Monday, 29 June 2009

The Stonewall riots: what have we learnt 40 years on?

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June 27, 2009

The Stonewall riots: what have we learnt 40 years on?

Forty years ago a police raid on a New York bar ignited the gay rights movement. But with hard-won equality, has the spirit of Stonewall been lost?

Wake up and smell the moisturiser. That would be my advice to any gay Rip Van Winkle who had slept the 40 years since those astonishing riots that erupted after a small-hours police raid on June 28, 1969, on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

Gay venues such as this in the US (and Britain) were subject to continual police harassment, but what made that warm June night in a free-thinking New York neighbourhood different was a sudden, spontaneous, collective resolve — for once — not to run away and hide.

A rock had shifted, and a 40-year slow-motion landslide began. From tear-gas to Jean-Paul Gaultier, from cordite to Clinique.

Within months three gay newspapers had been established and two activist gay organisations founded. The first Pride marches took place a year later, in 1970.

This spasm of self-definition, affirmation and self-defence did not mark the beginning of the modern campaign for equality for gay men in the US and Europe.

It’s important to remember that. Valiant, patient, “respectable” pioneering organisations had been plugging away for decades.

In Britain men such as Leo Abse MP (who died this year) and the journalist Peter Wildeblood (his shocking, groundbreaking book, Against the Law, has been recently republished) had since the 1950s edged recognition and reform up the agenda. Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary had finally got his 1967 Act on to the statute book, years after the Wolfenden Commission’s recommendations.

That Act of Parliament, at last decriminalising — however cautiously — private homosexual behaviour, remains by far the most important single political victory in British gay history, and its supporters (including, among a minority of her contemporary Conservative MPs, the young Margaret Thatcher) needed a lonelier courage than today’s more fashionable reforming politicians.

There was nothing cool about the issue then. But despite all the groundwork by committee-wallahs and redoubtable individuals, still there was something different and new about the Stonewall upheaval in America. It was revolutionary. It sprang not from argument but from attitude. Pleading had turned into demand. A human group was finding its voice.

Twenty years later, in 1989, a group of us in Britain who had been organising a formidable if unsuccessful campaign against what became known as Section 28 (the irony of its enactment by Thatcher’s Government was not lost on us) decided not to disband but to evolve. I was one of the members of the first board of an organisation we called the Stonewall Group.

Our genesis was from the back foot — the need for a strong public voice to resist oppressive measures such as Section 28 — but our future would be front-foot too: to put gay equality and homosexual law reform on to the mainstream national agenda.

Two decades on we British have overtaken the Americans. After successive reductions in the age of homosexual consent until an equal age was reached, after the Civil Partnerships Act, and after a long and remarkably steady shift in not only the rules but social and media attitudes too, nobody would dispute the success of this slow-burning, 40-year-old crusade.

But neither the Stonewall riots in the US nor — still less — our British Stonewall Group was the prime cause of this big cultural change. The prime cause was, I believe, a very, very gradual shift in informal public attitudes in the West that had been completely unanswered by any formal or legal change.

Pressure was building, but Church and State had turned their faces away. Self-confidence and moral self-belief among gay people were growing regardless. Religious taboos were losing their reach and command. Rigid family structures were loosening, and more people were living alone.

And censorship and the regulation of entertainment and leisure was relaxing its grip, while, as Western economies recovered after the Second World War, people gained the economic independence to choose and buy their leisure and their pleasure. The means of escape were multiplying. Clubs, pubs, gay guesthouses and bath-houses, magazines . . . all these were springing up.

A young gay man’s journey of exploration when I was 20 depended on two staples: venues and publications. From the late 1950s both had been expanding and growing cheekier. But the law — as written though increasingly haphazardly enforced — was unchanged. An irresistible force was meeting a thus-far immovable object.

Then came Stonewall, the riots, the activism and the campaigns. The façade of moral reaction cracked then shattered: a slow shattering over 40 years. Cause or effect? Let’s just say that sails were put up to a gathering wind: they caught energy; they got motion; and the momentum became unstoppable. So that by the time HIV-Aids came along, a national panic that could so easily have tipped into fear and hatred of homosexuals tipped instead the other way, towards an almost protective sympathy.

The result? Our gay Rip Van Winkle, as he awakes this June after 40 years, would be unable to credit the new world he finds around him. If anything, the mismatch has been reversed: official norms and official tolerance have run on ahead of public sentiment; and the need is to make sure that the gap doesn’t grow unbridgeable.

But it’s mostly good. Mostly. “Steady on,” though, I reply, when breathless young passengers on the 21st-century glad-to-be-gay bandwagon start rhapsodising about the Utopia (they imagine) that awaits a new generation of young gay men in Britain.

Yes, it’s great that it’s cool to be gay. New freedoms bring security, pride, even swagger. They bring a certain care-less hedonism, and that’s not all bad. There’s more unworried fun in store for a young gay man today than ever there was for me when I was 18. Much has been gained. But something has been lost too, and I have memories from those haunted, nervous, repressed days that I will never regret.

How long ago it all seems: a different world. “Pretty policemen” acting as agents provocateurs in public lavatories; arrests, rumours and innuendo. Disgrace, suicide and lip-smacking court reports in The Daily Telegraph. Smirking circumlocutions in Times obituaries.

Those dark years continued right up until the 1990s. For gay men like me, now of a certain age, that Britain was another country and I wouldn’t go back to the bad old days of a post-1950s queer-bashing London for all the c**k and cappuccino in Old Compton Street.

But some of the heart has gone out of what really was, once, a community. We were oppressed then by what seemed like all the world. Now we are in danger of oppressing ourselves: with shallow conformism and gay stereotypes of our own creation.

