Olympic Spirit Comes to East London

Is that a rollercoaster, daddy?’ a young boy, his face pressed firm against the plate glass, points in the direction of a towering, twisting hulk of clay-red metal in the middle distance. ‘No son, it says here it’s a piece of art’, his father replies, reading off an inscription on a nearby viewing panel.

Designed by artist Anish Kapoor, the 115 metres high ArcelorMittal Orbit (so-named after the Indian steel magnates who contributed much of the £20million cost) isn’t just any old piece of art – it’s the largest public work ever commissioned in Britain and the centre point of London’s Olympic village. Unfortunately Kapoor’s effort still looks like a grandiose Coney Island Cyclone, albeit one with an Olympic motif and an observation deck that promises an unparalleled eye-full of the East End.

Until the Orbit opens later in the year, however, the best views of the 500-acre Stratford Olympic site are not to be found inside the heavily cordoned off village but from the London 2012 shop in the adjacent Stratford Centre. Housed in a branch of John Lewis — the games’ ‘Official Department Store Provider’ no less — the store is filled with all manner of gimcrack embossed with the famous five rings, but the viewing gallery at the rear is free to visit and the vista is genuinely spectacular.

‘Parts of the Olympic village are ugly but parts of it are beautiful too,’ says Simon Cole, a resident of nearby Hackney and my guide through the Olympic site and its environs. It is late afternoon — the official Olympic tours long finished for the day – by the time we rendezvous inside the vast, cream-coloured Stratford (think Dundrum on steroids). The Stratford was purposely built so that it’s nigh-on impossible to visit the Olympic site without walking through: it’s estimated that 70% of Olympic visitors will pass along the centre’s abrasively air-conditioned halls.

Wayfinding inside is a nightmare – our tour was delayed for fifteen minutes as my guide and I were waiting outside different branches of the same newsagent. Finally we meet, just in time to see the sun setting over the vast Olympic park from the John Lewis viewing gallery.

Framed in the background by Norman Foster’s iconic gherkin, the eye is drawn, almost inevitably, to the shimmering silver Aquatics Centre. Designed by the famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, this bold, undulating building was created to mimic ‘the fluid geometry of water in motion’ – it’s here that Irish swimmers such as Grainne Murphy will be hoping to excel this summer.

At the heart of the park is the circular Olympic stadium. Track and field events will take place inside stadium, which will have a capacity of 80,000 during the games. As Cole explains, the stadium has proved controversial – and not just because of the on-going legal battle between Leyton Orient, West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs over who will inherit it after the games. Dow Chemical is to sponsor the protective wrap that will encircling the 900-metre circumference during the games – the company is claimed to have links with the 1984 Bhopal disaster that killed more than 15,000 people in India.

‘Personally I think it’s a real shame,’ Cole says of Dow’s prospective involvement. Cole, a native of Sunderland who sports a Sex Pistols-inspired Hackney Tours t-shirt, is a keen student of the East End’s radical history – as we stare out across the Olympic site he points out a red-brick complex close to the stadium. This, he explains, is the erstwhile site of the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, where, in 1888, match girls rose up in a famous strike against the severe health complications that arose from working with white phosphorus.

Nowadays the old Bryant and May building is a gated community, an exclusive address home to popstars such as Katy B. Opponents accuse the Olympics’ backers of attempting to perform a similar transformation in Stratford – more than 3,000 flats, which will house Olympians in the summer, have already been sold after the games, at rates far in excess of what most people in traditionally down at heel Stratford can afford.

Stepping out onto Great Eastern Road, the thoroughfare separating the Stratford Centre and the Olympic park, feels disorientating in the same way that walking in LA does. All around are buildings so large and impersonal that the humble pedestrians is reduced to a pin prick, cars whiz by at furious speeds, a flashing LED sign advertises the Stratford Centre’s in-house casino, behind which peek out a pair of old-style high-rise flats. People are thin on the ground, save the ubiquitous security guards around the village and a few day trippers with tickets for an evening swimming meet in the Aquatics Centre.

English psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, a trenchant critic of the Olympics project, has called the games an excuse for the ‘privatisation of public space’, that have ruined ‘a wonderful wasteland’ which once existed in the marshes around the River Lea. Proponents – most notably London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron – argue that the games will boost the economy and national pride at a time when Britain is experiencing the most prolonged period of austerity in generations.

The reality, as ever, is somewhere in between. The costs of the games have spiralled to over £11 billion, almost £2 billion over budget, and the event’s legacy is uncertain – but there is no denying that, even in its unfinished state, the Olympic park possesses a thrilling, shock-of-the-new quality.

Standing at the View Tube, a series of nattily recommissioned shipping containers on the Greenway cycle path, the whole site opens up before my gaze. Past the National Stadium and Kapoor’s hula-hoop, beyond the Aquatics Centre and the waves of the temporary water polo auditorium, sits the spectacular fan-like velodrome. Nicknamed ‘The Pringle’ – and described by author Andrew O’Hagan as ‘like a cyclist’s helmet made of conker-brown wood’ – the velodrome is a triumph of art and functionality. Nearby a giant LED sculpture of the word RUN sits on the outside wall of the handball arena.

But the largest building of all is not a sporting arena or a grandiloquent lump of metal – it’s the media centre, a gigantic white hangar that will house over 20,000 journalists during the games. ‘You can fit two jumbo jets inside it,’ Cole assures me, with a look of mild disapproval.

Cole describes his own view of the Olympics as ‘typically postmodern’: ‘there will be benefits but there will also be losers,’ he says as we pass by a block of newly built condominiums. A group of youths with swimming club logos emblazoned on their tracksuits walk in the direction of the Aquatics centre. Across the road, an office sits empty, the majority of its windows broken.

The East End is still the poorest part of London but the area is changing fast. Near the Olympic park perimeter fences is the shiny new East London Porsche dealership. A few hundred yards further down the road we pass a ramshackled family-run car repair shop.

‘If it wasn’t for the Olympics, I wouldn’t really come to Stratford’, Cole says as we near the end of our tour. It’s a sentiment many Olympic tourists will probably share, but there’s an undeniable, if distinctly ambiguous, allure to a corner of East London that will come alive in July.

For more information on Hackney Tours visit http://www.hackneytours.com/

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, 24 March

Access All Areas – LRB Blog

In January, Transport for London applied for anti-social behaviour orders to be issued against four unnamed young men. Under the terms of the ASBO, they are prohibited from speaking to one another for ten years, carrying equipment that may be used for exploring after dark or blogging about ‘urban exploration’. Their crime: in the early hours of Easter Monday last year, as ever-tightening security encircled London ahead of the royal wedding, the group entered Russell Square tube station, and walked along the deserted train tracks and closed tunnels to the abandoned station at Aldwych.

The four men are members of the London Consolidation Crew (LCC), the most active (and prominent) urban exploring team in the capital. Between 2008 and 2011, LCC climbed, clamoured or blagged their way into places including Heron Tower, Strata Tower, New Court, Eagle House, Temple Court, 100 Middlesex Street and the Shard.

People have been sneaking into places they are not supposed to since time immemorial, but urban exploration – with its emphasis on fresh sites, photographic evidence and blogging – is a more recent phenomenon. The late Jeff Chapman, better known as Ninjalicious, is widely credited with coining the term. In Access All Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration (2005), he defined urban exploration as ‘“infiltrating” or entering into otherwise restricted or off bounds areas or spaces’, including sewers, drains, towers, churches, quarries, disused tunnels, towers, prisons, military sites, asylums, mines, theatres, factories and train stations.

The rest of this blog is available on the London Review of Books blog….

Ireland’s tough road back

It doesn’t feel like a country in the grip of a lost decade, writes Peter Geoghegan, but beyond Dublin’s corporate office blocks and crowded city-centre bars lies another Ireland

Last weekend more than 50,000 people – many of them Scottish rugby fans – packed into the Aviva Stadium in Dublin to watch Ireland triumph over Scotland in the Six Nations. Erected on the site of the homely if rather anachronistic Lansdowne Road ground, the Aviva was built, in part, to show off brash, modern Celtic Tiger Ireland to the world.

