1990s >> 1998 >> no-1121-january-1998

Voice From the Back

The cost of living (I)

A Smethwick woman who was heavily in debt plunged 100 feet to her death from a tower block flat seconds after council bailiffs called to evict her. (Evening Mail, 5 November.) Police and Sandwell Council officials said that the woman owed nearly £1,500 in rent arrears alone and her death was being treated as suicide. Council bailiffs discovered the woman’s body outside the Ashcroft tower block off Windmill Lane, Smethwick, after forcing the door of her 11th floor flat to evict her.

The cost of living (2)

Diamonds are supposed to be a girl’s best friend, but they are also a cat’s. (Daily Telegraph, 7 November.) Leah, a lilac Burmese, has just taken delivery of a £20,000 diamond-encrusted collar.The collar, of 40 diamonds on a 24 carat strip, is a gift from her owners, David and ill Atkinson. They initially contented themselves with a diamante version, but then became convinced that a cat raised in luxury at their home in Pendle, Lancs, would quickly realise it was a fake. There was also the fact that Leah’s canine companions, two afghans, a borzoi and a black labrador, had £2,000 coats.

For the record

A recent study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Inequality in the UK, says that on virtually any measure poverty has increased dramatically over the past two decades, hand in hand with affluence for some.The richest 10 percent of the population now enjoys the same level of income as that brought home by all the poorest half of the country’s households put together.

The peacekeepers

When the UN went to war against general Mohamed Farah Aidid, between June and October 1993, American helicopters fired on hospitals, houses and civilian crowds, killing hundreds of unarmed people. After an attack in which 71 died, the head of the UN mission, Admiral Jonathan Howe said, “We knew what we were hitting: it was well planned.” When Alex de Waal challenged a US military attorney on these points, his answer was that the Geneva Convention did not apply to UN forces, on the technicality that the UN itself was not a signatory to the Convention (Guardian, 30 October).

The market lures, ko

This brings us to the Eighties and Nineties. For the first time this century, investing truly became a one-way bet, regardless of when the investment was made. Due to this incredible rally, price-earnings ratios rose to abnormally high levels. Dividend yields, which is how the City relates the size of the dividend to the price of the share, hit abnormally low levels normally associated with the start of a stock market collapse. In the past, such excesses were always followed by a large drop. But financial commentators invented fanciful theories such as “new paradigm”, high productivity and global competition to suggest that this would not happen this time. Last week it did so (Financial Mail on Sunday, 2 November).

Where now?

Perhaps Ecstasy doesn’t make you depressed; perhaps stress and frustration are just symptoms of late 20th-century living. And at least Ecstasy provides a temporary escape route. But when kids are smoking puff by 14 and dropping pills by 16, they may also be disillusioned by 19 or 20. And if the Ecstasy dream really is over, if clubs are no longer our temporary utopias, if the drugs really don’t work any more, where do we all go now? (Big Issue, 3-9 November).

Stifling protest

Last summer, a new import from the USA reached these shores:”strategic law suits against public participation BP launched a lawsuit against Greenpeace for the £1.4 million it claimed it had lost as a result of the group’s occupation of a test-drilling rig near the Shetland islands. If the organisation would not pay, BP said, it would hold three members of Greenpeace’s staff personally liable. American companies tend to charge protesters with defamation, conspiracy or criminal liability, and the cases can drag on for years.The courts often dismiss them, but the legal costs and the charges themselves are increasingly enough to deter protesters and stifle dissent. This is why they are popularly called “strategic” law suits. Big corporations, like McDonalds in their suit against the two campaigners, can afford the costs. Reformists can’t.

Very fishy

A report published recently by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food found that taking cod liver oil at the recommended dose would more than double the exposure to dioxins and PCBs for toddlers, school children and adults. (Earth Matters, Autumn 1997.) But the MAFF report concluded that despite its findings, it was still “safe” to take cod liver oil. Dioxins and PCBs are not only carcinogenic but have been show to disrupt our hormonal systems.

Only kidding

Even as Tony Blair is calling on Britain to become a “beacon for the world”, the Guardian (2 October) reports that quite legal orders are being taken in a Hampshire town for UK-made mortar launchers, voice-print truth phones, grenades, disrupter cannon, carbon dioxide guns, explosives, “blunt trauma vests” and civilian surveillance systems.