves another option. Instead of waiting for C4 to act, we could act ourselves. True, it would have the drawback of making the programme producers a lot of money, but a mechanism is there and waiting to be used. We simply have to pick up the phone and evict the three, one by one – and then vote for Shilpa Shetty to win the whole competition. That would send a message all right, about who belongs in today’s Britain – and who doesn’t.

Is bank fraud really too trifling for the Met?

Published in the Evening Standard

I have been the victim of a crime which I didn’t even know was happening. I didn’t feel a thing. I only found out about it after most of the damage was done.

It was a few weeks ago now, going through the post, reading my bank statement. Normally, it’s a quick skim read and then shoved in a pile. But this time, I was unnerved to see the figure at the bottom of the page was dramatically lower than the one at the top: had we really spent so much money so fast?

I looked closer. How could I have spent #900 at an electronics shop that I had clean forgotten? When had we had a blowout at the World of Leather? And why were there withdrawals of the maximum #300 every single day?

By now, I could feel myself turning pale, the blood draining from my face. The bank statement, which normally runs to a page or two, went on for a full five pages, detailing day after day of enormous, extravagant spending. The bottom line showed that well over half of our savings had been wiped out.

I soon realised what had happened. A few weeks earlier, my wife had used an ATM machine at a petrol station. It had swallowed her card, the screen displaying a message that said the bank would be in touch to send a replacement. Except the machine hadn’t really swallowed it at all. Or, if it had, it had regurgitated it for someone else to use.

Which they did, as if they had just won the lottery. Remarkably, through all of this, our bank never called once to check if it was really us spending these huge amounts. Now, I like falafel as much as the next man, but was it really possible that I had spent a cool #1400 at a Turkish restaurant in Walthamstow not once, but three times?

What followed were days of phone calls, multiple form-filling and much angst. But, in the end, I’m glad to say, the bank acted impeccably and restored to us all the money that had been lost.

But who were the missing players in this drama? Why, the Metropolitan Police. The very force which, Sir Ian Blair promised when he took over as Commissioner nearly two years ago, would become more responsive to the needs of the public. We reported the episode to them, had a short phone call – dedicated to working out which station should have jurisdiction over our case – and filled in a form. After that, nothing. Certainly no visit to our home for an interview. Not even a detailed conversation over the phone.

When I mentioned this to the anti-fraud official at the bank, he replied in the trusty Scottish accent for which call centres are located north of the border, “Ah, that’ll be because you live in London. They’re so busy, this won’t count as a priority.”

I believe that. My wife’s bag was once nicked in a local cafe, her purse and cash all stolen. We reported it but the police did nothing. Even though the owners of the cafe had found CCTV pictures which showed the crime being committed – revealing, clearly and fully, the faces of the culprits – the police never so much as looked at the tapes.

At the time, I understood that. What’s one stolen bag in a city of eight million? But what happened to our bank account was serious fraud, involving tens of thousands of pounds. It was clearly a sophisticated operation too: the thieves had to tamper with the ATM machine, even changing its screen display. Yet, even this crime was seen as too trifling to warrant proper police attention.

One caveat. The bank official said it’s conceivable that the police are investigating – quietly, so they don’t risk alerting what could be a wider criminal ring. But that seems a stretch to me: surely, if the police really were pursuing such an inquiry, they would want to get at least a few details from us.

Instead, all we got was one of those letters saying the Met were sorry to hear that we had been the victims of a crime and that we were eligible for victim support. I was tempted to call back and say the only victim bloody support I wanted was a detective with a notebook in his hand asking the right questions.

And, make no mistake, this would not have been a difficult case to crack. The thief had carried on stealing right up until the morning we had discovered the fraud. The bank’s computer records showed the exact time he had taken the money out of an ATM. The police only needed to get CCTV footage of that machine and they would have nailed him. And our bank statements amounted to a virtual log of his movements, with dates and times, for the previous month.