Unlike a new generation of the out-and-proud, I can remember the 1970s and 1980s. I remember the fear: fear of exposure, fear of disgrace, fear of dismissal, fear of losing friends and family, and the physical fear of assault in circumstances you’d never dare report to the police. Fear of being kicked out of the Foreign Office, where I’d just started; and of not getting into Parliament, when I chose that path, because of whispers.

I remember the hole-in-the-corner political meetings at party conferences when I was parliamentary vice-president of the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality, but we called it CGHE because our members preferred not to see it spelt out — meetings the party refused to advertise officially.

I remember the strangely clandestine atmosphere surrounding even the gatherings that Ian McKellen, Nick de Jongh, Peter Mandelson and I used to attend at the Heaven gay nightclub at Charing Cross, as we planned media resistance to Section 28.

I remember a kindly Labour Deputy Chief Whip advising me to drop the whole subject — and Margaret Thatcher laying a sympathetic hand on my wrist, after I had told her everything, and breathing: “That must have been very difficult for you, dear.”

I remember the seedy pubs, the moonlit cruising grounds, sometimes so beautiful, but always the furtiveness and a feeling so insidious as to be almost impossible to banish from the mind, that what we wanted was somehow shameful. With Tom Robinson in the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, we sang (Sing if you’re) Glad to be Gay — but weren’t glad, really. And I remember the anxiety that came with the whole idea of settling down with someone, or even being seen with him often enough to set tongues wagging. Promiscuity was always safer.

Especially I remember the hypocrisy; the toffs, politicians and professional people, many of them married men, who turned up their noses at our campaigns yet were to be seen in places they shouldn’t have been, murmuring with a verbal wink that this was strictly entre nous, “our little secret”.

That’s no longer true of the world in which I move, and good riddance. But nor — on the other hand — should an arty metropolitan media-type such as me pretend to be writing about the whole of Britain. I don’t. There are towns and villages where all the ugliness of the pre-Stonewall world is alive and undiminished. It has to be combated now as much as then, and the Stonewall Group still has plenty of reason to exist.

But few of us alive at that time forget or regret the intimacy and camaraderie that came with prohibition and social danger. There was a spirit alive in those days, of self-defence and of mutual protection. There were codes that helped us to recognise each other. And despite every discouragement, many did find ways of being couples. Promiscuity was fine, too: our own choice, never stigmatised. Being outside the law and conventional respectability gave us a kind of freedom.

There was a need to be brave, and to see and admire the bravery of others, too. Anyone who was out had guts; and a kind of defiant, in-your-face outrageousness could be found among openly gay souls in every walk of life. I could believe, when I was 30, that the fight for homosexual equality should be a great and central national cause.

I think of course that it should continue today, but do I honestly rank it alongside economic or educational deprivation at home and abroad? Alongside the oppression of many Muslim women here in Britain? Alongside the search for ways of living that do not destroy our habitat? No, I honestly cannot.

It was all so much more raw then. Standing at the bar at the County Arms by Wandsworth Prison in a particular place on a particular day of the week — we all knew the day and the spot — with half a dozen plucky fellow queers, all friends, hooting with laughter at each other’s stories, was a reassuring ritual, and self-affirming in its way.

We all knew the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and the Union Tavern in Kennington. Mr Amateur Strip night at the White Swan in Limehouse, East London, though it continues still, had then an underground spirit. Today it feels like a rugby club.

There was fun, mutual respect and a sort of gaiety in the old-fashioned sense of that word that has evaporated today. There was no Gaydar, no virtual world, only the real one in which to find each other.

Let’s not go all misty-eyed about this, or ever forget that for every gay man who came in from the cold to the firesides of a near-underworld there were others who never dared; and plenty whose lives and reputations were wrecked by exposure. But it’s worth remembering that danger breeds strengths and kindnesses and the togetherness of a club. When the danger passes, so may that sense of solidarity.

What has replaced it? With the self-respect and freedom of the young, 21st-century gay man, has come a strutting self-regard, a materialistic consumerism, a vanity and a f***-off selfishness that I do not like. Spot the money, in a culture awash with disposable cash, where everybody’s earning and few are caring for kids or families. Watch the leisure and retail industry chasing the new gay spenders.

Walk down Old Compton Street and look at the boys looking at each other, or at themselves in shop windows. Or the peacockery of the Shadow Lounge in Soho. Note the sad arrival into the gay world of notions of celebrity, and lists, and coolness, and class distinction.

I’m glad about civil partnerships; glad about legalisation; glad we don’t have to hide any more; yet sorry that a new oppression has arrived in the form of face and body fascism, and the pursuit of pleasure.

Forty years after Stonewall, a young, confident, metropolitan gay man has almost everything my queer generation could only dream of. Everything, that is, except this: warmth, fellow-feeling, individuality and the opportunity for courage.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Kevin Spacey exclusive: Part of me feels British now but the knife crime here is shocking

Kevin Spacey exclusive: Part of me feels British now but the knife crime here is shocking

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Hollywood star Kevin Spacey has vowed not to quit Britain despite fears over rising crime.

The self-confessed Anglophile admits he is frightened by the endless string of shocking knife crimes that have engulfed his adopted homeland.

And he has every right to be scared. He experienced the nasty side of London first-hand in 2004 when he chased a mugger who snatched his mobile phone and suffered head injuries.

In an exclusive interview, the actor told the Mirror: "I think crime here is shocking and knife crime is shocking and everyone must do what they can to be safe.

"Hopefully that particular culture will start to be more productive and find things to do with themselves which aren't about stealing things and hurting people.

"It is terrible when you read about it, absolutely terrible."