Unfortunately, by the time then premier Brian Cowen opened the stadium in May 2010, the economy that bankrolled the Aviva was already on the rocks.

Today, the shining corporate offices of Google and Facebook in Dublin’s Docklands and the busy, bright young things in the Irish Financial Services Centre belie the reality that Ireland has yet to “the turn the corner”, to borrow a recurrent phrase of politicians in the lead-up to the banking crash that led the country to the brink of bankruptcy in 2008.

“The 2008 banking crisis was not caused by an outbreak of moral failure or individual weakness,” Irish historian Conor McCabe writes in the concluding chapter of his book Sins of the Father. It was structural and political forces – not “pockets of immorality” – that led to a bust of global proportions.

Subtitled Tracing the decisions that shaped the Irish economy, McCabe’s is a compelling account of the economic failings that dogged Ireland since independence, from the fateful decision to peg the punt to sterling for more than 50 years (a parable worth revisiting for some Scottish Nationalists) to the state-sponsored boom in construction and financial services that underpinned the Celtic Tiger’s ruinous second decade.

As McCabe avers, the response of Ireland’s political classes to the banking crisis has proved as disastrous as the policies that created it. On 30 September, 2008, the Irish government elected to guarantee almost all the liabilities of the state’s six financial institutions. The effect of this decision – which led indirectly to the €85 billion IMF/EU bail-out in November 2010 – are still being felt across just about every sector of Irish life today.

The scale of Ireland’s recession is worth reiterating. In 2009, GNP contracted by 11.9 per cent. In the same year, Gross Domestic Product shrank by over 7 per cent. That year, unemployment climbed above 10 per cent for the first time since 1997.

The vital signs from Ireland’s economy are more positive than they were when the European troika rolled into Dublin 18 months ago to agree the bail-out. Indeed, walking around the capital, Ireland doesn’t feel much like a country in the grip of a lost decade. The on-going boom in IT, particularly in the corporate sector, has ensured that an affluent, young middle class remains. Exports have grown steadily in recent years (although a new report issued by Ulster Bank warns exports will weaken in 2012 and GDP will increase by a paltry 0.4 per cent).

But beyond the corporate office blocks and the crowded city-centre bars lies another Ireland, one that profited little from the boom years and now finds it’s bearing the brunt of the Irish age of austerity.

A cursory glance at Irish unemployment figures bears this out. From the halycon days of the Celtic Tiger and full employment, official statistics have joblessness running at over 13 per cent for more than two years. Among young people and recent graduates, the numbers are even worse: for those under 25, unemployment stands at well over 25 per cent.

Headline unemployment rates mask the return of another facet of Irish life supposedly banished by the Celtic Tiger: emigration. The Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin estimates that more than 1,000 people are leaving Ireland every week. A report released last year by the National Youth Council of Ireland suggested 70 per cent of young unemployed Irish people believed they would emigrate.

Even the signs of economic life in Ireland are not as positive as they appear at first viewing. The bulk of the growth in Irish exports is attributable to the presence of significant numbers of multinationals who use few if any Irish raw materials.

Attracting large foreign firms to Ireland with a generous tax regime and grants has been, and remains, a mainstay of Irish economic policy. However, the value added by these multinationals to Ireland’s indigenous economy is less clear-cut.

According to McCabe, in 2008, multinationals accounted for a whopping 88 per cent of all Ireland’s merchandise export sales. Yet these same companies provided just 7 per cent of total employment. Despite total sales of almost €110bn, they paid about €2.8bn in corporation tax.

