Alone in Berlin

Hans Fallada’s ground-breaking 1947 novel, Jeder stirbt für sich allein (‘Each dies only for himself’) has been translated into English for the first time as Alone in Berlin and it’s the second novel I’ve read in a row (following Ishiguro’s An Artist of a Floating World) whose setting is related to the Second World War.

Penguin is to be congratulated on publishing this new edition, which features a brief biography of Fallada and a brief academic review of the novel, as well as some contemporary material of the true life story on which it is based. Translating the novel at all is some achievement – its 570 pages were written in just 24 days, and Fallada’s use of the Berlin dialect throughout appears to presents tough challenges to any translator. Furthermore, Fallada (himself a complex character stalked throughout his life by addiction demons, and who chose to remain in Nazi Germany, despite having the opportunity to leave) died shortly after completing the work, never seeing its publication (although he was able to spend a further month following the initial writing in reviewing and editing). Michael Hoffman has responded to this with an extremely colloquial translation which deploys modern day usage and argot and which may not, as a result, stand the test of time, while the frequent use of exclamation marks is off-putting both in terms of the flow of the novel and the development of its characterisation. It  is, quite literally, a tough read – and that’s before we even get into the theme.

The novel itself is a masterly achievement, documenting the lives of Berliners during the war struggling to survive and everywhere dominated by fear of the Nazi apparatus whose reach was terrifyingly all-embracing and where citizens had been divided and isolated, spying and informing on each other, and who, as a result, lived not in solidarity with, but in sheer distrust of, their neighbours. Fallada pulls no punches with his characters: frequently ugly, venal and selfish, few – including the central characters, Otto and Anna Quangel, whose only son has died in the war and who then embark on a campaign of dropping anti-Hitler postcards around the city – exhibit many redeeming features, while casual dog-eat-dog violence drawn from the way the Nazis victimised whole sections of society is an everyday part of their lives. The novel is graphically written and is doubtlessly, as a result of Fallada’s decision to remain in his country, an accurate portrayal of life under Nazism, with citizens turned into puppets absolutely under the control of a regime whose modus operandi and whose goal was terror. (Indeed, I wonder whether – inevitably in an abridged edition – this would make a suitable companion on school syllabuses to history courses teaching the rise of Nazism.)

As the novel develops and the Quangels go on to meet their inevitable fate, it is plain that the postcard campaign and the small-scale, private opposition it represents, has had little apparent impact. This would be a depressing enough conclusion (and the literal translation of the original German title is perhaps better suited to the tone of the novel) – but this is Fallada’s essential point. The sheer scale of terror and the totalitarian nature of the regime, which had successfully split people against each other, meant that there was little coherent, still less meaningful, underground activity or opposition. In such a situation, what matters is not the level of success of such individual initiatives, but that people do retain the self-respect and dignity not to participate (or to reject their earlier participation) and to make a stand towards fighting back, however small, and however much the futility of that stand is apparent even to those engaged in it; above all, to act decently and with integrity. It is those things that not only defeat tyranny but make a society worth breathing new life into – even one whose acquiescence in fascism had undeniably contributed to its own destruction.

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Google to delete Street View data – but what future for other UK authorities?

Google has been required by the UK’s Information and Commission Officer to delete the personal data which has been ‘accidentally collected’ by its Street View cars ‘as soon as possible’. Some versions of this story (including the earlier version of this BBC online report) report that this deletion process could take ‘up to nine months‘, although other versions report that the nine-month period refers to the period within which there will be an ICO audit into Google’s internal privacy structure.

Nine months is – quite evidently – far too long a time period for Google to delete this – apparently innocently collected and absolutely unwanted – data: but that’s not my point here. An open ICO investigation into Google’s ‘internal privacy structure’ is surely a report worth reading, but it’s the quotes in the BBC story that worry me; and I don’t just mean the apparent weakness of UK law in this area based as it is on there having to be ‘substantial damage or distress to individuals’.

The ICO has conducted only a basic investigation (in its own view, if it had spent more time searching, it ‘would have found more’). The ICO reported initially that there had been ‘no significant breach’ of the law had occurred, before changing this (to remove the negative) once the Canadian data commission had conducted its investigation. Not only has it has based its decision ‘on the findings of other data authorities’, but it is apparently only able to investigate companies that have actually given it permission to do so.