But though his love of Blighty may be a little tarnished Spacey, artistic director at the Old Vic Theatre in London, has vowed not to give up on the UK.

"I love living in London," says New Jersey-born Kevin. "I can say with all sincerity that London is my home. This is my seventh year living in London, fifth season at the Old Vic.

"I was in New York before. It is a great city but my focus for the next six years will be in Britain.

"I will never renounce being American but there is a part of me that is British now. I may go for dual citizenship - who knows."

Spacey's love for England began when he was young. The son of a secretary and technical writer, he travelled regularly to Britain on holiday. He said: "My father was an Anglophile and so was my mother and we always took trips to Britain when I was quite young.

"When I started out I got a big break by playing at the Haymarket Theatre with Jack Lemmon in Long Day's Journey into Night when I was in my 20s."

For his latest movie, Telstar, Spacey finally gets to play a quintessential stiff upper-lipped Englishman.

The film tells the story of legendary record producer Joe Meek, the man dubbed Britain's Phil Spector.

He produced a string of hits including the first British song to top the American charts, Telstar, from a flat above a shop in North London.

But the troubled musical innovator's life was to end in tragedy when, in 1967, he killed his landlady before turning the gun on himself.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels star Nick Moran turned the tragic story into a play and now a film with Spacey playing Meek's financial backer, Major Banks.

To get into the role, Spacey went back to his childhood. He said: "I loved late night films on television when I was growing up. They would always show old British wartime films.

"When I knew Nick was going to make a movie about it I had to be involved. I read the script and it was really well done.

"I read the script and it was pretty much all there."

Spacey also relished the prospect of going back to an era he feels is neglected by filmmakers. "The time period of the film seems to have gone missing from the movie business in Britain," he says.

"It is like the 50s and 60s don't exist because they just get passed over.

"The music world in particular was revolutionary at that time and Meek advanced the recording industry and the sense of sound. He was a real pioneer. It was such a cool period to attack. I haven't seen the final final film but when I had seen the rough I think Nick has done a great job in tackling that world."

Spacey started his career in theatre and is known as one of the best actors of his generation after success in a string of film hits such as American Beauty, LA Confidential and Se7en.

But he is also able to let his hair down and admits to having fun playing baddie Lex Luther in Superman Returns.

The one role that he still craves is to be a Bond villain. "I would love to play the villain in Bond but they haven't called yet," he laughs. "It would be fantastic.

Spacey is fast approaching a major landmark in his life. In a few weeks' time he will turn 50 but he's not worried.

"It doesn't mean that much to me. But if enough people start reminding me of it every day then perhaps it will sink in," he says, gently chiding me for my impertinence at bringing the subject up.

"But at the moment I feel as energised and driven as I have ever felt."

For now it is Britain and the work that needs to be done at the old Vic that holds his attention.

He has brought some of the greatest talents of the stage and screen to the London theatre and he feels there is more to be done.

"We are at our halfway mark, as I think of it, because we have a 10-year plan," he says. "It has been an extremely satisfying journey. I love the company and the staff and I am proud of what has been achieved."

And for the friend of Bill Clinton and a staunch Democrat, the lure of London is still far greater than that of Washington.

"I would never ever think about going into politics," he says.

"I would rather become a crack addict. I think you can be just as effective in public service." He prefers the lighter side of life and would love to do a comedy. And then there is still that Bond role...


Kevin Spacey has carved out a comfortable life for himself since moving from New York to London.

His home is a flat in Kennington, South London, near the Old Vic. He has a Mini Cooper and lists among his friends, Tony Blair, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Elton John.

He has overseen the rejuvenation of the theatre producing and starring in productions like Richard II. Even when he is away shooting a movie, he is constantly in touch with his colleagues back in London. "No matter where I am, I am always running the Old Vic. Thank God for BlackBerrys and email," he said.

His revival of Alan Ayckbourn's, The Norman Conquests, won a prestigious Tony award on Broadway.

MPs pay back £500,000 in expenses

MPs pay back £500,000 in expenses

MPs have now repaid nearly £500,000 in expenses money claimed since 2003, the Parliamentary authorities have said.

Figures suggest 182 MPs from all parties have repaid a total of £478,616 since the crisis began in May.

Gordon Brown has repaid just over £800 while minister Barbara Follett repaid one of the largest sums - £32,976.

Elliot Morley, suspended by Labour for claiming £16,800 for a mortgage that had been paid off, has paid back an extra £20,000, it has emerged.

The Scunthorpe MP and former minister, who has been barred from standing for Labour at the next general election, said further examination by his own lawyers showed that taxpayers had paid for part of the capital sum of his mortgage.

I am confident that what has been found so far demonstrates that this was a genuine error
Elliott Morley

MPs are only allowed to claim for interest payments.

But Mr Morley said his mortgage was supposed to have been interest only and not paid off until 2010.

"What has come to light is there is an anomaly between the instructions given to the insurance company, given in writing, and what was actually provided both in terms of speed and type of mortgage," he said.

"I am confident that what has been found so far demonstrates that this was a genuine error."

According to the list Cabinet ministers have so far repaid £23,443 in total while shadow cabinet ministers have repaid £30,348.

Some names removed

Repaid claims were published on the Parliament website on Friday morning but were later removed and replaced with a message that the list was "being updated".

On Friday evening a spokeswoman for the House of Commons Commission said a number of names were being removed from the list.

She said they should not have been included because their repayments were not connected to the recently published expense claims.

The MPs removed were Andrew Miller, Ann Coffey, Ian McCartney, Greg Mulholland, Daniel Kawczynski, Lynne Featherstone and Mark Harper. The commission said their repayments related to 2008/9 claims or involved items such as in-year adjustments of mortgages or suppliers returning money.