Meanwhile, the detritus of Ireland’s laissez-faire housing policy, encouraged by massive tax breaks from central government during the boom years, is littered across the country’s fabled green fields. The problem is particularly extreme in rural areas in the Midlands: the total number of houses in sparsely populated counties Longford, Cavan, Roscommon and Leitrim increased by 50 per cent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these properties now lie vacant on unfinished estates. According to the 2011 census, 294,000 properties in the state – some 15 per cent of total housing stock – are habitable but vacant.

After three and a half years of austerity budgets, which have cost thousands of jobs, there are signs that the Irish population is growing restive. The €100 “household charge”, introduced in last December’s budget as an interim property tax, has proved unpopular, with very low rates of compliance. A more extensive property tax, due to be introduced in the coming months, could prove even more divisive.

All this is bad news for EU mandarins. Ireland is due to vote in a referendum in May or June on the European Fiscal Compact, designed to stabilise the eurozone by enforcing strict budgetary controls on EU nations. The latest opinon polls, published in the Sunday Business Post, suggest 44 per cent would vote in favour, but 29 per cent remain undecided and support for Sinn Fein, who oppose the treaty, has grown substantially.

Recent opinion polls put the republicans on 25 per cent, behind only Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael. Although coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour still enjoy strong backing – and Mr Kenny is personally very popular – support for opponents of austerity is growing.

Leinster House, where the parliament sits, will hope the EU treaty vote will offer an opportunity to renegotiate with the bail-out lenders. The EU-IMF loan was made at a punitive 5.8 per cent, an interest rate that is crippling growth in the economy. Currently, the Irish government is attempting to reschedule about €31bn of promissory notes for its failed banks.

“What we are looking for is a deal to pay them back over a longer period, possibly at a lesser rate of interest,” deputy finance minister Brian Hayes said yesterday. “I would ask people in fairness to be patient with us on this issue.”

Beyond the corridors of power, the new economic reality has produced some creative responses. Comedian Abie Philbin Bowman – who, fittingly, will be appearing at the Glasgow Comedy Festival this Saturday, St Patrick’s Day – is returning to a tried-and-tested financial model: barter.

“I’m planning a tour of Ireland this summer that runs entirely on barter,” Bowman says. “All my shows are free to the public, and afterwards people are asked to make a donation. If they can’t afford to give money, they can offer me a hot meal or somewhere to stay. In the past, one person offered me juggling lessons, another taught me how to fly-fish. It’s a very different experience and a really interesting way of seeing the country.”

The Aviva isn’t down as a date on the tour, yet.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, March 15

Rangers' fall from grace leaves long list of victims

On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron paid a visit to Scotland. At a press conference, held in camera-sight of Edinburgh Castle, the Tory leader made an impassioned plea for maintaining two venerable institutions with long histories and uncertain futures: the political union between Scotland and England, and Rangers Football Club.

The question of independence for Scotland won’t be decided until 2014 at the earliest, but the fate of the blue half ofGlasgow’s Old Firm is likely to be settled sooner than that.

Cameron said that he wants to see Rangers, which has entered administration, “survive and thrive”. That the very survival of a football team that has won over 100 trophies in its 139-year history is up for any debate — much less one involving the UK Prime Minister — reflects the depths plumbed by the Ibrox club last week.

The case involving Rangers is complex, and growing more labyrinthine with every passing day. Having entered administration at the start of the week, on Tuesday it emerged that the subject of the petition by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) against the club was not the huge historic tax bill — estimated at £49m — accrued under the stewardship of former chairman Sir David Murray, but debts accumulated by Rangers since the takeover by Craig Whyte in May 2011.
At the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the administrators installed at Rangers admitted that HMRC were concerned about “the non-payment of circa £9m PAYE and VAT” since Whyte took the helm at Rangers. Later in the week, it was revealed that a recent £24m loan made by ticket company Ticketus to the club, and mortgaged against future sales of season tickets, had passed through the books of another Whyte company, not Rangers’ accounts as the chairman had previously claimed.

The parlous situation at Rangers has its roots in two related but distinct factors: the massive debts built up by Murray, and the opaque dealings of current chairman Craig Whyte. It was Murray, a businessman whose wealth was estimated at £720m in 2008, who kick-started the debt-fuelled bubble in Scottish football that brought Celtic to its knees in the early 1990s.