About ten years ago, when ‘zero tolerance’ first became common parlance, policymakers spoke of the ‘broken window’ theory. It held that if even the smallest crimes went punished, then the big ones would be committed more rarely. If windows were not left broken, but repaired, people would be wary of smashing up the whole house. New York was the testbed for the idea, where police found that by cracking down on, say, graffiti, they saw an eventual decline in the murder rate.

Deal with the small crimes and the big crimes take care of themselves. That was the theory, and the practice, in New York. But London’s police don’t seem to have caught up. Get your bike nicked here, and the police will tell you they can’t do anything about it: there’s too much crime. They haven’t spotted the connection. There’s too much crime because no one investigates a stolen bicycle or bag or even a drained bank account.

So how about this for a new year’s resolution for Sir Ian Blair? Forget the victim support letters. Send a police officer instead.

The Cabaret spell that won’t let us go

Published in the Evening Standard

Who could ask for a warmer Wilkommen than that? The new production of Cabaret, the show that put the camp into kulturkampf, has just opened to rave reviews and jammed switchboards, confidently anointed as the winter’s hot ticket.

It’s hardly a surprise. The critics have long ranked this tale of nightclubs, cross-dressing and tangled love in Weimar Germany among the very best musicals of the post-war era. Its look never dates while the tunes are belting, from the opening Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, through the candid cynicism of Money, Money – “It makes the world go round” – to the sinister warning of Tomorrow Belongs to Me. Londoners who’ve already seen Chicago, but like songs with their suspenders – you know where to go.

Not that Cabaret won’t face stiff competition. Another hit show from the 1960s, also adapted into a definitive movie with a career-making central performance for its lead actress, is on its way to the West End. Come November, Cabaret will be duelling against the Sound of Music.

But the two shows have something else in common, too – a feature they share with at least a couple more West End productions. Lurking, either in the background or foreground, are Nazis. The Von Trapps cross the border to escape them in the Sound of Music, while the chorus girls and boys of the Kit Kat Club end up cowering, nude and frightened, from them in the fatal end of Cabaret.

There is a similarly lethal climax to Bent, set in Dachau, and now revived with Alan Cumming at the Trafalgar Studios. And lets not forget the high-stepping goose-steppers of Springtime for Hitler, the show within a show at the heart of The Producers. From the Palladium to Drury Lane, the West End is awash with swastikas.

We shouldn’t single out the theatre. This is a trend that’s pervaded popular culture ever since publishers discovered that a Nazi emblem on the cover is a fast-track to the bestsellers’ lists. (Humorist Alan Coren memorably cashed in on the phenomenon when he combined non-fiction’s three most popular themes in Golfing for Cats – with a swastika on the jacket.) Or check the TV documentary channels: if you’ve just missed a film about Hitler, don’t worry, another will be along shortly.

Part of me welcomes this profusion of material about what remains the darkest episode in human history. Plenty of my fellow Jews once believed no artistic expression could ever do justice to the Holocaust in particular, and that therefore it was better not to try. That view was often expressed in the slogan “no poetry after Auschwitz,” or the call for silence after the Shoah – but it has palpably gone unheeded.

It was always doomed. Human beings need to get to grips with the horrors of their shared past and art, in all its forms, is the way they do it. Some efforts will be crude, some will backfire disastrously, but the urge is real and should not be repressed.

What’s more, now that the events of the 1940s are slipping from living memory into history – as veterans of the Second World War and survivors of the Holocaust enter their last years – I sympathise with those who are desperate to ensure none of it is forgotten. That need has become urgent in a world in which the President of Iran denies the reality of the Shoah, the leader of Hezbollah tells his supporters that “Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust” and Hamas’s official web site describes the Nazi murder of six million Jews as “an alleged and invented story with no basis.” Historian Robert Satloff in a new book reports that “Not a single official textbook or educational programme on the Holocaust exists in an Arab country.”

In that context, I’m glad that Britain has taken a stand against amnesia, that we have a Holocaust Memorial Day, that British school kids learn about the Nazi period, that those events live on in the collective memory, thanks in part to the likes of Cabaret and Bent.