This is – indeed – a shocking state of affairs. I’m all for international co-operation on these things and – aside of the different legal frameworks that apply – there’s nothing wrong with one data commission taking a lead on investigations and reporting findings that are internationally persuasive. Well done to the Canadian, and the German, authorities in this regard: a welcome sign of the benefits of internationalisation.

But is this not a desperately depressing admission of defeat from an organisation with no power and absolutely starved of sufficient resources to do the job it is supposed to do? And that’s before planned UK government cuts start to hit. If the currently constituted ICO is unable to mount a proper investigation into organisations that it suspects of breaches of the law, what future for other UK governmental organisations charged with responsibility for implementing the law once the cuts really start to bite? The Health and Safety Commission, for example – will it, in the future, be reliant on Canadian bodies to carry out research into substances which may cause damage to workers’ health? And how many other UK authorities will be forced to adopt the view that ‘It is not a good use of the… authority to duplicate more in-depth enquiries’, thus giving themselves a back seat, secondary role in investigations? And what happens to effective regulation in this country when the bodies charged with such tasks are profoundly reliant on others as a result of having insufficient resources to do the job themselves?

Take a glimpse into the future as revealed by the cuts planned by this coalition government – second class, mean and ultimately ineffectual. And fear for the regulatory outcomes.

For the ones who had a notion….

With the release today (in the UK) of The Promise, this blog has been doing a bit of catching up with its roots… Darkness was the first album by the Boss I bought, and it’s not just the album for hard core fans, the tour promoting it is also the one most heavily-reminisced about amongst the fan-base.

Three CDs and three DVDs in the pack needs a bit of a reflection before comment, but after spending my day off going through the DVDs, disc 6 (the ‘official’ bootleg of the Houston 78 gig seems (again – hmm) to be missing a couple of key elements (though us Springsteen fans can be a bit hard to please) but disc 5 – the as-live performance of Darkness at Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre last year – is an absolute belter: Springsteen at his most emotionally intense and ferocious best. Still. Just the 32 years further on up the road from the original, then…

Silver RPI demonstrates truth of switch to CPI

The charity Age UK has produced the ‘Silver RPI’, its assessment of the levels of inflation faced by older people.

Now I seem to remember that Steve Webb, Pensions Minister, argued back in July that the switch to the Consumer Price Index for the uprating of pension benefits was because the CPI was ‘a more appropriate measure of pension recipients’ inflation experiences‘ than RPI. In contrast, Age UK’s work demonstrates that not only is CPI a less relevant measure of inflation than RPI as regards older people, but that even RPI (which historically is about 0.75 percentage points higher than RPI, with the gap likely to be higher in the next five years) actually under-estimates the level of inflation experienced by the over-55s. Indeed, the experience of inflation rises with age: since the start of 2008, RPI has under-stated the level of price rises for the 55-59 age group by 1.8%; and by 4.1% for the over 75s.

The difference results from the effects of the fall in mortgage costs masking the effects of price rises elsewhere, with older people carrying less mortgage debt and, therefore, with expenditure patterns which are less influenced by mortgage costs, while older people are typically more exposed to rises in utility costs since a greater proportion of their expenditure goes on heating and lighting.

The difference to RPI for the ‘true’ rate of inflation for older people is costly and, therefore, the gap between CPI and the silver RPI will be even more so given how much CPI undercuts existing RPI.

If RPI is not an appropriate measure of inflation for older people – which clearly it is not – then Age UK’s work demonstrates just how much the switch to CPI was dictated not by a desire for greater stability, accuracy or any other such superficially ‘noble’ reason but by the simple desire to save money, and from a vulnerable group of people perhaps less able to mount a strong voice in opposition to it. A simply shameful exercise from a government with a bankrupt morality.

High Pay Commission launched

The think tank Compass has launched its High Pay Commission, following the securing of funding both from supporters and from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

The Commission has issued a call for evidence, today publishing opinion polling research demonstrating that the public consistently under-estimates the dimensions of executive pay. At a time when there is a yawning remuneration gap between the pay of executives of large companies and everyone else charged with responsibility as being the engine of economic re-growth, when top executives give themselves rewards equivalent to the pay of 128 of their employees (a figure which itself is nearly three times what it was a decade ago), and when executive pay is rising much faster than the performance of their companies, this is a good time to consider the realities of executive pay. It’s not a question of envy, but it is a question of establishing fairness, as the Commission Chair, Deborah Hargreaves, succinctly and astutely pointed out in her blog post.