Roberta Blackman-Woods was also being taken off because she was wrongly listed instead of her colleague Liz Blackman, and the name Roger Packer was taken off because he is not an MP.

'Inadvertent error'

Overall Labour MPs have paid back £316,027 - or 66% of the total returned. The Conservatives repaid £130,798, or 27%, while the Lib Dems have repaid £27,082 - just over 5% of repayments.

The Daily Telegraph had reported that the prime minister had effectively claimed for two properties at the same time in a year when he switched his designated second home from London to Fife.

He reportedly charged for some bills for his home in Fife covering a period when the London flat was still his second home and vice versa.

His spokesman said all sums had been made either to rectify "inadvertent errors or for the avoidance of doubt".

On Thursday Tory leader David Cameron said he would be repaying £947 following a "thorough review" of his claims by his office - he apologised for the "inadvertent error".

  • Phil Hope (Lab) - £42,674
  • Elliot Morley (Lab) - £36,800
  • Barbara Follett (Lab) - £32,976
  • Jonathan Djanogly (Con) - £25,000
  • Keith Vaz (Lab) - £18,949
  • Sir Alan Haselhurst (Con) - £15,653
  • Barry Gardiner (Lab) - £15,229
  • Paddy Tipping (Lab) - £14,320
  • Paul Goggins (Lab) - £11,680
  • Howard Stoate (Lab) - £11,255
  • The figures published by the Commons Members Estimate Committee on Thursday also reveal that Barbara Follett - the tourism minister - has repaid £32,976.

    It is one of the largest single sums repaid by any MP - the largest is £42,674 by care services minister Phil Hope, who had already pledged to do so, in the light of constituents' anger.

    Ms Follett, married to best selling author Ken Follett, had claimed £25,411 for security patrols at her London home after she was mugged.

    In a statement she said she had decided to repay the sum - which includes as yet unpublished claims for 2008/9 after considering letters from her Stevenage constituents. "The Fees Office did not ask me to do this, nor did they feel that it was necessary for me to do this. But some of my constituents, whose opinion I value and respect, did," said Mrs Follett.


    She added: "I felt that the only way to make it quite clear that I have never wanted to profit in any way at all from my role as their member of Parliament was to pay these particular expenses ... back."

    It has also emerged that home affairs committee chairman Keith Vaz has repaid £18,949 and Labour MP Barry Gardiner has repaid £15,229.

    In a statement on his website, Mr Vaz said he had stopped claiming for food and for any second home costs when Parliament was in recess. "I also voluntarily refunded one month ago to the Fees office any claims for furniture and furnishings that have been made for my second home," he said.

    It was already known that deputy speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst was repaying £12,000 for gardening claims over four years, which were allowable but had upset his constituents. It emerged that he has repaid a total of £15,653.

    Sir Alan told the BBC: "The much-debated figure of £12,000 applied to four years and I decided that, by the same token, the unpublished information for the extra year - 2008/09 - obviously I would repay that as well."

    Dr Howard Stoate, who represents Dartford but has a second home in Kennington, had also already agreed to repay the money he claimed for the flat in this financial year.

    It follows a vote by MPs to stop those with constituencies within 20 miles of Parliament from claiming on the second homes allowance.

    'Bad judgement'

    Dr Stoate says he had been advised he could still claim but decided to stop doing so, and repay the money from this year, as a gesture, saying the whole allowance was "completely discredited".

    It has emerged that cabinet minister Douglas Alexander has repaid more than £12,000.

    A spokesman said he had repaid money, relating to the renting out of a building next to his flat between 2001 and 2005, "for the avoidance of doubt".

    It also emerged that Labour MP Paddy Tipping repaid £14,320 - all the mortgage interest payments claimed on his London flat since 2003, when he took out a larger mortgage to improve and redecorate the property.

    He said he regretted the decision to re-mortgage at the taxpayer's expense, describing it as a "bad judgement", while stressing that he had acted entirely within the rules.

    He told the BBC: "What was permissible in 2003 is clearly not permissible in 2009."

    The list suggests that David Chaytor, who stood down as a Labour MP after claiming £13,000 for a mortgage which had already been paid off, has only repaid £4,812.46 of that sum so far.

    And the £22,500 which Labour MP Margaret Moran claimed to pay for dry rot treatment on her second home, which prompted her resignation, has yet to be repaid.

    The latest details of repayments was published hours after all MPs' expenses claims for 2004-8 were finally released by Parliament, with crucial details such as MPs' addresses blacked out.

    Alistair Darling's expenses

    Alistair Darling's expenses

    The man who holds the nation’s purse strings was accused of having his “fingers in the till” after his expenses claims were made public.

    Alistair Darling was a classic “flipper” – making four separate second home designations covering three different properties in the space of as many years.

    That meant that when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2007 and moved into a grace-and-favour flat in Downing Street, he did not miss out on lucrative, taxpayer-funded second-home allowances.

    The biggest shock came two weeks into the expenses scandal, when it emerged that Mr Darling had charged the taxpayer for the cost of working out his complicated financial affairs, putting his accountant’s fees on his office allowance.

    Flipping between his various properties obviously caused something of a headache for the Chancellor, leading to a number of errors in his expenses claims.

    He charged the taxpayer for bills relating to his London flat after he had moved out and was renting it to a tenant. The flat had been bought, renovated and furnished with the help of his second-home allowances.

    Amid widespread public anger at Mr Darling’s expenses, Vince Cable, the usually measured Liberal Democrat economics spokesman, accused the Chancellor of having been “caught with his fingers in the till”. He added: “His moral authority has vanished. He must go, now.”