Under Murray’s stewardship, Rangers invested big as players of the calibre of Brian Laudrup,Paul Gascoigne and, infamously for £14m, Tore Andre Flo graced Govan. At one stage, the club’s debts stood at a vertiginous £80m, bankrolled in the hope of European glory that never fully materialised. (Somewhat ironically, Walter Smith did achieve runner-up slot in the Europa League in 2008 on a veritable shoestring.)

When the tsunami of the global financial crisis hit, Murray, who had invested heavily in property and mining, was washed up. With Lloyds banking group demanding repayment of an £18m loan, there began a torturous search to find a buyer for the club. Despite being one of the most famous names in world football, no suitable candidate emerged until last year, when Motherwell-born businessman Craig Whyte took the club on for a nominal sum and a tax bill just shy of £50m.

“I think Whyte’s strategy all along has been to take the club into administration, to sink the club and relaunch it as ‘New Rangers’ free of debt,” says Tom English, chief sportswriter at Scotland on Sunday. Currently, Rangers is in the hands of Duff & Phelps — a firm that previously advised the club, and were appointed by Whyte who, as the secured creditor, retains significant control over the administration process.

If Rangers are to avoid the liquidation that many commentators now believe is Whyte’s desired endpoint, the club will need to agree a company voluntary agreement (CVA). “But the level of indebtness is so great that you would need HMRC and other creditors to agree to accept a couple of pennies in the pound at the very most,” says the administrator of Rangertaxcase.com, an investigative website that has been publishing details of the club’s murky financial affairs, including the £49m tax bill arising from David Murray’s ill-advised, and subsequently illegal, use of Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs).

Whyte, as secured creditor, is protected to the tune of £18m: come what may, the current Rangers chairman, who was previously disqualified as a company director for seven years in 2000, will see a handsome return on his investment. But what happens to Rangers is less cut and dried.

Keen to send a message to the football world that paying tax is not an optional extra, HMRC are unlikely to accept a CVA that sees the taxpayer receive just a fraction of the debt owed. It would take a bid in the region of £70-£80m, way in excess of anything mooted so far, to reimburse all Rangers’ creditors.

What would the ramifications be for the green half of Glasgow if Rangers were to go the wall? Tom English believes that, whether they choose to admit it or not, both sides of the Old Firm are mutually dependent: “(If Rangers were gone) Celtic would win the league by huge margins every year. Player recruitment would suffer, the fans would get bored, Sky would definitely renegotiate the TV deal (the SPL’s £80m deal with Sky and ESPN is predicated on four Old Firm matches a season).”

It’s a point reiterated last week by Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond. The ScottishNational Party leader said that Celtic and Rangers “need” one another. “The most die-hard Celtic supporter understands that Celtic can’t prosper unless Rangers are there,” he said.

The Celtic Park hierarchy poured scorn on Salmond’s comments, stating that any supposed reliance on their arch rivals was “simply not true”. However, many Celtic fans are more circumspect, fearful of the prospect an SPL without Rangers.

There is also a sense of deja vu among the denizens of Glasgow’s East End. Back in 1994, after years of trying to match Murray’s exorbitant spending at Rangers, the club were on the brink of bankruptcy before businessman Fergus McCann stepped in. McCann’s almost singular focus on building a sustainable football club at a time when Rangers were marching to a record-equalling nine SPL titles in a row prompted criticism from fans, but his approach has been vindicated.

More recently, Celtic embarked on a renewed austerity drive. Big-money foreign signings are out, young prospects with a high re-sale value are in. What rebuilding manager Neil Lennon has done has largely been funded by the sale of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscowfor £9.5m. On the very day Rangers were in court with HMRC, Celtic announced pre-tax profits for the second half of 2011.