The Commission will run for one year. Its approach is open and it seeks to engage, including amongst those the target of its work, and to explore the impact on society of such a differential approach to reward as currently exists. If at the end it has managed to produce workable proposals for controlling the outlandish, unwarranted and inexplicable rise in rewards at executive level in the private sector within the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism – and I hope it does – it will have made an extremely useful contribution not only to the fairness agenda but also to the notion of how market-based approaches to pay essentially distort the decisions our society makes about the direction and locus of economic growth. Given the reasons for the economic crisis, evaluating those is absolutely timely.

Shameless policy-making

Ministers have been wheeled out today defending Iain Duncan Smith’s workfare-based Work Activity scheme, to be announced later this week, to ‘get people back into the habit of working’ (in the words of Danny Alexander), or to get the message across to people of ‘play ball or it’s going to be difficult‘ (in the words of IDS himself).

There’s probably not a great deal to be said that hasn’t been said already in 1,400+ comments on the original Guardian write-up of the story, but I do note the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intervention arguing quite clearly that we’re not all in this together, and that the scheme could end up plunging people into a ‘downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair‘.

When I see comments likening Church of England clerics to Marxists, I’ll know we truly have arrived back in the 80s.

In the meantime, following Nicola Smith’s work for the TUC pointing out that Gideon’s example of families on £104,000 in housing benefits applies to just three families, perhaps someone could point out to the reality TV generation who seem to be in charge of policy these days* that ‘Shameless‘ is a d-r-a-m-a, not a documentary.

* Not IDS; I know he has form in the last Tory government (before anyone shouts!).

2010 Mercury recalled

The XX were this year’s Mercury Prize winners; I’m sure they were decent winners, but they’re not really my cup of tea. I understand completely what they’re trying to do and the minimalism is no doubt a bit of a zeitgeist for these times; it’s just that I tend to prefer my music to have a bit of kitchen sink thrown into the mix. But I have picked up the albums of three of the contenders and, a few months on from the award itself, here’s a brief review.

Paul Weller‘s Wake Up The Nation saw a late rush of punters’ money, but in truth this is far from Weller’s best work. At its best, on a number of tunes which share a 60s psychedelic soul influence in common, it works well – but these moments are rare and the album is otherwise overlong and contains too much filler. Continuing the ‘chuck enough mud at the wall’ practice of the previous album, there are 16 tracks on here and, occasionally mercifully, none of them hang around for very long. A bit more selectivity and this could have made a decent album but, as it stands, it’s not one to listen to right the way through too many times. Sadly, not really a keeper, whatever the late Mercury money suggested.

The two stand out acts on the night – and the only two to make me look up with interest from my laptop – were the Kit Downes Trio and Villagers. The Kit Downes trio – a piano, bass and drums combo – are straight from the Blue Note studios, around the time of the great Alfred Lyon, and I had no idea people were still making this sort of music. With just one melody instrument in the band, the large bulk of the improvisational burden clearly falls on the band leader, but Downes is clearly capable of rising to the task. The set of tunes contained in Golden ranges structurally from the simple to the complex and, although the latter is likely to make the album a tough listen for a non-jazz fan, there are enough of the former to hold the interest. Coming from so far out of left field, it would have been an unlikely Mercury winner but, outside that, it remains a good album.

Becoming A Jackal is the contribution of Villagers – in reality, the collective guise of multi-instrumentalist Conor O’Brien – whose appearance at the awards ceremony somewhat blew the cover! Choosing to play a spellbinding acoustic guitar version of the title track, Villagers brought the whole show to a complete stop for me. A collection of tender and vulnerable songs about the failures of human relationships would seem to present some challenges to the stamina of the listener, but this is an album that repays repeated listening owing largely to O’Brien’s stated desire to treat his songwriting with ‘joy and humour‘. The result is that the music provides a frequently effervescent counterpoint to the dark lyrical poetry and the overall effect is a delight. Villagers would have been a worthy prizewinner this year; that they’re not perhaps owes more to the commercial imperative of Mercury to push records and, as good as the album is, I suspect it’s not going to be a top seller (at least, not outside their native Ireland). But that shouldn’t detract from what is a fine record.