    The furore led to speculation that Mr Darling would be moved out of the Treasury, amid reports that Gordon Brown was keen to replace him with his staunch ally Ed Balls.

    But the Chancellor refused to go quietly, and in a sign of the Prime Minister’s weakness following the resignation of a number of ministers, he was allowed to remain in his post.

    Mr Darling’s labyrinthine living arrangements date back to 2004, when, along with all ministers, he was required by the rules at the time to designate London as his place of residence. He rented a flat in the capital from a former Labour MP who had become a peer while claiming second-home expenses on the house in his constituency of Edinburgh South West, which he had owned with his wife, Maggie, since 1998.

    As Transport Secretary in the run-up to the 2005 general election, he spent £10,910 in mortgage interest payments on the Scottish property, along with £2,250 for food and £2,556 on council tax and water bills.

    Less than a year after the rules were changed, allowing ministers to choose for themselves where they wanted to consider their main residence, he bought a flat near the Oval cricket ground in south London for £226,000. He put the costs of stamp duty and legal fees on the taxpayer. This became his designated second home, and he began claiming the £900 mortgage interest payments on it. He told the Commons fees office that he wanted the Scottish house to be considered his main residence.

    The cost of furnishing and carpeting the flat followed, at a cost to the taxpayer of £950, which he claimed along with a chaise longue, sofa, an oven mitt and other household items, including a 75p Ikea carrier bag.

    After two years, Mr Darling was promoted to Chancellor, a post which comes with a grace and favour flat in Downing Street, and this became his new “second home” while he rented out his own flat.

    With most costs of the grace-and-favour flat already provided by the taxpayer, the new Chancellor’s claims were now limited to food, for which he charged £300 a month. That meant his expenses were dramatically lower than they had previously been.

    Early last year, he “flipped” for a final time, designating Downing Street as his main residence and the Edinburgh house as his second home once again. There he claimed about £950 a month in mortgage interest, as well as council tax.

    Apart from a “benefit in kind” tax bill, which all ministers must pay for grace-and-favour apartments, Mr Darling was spared all the normal costs of running a home that ordinary taxpayers are required to provide out of their own pockets. Along with a number of other ministers, it emerged that Mr Darling had recovered on his expenses the cost of hiring an accountant to deal with his personal tax affairs. Unlike many of his colleagues, he said that he paid tax on this benefit.

    The Chancellor agreed to reimburse the public purse after it emerged that he had continued to make claims for costs incurred on the Kennington flat after he had moved into Downing Street. This included a £1,004 service charge that had six months to run, meaning the public had paid up front for a flat where he no longer lived.

    The Chancellor’s questionable expenses appeared to have given Mr Brown hope that he could be quietly moved out of the Treasury during the reshuffle following the local and European elections. But Mr Darling faced down the Prime Minister, refusing to accept a lesser role in government, or to become a scapegoat for the expenses scandal.

    How to plan for better times ahead

    Times Online
    June 21, 2009

    How to plan for better times ahead

    Figures suggest the worst is over for the housing market, and there are various steps you can take to reap the benefits


    Suddenly, the housing market doesn’t look quite such a bleak place. Recent weeks have seen a flurry of positive data — on everything from an increase in the number of buyer inquiries to a narrowing of the gap between asking and sale prices — prompting many analysts to suggest that the worst may be behind us.

    Not everyone is convinced, of course. With the broader economy still in poor shape, any recovery is likely to be patchy — and fragile. It also risks being choked by a rise in interest rates, which could be sharp if, as many fear, the government and the Bank of England’s attempts to reinflate the economy fuel inflation.

    If you are bullish about property, however, what can you do to take advantage of any upturn — and still not end up out of pocket if prices take a little while longer to rise?


    Buying off plan

    It might have been synonymous with the worst excesses of the boom, but could it be time to buy property off-plan again? The housebuilders Taylor Wimpey say they are noticing increasing numbers of people doing just that, while Andy Finch, a partner in the northern residential department of Knight Frank estate agency, says he has received several inquiries recently from investors. The advantages of buying a development before it has even been built are obvious — if you think the market is picking up, that is. “It’s a meaningful way of securing an appreciating asset,” Finch says.

    They are not easy to find, though. “While we are pushing on with new developments, I see no logic in selling them off-plan at this stage, because you are selling them at the bottom of the market,” says Bob Weston, chairman of Weston Homes. That said, “if somebody is prepared to do it, the purchaser’s going to get a good deal”, he adds.

    Choose carefully, avoiding city-centre blocks and locations where developers are struggling to sell existing flats. Weston suggests going for family homes, which will always be more in demand. Whatever you buy, make sure the developer is covered by the National House Building Council. This will protect your deposit if they go bust.

    Buying land

    Land values have fallen more sharply than house prices in the past 18 months, good news if you want to buy a plot and build your own home. “There is more land available than there has been for the past decade,” says Tim Doherty, managing director of the Self Build and Renovation Centre in Swindon. “The moment that the green shoots start to become a reality, we’ll see developers starting to move back into the market and the opportunity for individuals to acquire a plot will be reduced.”

    There are two options: buying land without planning permission, which is cheaper, but riskier, or picking up a plot with consent in place (either “outline” or “detailed”), which will be more expensive, but safer.

    This is a good time to build, with skilled labour cheaper and easier to recruit than in the boom years, and self-build mortgages relatively easy to get hold of. Alternatively, you could just sit on the land and sell it on without building on it.

    Buying near developing transport links

    There is a lot going on in the world of railways: in December, commuter services will start running the high-speed rail link between London St Pancras and Ashford, Kent, slashing journey times to half an hour; next year, the first part of the East London line extension will open. There is also talk of reopening lines closed as a result of the Beeching report in the 1960s.