While a McCann-style white knight is unlikely to appear on Rangers’ horizon, Rangers remains an attractive investment opportunity — if an agreement can be reached with HMRC.Andy Kerr, president of the Rangers Supporters Assembly, has called for a fan takeover of the club, citing the Barcelona model as an inspiration. Elsewhere, former Rangers directorPaul Murray is hoping to put a consortium together. Any prospective owners will have to buy Whyte out and settle a tax bill that some reckon could rise to as much as £75m including penalties. If Rangers really are “too big to fail”, the other option — allowing Rangers to liquidate and reform as a new club yet retain their SPL status — calls to mind another phrase made famous by the credit crunch: moral hazard.

Excessive borrowing fuelled Rangers’ success over the last 25 years, with HMRC used as a de facto private bank. Between 1999 and 2002, for example, the club spent over £50m in transfer fees. Rewarding such reckless behaviour would set a worrying precedent at a time when many clubs are struggling to pay creditors, the taxman among them.

The other alternative is bankruptcy for Rangers. Whether the SPL decided to reinstate the ‘new Rangers’, or, much less likely, to relegate the club to the bottom of the football pyramid, it would be the end of the SPL as we now it, at least in the medium-term.

Tom English finds no crumbs of comfort in Rangers’ current travails: “There won’t be any revolution in the game just because this has happened, just a lot of people losing out.”

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent, February 19

Paul Mason – Kicking Off the Revolution

On a bright Saturday morning early last year, a bleary-eyed Paul Mason sat down to pen a blog for Newsnight, the BBC current affairs programme on which he is economics editor. The previous evening he had delivered a lecture on the 1871 Paris Commune to a collective of free thinkers and radical students in a squat in central London, before retiring to discuss technology, economics, and the revolt spreading across the globe over a few ales in Karl Marx’s old haunt, the Museum Tavern.

Mason’s blog post – entitled ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere’ – was a Martin Luther-nailing-his-95-theses-on-the-door-of-a-church-in-Wittenberg moment for the Occupy generation. Written in the penumbra of the Arab Spring, at the tail end of a winter of student occupations in the UK, Mason’s perspicacious analysis of the dynamics of the new political mood went viral almost as soon as it was posted. ‘Within 24 hours over 100,000 people had read it, people were retweeting it, posting it on Facebook, commenting on it. It was incredible,’ Mason says in the considered Lancastrian lint that has been a familiar feature of late nights on BBC2 for over a decade.

The Newsnight blog became the catalyst for Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason’s lively, thought-provoking ten-chapter jaunt through a world in tumult. ‘It’s not just a set of musings. It’s more like a series of glimpses into what’s happening around the world.’ Mason remarks of the book, which opens in a garbage collector’s house in Cairo and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our engaging correspondent popping up everywhere from Bakersfield, California to Syntagma Square in Athens in between.
Just as he is in person, on the page Mason is everything you would want from a guide: knowledgeable, measured, garrulous and unflaggingly generous. The long-form format also gives him the opportunity to flex his not inconsiderable intellectual powers, with theoretical and historical expositions on politics, society and, most prominently, economics added to the first-rate reportage that has become the hallmark of his Newsnight packages.

Speaking on the phone from his south London home, Mason says that what is happening today is nothing short of a ‘fundamental change in politics and society’. As he writes in the introduction to the book: ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in consciousness about what freedom means.’

Central to this thesis are two factors: the rise of social media and a burgeoning class of jobless graduates. The revolt in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last February is often referred to as ‘the first Facebook revolution’, but Mason, a social media acolyte with over 30,000 followers on Twitter, proffers a more subtle analysis of the power of technology: ‘What social media has done is allowed networks of protest to form. Now protesters can move faster, assemble faster and on a much more minimal basis than ever before.’

While Twitter and Facebook have changed ‘the dynamics of protest’, the protesters are changing too. The rigidities of the old Left – the seemingly endless marches, the inky newspapers – has given way to a new mobile, educated generation disillusioned with a system that offers little prospect of stable employment. These ‘graduates with no future’ – point number one on that seminal Newsnight blog post – occupy a vanguard role in Mason’s analysis: the similarities between the young, secular liberals in Tahrir Square and the occupiers in University College London, he argues, are greater than their differences.