And yet I still find my heart sinks a little, for reasons that reflect both of the two core aspects of my identity, Jewish and British. First, I am one of those Jews who prefers his Jewishness to be rooted in culture, tradition or customs that can be lived, enjoyed and celebrated. The alternative, as Howard Jacobson puts it in his brilliant, Booker-longlisted novel Kalooki Nights, is to dwell on “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness.” Some Jews make a religion of past suffering, with the Holocaust occupying a central, almost sacred space. But I prefer another way, to raise my children not to be burdened by Jewish death, but to delight in and marvel at Jewish life.

And, as a Briton, I wonder at a national psyche still shaped so extensively by the experience of the second world war. I notice how rapidly any political discussion descends into a comparison with the 1930s and 1940s, whether it’s Saddam Hussein compared to Adolf Hitler, al-Qaida to fascists or anti-war campaigners to pre-war appeasers. It’s as if this is the only history we know, so it becomes our only point of comparison. No one is Napoleon or Wellington, Philip of Spain or Elizabeth I: it’s only ever Hitler and Churchill, again and again.

It’s clear all this has had a profound effect on Britain, colouring our view of Europe, giving us a distorted sense of our place in the world. It has even led to a curious sense that our best years are behind us, that 1940 truly was our “finest hour” and that we can never be quite as good again.

None of this is the fault of a few West End shows. But Cabaret and the rest ensure that the Nazi period remains seared into the collective mind like no other. It’s right that we should remember it, but it casts a long shadow – and sometimes we need to step outside it.

We mustn’t let the hatemongers win

Published in the Evening Standard 21 September 2006

It’s unusual to watch a contest and feel unsympathetic to both sides, but that was the sensation yesterday, watching John Reid do battle with a couple of Islamist extremists in Leytonstone.

The first impulse was to loathe the barrackers, led by Abu Izzadeen, the extremist formerly known as Trevor Brooks. Those who have traced the wilder shores of Islamist radicalism in Britain have seen Brooks before: as the spokesman for the recently outlawed al-Ghurabaa group, he has form. Which makes you wonder how, as George Galloway put it, he was able to get within “punching distance” of the Home Secretary. (Nice, incidentally, to hear the member for Bethnal Green and Bow, who recently declared that the assassination of Tony Blair would be “morally justified”, voicing his concern for the security of government ministers.)

Still, there he was, relatively moderate by his standards, branding Reid a “tyrant”, an “enemy of Islam” and accusing Britain of “state terrorism.” Usually Abu Izzadeen is more to the point, telling BBC Newsnight last year that the July 7 bombers were “completely praiseworthy” and confessing his own ambition to die as a suicide bomber.

Indeed, Abu Izzadeen and the handful of activists like him are almost too bad to be true. They emerge at regular intervals, apparently bent on confirming every one of the worst accusations levelled against Muslims. So, in protest at the cartoons of Muhammad, they gathered outside the Danish Embassy carrying placards that declared: “Behead those who mock Islam” and “Europe you’ll pay, Bin Laden is on his way.” One can only imagine the reaction of moderate Muslims as they saw those slogans, sinking their heads into their hands and sighing that their worst enemies could not have produced a more damaging image.

The Islamist ultras were up to the same trick a few days ago, this time stirred by the Pope’s inept digging up of a 14 century quotation which accused the Prophet Muhammad of introducing into the world “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Right on cue, as if to vindicate the Pope’s incendiary point, the lunatic Islamist fringe were off torching churches in the West Bank and killing a nun in Somalia. Meanwhile, their admirers in London headed to Westminster Cathedral with some new slogans, “Islam will conquer Rome” and “Jesus is the slave of Allah” among them.

All of this behaviour adds up to British Muslims’ worst nightmare. The Islamist hardcore seems determined to bear out the Islamophobic claim that Muslims are prone to violence and intolerance. Take this example. Islamophobes argue that Muslims have no place in a western democracy. It’s an indefensible statement – yet during the 2005 general election campaign, these fringe sects broke up both a Muslim Council of Britain event aimed at urging Muslims to vote and a Galloway rally in the East End, shouting that any Muslim who dared mark a ballot paper would be facing a “death sentence.” It was, they insisted, unIslamic to vote – thereby endorsing the bigots who claim Muslims have no place in a democracy.