    Anyone hoping to take advantage of such infrastructure improvements must always ask the same question: to what extent is the uplift already reflected by prices? Not much, it seems. “In a buoyant market, transport infrastructure changes will be factored in. In poor markets, it takes longer,” says Yolande Barnes, director of research at Savills estate agency.

    Be careful, however, not to overestimate the importance of such links. Barnes cites the electrification of the eastern line from London to Scotland in the 1980s. This put Grantham, for example, within commuting distance of the capital, but those who rushed out and bought there didn’t make an enormous profit. “It’s still a long commute,” she says. “You must be careful not to overhype what such links and new infrastructure will actually mean.”

    Buying at auctions

    Auctions are not the place for bargains they were a few months ago, when sentiment was at rock bottom, but you can still pick up property for less than you would pay with an agent. “We have a huge selection of stock, a lot of which is unmodernised, which you don’t find in the private treaty market — so buyers can purchase with the opportunity of adding value,” says Gary Murphy, head of residential auctions at Allsop. “We’re able to provide a broad selection of blank canvases.” A number of websites specialise in repossessions and other property that they claim is being sold for less than the market value.


    If you don’t have to sell, then, at the risk of stating the obvious, don’t — but if you are planning to trade up, bear in mind that if and when the market recovers, the extra money you’ll have to find will increase in absolute terms. In the meantime, there is a lot you can do to add value to your home and magnify the effects of any upturn.

    Get planning permission

    You don’t have to do the work yourself, but having planning consent in place could help to tempt prospective buyers into paying more — especially if the property is a bit tired and likely to appeal to those looking for a renovation project. “If the property’s already in good condition and you get planning permission, it doesn’t necessarily add anything, because people won’t want to ruin the look of the property,” says James Pace, head of Knight Frank’s Chelsea office. “But if it needs a lot of work anyway, having planning permission and party-wall awards in place can help a buyer to visualise what can be done — and can help if the property is listed.”

    You can always go halfway, says Richard David, a director at Snell David architects. “With planning approval, providing you implement part of it, the remainder remains valid for ever,” he says. So, for example, you could fill in the side return yourself, but leave a prospective buyer to dig the basement. Just don’t overdo things and make the property top- or bottom-heavy. “There are instances where people get too much planning permission for a house and nobody sees the value,” Pace warns.

    Extend the lease or buy the freehold

    If your property is on a relatively short lease, this could be the time to extend it, as the amount you will have to pay — although usually determined by a complicated formula — will be related to the value of your property.

    Tom and Sophie Whittaker want to sell their two-bedroom flat in Putney, southwest London, but think they should try to extend the 71-year lease first. “It could increase marketability,” says Sophie, 30, a solicitor. “It’s a good time to do it, because of lower house prices and therefore lower premiums.” They expect to pay between £17,000 and £22,000, but estimate it will add up to 15% to the value of the property, which they bought four years ago for £250,000.

    Jamie and Lucy Matthews, from Kennington, south London, are going one step further and buying the freehold for the three-storey terrace in which they own the top flat. They are paying £7,000; several years ago, it was valued at £13,000. The owner of the other flats are happy to stay as leaseholders.

    “The value it will add is not much in itself, but it means we can grant ourselves permission to extend into the loft,” says Jamie, 27, a computer analyst. He believes this will make them a £10,000 profit once they have paid for the works. It will also allow them to take control of the building, smartening up the exterior and common parts — which should help if they want to sell.

    London villages: Kennington

    Times Online Logo 222 x 25

    June 26, 2009

    London villages: Kennington

    This south London neighbourhood offers an exhilarating mix of posh and plebeian

    Cleaver Square in Kennington, South London

    Kennington, south of the river, midway between Vauxhall and Camberwell, is the suburb that has featured most in the MPs' expenses scandal. Hazel Blears and Alistair Darling are only two of the ministers with Kennington second homes. But then the place offers all a politician could want: only ten minutes from the House of Commons and a combination of the grand and the scruffy to show that you are keeping it real.

    The area used to be best known for the Oval cricket ground. But it was also a hotbed of intrigue. In 1848 the Chartists, who campaigned for reform via a “People's Charter”, met in Kennington Park to call for votes for all men, annual elections and...for MPs to be paid.

    Enough history, is it a friendly place?

    There is a real sense of community. One local told me about a street party held the previous weekend. The residents' association is very strong, as is the tireless Friends of Kennington Park and the Library Society.

    What about green spaces?

    Kennington Park is a gem, with a lovely café, areas for sport and even clean loos. A must-see is the Old English Flower Garden, first planted in 1929.

    Is there good transport?

    Excellent links into Central London by Tube from Kennington, Oval, Vauxhall or Lambeth North; main lines at Waterloo, Vauxhall, and Elephant & Castle, plus many buses.

    Are there good schools?

    Local state primary schools are Henry Fawcett and Archbishop Sumner (CofE) school, which scores above national averages in just about everything. There is the Archbishop Tenison's state secondary school and the Lilian Baylis Technology School.

    What about property prices?

    Cleaver Square, pictured, probably the smartest address, has pretty Georgian terraces on each side. These four-bedroom homes go for between £800,000 and £1.1million. Neighbouring roads include the quiet Methley Street, where you could buy a three-bedroom Victorian terrace for about £825,000, and Ravensdon Street, where a four-storey Victorian terrace with five bedrooms would be closer to £1.1million.