‘This generation was already different – they live in a networked world. Their motto is ‘information wants to be free’. Now they find that their futures have been dashed, the jobs they were taught to expect aren’t there anymore.’ For Mason, the network changes everything: new, decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional structures and ideas in new, unexpected ways. Over time the power of the network will, he says, defeat the sclerotic hierarchies of established politics.

‘Mainstream politics stands in danger of quite rapidly being dissolved by the new political mood.’ A lifelong trade unionist with a passionate commitment to social justice that has defined his career, Mason prophesises the changing of the political guard more in expectation than trepidation. ‘The impact on politics of the networked generation is going to be very interesting. Eventually those on the streets will begin to look to parties and to politics – that’s when we’ll start to see changes.’

There are traces of the autodidact in Mason, who came late to journalism, abandoning a career as a musician because ‘I needed to make some money’. While Kicking Off Everywhere fizzes with the energy of the street, it also brings in healthy doses of critical social theory, from Marx all the way up to influential American sociologist of work Richard Sennett. It is an education in contemporary thought that Mason began while studying for a postgraduate degree in music in the early 1980s: ‘We sat around and read Das Kapital, we read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, at some leisure. Except during the holidays I never did a stroke of paid work.’

From Marx and Smith, Mason moved onto the current generation’s most obvious antecedents – the thinkers that inspired the 1968 student revolts, most notably the doyen of Situationism, Guy Debord, who argued that capitalism has replaced genuine social life with an inauthentic ‘spectacle’. ‘I wish mainstream politicians today had a little more exposure to those sorts of ideas, it might allow them to think a little bit more freely through the problems that they are confronting right now,’ Mason says.With one ear to the street and another to the boardroom, Mason knows better than most the sheer scale of the challenge facing politicians today. On the day the Sunday Herald spoke to the broadcaster, the latest bailout deal for Greece hangs in the balance, with bankers’ bonuses dominating the news headlines. Mason, whose last book Meltdown, was subtitled ‘The end of the age of greed’, is preparing to fly to the United States, which he contends could be the next country ‘kick off’. ‘It will take a lot for the poor of the US to rise up – but if they do they do, hold on to your hat,’ he says with the calm assurance of a man who has become an expert in spotting a storm brewing on the global horizon.

It is a far cry from the obscure trade mags that Mason cut his teeth on in the late 1980s. It was hardly glamorous but Mason quickly discovered he had found the career for him. ‘Journalism was a profession I liked. And it liked me. It used up all my creative energies, at least most of them.’ What was leftover went into fiction, which remained unpublished until the release earlier this year of Rare Earth a racy novel about a washed up TV reporter who stumbles across corruption – and a whole lot more – in Western China.

Mason wrote Rare Earth, which was based in part of his Newsnight investigations of corruption in China, in the back garden of the house he shares with his wife, an NHS nurse. It was the summer of 2009, and Mason ‘couldn’t get on the telly’. ‘The expenses scandal was raging and most people thought the crisis was over’.

As the continuing turmoil in the Eurozone attests, the meltdown began by the collapse of Lehman Brothers shows no signs of abating. Now in his early fifties, a time of life when many prominent BBC phizogs are to found fronting non-threatening documentaries, Mason continues to immerse himself in the white heat of the street, most recently in a series for Newsnight from a conflagration engulfed Athens. Such committed reporting won Mason ‘specialist journalist of the year’ at last month’s RTS television journalism awards.

Mason has no children himself but feels a gnawing obligation towards the next generation. ‘I am acutely aware of this fact: I have a pension, albeit it not a brilliant one. I have 30 years of intermittent work behind me. My education was free. I’m from a working class background. The level of insecurity in the minds of the people I’m observing is so high. I look at them and often wonder if I would have come out like I have today. I don’t know the answer.’

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions is out now, published by Verso, priced £12.99. Paul Mason will be appearing at Aye Write on March 10.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, March 4, 2012.