Abu Izzadeen and those like him do Muslims’ enemies’ work for them: they are propaganda in human form, walking advertisements for Islamophobia. And my own trade should admit its share of responsibility in this regard: because the hatemongers make gripping television and great copy, we give them far more publicity than their numbers deserve. (Yesterday’s performance was another example, an obvious stunt which garnered huge coverage.) The result is the inflation of these marginal figures, leaving an impression that they are somehow representative of the British Muslim mainstream. They are not.

So in a contest between them and almost anyone else, I’d want them to lose every time. And yet I could hardly cheer on John Reid yesterday. When faced with the desperately important challenge of healing relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in this city and beyond, I fear the Home Secretary is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

He deserved credit for delivering his speech to a Muslim audience rather than to a cosy thinktank in Westminster. That always risked a hostile reaction, and so it proved. But he made some bad errors.

First, he should have tackled head-on the anger many Muslim Londoners feel over the heavy-handed arrests of innocent men, most notably at the Forest Gate raid in June. As Home Secretary, he carries some political responsibility for the police and it shouldn’t have taken a heckler to raise the subject. He has a solid defence to make – that the police have to act on serious warnings, even those that turn out to be false alarms – and he should have made it.

Second, it strains credulity for Reid to tell Muslims that one potential cause of terrorism is insufficient vigilance by parents, failing to spot “the tell-tale signs”, while refusing any discussion of the factor identified again and again by British Muslims themselves – namely the role of British foreign policy in radicalising Muslim youth. The effect of his speech was to shift responsibility onto the shoulders of ordinary mums and dads, while dodging the government’s own responsibilities.

Of course he is right that the spread of violent jihadism is a grave challenge to British Islam and something which that community has to face up to and root out. But he is, after Tony Blair, one of the last people who can plausibly carry that message. His macho posturing after the August terror alert, warning that Britain faced its greatest threat since the second world war, did the terrorists’ work for them, dignifying their murderous crimes with the status of acts of war. Instead of calming this conflict down, he has talked it up.

All of which makes yesterday’s scene an odd one: Islamist radicals who help the Islamophobes, pitted against a Home Secretary who ends up boosting the extremists. Two sides at each other’s throats, and not one of them you could cheer.

Our crazy Big Apple – why I just love it

A report out today shows that thousands of the middle-classes are deserting the capital. But they should relish it, not flee to the country

Published in the Evening Standard 24 August 2006

Two weeks on holiday with the kids and certain refrains are stuck in my head. The entire back catalogue of the Wiggles for a start and, like plenty of parents, the repeated incantation, ?Are we there yet?? But there?s one more line, offered by my five year old son, which has stayed with me. ?When are we going back to England??

Nothing unusual in that, you may think. Except that we WERE (ital) in

England ? Cornwall, to be precise. Yet to my son, born and raised in

London, it looked and felt like a different country.

And he might not be wrong. New statistics out today are expected to show that London has grown almost into a state of its own. While many parts of the country are hollowing out, their population ageing and birth rate falling, today?s data are likely to confirm London?s place as the biggest city in western Europe.

Numbers are not all that set London apart. Yes, the clich

We dare not let our future look like this

London’s rate of recycling is the worst among Europe’s major cities. Without change, the sheer volume of trash threatens to engulf us all

Published in the Evening Standard 22 July 2006

I don?t suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder in any area of my life ? except one. I do not ensure my Coke cans are all in a straight line, like David Beckham. I do not wash my hands repeatedly, as, we?re told, is the habit of Steven Gerrard.

But I am a fanatic when it comes to recycling. If I spot so much as a crumpled envelope or a faded receipt, I?ll march it straight to the green bin. I?ll flatten orange juice cartons and egg boxes, anything which has even the remotest relationship to paper. Tins and glass get the same treatment, rinsed and dumped in the green box. My zealotry is such that if I see a crushed can on our street, I don?t just curse the litter louts who left it ? I find my right hand twitching, desperate to pick up the debris and hurl it towards its proper, green home.