    Double-fronted Victorian three-bedroom houses in Milverton Street sell for about £665,000. A three-bedroom mews house goes for about £469,000, cottages for £580,000 and a one-bedroom school conversion flat for £460,000. Low-rise former local authority flats with four bedrooms are available for £280,000. High-rise two-bedroom maisonettes are about £179,000. Prices drop as you move away towards Walworth.

    What are the cafés and bars like?

    Several greasy spoons and some more considered cafés, notably Vergie's on Kennington Road, where nothing on the menu costs more than £5. Beyond the many options for pizza, the Kennington Tandoori (known fondly as the KT) has a solid reputation, as does the Coriander on Kennington Lane. The White Hart pub is a local favourite, The Windmill Fish Bar is highly recommended for quality traditional fish and chips, while the White Bear Pub on Kennington Park Road has an award-winning theatre.

    What about shopping?

    If it's boutiques you want, you'll need to go further afield, but Kennington has a good share of useful shops, such as dry cleaners and newsagents.

    Any architectural highlights?

    The area was heavily bombed during the Second World War, so period buildings sit alongside 20th-century estates. When the Great Exhibition of 1851 was dismantled from Hyde Park, Prince Albert's Model Dwelling for Artisans was re-erected in Kennington Park as an inspiration for property developers. The little house, designed for two families, is still there.

    Some surprises, too. Amid the high-rise blocks of the Brandon Estate reclines the unmistakable broken anatomy of a Henry Moore bronze. Two-Piece Reclining Figure No 3 was bought for the estate by the Greater London Council in 1962.

    Lessons in probity from a wobbly three-legged stool


    Mervyn King speaking to bankers
    Royal flush: the audience of bankers listened politely while King illustrated that he was as clueless as the Chancellor, left

    Lessons in probity from a wobbly three-legged stool

    Chris Blackhurst

    Here at the Evening Standard, we start work early in the morning. Which means that when I drive to work the roads are usually virtually empty.

    Just as well - because the other day I nearly careered off the road in Barnes, such was my fury at the brazen hypocrisy I was hearing on the radio.

    First, there was the red dwarf herself, Hazel Blears, declaring that from now on she was going to be "bread and butter champion" for the people of her Salford constituency after she survived a deselection vote.

    Bread and butter? This is a woman who failed to pay £13,000 capital gains tax on the sale of a flat in Kennington.

    She said her house in Salford was her second home, then switched it to the Kennington flat, while telling the Revenue it was her primary residence.

    When she sold it four months later, she avoided paying CGT on her £45,000 profit because the tax man thought it was her main home.

    Then, the Chancellor came on, saying Sir Fred Goodwin had done "the right thing" in reducing his pension by £200,000 a year. "I think that Sir Fred, in handing back part of his pension, is doing the right thing."

    By now my car was swerving violently. The right thing? We don't need lectures in right and wrong from someone who changed his designated second home four times in as many years, who repaid around £700 after claiming for two properties at the same time and, as overseer of HMRC, claimed public money for personal tax advice and submitted a receipt for a 30p bus ticket.

    At least, in the sanctuary of my car I could shout and bang my fists at the guff I was listening to.

    Sadly, that option was not available to those City folk who had to endure the Chancellor's speech at the Mansion House when he proclaimed that "bank boards must have the right people and the right skills and experience to manage themselves more effectively; their focus must be long-term wealth creation, not short-term profits; they must recognise their duty to shareholders is best fulfilled by acting in the interests of all - not just some - of their employees."

    All credit to those bankers present for putting decorum and etiquette before reason and not heckling or walking out. But they were also treated to Mervyn King expressing the need for caution in regulatory reform. I don't know about you but I'm getting rather tired of the Governor.

    I know it's heresy in some quarters but I do wonder about his contribution to the debate as to what went wrong and where we go from here.

    To be fair to the Government and Financial Services Authority, they've done their bit but one leg of the three-legged stool known as the Tripartite Authority looks consistently wobbly.

    The Bank was slow to react to the crisis, failing in its financial stability remit and preferring to hand out lessons in moral hazard.

    The other two legs did respond. The Government recapitalised the banking sector and produced legislation to take out failing banks.

    At the FSA, its chairman, Lord Turner, produced his report - by far the best piece of official analysis of the drama. The watchdog has conducted its own review of Northern Rock, hired 200 extra staff and revamped its supervision role.

    The Prime Minister is often accused of being Macavity but perhaps that name should be attached to King. I've listened in vain for a ringing apology from the Governor for presiding over an explosion in credit.

    Seemingly, he thinks it's the banks' and politicians' fault but not the Bank's. All we get from Mervyn is: "We are a long way from identifying the precise regulatory interventions that would improve the functioning of the markets."

    This has been interpreted as an attack on Darling, saying the Chancellor doesn't know what he is talking about.

    But it sounds pretty clearly like the Governor doesn't have a clue either. It isn't good enough. We need actions from our leaders, not hollow words.

    Did you see Kennington shooting?


    Did you see Kennington shooting?

    Thursday, 25 June 2009

    A man was shot in the thigh

    A man was shot in the thigh

    COPS are appealing for witnesses after a man was blasted in an estate stairwell.

    Officers believe the 20-year-old victim may have been assaulted earlier on the day he was shot.

    The man was discovered in the stairwell in Prescott House, Hillingdon Street, Kennington at around 2pm last Tuesday.

    He had been shot in the thigh. The man was taken to hospital and has now been discharged.

    Cops believe the victim may have been assaulted two hours earlier on Rockingham Street near Elephant & Castle.

    - Call Trident officers on 020 8785 8580 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.


    Thursday, 25 June 2009

    FoDL: Paddy Ashdown in the Durning Library on Monday 29 June 6.45pm for 7.15pm

    !! EXTRA !!

    – commando, diplomat, MP, peace envoy, Kennington resident
    – introduces his new political memoir, ‘A Fortunate Life’
    167 Kennington Lane SE11 4HF
    (020 7926 8682)
    6.45pm for 7.15pm
    Suggested donation £2.

    Friends of the Durning Library

    Waterstones website says: '

    No other British political leader of the post-war generation could have written a book like this for the simple reason that no other modern politician has led a life as varied, adventurous and dramatic as its author. He has been, in turn, an officer in the Royal Marine Commandos, a member of the Special Boat Service, a diplomat, an MP and leader of his party and an international peacemaker in war-torn Bosnia. He can, and does, write with authority about topics as diverse as evading water bailiffs while fishing illicitly at night; tracking down and destroying infiltrating Indonesian forces in the jungles of Sarawak; landing a raiding party from a submerged submarine; the difficulties of learning Chinese; winning an apparently 'hopeless' parliamentary seat; negotiating with Tony Blair; and bringing stability to a country wracked by civil war. He is deadly serious when writing about the things that matter to him - his family, his country, his party, the Bosnian people whose cause he adopted when it was deeply unpopular to do so - but he also has a refreshing gift for seeing the funny side of most situations and illustrates it with self-deprecating wit and a wealth of anecdote. Although this book covers his years in politics it is hard to imagine anything less like a traditional political memoir. This is the self-portrait of a man who has lived life to the full and whose autobiography would be fascinating, even if he had never set foot in Palace of Westminster. Paddy Ashdown was the founding leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 to 1998. From 2002 to 2006 he was the United Nations High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His previous books include two volumes of The Ashdown Diaries, which covered his years as party leader, and Swords and Ploughshares: Building Peace in the 21st Century. He currently sits in the House of Lords.

    Triangle Talks with Helena Producciones, Tuesday 30 June 2009, 7-9pm


    Triangle Talks: Helena Producciones

    Participants: Ana María Millán and Andrés Sandoval

    Tuesday 30 June 2009,


    155 Vauxhall Street
    London SE11 5RH

    +44 (0)20 7587 5202
    F:+44 (0)20 7582 0159

    Tube: Vauxhall/Oval
    Bus: 2, 36, 88, 133, 185, 436

    Admission is free

    Gasworks' ground floor has full wheelchair access

    As a part Triangle Arts Trust, Gasworks is launching a new series of events under the collective name of Triangle Talks.

    By inviting international speakers including artists, curators and project coordinators who are working in the Triangle Network, the talks aim to showcase the diverse composition of Triangle and discuss its role in supporting the development of grass-root artists' initiatives in countries as diverse as Colombia, Bangladesh, China, South Africa and Kenya.

    The first talk by two members of Helena Producciones will discuss the activities of this artists-run collective and their role in developing an ambitious Festival of Performance, which is now in its 7th biennial edition. In 2006, as part of Triangle Arts Trust, Helena Producciones was able to raise funding to develop the international aspect of the Festival, paying specific attention to performance practices in Latin America. Their forthcoming projects include an international artists workshop in Ladrilleros and Juan Chaco on the Pacific coast of Colombia.
    Gasworks is part of
    Registered Charity No.326411

    Sunday, 21 June 2009

    Dress hire gets a fashion makeover

    Times Online Logo 222 x 25

    June 21, 2009

    Dress hire gets a fashion makeover

    It’s the annual wedding-outfit panic. Luckily, dress rental can yield some chic results

    Until recently, the land of dress hire reeked of dusty dowagers renting mothballed taffeta gowns for charity balls. Yet, now that cash flow is low and acquisition is considered déclassé, dress hire has had a thoroughly modern makeover. These days, you can borrow current labels you’d actually want to wear. It can cost, sure, but nothing like what it would be to buy — those four-figure red-carpet dresses are finally in reach.

    The new wave includes fashion stylists making use of their prodigious wardrobes. Gayle Rinkoff, stylist to presenters such as Zoë Ball and Claudia Winkleman, now hires out the gowns (by Matthew Williamson, Chloé, Prada and more) that her clients can’t be seen in again (£120-£150 for a “long weekend”; 07801 754756, With them comes Rinkoff’s styling tips, plus bags and jewellery. Meanwhile, French fashion stylist Fanny Ghis has opened up Fanny and the Cave, a by-appointment London showroom of more than 300 pieces by, among others, Alexander McQueen, Bless, YSL and Hervé Léger (£20-£120 for three days; 07813 275496,

    For vintage with a talking point, get to a theatre near you. The National’s costume-hire store in Kennington, London, has more than 50,000 pieces, including dresses worn by Helen Mirren, Zoë Wanamaker, Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench (yours for a week, with accessories, for £115; 020 7735 4774). Also try Manchester’s Royal Exchange, York’s Theatre Royal or Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. And just for this summer, Peter Jones is hiring out its hats (£20 for two days; 020 7730 3434).

    But it’s online shops that are really bringing the movement bang up to date. has about 350 styles of high-fashion handbags — including Mulberry’s Mitzy tote and Balenciaga’s bowling bag (membership £10-£135 a month, plus £13 delivery). Want the feeling of real diamonds around your neck? loans fine jewellery for £50-£750 a week (delivery £10, insurance included). And — rental’s answer to Net-a-porter — stocks more than 140 dress styles, many current season, from the likes of 3.1 Phillip Lim, Basso & Brooke and Thakoon, in sizes 6 to 14 (£24-£215 for two nights, delivery £10). There’s new stock every week, and dresses can be exchanged if they don’t fit, free of charge.

    The most modern point of all is the eco one — using fewer things to their full potential is infinitely cooler than fessing up to splurging a grand on a one-wear wonder.