Why am I like this? It can?t be a Bree Van De Kamp desire for regimented order: anyone looking at my desk, its entire surface space covered by wobbling piles of paper, knows that?s not me. No, it?s not an anal need for neatness that does it, just a single visual memory. Several years ago I saw a wide, panoramic photograph of a landfill dump ? and the sight horrified me. The idea that we are digging vast, crater-sized holes in the ground and filling them with plastic bags stuffed with rotten, suppurating rubbish was so awful, it seemed a straightforward, moral imperative that we reduce the amount of trash we bury. Carry on as we are, and we will poison the ground beneath our feet.

The alternative is to burn our garbage, but that?s hardly an improvement, filling the atmosphere with smoke and fumes, to say nothing of carbon emissions. Which is why last week?s government decision to go ahead with the Belvedere incineration plant in Bexley was so roundly condemned by green groups.

No, the only solution is not to bury or burn, but to recycle. And on this London?s record is appalling. When it comes to recycling by local authorities, the capital is bottom of the national league table: we recycle just 15% of our waste. Among Europe?s major cities, London is the very worst.

Of course it would help if more of us developed a compulsive behaviour disorder that made us drop every possible item in the green box rather than the black bin bag. But even that doesn?t get to the heart of the matter. That comes down to a single word: plastic.

Plastic is the stubborn item that refuses to be recycled; in my house it?s the plastic ? almost all of it packaging ?

that fills up the bins. Paper, tin and glass are fine; old food scraps can go for compost. But plastic won?t go anywhere.

What to do about it? The obvious solution is to find ways to recycle it. My own borough, Hackney, have now set up bottle banks where you can dump the plastic. But experience shows that won?t have an impact till it?s part of the regular, doorstep service. Asking us to make a special journey is asking for a monastic virtue few of us have.

Instead, we should tackle this problem at source. That?s why the Women?s Institute deserve three loud choruses of Jerusalem for their latest campaign, against supermarket packaging.

You don?t have to be Victor Meldrew to shake your head in disbelief at the amount of plastic, polystyrene and cling film that comes into the house with a single, weekly shop. Why, you say, your voice rising, do four pears need to be packed as if they are were a rare Faberge egg on loan to the Louvre?

The supermarkets would reply that, if they did not coddle their avocados and apples like precious gems, they would get bashed and bruised and we, the consumers, would reject them. And on this, they have a point. If we were more willing to buy fruit and veg with knocks and scars, the shops would not waste so much plastic protecting them.

We need to send that message to the supermarkets. And there are other businesses which need to hear it, too. Why, to take one example, do Starbucks and many of the other coffee chains insist on selling their iced, Frappucino drinks in plastic cups? If paper will do for a hot drink, why not for a cold one? If you want to do your bit for the planet, that could be a small start. Add to the list of specifications ? Grande, skinny, decaff etc ? a request for a paper cup. See if it catches on. (While you?re at it, ask why Pret and other sandwich bars don?t provide green bins for all the cans they generate.)

In the end, though, we probably won?t act until waste hits us in our pockets. Ireland has experimented with a tax on plastic supermarket shopping bags, forcing customers to reuse them. Meanwhile, Sir Michael Lyons, the civil servant reviewing local government funding, has proposed a black bin bag tax, so that homeowners pay more the more sacks of non-recyclable trash they leave out. It happens on the continent already, with Germans paying 18p a kilo, the Belgians 70p per bag.

Inevitably, politics will intrude. Right now, the Mayor is keen to take overall charge of waste management in the city ? collecting it and getting rid of it. Most boroughs are wary, reluctant to let go of one of the few clear powers they have. That leaves the burden of proof on them, to prove they can get their act together and come up with a strategy that will serve the whole city. If they don?t, they will soon face huge EU fines, as London fails to come into line with European standards on recycling.

This is one of those problems that can?t be dumped in one place: it?s up to all of us, politicians, companies and individuals. And it?s not one we can bury, hoping it will just go away.